THE THIRD MAN--A great movie but... (SPOILERS!)

I’m on a Film Noir kick and I’d heard that THE THIRD MAN was (aplinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk. Plink-plunk) a great film…one of the all-time greats both in noir circles and just all-around greats–it’s on (aplinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk. Plink-plunk) IMDB’s top 250 movies at number 38! which is astonishing when you consider how heavily weighted the IMDB is towards current blockbusters.

Well, I got it from Netflix and watched it and it’s astounding. The cinematography is stunning, the camerawork excellent, the pacing a trifle odd, but good (it went in (aplinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk. Plink-plunk) fits and starts rather than a smooth progression…but somehow it worked.) And Orson Welles sparkles. From the minute he appears he quite literally has a grin on his face that says "Um, you thought this movie was about the other guy. You’re wrong. It’s mine. :p) I’ve never seen him in a movie before (Yes, I’ve yet to see CITIZEN KANE, although it’s just moved waaaay up on my list) and if he’s this good in a secondary part, wow: I can’t wait to see him as a star. And the ending: holy crud. The chase through the sewers along with the last bit showing that betrayal, however justified, has consequences is astounding…one of the best 20 minutes of film, ever.


However, there’s one (aplinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk. Plink-plunk) flaw in this taut masterpiece. The utterly dreadful, horribly intrusive, wildly inappropriate and just plain jarring soundtrack. They got some guy who knows how to play one song (aplinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk. Plink-plunk) on the zither and play it he does. OVER and OVER and OVER. The tune is a sprightly little number involving about 4 notes and it…well…it sucks. When things get dramatic, they play it LOUDER. When things get suspensful, they play it s.l.o.w.e.r. It’s like trying to watch SUNSET BOULEVARD while listening to “Alvin and the Chipmunks”.

The hero and (maybe) villian are in a ferris wheel and the director is building up this incredible tension with all these shots downward…will the hero be pushed? Or is the villian not a villian? The moment lingers and (aplinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk. Plink-plunk).

The hero is trying to decide whether to betray his friend to the police. If he does, he might lose the girl. If he doesn’t he might lose his soul. And what about his friend’s victims? Don’t they deserve justice? Or are they victims at all? The cop might be lying, after all. Our hero wanders down the dark, foggy streets of post-war Vienna, flickering light casting shadows on the cobblestones and (aplinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk. Plink-plunk)

I have never heard such a horribly inappropriate soundtrack attached to such great movie. For people who haven’t seen it, imagine the following: Picture Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW. And then, every time there’s tension, or romance, OR comedy OR drama, imagine playing “Dueling Banjos” (which sounds vaguely like the crappy zither song). It ruins the mood, it ruins the tone and it served only to keep pulling me out of the movie.

Sigh. It’s still a wonderful movie that’s well worth watching, but if someone ever puts out a “zither-free” version, I’m gonna rush right out and get it.


As an aside, I’ve been checking online reviews (plus someone pointed a couple out to me that I hadn’t seen) and pretty much I’m in the minority on the music. I don’t care. It still blew, IMO.

It overpowered every scene and undermined ever mood. The only time the director was actually able to set a mood is when he shut the zither the hell up.

I dunno, Fenris, I think you’re gonna get some disagreement here. Starting with me. For me, the music fits in precisely because it’s inappropriate. Which is an approach that wouldn’t work in a normal movie, but does in this one – for me, anyway. There’s no right or wrong answer here.

Man, wasn’t that a good last scene? Hard to picture the same ending in a modern Hollywood movie.

I think you’ll like Citizen Kane. A lot of techniques that are standard now were pioneered in that movie. Enjoy the deep focus. But you can also forget about all that and just enjoy the movie for the entertainment it is; I think Welles was always a showman first. It’s available in a 2-disk DVD with some nice extras.

Going off on a tangent:

When The Third Man was turned into a TV series in 1959, Harry Lime, now played by Michael Rennie, became the good guy. Still a lot of zither music, though, and that stuck in my then-12-year-old brain. So when I now hear the theme, even though I have seen the original many times in the interim, the picture I have is of Rennie.

And what was it about 1959 TV that had scumbags turned into heroes? Also premiering in 1959 was the series “Five Fingers.” Now, the original 1951 movie was about a Briton who became a spy for the Nazis. In the TV series, the character, now played by David Heddison, was a good guy.

You might want to search the Board for a recent (6 mos. to a year ago) thread about TTM. It got a lot of replies IIRC.

I loved your post, Fenris, and it was laugh-out-loud funny, but I’m another who begs to disagree. Drawing inferences and allusions from music is always subjective and imprecise, and difficult to convey, but I’ll try.

The zither theme was a masterful touch, IMHO, underscoring the film’s black-humor sensibility and the atmosphere of anarchy in post-war Berlin. Its loping, jaunty rhythm and relaxed melody is suggestive of someone who whistles while he walks, while the scherzo motif is used to punctuate scenes of tension or menace, when all action and conversation halt, if only for a moment. The overall effect is schizophrenic, or at least a tad unbalanced, as is someone who whistles past a graveyard, or through a tough neighborhood (the Joseph Cotten character, perhaps? Although that air of casual insouciance is ultimately even more thoroughly characteristic of Harry Lime…).

The zither is a Bavarian folk instrument, and with it a single musician can provide enough sound to encourage others to dance. It’s also small and eminently portable, and as such is an ideal instrument for impoverished or nomadic peoples. It also has a rather melancholic timbre, as do the other stringed instruments and is thus well-suited to romantic music; but it is best played with zest and energy, the better to capitalize on its high range and the precise attack on notes that it allows. The zither theme from **The Third Man ** could well be a traditional dance, whether or not it actually is. One can well imagine Gypsies or refugees clapping and dancing in accompaniment, and drawing a bit of cheer during hard times.

The zither theme’s rhythmic melody also sounds Bohemian to me – suggestive of Romany and perhaps Czech/Slovak culture. If so intended, that would be of great symbolic importance, suggesting that Berlin, once the capital of a fascist racial/cultural purity campaign targeting so many (especially Eastern) Europeans, should now itself be increasingly overrun by refugees from those lands, just as a theme suggestive of their culture could sound so suited to an instrument of German/Austrian origins.

Gotta disagree about that music. However, I can see (I guess) how you found it distracting. I’ve found a LOT of movie soundtracks very distracting, and then there are some directors who get it just perfect. In general it seems to me if you notice the music at a time when people aren’t dancing or singing, then it’s bad.
For some reason I made a HUGE exception for The Third Man, which is possibly my all-time favorite film. I think the music works into it perfectly because (1) it’s just the one instrument and the one theme, but (2) said instrument has many shadings and can be sprightly or ominous.

Now onto the tangent about how the antiheroes from The Third Man and Five Fingers were turned into heroes for the TV shows: Because they were the most powerful and interesting characters; that’s why they had to be the focal point of the show and, in the '50s, you couldn’t have a bad guy as a focal point on TV. Hence, they became good. (I didn’t think the James Mason character was all THAT bad, particularly compared to the other characters.)

A bit more: I think Carol Reed also wanted to accentuate the feeling at every turn that Berlin was a very strange and dangerous place at this time, and not just because it was the enemy capital, or that it had been redrawn-and-quartered by the Allies, or because it was an underpoliced battle zone, dominated by a criminal underworld. No, Reed’s Berlin was an existentially strange place, romantic and unforgiving, grand and tattered, crammed full of impoverished perpetrators and victims alike, universally suspected by all and divided against itself.

The theme that Berlin was alien territory made the film well-suited for a zither accompaniment. The zither had great novelty value as an instrument, and even more so as the sole basis for a soundtrack (in fact, to this day The Third Man may well be the only English-language film with a zither-only soundtrack).

Think of the other elements that makes Reed’s film such a singular masterpiece: the famously jarring, off-kilter camera angles; Alida Valli’s enigmatic, hard character (and the un-Hollywood, anti-Romantic ending); Orson Welles’ affable, witty villain (and his great “cuckoo clock” speech); the comedy made from Cotten’s hapless writer (and “cowboy” detective) trying to connect with the European literary audience; the parrot biting Cotten; the accusing little boy; the chase through the sewers… All these story elements are decidedly quirky, and as such, the offbeat choice of the zither is very much on a par with the rest.

The zither is just part of the fun of the movie in my book. I first saw this movie in a college film class and was told that the movie spawned a minor zither craze when it was first released.

Anyhow, whenever I think of that music, I think of a grade school music/religion teacher I had who played the autoharp a bunch. Nothin’ like folky post-Vatican II Catholic hymns on an autoharp…

That’s all I have to say about that.

In the city where the third man is set, the zither has a street cred, associated with street performers and its famous cafes.

It’s a counterpoint to the famous history of that place as a centre of classical music. Zither connotes film noir, we’re in the quiet and literally underground world, subtle with menace.

The tone is of a place where the music of a once glorious empire is silent. Instead with post war uncertainty and the Russian occupation, all you can hear is the eerie sounds of stuggle, like an itinerant collecting coins on the street corner or cafe’s portal.

Minor nitpick but wasn’t the movie set in Vienna.

So you could say, he didn’t have you in a dither with his zither ?

Fenris, Thank you so much for this. It’s the first time in years that I started my Monday actually LAUGHING.

More people are with you that this thread would so far suggest, Fenris. I’m not one of them though. It’s also not true that it’s all aplinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk, plinka-plinka-plunk, aplinkaplunk. Plink-plunk. There are significant moments where we get daa…lulta-doota do da dee (dat doot dat) too.

I grew up with the zither music from The Third Man (my mother had the record, so I heard it all the time), so I never thought of it as inappropriate. Loved the film.

Incidentally, you’re not alone in finding the theme intrusive. I may not think so, but wayyyyyyy back around 1960 MAD published a parody of TV Guide in which the listing for the TV show “The Furd Man” has him trying to track down and silence the damned zither player.

Scrivener, I wish I could have had you for a consultant when I wrote a paper on The Third Man for a film class last semester. You just said a number of things I did in my paper, only far better.

One of the first things I mentioned in my paper was that the zither (apparantly playing itself) was the first image of the movie, a sort-of Through the Looking Glass transport into the chaotic, tense, mysterious world of the beautifully destroyed Vienna. The fact that it jars the ear throughout the entire film is a wonderfully clever way to build the tension and keep Vienna mysterious. There are times in the film where the zither plays at remarkably innocuous moments, disturbing and twisting even the most mundane events. It is very nearly its own character in the film.

I don’t think that anyone else has made exactly this point.

Joseph Cotton was hopelessly out of his element; he completely misunderstood everything about Vienna. The music was used to make Vienna ‘jarring’ and ‘foreign’ to the audience, so that Cotton wouldn’t look like a complete idiot.

You can hear a sample episode of the radio version of *The Adventures of Harry Lime*, with Orson Welles as the “good” Lime. Caution: Zither Music Ahead.

I appreciate the explainations about the director’s intent–they were really interesting. But… (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you? :wink:

Here’s the thing: to me it wasn’t “jarring and foreign”, it was just annoying. The fact that there were all these people “yammering” in German at Cotton and all the creepy camera angles and the strange “non-Hollywood” faces and the brilliant interplay of light and shadow: those made it creepy and foreign.

The only comparison I can give is as follows: The first “stanza” of the “Cantina Jazz” song in STAR WARS is catchy and just slightly creepy ( Da-DA da-DA datda DAH etc.!". Good little riff. Very appropriate to the scene. Luke’s in a weird place with all these weird aliens and this catcy but strange music. But picture it played on banjo. THEN imagine that it being played constantly:

In the opening credits.
During the Obi-Wan/Vader confrontation on the Death Star.
During the firefight around the Death Star.
On Hoth.
While Luke is going into the evil tree.
As Han’s being lowered into the Carbonite pit.
In Jabba’s Palace during the sneaking around part.
When Luke tells Leia about their father.
As Luke confronts Vader and the Emperor and so on.

If used appropriately, the music can build tension…but when th’ same damned theme is used over and over and over and over it just becomes noise.

I understand that it worked for a lot of people and I’m not arguing that it obviously was effective for most, just that it really wasn’t for me. And if there was a way to get a “zither-free” edition, I’d pay an easy $40.00. :smiley:


PS: Cal: I’ve got the nifty “Every issue of Mad on 4 CDs” set that came out a few years back. I’ll look it up! Thanks!

I stand corrected. I have a film guide that, sure enough, lists it as taking place in Vienna. But I could’ve sworn that there was a scene where Alida Valli has to show her papers (probably forged, perhaps with Lyme’s help?), and she’s terrified that she’s going to be repatriated back to the Soviet Sector. Also, there’s the scenes with Bernard Lee as a British officer in the British Sector… or am I misremembering some details?

Was Vienna also divvied up in quarters by the Allies?

I should have known it couldn’t have been Berlin, though – there wasn’t nearly enough rubble! Berlin was utterly devastated, with scarcely two intact buildings standing adjacent to each other.

Yes, just like Berlin. The rest of Austria was divided between the Allies as well with the Soviets holding the eastern section of the country surrounding Vienna, just like Germany was. The only reason that we didn’t get an East & West Austria later on was that it was decided that Austria be declared permanently neutral when the post-war occupation was ended in the '50s. The fact that Austria was far less strategically important than Germany probably played a role too.