Did Carol Reed Hire Anton Karas to do the Soundtrack of The Third Man Based on Seeing Karas Play at a Bar in Vienna?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Carol Reed hired Anton Karas to do the soundtrack of The Third Man based on seeing him play at a bar in Vienna.

To start with, we can pretty safely debunk one of the major stories of how Anton Karas got the gig of doing the soundtrack for the Third Man.

An old story was that the director of the film, Carol Reed, came upon Karas at a bar in Vienna while filming the movie (which is, naturally, set in Vienna) and hired him on the spot to do a song for the soundtrack and once he did the one song, Reed asked him to do more and thus, a star was born (here’s Karas below with his unique musical instrument, the zither)!!

That’s false.

It’s pretty clear from various histories of Reed, Karas and the film itself that Reed first hired Karas to do a song for the soundtrack after Karas was playing his zither at a production party for The Third Man in London, well after the conclusion of the filming in Vienna.

Otherwise, the story is similar – Reed hired Karas to do A song and quickly decided that he wanted Karas to score the entire film (for quite a lot more money than Karas was making at the time playing his zither to entertain bar patrons in Vienna). This was a major endeavor for Karas, who was almost entirely a performer and not a writer of music. So now he had to suddenly score an entire film! The story of Karas living in London with Reed for three months as Karas worked 12-15 hours a day on the film is truly remarkable – and it’s almost like the film Boxing Helena, in that Reed literally would not let Karas leave!! Karas wanted to take a trip back to Vienna, but Reed would not allow it!

But it all paid off when both…

A. The film was released and was a big hit…


B. The soundtrack came out and was almost a BIGGER hit!

The trailers for the film even used Karas’ music as a selling point for the film – “He’ll have you in a dither with his zither!”

The most popular song by Karas, “The Harry Lime Theme” (Harry Lime was Orson Welles’ character) sold 500,000 copies!! It increased zither sales, well, a lot (if you sold 10 more zithers that would probably have tripled the zither sales in the U.S. in 1948).

So it is not true that Reed hired Karas out of a Viennese bar.

HOWEVER, SOMEbody hired him to work at the production party in London, right?

And here, history is not so helpful.

No one seems to know exactly who had the idea to hire Karas to play at the production party in London. It most certainly was someone who was with the film crew in Vienna, as who else would think of hiring a Viennese bar performer to come to London to play a party for the film?

So if it WAS Reed, then that would sort of combine the two stories into one cohesive narrative, doesn’t it?

The legend is…


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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