The Third Man was released in the UK on 31 October 1949.
In that year I was ten years old, so I remember aspects of that time quite clearly. One thing I do remember -- and it is something which may not be readily understood by younger readers -- is that, in those days, most people did not have a gramophone. Not even one of those wind-up versions, with a big horn on the end. The only way in which most people could hear recorded music was over the radio. And 'over the radio' meant, for all practical purposes, the BBC.
The BBC at that time had three radio stations. One was called the Home Service, and it concentrated mostly on news, talk programmes, and some light entertainment. The Light Programme was the only station which broadcast popular music, most of which was live but in the evenings there were occasional programmes which featured what would now be called 'pop records'. There was a third BBC radio station, which was not unnaturally called the Third Programme, but this broadcast only in the evenings and was strictly highbrow -- classical music, serious talks, serious drama.
The effect of this situation was that, if a record of a pop song became popular, everybody -- and I mean everybody -- in the entire nation knew about it. Today, I have absolutely no idea what the number one pop record of the day is, and neither, I suspect, have you. The 'hit parade', or whatever they call it these days, is of interest only to teenagers. You and I have our own tastes in music, and we tune in to whatever radio station suits us. But in 1949 the choice was the Light Programme or nothing. Hence everybody knew and heard what was popular.
The reason for this long preamble is that the situation which prevailed in 1949 goes a long way to explaining why the film The Third Man became such a massive hit. It succeeded very largely because of the background music, the main theme of which was issued as a 78 rpm record and became a truly massive hit, known to every single man, woman and child in the UK. And later, when the film was released in the USA, much the same occurred there. It will therefore be illuminating, I believe, to take note of just what that music was, and how the director of the film, Carol Reed, came to choose it.
What happened was this. Soon after the arrival of Carol Reed and his crew in Vienna, they were given a welcome party. Sitting in a corner of the room was a man called Anton Karas, and he was playing a zither. His job was to provide background music while people talked, drank, and ate.
A zither is apparently unknown outside Austria. It is a stringed instrument, usually placed flat on the knee, and plucked somewhat like a guitar; it has been described as sounding something like a cross between a guitar and a barrel organ. Karas himself was a completely unknown musician (in fact he couldn't even read music). He was essentially supplied to the party just as if he was part of the catering team -- he was there to add a little local colour.
To cut a long story short, Carol Reed liked what he heard, and he decided that he would use Karas -- and Karas only -- to provide the background music for his film. The zither was, after all, absolutely redolent of the city. Reed's decision did not go down well with the money men back in London, and he had to fight hard to get his way, but he won.
When the film came out, Anton Karas's recording of 'The Third Man Theme' was released at the same time. Within a month it had sold 500,000 copies, a huge number for that era. Over the years since then, sales have totalled 40 million!
Anton Karas -- the modest and unknown man who couldn't even read music -- became, for a while, an international star. Technically, he was not entitled to a penny from the sheet-music and record sales, but fortunately for him the producers of the film generously gave him a half share. After the fuss was all over, he returned home to his wife and family in Vienna and bought a small bar. It was called, to no one's surprise, 'Der Dritte Mann'. He was welcomed back in Vienna as a hero, because he had restored a sense of pride to that much-battered city.
Shortly before the The Third Man's release, Carol Reed's masterpiece was viewed by Sir Arthur Jarratt, the Chairman of the distributing company, British Lion. Jarratt sent a telegram to the director, congratulating him on what looked likely to be a successful film. There was, he said, only one problem: 'Please take off the banjo.' Such are the amazing insights which are afforded to us by the bean-counters of this world.
Carol Reed showed the letter to his assistant director, Guy Hamilton. 'They don't know a fucking thing,' he said, and threw the letter away in disgust. Hamilton retrieved it, and, eighteen months later, used it to blackmail Jarratt into giving him his first directing job. Moral: when your boss reveals himself to be a compete fool, always hang on to the evidence. It may come in useful later.