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ClassicsOnline Home » Film Music: The Third Man and Other Classic Film Themes (1949-1958)
The Third Man
And Other Classic Film Themes
Original 1949–1958 Recordings
It could be said that cinemagoers were in for two surprises back in 1949 as they took their seats for Carol Reed’s much publicised film noir The Third Man. Firstly Orson Welles, the actor many assumed to be the star, only appeared towards the end of the film; and secondly the action on screen was not accompanied by the usual orchestral score, but by a then unknown musician playing a zither.
It was not the first time, nor the last, that the music score for a film was dominated by just one instrument, but rarely has the final effect been as dramatic as the zither playing of Anton Karas (1906–1985). The film’s action was based in post-war Vienna, a city where Karas had apparently been discovered by Reed playing his zither in a café. It changed his life, and made him an international celebrity. The 78 of the film’s theme sold over half a million copies within a few months of its release, and a radio series in 1951 was eventually followed by 77 BBC television films starring Michael Rennie from
1959 onwards—all earning extra royalties for the fortunate composer who later confessed that he had written the main theme about fifteen years earlier, and forgotten about it.
The bomb ravaged streets of Vienna are replaced by a similar backdrop in the second British film in this collection. Passport to Pimlico (also from 1949) brilliantly tapped into the resigned mood of the people who were tired of years of rationing and austerity. The residents of the London suburb of Pimlico discover from an old deed that they are not part of England but Burgundy, and promptly declare themselves independent. The British Government puts Pimlico under siege, and French composer Georges Auric (1899–1983) cleverly captures the defiant mood of the Burgundians and their battle to retain their new-found freedom.
Vienna is again the setting in the 1950 French film La Ronde, but the story takes place in 1900 when life was far more civilised and quite complicated—if the twists and turns in the plot are to be believed. The main theme was also known as “Love’s Roundabout”.
It’s back to 1949 for the next three films, all from British studios but very different in content. The Romantic Age did not create much interest at the box office, but the music by Charles Williams (1893–1978) became one of the composer’s most unexpected successes. He had already caught the public’s attention with his “Dream of Olwen” (from the film While I Live) but his theme entitled “Jealous Lover” was
picked eleven years later for the title music in the Jack Lemmon movie The Apartment, topping the US charts.
There are echoes of Passport to Pimlico in the film Whisky Galore, where the misery of post-war austerity is relieved by the shipwreck of a cargo of whisky, which quickly vanishes off the Scottish beaches. Again Georges Auric provided the perfect score.
The legendary Italian composer Nino Rota (1911–1979) had already been employed by British studios before his own country’s film industry commissioned him to conjure up the music for some of its finest creations. There are hints of what was to follow in his score for The Glass Mountain.
London-born Benjamin Frankel (1906–1973) is today remembered more for some of his serious works (he composed eight symphonies between 1958 and 1972), although his name first became noticed through several of his film scores, including The Importance of Being Earnest. In total he worked on over eighty feature films and documentaries, plus television plays and theatrical productions.
The French film Jeux Interdits was well received following its release in 1952, although some critics suggest that its original charm has not entirely survived the passage of time. However it did win an Oscar, and the traditional music arranged and performed by Narciso Yepes (1927–1997) seemed to underline the anti-war message.
Nino Rota scored the 1951 Italian film Anna, but he did not write the two songs which have outlasted the film’s original appeal, largely due to the star Silvana Mangano. Her singing voice was dubbed by Flo Sandons (who won the San Remo Festival in 1953), and “Non Dimenticar” helped establish Nat ‘King’ Cole as a leading singer of ballads. The lush arrangement by Percy Faith (1908–1976) reveals the tender beauty in this melody.
Whoever decided that a hissing, temperamental and generally discordant vintage motor car had any similarity with the harmonica was certainly blessed with a flash of inspiration. Just about everyone will have tried to play the harmonica (the posh name for the mouth organ) at some time—often to the discomfort of friends and family. Few could master its intricacies and nuances to the extent of Larry Adler (1914– 2001) who hailed from Baltimore. The film Genevieve was an instant success, partly due to Adler’s soundtrack which fitted the action so perfectly. The musical director was Muir Mathieson (there were a few non-harmonica sequences) and the music was nominated for an Oscar. But when the film was shown in the United States Larry Adler’s name was missing from the credits: he had been blacklisted following false accusations of communist sympathies, and moved to Britain in 1949 where he lived for the rest of his life.
Bruce Montgomery (1921–1978) wrote concert music and the scores for almost fifty feature films, including some of the most enduring British comedies of the twentieth century. Before getting involved with high profile productions such as the Doctor In The House and Carry On series, he had demonstrated in what seems to be his first feature film The Kidnappers (1953) that he could create a most competent score. His undoubted skills prompted numerous offers of work to the extent that, by the 1960s, his health began to suffer. Perhaps he was his own worst enemy, because he also had a second career under the
pseudonym Edmund Crispin as a successful author of detective novels and other works.
Nino Rota returns as the composer of one of the most notable Italian film themes of the 1950s. Federico Fellini starred his wife Giulietta Masina alongside Anthony Quinn (to ensure foreign distribution) in La Strada, which won the Oscar as the best foreign film of 1956, although it had been released two years earlier. One of the memorable images was Masina (as Gelsomina) playing the main tune on a trumpet, although it lost its original rather plaintive style in many of the recordings by numerous orchestras around the world (including the great David Rose (1910–1990) in this collection), sometimes appearing under the title “Stars Shine In Your Eyes”.
The Franco/Italian film Touchez Pas au Grisbi literally means “Don’t Touch The Cash”, but when distributed internationally it also went under the titles “Honour Among Thieves” and the rather crude “Hands Off The Loot”. It had a haunting theme composed by Jean Wiener (1896–1982) who, from 1932 onwards, had worked on more than 300 films, having originally gained fame in Europe as part of the ‘Wiener et Doucet’ piano duo with Clément Doucet. There were several orchestral versions available, but the public warmed to Larry Adler’s performance on his harmonica, which seemed just right for the slightly mysterious melody.
The film Summertime (also known as “Summer Madness”) starred Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi, and it was set in Venice so it could hardly fail to produce a feel-good factor among the audience. Experienced Italian film composer Alessandro Cicognini (1906–1995) produced a suitably romantic score, and in the process provided the mid-1950s with a popular song that went around the world.
Another Franco/Italian production completes this collection. French Can Can was a predictable story about the famous French dance that our ancestors once believed to be rather ‘saucy’. The beauty of Paris in a bygone age, and the chance to hear and see Edith Piaf in glorious Technicolor, should ensure that this film does not disappear with the passage of time. The musical score was in the safe hands of Georges Van Parys (1902–1971), whose long
film career stretched back to 1930.
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