Musical Score in The Third Man, Ikiru, and On the Waterfront

Underscoring the dialogue and visual imagery, a film’s soundtrack possesses the distinct ability to directly influence the viewer’s reactionary emotions to a particular scene or character. By conveying suspense, romance, or triumph, the musical score allows the audience to sympathize with the protagonist. In films such as The Third Man (1949), Ikiru (1952), and On the Waterfront (1954) the musical score conveys the turbulence of the lead character’s conflicting emotions and contributes to each film’s ultimate philosophical theme.

Existing within the same time period, all three films center on a male protagonist facing a moral dilemma which causes him to question his notion of right and wrong. Whether claiming loyalty to themselves or to an ideal, all three characters ultimately adopt a personal ethos and settle on an ethical choice that reshapes their attitude on life. Appealing to a broad range of demographics, the three protagonists in The Third Man, Ikiru, and On the Waterfront, represent three stages of life. The youthful angst of late 20’s is portrayed by Terry Malloy in Waterfront, the middle-aged Holly Martins experiences a mid-life crisis in The Third Man, and Ikiru depicts Kanji Watanabe, an older man approaching the end of his life. Underling each character’s struggle is the film’s soundtrack, which personifies the protagonists’ individual internal conflicts.

Directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1952, Ikiru tells the story of a Japanese man dying of cancer who struggles to find meaning and purpose in his last remaining months on Earth. In this film, the soundtrack plays an integral role by reinforcing Kanji’s sadness and regret for having wasted his life. After discovering that he has a short amount of time to live due to stomach cancer, Kanji initially visits a nightclub, requesting that the pianist play “Gondola no Uta”. The song serves as a leitmotif for Kanji’s character in the soundtrack and is repeated throughout the narrative. Similar to a filmic motif, a leitmotif is thematic technique in which recurring musical notes are symbolically used to portray a character or setting (Bordwell & Thompson). The ballad, “Gondola no Uta” serves as Kanji’s individual theme and its lyrics, which are translated to mean, “life is brief,” represents his new outlook on life. With tears running down his face and his voice heavy with sorrow, Kanji sings “Gondola no Uta” as a personal monologue that displays his inner emotions and betrays his fear of dying. However, as the film progresses, Kanji learns to accept his fate and puts his efforts into a worthy cause to leave behind as his legacy. Ending with his inevitable death, Kanji swings happily in the children’s playground he lobbied to build. No longer sorrowful, he joyfully sings “Gondola no Uta” as a final acceptance of death and the brevity of life.

Defying cinematic noir convention, the upbeat score in Carol Reed’s British mystery, The Third Man, conveys a sense of liveliness and camp rather than expressing a brooding melodramatic soundtrack in characteristic noir films. In his article for “Hollywood Quarterly”, Lawrence Morton asserts, “The most interesting thing about the score is the somewhat surrealistic use of the zither to evoke the atmosphere of postwar Vienna” (Morton). Strumming horizontally across the screen, the opening title sequence of the film displays an abstracted view of the zither strings. Played by Anton Karas, the lighthearted zither instrument sets the mood for the city of Vienna, lending the film’s soundtrack a European flair. However, like the moral ambiguity of the protagonist, pulp fiction writer Holly Martins, the tone of the soundtrack is unclear; is the score mischievous, sarcastic, or playfully sinister? Likening himself to a character in one of his pulp Western novels, the soundtrack trivializes Martins’ investigation and expresses the impracticality of the genre and Martin’s unrealistic vigilante actions. Lessening its emotional solemnity, the zither strings absurdly play during serious sequences such as funerals and interrogations. In addition, the climatic chase scene in the sewers is noticeably devoid of a conventional thrilling soundtrack to accompany the action, thus heightening suspense through the sound of menacing echoes, gunshots, and clattering footfalls. However, the lack of music is interrupted when zither strings slowly fade in during Martin and Lime’s final confrontation but are abruptly silenced when Martin pulls the trigger. The brief resurgence of the playful score effectively demonstrates the remaining tendril of friendship Martin feels toward Lime and his uncertainty about ending his friend’s life.

Directed by Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront relates the story of Terry Malloy, a young longshoreman caught in a political and moral dispute between his fellow longshoremen and the corrupt mob. Leonard Bernstien’s turbulent score in On the Waterfront expresses Terry’s internal moral strife and ultimate triumph over unethical forces. Contrasting Terry with the mob leaders, the musical instruments individually distinguish the characters; pounding, warlike drums announce the arrival of the crime bosses while plaintive violin strings and trumpets exhibit Terry’s emotional struggle. When Terry approaches Edie to confess his guilt for assisting in the murder of her brother, the ship horns bellow ominously in the distance while the mechanical chugging sound of engines echo Terry’s footsteps.  The stricken Edie stares open-mouthed in horror as the overwhelming horns imitate screaming and the violin strings further reinforce Terry’s guilt and distress. The sound of trumpets can be heard during the climatic ending scene when Terry finally confronts mob leader Johnny Friendly. A lone horn trumpets like a battle cry as Terry challenges Friendly and the frenzied trumpets escalate during their brawl. With the other longshoremen cheering him on, the severely injured Terry ignores Friendly’s threats and victoriously walks through the waterfront. Building in intensity and drowning out Friendly’s desperate cries for revenger, the overpowering score fully conveys Terry’s sense of triumph as he and the longshoremen march into the dock.

Although Terry, Holly, and Kanji are of different age groups and nationalities, the films’ soundtrack effectively portrays the moral quandaries and emotional struggles the characters face. Each score in Ikiru, The Third Man, and On the Waterfront exemplifies the protagonists’ ethical growth and chronicles their ultimate moral victory.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s