The Lost One:
Often typecast as a menacing figure, Peter Lorre achieved Hollywood fame during the 1930s, first as a featured player and later as a character actor who trademarked his screen performances with a delicately strung balance between good and evil. To villainous parts he added a touch of dark humor, while he shaded comic roles with sinister overtones. Though he deprecated his art as “face-making,” Lorre took his work seriously and lamented Hollywood’s use of his tricks but not his talent. His globular eyes and diffident whine have inspired comic impersonations and been widely caricatured in commercials (Kellogg’s “Booberry”), cartoons (Ren and Stimpy, and literature (Catcher in the Rye).
Born June 26, 1904, in Rozsahegy, Hungary, László Loewenstein moved to Moedling, Austria, in 1912, where he debuted in a primary school production of Snow White. Contrary to reports that he ran away from home to become an actor, after high school graduation he attended business school and landed a job as a bank teller in Vienna, where he juggled a bourgeois vocation by day and a Bohemian life by night, performing on the side in improvisational settings.
At Jacob Moreno’s Theater of Spontaneity, he learned to act out “the lived out and unlived out dimensions of his private world.” Before releasing the talented unknown into the world, the psychodramatist gave him a more suitable professional name, Peter Lorre, which recalled his resemblance to “Struwwelpeter,” an unkempt character in German children’s literature. From Vienna, he moved on to the Lobe and Thalia Theaters in Breslau, Germany, in 1924.
Stage work at Zurich’s Schauspielhaus and Vienna’s Kammerspiele, where he played comedies, farces, and dramas, brought him to Berlin and to the attention of poet-dramatist Bertolt Brecht. While Lorre’s unorthodox looks answered the playwright’s search for distinctive types, his “clashing of characteristics” breathed form into his dialectical theories on stagecraft. Brecht cast the young actor as a cretinous high school student in Marieluise Fleischer’s lustspiel Pioniere in Ingolstadt (Engineers in Ingolstadt) in 1928. After that, he was, in his own words, “the hottest thing on the Berlin stage.”
Lorre’s dual style also impressed legendary German director Fritz Lang, who cast the “negative superman” as a psychopathic murderer. M (1931), which introduced Lorre as a shadow and an off-screen voice, catapulted the actor to international fame as a notorious child murderer, forever confusing him in the public eye as a psychotic type. Though he did not know it, it was as much the end as the beginning of his film career.
After fleeing Nazi Germany two days before the Reichstag Fire on February 27, 1933, the Jewish actor joined fellow émigrés in Paris, where M still played and people recognized him as Le Maudit (The Damned One), a reference to the French title of the picture. Later that year, he accepted Alfred Hitchcock’s invitation to come to England and appear as a fiendish terrorist in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). A film contract with Columbia Pictures brought him and his wife, actress Celia Lovksy, to the United States in July of 1934. America, he felt, owed him nothing more than a chance to shed his screen image as a villain. “Ever since I came to this country I’ve been trying to live down my past,” explained Lorre. “That picture M has haunted me everywhere I’ve gone.”
Despite his attempts to be and think American – he even tried to lose his accent – Hollywood closed its door on the actor, repeatedly casting him as the outsider who hinted at things better left unknown. He attached no importance to his role as a demented doctor in Mad Love (1935), his first American film, which he labeled “psychological terror” in lieu of “horror,” a genre he disliked. “I’m associated with horror movies, but I’ve only done one, The Beast with Five Fingers. . . I don’t want to go down in history as a monster,” Lorre noted. ”I’ve never played a frog that swallowed a city or something like that.”
Looking to become a “general character actor,” Lorre accepted Twentieth Century-Fox’s invitation to play a variety of parts. However, a series of Japanese detective films based on J .P. Marquand’s Mr. Moto threatened an even narrower use of his talents. At Warner Bros., where he co-starred on and off screen with pal Humphrey Bogart, Lorre hit his personal and professional stride, appearing in vehicles that popularized his sinister image (The Maltese Falcon, 1941; Casablanca, 1943), and explored his more melancholy, philosophic side (Three Strangers, 1946).
His acting style reflected a change of attitude, away from psychological probing toward what Thomas Mann called “perfected naturalness,” at the same time casual and comfortable, off-center and ironic. He told friends he would play anything – a Martian, a cannibal, even Bugs Bunny – to avoid a suspension. In 1946, Warner Bros. called his bluff, casting him in The Beast with Five Fingers, for what turned out to be the requiem for the waning horror genre.
Seeking to chart his own course – to act, direct, and produce – Lorre left the studio and formed his own self-management company. Three years of relative inactivity, which he blamed on “graylisting” by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a legacy of his friendship with Brecht, ended in bankruptcy in 1949.
Feeling that Hollywood had turned its back on him, the actor left for Europe, where he played the elusive pivotal role denied him in America. In Germany, he directed, co-authored, and starred in Der Verlorene (The Lost One) in 1951, which weighed the enormity of Hitler’s state-sponsored mass crimes against the fate of a single human being, a murderer who becomes the victim of murderous times. When German audiences, who wanted to put the past behind them, rejected the darkly fatalistic movie, he reluctantly returned to the United States.
After appearing in a summer stock production of A Night at Madame Tussaud’s, Lorre found himself cast against type as a comically droll rogue in John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1954). The reunion of the “unholy three” – Huston, Bogart, and Lorre – turned the clock back to happier days, when a sense of camaraderie fed the spirit of fun. Such departures, however, failed to arrest the downward spiral of his career. When Hollywood refused to risk a less commercial use of his talents, Lorre wearily accepted roles that spoofed his sinister movie personality.
Ironically, by the end of his life, his appearances in horror-comedies opposite Vincent Price and Boris Karloff (Tales of Terror, 1962; The Raven, 1963; The Comedy of Terrors, 1964) came to outnumber his performances in the genre they parodied. At age 59, the overweight actor suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage on March 23, 1964.
The emblematic personalities of Humphrey Bogart and Bertolt Brecht locked Lorre into a choice, which he never made, between celebrity and intellectual respectability. Frustrated by his failure to carve a niche for himself in Hollywood, the erudite actor planned numerous projects tailored to his aptitude and capabilities, most notably film stories with his friend and mentor Bertolt Brecht. However, his failure to bridge the gap between person and persona drove the private Peter Lorre deeper into hiding and more sharply defined the seemingly disembodied legacy of his screen image.
The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre (2005) by Stephen Youngkin – now in its third printing and winner of the Rondo Award for "Best Book of 2005" – is available in bookstores everywhere, as well as these on-line merchants.
The Films of Peter Lorre (1982), also by Youngkin, is out of print, but copies may be purchased through Amazon and Barnes & Noble below. Interested in Lorre's radio and television performances? Check out Radio Showcase and Movies Unlimited. Netflix has Lorre movies for rent.
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