The Lost One:
Critics Are Saying . . . . .
A selection of reviews of The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre (University Press of Kentucky, Sept. 2005), available in bookstores and through on-line merchants everywhere.
"This man was the most identifiable actor I ever knew," said Vincent Price in his moving eulogy for Peter Lorre, not the only thing reprinted in full in Stephen D. Youngkin's exhaustive tome, a decades-in-the-making and long-overdue biography of one of the twentieth century's most fascinating and fondly remembered – yet at the same time quietly tragic – screen icons. Lorre's unique gifts and unorthodox looks both contributed to this identifiable status, adding up to a memorable screen persona that has outlived (if often in secondhand ways, most notably as a parodistic pop-cultural residue) the legacy of more famous contemporaries. Yet to him this often seemed less of a blessing, more of a curse: the artistic and personal vicissitudes of Lorre's life and career are exemplary of the fates of many émigrés who fled Nazi Germany to find themselves stuck, amongst other things, in the grist of Hollywood's typecasting mill. And while in retrospect Lorre achieved more than most – indeed, almost any film with him is already worth seeing precisely for that reason – the overpowering sense of displacement and waste that characterized especially the later stages of this ever-insecure actor's path must have rendered his triumphs near-moot by the end.
Youngkin's massively researched opus, drawing on over 300 interviews he conducted, lives up to the task of conveying Lorre's personal tragedy. Bristling with details intimate as well as topical, it follows more or less chronologically the trajectory of an immensely talented individual destined for greatness – but never achieving it quite the way he dreamt of. Born László Löwenstein in 1904 to a middle-class Jewish family in Arad (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire, now in Romania), Lorre's artistic sensibilities surfaced early, setting him apart from his siblings and foreboding the outsider status that became a (trade)mark of his existence, on- and off-screen. That Löwenstein chose the nom de plume Peter Lorre already hints at the split identity characteristic of his legacy, ripe with doppelgäangers, mirror images, and shadow figures befitting a genius of expressionist expression. Perceptively, Youngkin pursues the constant inner struggle caused by Lorre's (partly contractually enforced) commitment to entertainment vis-ŕ-vis his more high-flying dreams of artistic self-actualization, most of which never materialized.
More existential necessities overshadowed the hardscrabble early years, after Lorre took off for the Viennese stage in the Twenties, subsequently rising to semistardom, culminating in a fruitful collaboration with Bertolt Brecht in Berlin. These early chapters about the least known phase of Lorre's career, set against a detailed canvas of the Weimar Replublic's cultural background, are a highlight of the book. Especially fascinating is the excursion into Jacob Moreno's Stegreiftheater, a "theater of spontaneity," whose extemporaneous psychodrama strived for "therapeutic" effects. Suited for improvisation, a young Lorre made his first splash, the formative experience preparing him for the demands of Brecht's "epic theatre" – the writer/director was particularly pleased with Lorre's energetic interpretations of his theories – and probably fueling the notorious scene-stealing ability he proved repeatedly on film, usually needing nary a prop but the ever-present cigarette he could put to the trickiest use.
Lorre's screen career began with a bang in 1931 (before was a slightly amusing cameo as suffering dental patient in the Austrian silent Die verschwundene Frau – The Missing Wife (1929). As made unforgettable by Lorre in a performance that veers between complete innocence and absolute evil, Hans Beckert, the child-killing protagonist of Fritz Lang's classic M, not only threw his notorious shadow on a poster asking "Who is the murderer?" in the film's iconic opening scene, but on the remainder of the actor's career. Instant notoriety was the reward for Lorre's agonized portrayal; he claimed he immediately got offers of "donzens of villainous roles." Youngkin sensibly points out that Lorre, as prone to embellishment as he famously was to pranks, was not the most reliable chronicler of his own life, but his fear of typecasting was certainly warranted. Later in Hollywood, where the practice was even more de rigueur, the mere specter of M, largely unseen, but certainly heard of, was enough for shoehorning his career choices, his small stature and unmistakable looks, the bulging eyes and distinctive voice setting him up for clichés like "bug-eyed bogeyman."
Youngkin meticulously traces, at times down to the train connection, Lorre's escape to the U.S. after 1933, stops including Vienna, Paris, and London, where he portrayed a memorable scoundrel for Hitchcock in the first The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and married Celia Lvovsky, the first of three wives, who stayed devoted till the end. Lorre's turbulent affairs, his lifelong battle with morphine addiction, and his contradictory nature form the true backbone of the book's middle section, observing his Hollywood years in detail, but avoiding new readings of the films. Still the subject makes for an interesting case study, with Lorre's inconsistencies ranging from the financial – always very generous, he was also often very broke – to the artistic. When Josef von Sternberg's Crime and Punishment (1935) flopped, this proved prophetic: Lorre's Raskolnikov was no success, many other dream parts, including repeated stabs at the Good Soldier Svejk never materialized, so he contended himself with enlivening seemingly routine productions.
Yet on closer inspection, Lorre's filmography is more than remarkable, not just for touchstones like Casablanca (1942) or The Maltese Falcon (1941), but also for movies downplayed by Youngkin, including many worthy endeavors such as Karl Freund's Mad Love (1935, in which Lorre's Dr. Gogol heartbreakingly inquires, "I've conquered science. Why can't I conquer love?"), journeyman Vincent Sherman's inexplicably satisfying All Through the Night (1942; in which Youngkin is interested – somewhat understandably – mostly for the first meet-cute with second wife Kaaren Verne) or Frank Borzage's mysterious Strange Cargo (1940, relegated to one meatless paragraph). The list could go on.
Still, that Robert Florey's outstanding crime cheapie The Face Behind the Mask (1941), a key film on the exile experience in general and on Lorre's dilemma in particular, fares somewhat better, indicates how The Lost One will regain footing, true to its title, drawn from Lorre's only directorial work Der Verlorene (1951), the most deeply-felt film of German postwar cinema. Harking back to M, Lorre starred in another fact-based serial-killer story: His portrayal was haunted and haunting, his attempt to deal with the past daring, his style a unique mixture of Trümmerfilm realism and expressionist remnants. The film itself, however, was fundamentally out of step with its time: the German public had chosen to escape into entertainments more trivial than those Lorre had hoped to escape with his homecoming comeback from a faltering Hollywood career. Ignoring the GDR offers of fellow returnee Brecht – mutual projects in the U.S. were never willed into existence, despite numerous efforts – one time too many to pursue his indifferently received masterpiece, was probably a decisive blow.
Apart from offbeat reunions – with old Warner-era friends John Huston and Humphrey Bogart in the campy holiday adventure Beat the Devil (1954) or in AIP's humorous horror-star combos like The Raven (1963) – the wear and defeat are all too visible in Lorre's late work. The effects of his morphine addiction, acquired because of medical treatment in the mid-Twenties, had been quite noticeable on earlier occasions – perhaps most strikingly in Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936). The drug was never quite shaken off, except during the healthier, slimmed-down years at Warner Bros. in the Forties, but eventually, the toll of dependency, combined with the sense of spiritual waste, had palpably become too much to bear. (As Youngkin's meticulous research, including medical records and excerpts from Lorre's personal confession to federal narcotics authorities, proves, even during the shooting of the Mr. Moto serial, anyone unsuspectingly entering his dressing room might discover Lorre with a doctor's syringe in his arm, and the true reason for his repeated withdrawals for rehabilitation throughout his career was an open secret. By the end, he often had to "retreat" for ten minutes to get a scene right.)
Maybe moved by Lorre's downfall, Youngkin settles into a more empathic tone, whether recounting the troubled production history of Der Verlorene or Lorre's equally troubled attempts to keep working when health increasingly failed him. Readably written, spiced up with occasionally very amusing anecdotes, acerbic asides and insightful conclusions, what had threatened to recede into the ultimate Lorre fact book (although certainly a model biography), here proves itself again a labor of love, resurrecting the torn life of a lost one, overshadowed by the impression of a persona crafted with supreme artistry, however detrimental to his own long-term goals. Whether cast as cad or villain, Lorre – given his inimitable gifts and charisma – always comes off as strangely likeable. Even in his most unpleasant parts, we feel at least a smidgen of pity for him, and this has by now proven his claim to a very peculiar immortality, which is certainly not the one he had in mind. He got lost in the midst of historical changes, personal struggles, and, on occasion, sheer bad luck. Yet, as The Lost One proves, this ill-fated trajectory makes Lorre's vain attempts to escape his second-banana destiny during his lifetime all the more moving. A few minor misgivings – e.g., the German expressions, effectively used to add local color, are not always grammatically correct – would seem like nitpicking given rich compensations like the meticulous appendix and the careful selections for the photograph pages. It also would not fit the – however sadly self-ironic – modesty of Lorre, who, despite being one of the most unique actors of his time, would always resort to the claim, "I only make faces." — Reviewed by Christoph Huber; Summer, 2006
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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