Recognizable to practically everyone by looks (short and stocky, with fried egg eyes set wide apart) and voice (purring, lightly accented, cutely ghoulish), Peter Lorre has lived on as various cartoon characters, such as Ren on Ren and Stimpy, and as a fondly remembered, idiosyncratic supporting player in Warner Brothers’ films of the forties. In memory, he is always appealing to Humphrey Bogart for help (“You despise me, don’t you?” he asks, in Casablanca) or hiding out in the capacious shadow of the unpredictable Sydney Greenstreet, dreaming of the Falcon and the heist that will bring a big payday. Lorre began spoofing himself quite early, and wound up having to play in a lot of junky projects, the fearsome promise of his early work forgotten.
In a recent, comprehensive biography of the actor by Stephen Youngkin called The Lost One, the author detailed Lorre’s obscure early years. He was born Laszlo Loewenstein in Austria-Hungary in 1904, and his mother died when he was a kid. Generally bookish and anti-social, Lorre worked in a bank for a while, but that didn’t last long, and he eventually took to the streets, where he got scurvy, went hungry, and even robbed people for bread. At loose ends, he joined a troupe called “The Therapeutic Theater,” where he specialized in extreme, weird improv, and where his talent for mimicry got him his stage name (“Lorre” means “parrot” in German). On the Berlin stage, he turned a one-line bit part into a triumph: playing a servant, he was supposed to come on and simply say, “Frau Schultz is here to see you.” Instead, Lorre entered insolently, slowly lit a cigarette, and turned Frau Schultz’s arrival into an extended improv interrogation with the lady of the house (a portent of his later scene stealing). Trouble with his appendix started him using morphine, which he would be addicted to, with often major consequences, for the rest of his life. He tried all manner of cures, even shock treatments, but never managed to get off the drug completely.
Lorre made a big impression in the plays of Bertolt Brecht; indeed, he was and remained Brecht’s favorite actor. After his success in Fritz Lang’s M, Lorre played small, comic parts in German films, and eventually had to leave Germany after the Nazis came to power. Peripatetic for a while, he worked for G.W. Pabst in Paris, did two superb turns for Hitchcock in England, then landed in Hollywood, where he enjoyed the sunshine and money with relief. At first, he was publicized as a great actor from Europe, another Charles Laughton, or Emil Jannings. Lorre had ambitions to play Napoleon on stage, and he nursed a lifelong desire to play Kaspar Hauser (imagine him in a Herzog film with Klaus Kinski!) But projects like this didn’t work out for him, and by the late thirties, he was trapped playing a Japanese sleuth in the popular Mr. Moto series. When director Vincent Sherman asked Lorre how he endured playing Moto in eight films, Lorre replied, “I took dope.” As a young man, Lorre took acting very seriously indeed. At Warner Brothers, and in various B and even Z pictures later on, he spoke derisively of getting paid to “make faces.”
A self-styled intellectual, Lorre had a quick, morbid wit, loved to blow cigarette smoke into people’s faces and thrived on doing unexpected things (during a party at Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s house, he hungrily sank his teeth into Mrs. Korngold’s ass). Lorre had three wives, but he seems to have married them all after he had fallen out of love with them. “Do you think you could get used to my body?” he would ask, forlornly, as he approached a pretty starlet; this line worked for him more often than not. His plummeting status as an actor clearly hurt him, and he sank lower and lower as time went on, doing several movies for Irwin Allen, a Frankie and Annette opus, and sidekick work for Jerry Lewis and Vincent Price. Brecht’s favorite actor had turned into “that lovable boogey man.” Lorre’s work with Brecht on stage is lost to us (though the stills of the productions are evocative). But his best early movie work remains a testament to his perverse talent.
1. M: In Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, Lorre’s child murderer is a little like the shark in Jaws: barely seen most of the time, but shocking in glimpses. At first, he is just a shadow on a wall, talking to a little girl in a quiet, uninflected voice, then whistling a bit of Grieg’s Peer Gynt as he leads her away. He whistles the tune again as he writes to the press, his back to the camera. Then, the reveal: we see Lorre’s round, young face in a mirror, and a gross shudder runs through him, as if he’s masturbating. To quell this disturbance, he pulls his mouth down into a frown with his middle fingers, and his eyes pop out of his head as if they’re on springs. Lorre’s face is malleable, a piece of clay, a mask, capable of any contortion. When his killer sees another little girl, Lorre’s eyes deaden slightly as they bulge with desire. The girl is whisked away by her mother, so Lorre sits to drink, obviously suffering under some kind of demonic influence. This is big-scaled acting: it’s not a naturalistic performance, but this isn’t a natural man. In the suffocating finale, where he is trapped by a kangaroo criminal court, Lorre plays his finest scene on screen, an animalistic, freakishly convincing defense of his sickness, his need to kill. M defined Lorre in the movies for all time, dwarfing the rest of his work. And it had a curious coda: in the late seventies, his only daughter Catharine Lorre was accosted by the Hillside Stranglers, dressed as policemen. When they saw a photo of her with Lorre and realized she was his daughter, they let her go, providing a poetic twist to Lang’s view of corruption and desolation, and her father’s iconic portrait of tormented evil.
2. The Man Who Knew Too Much: In Hitchcock’s early British thriller, Lorre is introduced smiling and joking about his English (he learned the role phonetically). In hat, fur collar and white gloves, he seems a jolly dandy. But when he emerges as a kidnapper and leader of an assassination plot, all bets are off, visually and emotionally. The hat is removed, and underneath is a white skunk stripe running down his dark hair and a lengthy scar over his right eye. His manner is similar, but he smiles now when he jokes about killing a child, if necessary. This is a reasonable man, easily tickled, seemingly impassive, above it all. When he is forced to shove Leslie Banks in the head, he turns sheepish afterwards, even apologizes. But this man, like Lorre’s killer in M, is also subject to mood swings and is at the mercy of his dark compulsions. He’s a cultured fellow, quoting Shakespeare, eating meals with cool relish, but his almost bored demeanor hides the danger of a lethal villain. In this film and M, Lorre is clearly a major actor capable of creating large portraits of all-too-human monsters.
3. Mad Love: In his first Hollywood film, for MGM, Lorre plays Dr. Gogol, a bald, Vulcan-eared, not-of-this-world scientist with a droning, hallucinated voice and huge haunted eyes. It’s a silly film, and audiences’ generally laugh at Lorre here, but that’s only because he’s offering such an unnervingly distinctive portrayal of romantic obsession. “I, a poor peasant, have conquered science, why can’t I conquer love?” he wonders, and can only close his eyes in ecstasy when he watches his unrequited beloved (Frances Drake) being stretched on the rack and tortured in a play. Lorre’s work here cannot be judged by any normal standards: his performance of thwarted passion is so far-out, so bizarre in its details, yet it somehow remains gentle and human. The script and the other actors give him no help, but Lorre more than lives up to the title; after this lead, he played a fastidious Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment for Josef Von Sternberg. Both films flopped with critics and audiences, and Lorre soon fell into the Mr. Moto series and small roles.
4. The Maltese Falcon: This campy granddaddy of all private eye movies amounted to something of a comeback for Lorre, who is introduced via a gardenia-scented calling card. His pansy Joel Cairo wears curly hair and carries a walking stick which he caresses suggestively as he speaks to Bogart’s Sam Spade (Lorre even sticks the tip of the stick into his mouth). He pulls a gun on Spade, insists on frisking him, and goes right for his ass; Spade eludes this advance in the nick of time, disarms Cairo and punches him. After this too intimate exchange, Cairo asks, “May I please have my gun now?” like a sweet, deadly little kid. At this point, and for the rest of the forties, Lorre became a heavily seasoned side dish among many other character types, but he was still capable of outrageous invention when given a chance. After the Falcon is revealed as a fake, Lorre’s Cairo denounces his partner, Sydney Greenstreet: “You imbecile! You bloated idiot! You stupid fathead, you!” His hissing anger gives way, amusingly, to childish tears. Lorre’s creativity was harnessed now to Hollywood fun, and it would be churlish to deny the pleasures of this work. But something was lost in this transition, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
5. Beat the Devil: In this cult film, one of the few respectable items of his later career, Lorre is white-haired, portly, his big eyes melancholy and quizzical. As Julius O’Hara, an inept crook, Lorre smokes his cigarette in a long holder and talks a lot of charming nonsense, courtesy of scriptwriter Truman Capote. During one scene with Robert Morley, Lorre’s silent, infinitesimal wince at his fellow crook’s laugh and bluster is an advanced master class in effortless scene stealing. Lorre really enjoys himself in this likable free-for-all, as he did briefly in Rouben Mamoulian’s Silk Stockings, where he actually gets down on the floor and does a Russian dance (his own idea). His sole directorial effort, the German-made Die Verlorene, was a commercial/critical disappointment, and remains hard to see (he played a murderer of women, and apparently did a lot of improvising). Lorre’s cry of, “REEEK!” in Casablanca remains more indelible to most viewers than his unanswerable, “But I can’t help it!” in M. There is merit in both his Weimar pain and his Hollywood drollery. Both are the mark of an artist who was drastically undervalued by his peers and himself.