By John Gibbon
He was as good a character actor as Hollywood has ever seen, his image onscreen eliciting many a shudder or laughs. Famed horror actor Boris Karloff once referred to him as “Master of the Unusual” - his bulging eyes, round face, and nasal voice became familiar to millions of moviegoers. In a film career that spanned 30+ years, the “best-hated spook” earned him quite an evil reputation onscreen, and on the whole, few screen actors have ever had as powerful a first film. Even fewer have seen as much success as Peter Lorre.
Peter Lorre was born László Löwenstein in Rózsahegy, Hungary on June 26, 1904 to middle class Jewish parents and was educated in elementary and secondary schools while growing up in Vienna, Austria. He had taken an early liking to and was eager to be more involved in theatre, but his father wouldn’t hear of it. So Lorre grudgingly took a position as a bank clerk to satisfy his father but soon ran away from home, disenchanted with working at a job he didn’t like.
Lorre received extensive stage training as a member of an improvised theater group and graced the stages of Breslau, Zurich and Vienna before taking residence in Berlin. While he was here he began earning high recognition for his stage work and was also escaping years of past obscurity. Lorre was impressive in Danton’s Death and Spring Awakening, and became a favorite student of Bertholt Brecht, appearing the German playwright’s Happy End and Man Equals Man.
Film director Fritz Lang had also taken a liking to Lorre’s talents and cast him in an upcoming film. Lorre was frighteningly unforgettable in his role as the psychopathic child killer in Lang’s first talkie, the disturbing 1931 chiller M. He immediately garnered international attention for his portrayal, but Lorre was careful to choose movies that would avoid him being typecast as a movie psychopath. He starred in many German films from 1931 through 1933; however, the movie that would launch Lorre’s career would also soon haunt him. A poster for the 1933 German anti-Semitic film The Eternal Jew wrongly depicted Lorre’s image from M as an example of a “typical Jew”. Lorre, horrified, reportedly fled Germany under warning from Joseph Goebbels himself.
His travels led him to Great Britain, and he soon met with British director Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was unaware Lorre knew very little English and cast him as a sinister villain in the suspenseful thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Once again, he was a favorite of international audiences and critics. Later that year he left for America, appearing in his first Hollywood picture the following year, Mad Love, directed by Karl Freund, the acclaimed cameraman from Lang’s Metropolis (1926). The bald-headed Lorre was superb, starring as Dr. Gogol, an insane surgeon with a love obsession, in the Frankenstein-like tale. It was his work on Mad Love that gave him a great opportunity to star as Raskolnikov in Columbia Pictures’ 1935 adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Although neither film was a big hit, Lorre was the year’s most talked about character actor.
Soon after, Lorre was a presented with a lucrative contract from 20th Century Fox to play the Japanese sleuth, Mr. Moto. Charlie Chan had already become a successful Hollywood franchise and Fox was looking to further capitalize bringing John P. Marquand’s timid but intelligent character to the screen. Think Fast, Mr. Moto was the inaugural film, released in 1937 and Lorre agreed to play the respectable title character seven more times. Mr. Moto was a master of intellect and disguises and unlike Chan was more of a physical character, often using ju-jitsu. The popular Moto movies showcased good production quality and fine casts of character actors but lacked the same pizzazz of the Chan series. In any event, Thank You, Mr. Moto (1938) is considered by most to be the best of the series, though Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939), also starring John Carradine, deserves a good look.
After the Mr. Moto series ended, Lorre wanted other serious film work. He soon starred as a brutal murderer in 1940’s The Stranger on the Third Floor, a magnificent short thriller considered by film historians to be the first film noir. But Lorre’s career lifted off with his stellar performance as the evasively slick yet particular Joe Cairo in John Huston’s 1941 adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, also starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet. He soon turned in another brilliantly shady portrayal opposite Bogart and Greenstreet again in the Hollywood classic, Casablanca (1942). Because Lorre had previously worked surprisingly well with Greenstreet in the two former films, the two were paired up in seven other films during the early 40’s, including the offbeat drama The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) and the fascinating Three Strangers (1946), the only movie in which Lorre played a romantic lead. He was excellently cast in Frank Capra’s 1944’s uproarious adaptation, Arsenic and Old Lace, as a murderer inexplicably caught in the clutches of the two murdering old women and was just as humorous in his role in My Favorite Brunette (1947), showing he could not only play sinister but comical as well.
However, as much as Hollywood had brought him success through the 30’s and 40’s, life was not so fulfilling for Lorre. He was feeling increasingly unhappy as good roles were harder to find; he was continually typecast and his talents were simply underappreciated. Following the war, he starred in many low-budget films like the silly horror The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) and as a sleazy penny arcade owner in the stale film noir Quicksand (1950). A disenchanted Lorre went back to Germany in early 1951 in hopes of regaining his screen veracity, both as a director and actor. He released the psychological drama Die Verlorene (The Lost One) (1951), featuring Lorre as writer, director and actor. The film was a postwar betrayal set in WWII invoking guilt over Nazi crimes, but it didn’t bring him the accolades he was wishing for. Despite being considered a critical success, the film was deemed too depressing by German audiences and was a commercial failure. His spirit further deflated, Lorre reluctantly returned to Hollywood to salvage his career.
Lorre’s off-screen life wasn’t perfect. After an operation as a young man, he struggled with a serious addiction to morphine, which in turn destroyed all three of his marriages. It’s also interesting to note that Lorre provided a list of everyone he had met in the United Sates to the Hayes Commission during their investigation of “commies” in late 1940’s. Lorre had also established his own production company, but was forced into bankruptcy. Depression began taking its toll on Lorre through the 50’s; his face grew puffy and tired looking and he seemingly floated through roles in movies like The Sad Sack (1957), starring Jerry Lewis and The Big Circus (1959) where he portrays a contemptuous clown amongst a cast of greats like Victor Mature and Vincent Price. Hollywood was closing its eyes to Lorre: he had been further reduced to character parts or making cameos in movies such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961).
As bad his life may have been, Lorre lived a full life in the world of entertainment. He was featured in many radio mysteries, even acting as host/performer of NBC Radio’s “Mystery in the Air”. He appeared in many televisions shows of the 1950s and 1960’s including an early version of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale in which he was the very first Bond villain. He also performed on Lux Video Theatre, Climax!, The Red Skelton Show, Playhouse 90 and Schlitz Playhouse of Stars. He even played a role in the popular TV series 77 Sunset Strip, as Gypsy in a five-episode arc.
His onscreen career experienced an odd resurgence in the early 1960’s as he agreed to appear in a few films by director Roger Corman. The first was in 1962’s Tales of Terrors; a three-part horror anthology based on stories from horrormeister Edgar Allen Poe and starred the magnificent Vincent Price (in all three stories) and Basil Rathbone. The odd but surprisingly well-made macabre fest showcased Lorre in a comical performance as a jealous husband who walls in his wife in the segment, “The Black Cat”. Critics hailed his performance as the best of the film. Similarly, Lorre’s performance in The Raven (1963), starring Price, Boris Karloff and a young Jack Nicholson, was considered as brilliant and creative work and helped open the eyes of a new generation who had not seen him perform before. His tenure with Corman ended with 1964’s horror spoof, The Comedy of Terrors, featuring Lorre in a very humorous role as Vincent Price’s inept assistant.
Sadly, on March 23, 1964, just four days after completing Jerry Lewis’ The Patsy (1964), a movie he didn’t want to make, the unique actor passed away, suffering from a stroke. More than 500 people showed for his funeral: Edward G. Robinson, Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton, John Carradine and Vincent Price were all seen there. His next project was to have been with Elsa Lanchester and his contract called for another starring role alongside Vincent Price.
Lorre was a favorite of the Warner Bros. cartoon crew appearing in many cartoons with Bugs and Daffy as Mel Blanc took great pride in imitating his voice. The legendary Spike Jones also had a hit song with “My Old Flame” in which vocal talent Paul Frees did a convincing vocal impression. Generation Xers will remember Lorre from the snippet from M that M-TV pilfered and used for it’s self-advertising in the early 80’s and as the inspiration for the cartoon ghost mascot for “Booberry” cereal. More recently he was the subject of two songs by The World/Inferno Friendship Society entitled “Fiend in Wein” and “Peter Lorre”.
Vincent Price had once said of Lorre, "His voice . . . face . . . the way he moved . . . laughed - he was the most identifiable actor I have ever known." Indeed, Lorre would become fairly well known in the film world, even referred to in some circles as “The World’s Greatest Actor”. And although Lorre has been considered one of the screen’s great monsters, only a small number of Lorre’s works can honestly be considered as horror films. But with every character he ever portrayed, Lorre injected some unique quality that would make the character his very own. It’s a unique quality that will keep the legacy of Lorre alive for years to come.