Peter Lorre was one of the screen's most Popular villains--his bulging eyes and sibilant voice were known, and imitated, all over the world. Born in 1904, in a remote part of Hungary, he ran away from home at the age of seventeen to become an actor. He found work difficult to obtain during the first three years of his career and was often obliged to sleep on park benches. But in 1924 he managed to get a small job in a Breslau theatre run by Leo Mitler who later became a film director in Berlin and Hollywood. Things improved for Lorre after that and from Breslau he went to Berlin where his performance in a German production of Galsworthy's Society led to an offer of work in Vienna, which, in turn, led to the People's Theatre in Berlin. It was here that Fritz Lang saw him for the first time--Lorre was playing the part of a sex fiend in a play called The Recruits of Inglestadt.
Late in 1930 Lang offered him the role of a child murderer in his film Moerder unter Uns (also known as "M"). During the day Lorre worked on Lang's picture while at night he was a comedian in Valentin Katayev's Squaring the Circle. When "M" was released it brought Lorre international fame and as a result he was immediately signed up by UFA, the famous German film company, and subsequently appeared in two of their films. Other film and stage offers followed in Germany, but with the rise of Hitler Lorre decided to leave the country. He first went to Vienna and then on to Paris in 1933 where he lived in a cheap boarding house that also included Billy Wilder among its refugee guests. In 1934, he arrived, without money or a knowledge of English, in England; but soon had the good fortune to be introduced to Alfred Hitchcock who offered him a part in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Soon after the film's completion he married Cecilia Lvovsky, his co-star whom he had known in Berlin.
The following year he went to Hollywood to appear in Karl Freund's Mad Love, then returned to England to make another Hitchcock film--The Secret Agent. In 1936 he was given a long term contract by 20th Century Fox in Hollywood and his first film for them was Crack-Up (Malcolm St Clair, 1936), a mediocre spy thriller. Two more pictures, just as forgettable, followed in 1937 and in that same year he began the Mr. Moto series in which he starred as the Japanese detective. Lorre made nine of the Moto films within the space of a single year (they were directed by Norman Foster and James Tinling). He didn't enjoy them but they were successful and he made a great deal of money out of the series.
Artistically, his career became more satisfying in 1941 when he appeared in John Huston's classic version of The Maltese Falcon as the effeminate rival of criminal mastermind Sydney Greenstreet. This resulted in a contract with Warner Brothers and more good roles--such as Ugarte in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), and Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944) in which he gave a marvellous performance as Raymond Massey's drunken assistant. His last film for Warner's before his contract expired was The Beast With Five Fingers (Robert Florey, 1946). Lorre's Hollywood career deteriorated in the late 1940s and he decided to return to Europe.
While touring refugee camps in 1949 he received the inspiration to make The Lost One, a film based on a story by Egon Jacobson. Two years later he wrote, directed, co-produced and starred in the film, which was shot on location in Germany (the story is of a psychopath who murders several women before the war and is discovered afterwards to be working as a doctor in a refugee camp). The Lost One is a black film that effectively reflects the shattered, shocked and pessimistic atmosphere of post-war Europe. Lorre directed with skill but its gloomy subject-matter ensured that it wasn't a financial success at a time when film audiences were hungering for escape. Unfortunately, the making of it cost Lorre more than money--during the shooting his friend and co-producer Arnold Pressburger fell ill and died, and shortly after it was completed Lorre himself became very ill. He survived, but the illness left him with a weight increase of 100 lbs and he never really regained his health.
In 1953 he resumed his acting career with an appearance in Huston's eccentric Beat the Devil. During the remainder of the 1950s he appeared in a number of Hollywood films, none of them particularly good (with one or two exceptions), usually as comic relief. But along with the other ageing horror stars he was swept up by AIP for their new cycle of horror films in the early 1960s. He appeared in Tales of Terror (1962), Comedy of Terrors (1963) and The Raven (1963) and gave fine comic performances in all three. He died of a stroke in 1964.
In private life Lorre was an erudite man with a keen interest in the arts, particularly the theater. He was also known for his sharp and very dry sense of humour. As an actor, especially when at his peak in the 1930s and 1940s, he was a true artist with a range that went from slapstick to real villainy: he was certainly more than just the collection of familiar mannerisms for which he is now best remembered. One regrets that Hollywood did not make better use of his talents.
--JOHN BROSNAN, from
The Horror People
A selection of Peter Lorre films.
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A selection of Peter Lorre in books.
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