Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Peter Lorre (1904-1964)

“Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart just in case?” 
—Peter Lorre to Vincent Price at Bela Lugosi’s funeral

Born László Löwenstein in Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia), actor Peter Lorre made his career in film, theatre, and radio across two continents and several countries. Though he was a talented actor and proved his chops in several dramatic roles, he was cursed by his unusual appearance and thick accent – he was forced to star in horror or crime films, generally as creepy, sinister characters. His legacy lives on primarily with horror fans, though Lorre was a talented actor that deserves far more than a reputation as an eerie character actor with a unique voice.

After a difficult childhood where his mother died young and he clashed regularly with his stepmother, Lorre’s family moved to Vienna when he was in his teens, which is where he began acting. He moved around Austria, Germany, and Switzerland before settling in Berlin and beginning a working relationship with playwright Bertolt Brecht. His first big break in cinema came from
Fritz Lang’s seminal M (1931), where he starred as a haunted child murderer who becomes the victim of a kangaroo court and mob justice. He quickly rose to prominence in Germany, but was forced to flee because of his Jewish heritage. It is likely that if he hadn’t been driven out by the Nazis, he would have become one of Germany’s biggest stars.

He fled to Paris and then London, where he found success yet again. He learned English while worked with Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and they reunited a few years later on Secret Agent (1936). In the U.S., he immediately started out in horror and cult movies. He starred in the underrated and excellent Mad Love (1935), directed by The Mummy’s cinematographer Karl Freund. He also starred in the eight film Mr. Moto series, essentially a rip-off of Charlie Chan with a Japanese detective/spy as the central character.

Lorre starred in
The Face Behind the Mask (1940), a noir-horror hybrid about a hardworking immigrant who is disfigured and must turn to a life of crime. He did appear in the comedy film You’ll Find Out (1940), though he was paired with other horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. He also had a major and very memorable role in the horror comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). He was in a number of other horror films: Universal horror sequel Invisible Agent (1942), and The Beast with Five Fingers (1946). He was supposed to star in a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was never made, and he turned down a leading role in the somewhat maligned Son of Frankenstein (1939).

While Lorre wasn’t a major figure in noir, he had several memorable roles. He was only in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), the first noir film ever made, for about 10 minutes as the villain and titular stranger, but he received top billing. Soon after, he appeared in the first successful noir film, The Maltese Falcon (1941), alongside Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet. All three actors reunited for Casablanca (1942), where Lorre has a small, but memorable role as the thief Ugarte, and Passage to Marseille (1944). He appeared in many films with Greenstreet — such as horror/crime hybrid The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) — and several more with Bogart. During this period he was mostly cast in war or noir films, such as The Conspirators (1944) and The Cross of Lorraine (1943), Don Siegel’s first film, The Verdict (1946), and Black Angel (1946). Bogart, director John Huston, and Lorre also reunited for Beat the Devil (1953), sort of a noir spoof penned by Truman Capote.

Lorre’s life was fraught with difficulties, particularly during this time. In Germany, he had undergone stomach surgery and continued to suffer from pain and gallbladder issues. These led to a very expensive morphine addiction. Though he beat it in the late ‘30s, it would come back to haunt him later in life and was responsible for a sudden weight gain that he would never totally shed.

Professionally, he had a frustrating contract with Fox during his first years in the U.S., which he was forced to break in order to get more work in Hollywood. He was cast in fewer films after the war, causing him to look for work on stage and in radio. Despite a steady stream of engagements, he filed for bankruptcy several years after the war. During this difficult period, he went back to Germany and made Der Verlorene (1951), which he wrote, directed, and starred in. This bleak, noir-like film tells the story of a doctor (Lorre) working for the Nazis, who kills his girlfriend when she discovers his secrets. It's amazing to me that this near masterpiece remains so underrated and forgotten. 

Sadly, his returned to the U.S. marked fewer roles and a number of roles where he essentially parodied himself — no thanks to Looney Tunes use of his likeness in Hair-Raising Hare and other cartoons calling for a mad doctor or evil assistant. Lorre was in several sci-fi/fantasy films during this period, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961). He was also in television shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Climax. In the latter, he actually played the first on-screen James Bond villain (Le Chiffre) in an episode that adapted Casino Royale (1954) for the first time.

Roger Corman revived his career in the years before his death by casting him in a number of Edgar Allen Poe-themed films alongside Vincent Price: Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), and The Comedy of Terrors (1963). Though he may have been frustrated that he couldn’t escape genre cinema, he at least seemed to be having a great time alongside Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone.

Lorre died of a stroke just before his 60th birthday. His ashes were interred at the Hollywood Forever Ceremony and his friend Vincent Price read the eulogy. Lorre was eventually honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and remains beloved by both horror and classic cinema fans. Editor Forrest J. Ackerman called him “The Lord High Minister of All That is Sinister,” a fitting title, though one I can’t be sure that Lorre would appreciate.

For more about the late, great little man, check out The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin. And of course, watch as many of his films as you can.

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