A tribute today to actor Peter Lorre (Laszlo Lowenstein, 1904-1964). Categories are hard; Lorre doesn’t fit into most of my regular content streams, never having been in American vaudeville (or even European music hall or cabaret so far as I know), and my Hall of Hams is reserved for the most part for exemplars of the bombastic Anglo acting tradition. Yet we do write about about avant-garde theatre here from time to time, and also Gothic horror, and Lorre’s career certainly touches on both of those topics.
Lorre (a Hungarian Jew in the age when the country was still Austria-Hungary) began his career at age 17 with a Viennese artist and puppeteer named Richard Teschner. In the late 20s he worked in Berlin with Bertolt Brecht, acting in the original productions of Mann ist Mann and Happy End. Lorre’s persona was already established by this time: weird, shifty. shrill. Under movie klieg lights in close-up these qualities would be amplified, like the squirming of a bug under a magnifying glass. Always nervous, sweaty and twitching. In his cooler moments his fishy eyes would stare unfeelingly as though he were quite prepared to dissect you alive without anesthesia. In short, he seemed like the dope fiend he actually was in real life. Sometimes a casting agent’s job is easy.
In 1931 Lorre burst onto the world stage as the hunted child molester in Fritz Lang’s M. From here it was off to London where he had memorable turns in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Secret Agent (1936). In 1935, he played an insane doctor in one of the best Gothic horror movies ever Mad Love. It’s my idea of heaven!
Then of course he was part of the Warner Brothers stock company during the World War 2 era, alongside Sidney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart and others in movies like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942) and countless others. His character in these films is usually some sort of spy or criminal, but never anyone brave and bold. Usually he’s a sort of sniveling lickspittle, two-faced and treacherous…or an independent operator, a bottom-feeder who slinks in and out of the plot as a literal thief in the night.
Peter Lorre’s personality was so much imitated that self-parody perhaps became inevitable. Early opportunities in that line were already popping up by 1944, in films like Arsenic and Old Lace and Hollywood Canteen. By the 1950s that self-parody was mostly what his career consisted of, although Roger Corman did put him to some good appropriate employment in films like Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). His last (rather ignominious) role was a minor supporting part in the Jerry Lewis comedy The Patsy (1964).
After this a stroke took him at age 59, robbing us perhaps decades of the kind of campy performances colleagues like Vincent Price and John Carradine regaled us with in their last years. Is God cruel or merciful in this? Perhaps both!