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Despite his unusual looks and assets - he was rather short in height, stocky
in stature and had saucer-like permanently lazy eyes, a rather high and a tad too
smooth voice and an unmistakenly Austrian accent (in German as well as in
English) - Peter Lorre was quite probably one of the best actors of his
time if not of all times, he could play virtually every genre from comedy
to drama, from romance to horror, and he was a much requested character
actor in his four active decades ... yet his movie career was doomed from
the beginning, and ironically it was doomed because his breakthrough movie
was an undisputed milestone in movie history, Fritz Lang's groundbreaking M
from 1931. For the rest of his long career, Peter Lorre wouldn't make
another movie of this one's calibre, and while he played in fine and
highly acclaimed movies every now and again, he also played in a plethora
of silly movies where he sold himself below his worth ... but as usual I'm
getting way ahead of myself.
Peter Lorre was born László
Loewenstein in 1904 in the town Ružomberok, Austria-Hungary, which today
is part of Slovakia, where his family was part of a minority not only
because they were Jews but also because they spoke German as opposed to
the Slovakian speaking majority. Lorre's mother died in 1908, and
reportedly he could never come to terms with the woman his father married
mainly to not leave him and his two younger brothers alone.
the Loewensteins moved to Romania, and in 1913 to a town near Vienna,
Lorre's father served in the first World War from 1914 to 1916, when he
was sent home from the Russian front with a lung condition. He then bought
a farm in today's Yugoslavia, but at the end of the war, when
Austria-Hungary was no more, his land was impounded and the
Loewenstein-family was sent back to Austria, where they now put up camp in
At the young age of 14, Peter Lorre started to show an interest
in acting, and at age 17, after he had finished school, he decided to
become an actor - much to the dismay of his father, who first tried to get
him a decent job at a bank - where Lorre got himself fired in no time to
live the life of a Bohemien.
Eventually, at age 18, Lorre found his
first work in the theatre, as a regular in Jacob Moreno's Stegreiftheater
(= improv theatre). Jacob Moreno was also the man who gave László
Loewenstein the name he would soon become famous with, Peter Lorre.
1924, theatre director Leo Mittler saw Lorre in one of his performances at
the Stegreiftheater and hired him pretty much on the spot to come
with him to Breslau - today's Wroclaw in Poland, which was back then a
part of Germany though -, but there, he gave him only small roles at the Lobe-
und Thalia-Theater. Underchallenged, Lorre soon accepted an offer from
the Zürcher Schauspielhaus, Zürich, Switzerland, to play Ibsen
and other classics.
Eventually, Lorre returned to Vienna in 1926 to play
small roles on various small stages, but in 1928, Lorre, feeling himself
wasted in second and third rate productions on Viennese stages, left the
country for Berlin, Germany, where he was lucky enough to almost
immediately hook up with Bert Brecht, then the talk of the town, who
insitinctively felt the talent of the young man and saw to it that he got
a contract at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm - where Lorre's star
rose steadily. Soon, too, he played all of Berlin's major stages, and
usually leading or important roles ...
M and Peter Lorre's
time in Germany
Lorre caught the attention of the successful and now legendary German
movie director Fritz Lang, who was at the time casting the lead for his first
sound film, that of a child murderer modelled after real life fiend Peter
Kürten, who killed 12 people (of all ages, including children) in
Düsseldorf, Germany in 1929, was arrested in 1930 and was executed in
Lang offered the role to Lorre, who at first hesitated. He had
already played a few small, unimportant and sometimes uncredited roles in
films, but he didn't see himself as a movie actor, but when Lang, acting
on instinct, insisted, he gave in.
The film in question is of
course M from 1931, a
film that made cinema history and is today considered as Fritz Lang's most
important films (if not the most important) and a genuine milestone
in moviemaking. The perennial success of the movie has two reasons: On one
hand, Fritz Lang has put all of his directorial finesse into this one,
combined exceptional camerawork and expert editing with mastery of and
inventiveness concerning the new medium of sound. On the other hand of
course, there's Peter Lorre, whose performance is simply outstanding, he
manages to turn his role of a creepy child murderer into a creature that
deserves compassion towards the end, when he's captured and tried by the
local mobsters in the end and makes a compassionate, almost eyewatering
speech to save his own neck - yet without ever denying the fact that he is
indeed the creepy beast who murdered a kid a mere few minutes ago (minutes
in running time).
Between the two of them, Fritz Lang and Peter
Lorre have made the serial killer film genre as such into a work of art,
something only very few (if any) serial killer films later achieved doing.
Quite deservedly, the film became an international success, and Lorre
enjoyed the attention he was getting - yet he still didn't see himself as
a moviestar ...
After the success of M,
Lorre returned to the theatre and at first took film roles only occasionally
and hesitatnly - and
and roles immediately after M
were hardly tailored to his talents - before he dedicated more
and more of his time to filmmaking, but always seeing to it that he wouldn't
be typecast as a villain (which is why he occasionally took silly little
roles in light comedies) ...
- In Bomben auf
over Monte Carlo (1931, Hanns Schwarz) he has a small role as
comic relief in a film that is above all else a showcase for its lead
Hans Albers, then the most popular German actor, who is playing his
typical jack-of-all-trades sailor guy who has an affair with a
noblewoman played by Russian import Anna Sten that almost ends in
tragedy - namely the bombardment of Monte Carlo.
- In Die Koffer des Herrn O.F./The Thirteen Trunks of Mr.
O.F. (1931, Alexis Granowski) he has another funny appearance as a
newspaper man in a small town who invents a few facts about 13 trunks
(accidently) sent to the local hotel to print in his newspaper - and
with his story he sets all kinds of wheels into motion ... Basically The
Thirteen Trunks of Mr. O.F. is nothing more than a harmless light
comedy of the kind that were shot in depression era Germany a dime a
dozen in the 1930's. Hedy Kiesler plays a supporting role in this one,
the woman who later rose to fame in the US as Hedy Lamarr.
- Fünf von der Jazzband/Five of the Jazzband (1932,
Erich Engel) is another light comedy, this time about a girl (Jenny
Jugo) who has no musical bone in her body and who suddenly finds
herself behind the drums of a jazzband. Lorre has a small role as
carthief in this one.
- Schuss im Morgengrauen/Shot at Dawn (1932, Alfred
Zeisler) is a crime drama in which Lorre, playing a jewel thief, is
merely part of an ensemble cast. Interestingly enough, apart from M,
this is the only one of Lorre's film that had a (limited) release in
- Essentially, F.P.1
antwortet nicht (1932, Karl Hartl) was another vehicle for its
lead actor Hans Albers, but unlike Bombs
over Monte Carlo, this one featured a rather intelligent
sci-fi plot based on a novel by Curt Siodmak [Curt
Siodmak-bio - click here] - who also co-wrote the
screenplay - concerning a floating platform for airplanes in the
mid-Atlantic complete with the usual foreign spies trying to wreck it.
Lorre's role as a press photographer is merely a subordinate though.
By the way the film was simultanously also filmed in English (F.P.1
doesn't Answer) and French (I.F.1 ne Répond Plus)
language versions, all also directed by Karl Hartl, but neither with
the participation of either Hans Albers or Peter Lorre.
- Hans Albers also stars in Der Weisse Dämon/Rauschgift/The
White Demon (1932, Kurt Gerron), an anti-drug film made up as an
adventure movie, with Albers playing a guy looking for his sister
(Gerda Maurus), who has fallen prey to the morphium syndicate, led by a
bald hunchback played by Peter Lorre. The film was swimultanously
filmed in French as Stupéfiants (1932, Kurt Gerron, Roger Le
Bon), with Jean Murat in the Hans Albers-role and Daničle Parola
playing his sister. Peter Lorre once again plays the bald hunchback
- In Was Frauen träumen/What Women Dream (1933, Géza
von Bolváry), Lorre plays a bumbling detective. The film, co-scripted
by Billy Wilder, was supposed to be a (light) crime comedy - but
unfortunately the whole thing never really gets off the ground. The
film was remade in the USA as One Exciting Adventure (1934,
Ernst L.Frank), but without Lorre.
What Women Dream would ultimately be Peter Lorre's last film
shot in Germany, as the Nazis came to power in 1933, and they wanted to
rid the German film industry of all Jewish influences. Initially, Lorre
saw little reason to worry since (quite ironically) he was the
favourite actor of both Adolf Hitler and Minister for Public Enlightenment
and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, still Lorre travelled to Austria (which
wasn't under Nazi-rule until 1938) to shoot his next movie Unsichtbare
Gegner/Invisible Opponent (1933, Rudolf Katscher) - a rather
routine thriller that couldn't be shot in Germany anymore since most of the film's cast and crew was Jewish.
(By the way, Invisible Opponent was simultaneously shot in
French as Les Requins du pétrole [1933, Rudolf Katscher, Henri
Decoin], with Lorre playing the same part in both versions.)
Originally, Peter Lorre was to return to Berlin after finishing Invisible
Opponent to film the Nazi prestige production Kaspar Hauser
with him in the lead, but he simply refused to come back, claiming that
the country wasn't big enough for both him and Hitler.
Instead he went to Paris with his girlfriend, the actress Celia Lovsky,
whom he would marry in 1934 ...
As a last insult to Lorre, one of Germany's greatest actors, director
Fritz Hippler used footage from M
- Peter Lorre's famous defense speech - in his appaling propaganda
movie Der Ewige Jude/The Eternal Jew in 1940 to demonstrate
the inferiority of the Jewish race, quite despite the fact that a) Lorre's
speech was scripted dialogue, nothing else, and written by Thea von
Harbou, a non-Jewish screenwriter in the Nazis' favour, and b) in M
no mention of Lorre's character being a Jew (or whatever else) is ever
France and Great Britain
In France, Lorre would meet up with many other (mainly Jewish)
fugitives from the Nazi regime, namely Billy Wilder, the composer Franz
Waxman and character actor Oskar Homolka, to name but a few. Still,
finding work as an actor proved to be harder than expected, desptie the
fact that M still ran in
French cinemas with quite some success, to an extent that Lorre was
recognized in the streets of Paris.
It was only eventually that German
director Georg Wilhelm Pabst, an acquaintance of Lorre from back in
Berlin, hired him for Du Haut en Bas/High and Low/From
Top to Bottom (1933), one of his Paris-shot films. Lorre plays a
beggar in the film, a role that has little to do with the movie's main
plot about a soccer star, and Pabst might only have included the role as a
favour to Lorre. Unfortunately, this is the only filmwork Lorre could find
in France, which was at the time overpopulated with German fugitives.
rather out of the blue came a call from Gaumont
British, who wanted Lorre to play the villain part in an espionage
thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, back then the British star director, who is
said to have insisted on hiring Lorre after having seen M.
The film in question is The Man who Knew too Much (1934) (which
Hitchcock himself would remake in 1956, without Lorre's participation), a
film about an innocent family who is dragged into an international
espionage plot. Lorre plays the scarred leader of a gang of terrorists who
want to kill the British ambassador, an assassination that is prevented
only in the last moment.
In The Man who Knew too Much, Lorre is
for the first time in years allowed not to just play a one-dimensional
villain but a multi-layered character, and in this role he can (also for
the first time in years) prove his range as an actor.
Quite deservedly, The Man who Knew too Much
became a big interntational success, not at least thanks to Lorre's
performance, and suddenly Lorre was in demand again, and even got offers
from the USA ...
(By the way, Lorre
would marry his girlfriend Celia Lovsky while shooting The Man who Knew too Much,
a marriage that would last until 1945, but even after their divorce the
two remained good friends until his death.)
and Hitchcock got along greatly almost immediately (and would remain
friends for years), so it came as little surprise that Hitchcock hired
Lorre for yet another espionage thriller in 1936, Secret Agent, and
Lorre gladly accepted, even though he had by that time relocated to the
USA (see below).
In Secret Agent, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud and
Madeleine Carroll play British agents sent to Switzerland during World War
I to track down and eliminate a German agent (Robert Young, who is
revealed to be the agent only very late in the film), but while Gielgud
and Carroll only very reluctantly fulfill their mission, Lorre's character
does so with great joy, and it soon becomes clear that he is more than
just a bit off the hook, and maybe even more dangerous than the German
Again, Lorre is given the opportunity to play a multi-layered
role, and again he excells, but unfortunately the film was not able to
duplicate the success of The Man who Knew too Much.
Coming to America
The success of The Man who Knew too Much brought Peter
Lorre a half year contract from Columbia,
which meant he and his wife could move to the USA without any bureaucratic
restrictions - in this respect he was much luckier than most of his fellow
German immigrants. Unfortunately though, only because Columbia
had him under contract and paid him didn't necessarily mean they would
give him work, and so Lorre waited a year for his first job, and when the
job came along, it was on loan to MGM,
and in a villain role, something Lore desperately wanted to avoid in order
not to be typecast ...
Lorre's first American film was Mad
Love (1935, Karl Freund), a horror film about a mad doctor (Lorre) who
is madly in love with an actress (Frances Drake) - but unfortunately she
is married to a concert pianist (Colin Clive). Then though the pianist
loses his hands in an accident, and Lorre decides to help him by
giving him the hands of a knife-throwing murderer - and suddenly the
pianist realizes he can no longer play the piano but has become an expert
knife-thrower ... which is when his father is found killed by a throwing
knife. The pianist thinks himself to be the killer, but of course it was
all set up by Lorre to drive him crazy and his wife into his arms, and in
the end, as a sort of divine justice, the pianist kills Lorre using a
throwing knife, when Lorre attacks his wife.
Lorre's villain is much
more one-dimensional than his role in M
or his villains in the Hitchcock movies, but still he manages to make
himself the center of attention, giving a subtle yet creepy performance,
with his grotesque, bald appearance only helping in this respect.
Love by the way is based on the novel Les Mains d'Orlac by
Maurice Renard, which was filmed in Germany in 1924 under the title Orlac's
Hände/The Hands of Orlac by Robert Wiene.
Love was basically a horror film (even if Lorre refused to see it that
way), his next film, a Columbia-production,
finally, was more to Lorre's liking: Crime and Punishment
(1935), an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Fyodor Dosteyevsky,
directed by fellow German immigrant Josef von Sternberg. Peter Lorre plays
the lead in this film, Raskolnikov, a painfully rational man who
eventually kills a pawn broker out of purely rational considerations - but
for the rest of the film is haunted by his murder until he gives himself
Of course, Peter Lorre was born to play a role like Raskolnikov, and
he gives simply put another great performance - but as a whole, the film
doesn't live up to its source material: by trying to stress Dosteyevsky's
700-page source material into a mere 88 minutes the film is quite naturally
stripped of most of the novel's philosophical overtones and religious allusions,
turning it into a fairly common (if not unintelligent) crime drama. Plus,
von Sternberg saw the film as a mere bread-and-butter job and invested
little imagination into it. Consequently Crime and Punishment,
which could have been a masterpiece, flopped at the box office.
1936, Lorre was on loan from Columbia
again, this time to Gaumont
British to film above mentioned Secret Agent
Hitchcock. When he came back to the USA, Lorre decided to quit his
contract with Columbia,
a contract that paid him plenty (reportedly $ 1.000 per week) but didn't
offer the artistic challenges he had hoped for ...
A Japanese Detective called Moto
and other roles:
Peter Lorre at 20th Century Fox
Being released from his contract with Columbia,
Peter Lorre at first wanted to return to the stage, for a Broadway
production of Napoleon by this friend Ferdinand Bruckner which was
to be less a biography than a psychological drama, with Lorre in the lead,
but while Lorre was already promoting the project it was cancelled on
rather short notice.
Lorre was more successful in landing roles in
radio plays - then a medium rivalling the cinema -, despite his obvious
Austrian accent, for which his unmistakable voice easily made up.
suddenly, in the summer of 1936, Lorre was offered another contract, this
time by Darryl F.Zanuck of 20th
Century Fox. The contract paid considerably less than the one he
had with Columbia
($ 750 compared to Columbia's
$ 1.000), but Lorre accepted, in part because Zanuck promised to move
Lorre away from the stereotypical movie-villain ...
the first two films Lorre made for 20th
Century Fox presented him as just that, a movie villain. Plus,
they were hardly the prestige movies Lorre had hoped for, rather better
B-movies that did not exactly live up to Lorre's talents:
- Crack-Up (1936, Malcolm St.Clair) is little more than a
routine espionage thriller that also stars Brian Donlevy. Lorre at
least gives the film a touch of colour playing a top spy pretending to
be a harmless loonie - with the expected comical consequences.
- In Nancy Steele is Missing (1937, George Marshall), Lorre
plays a small-frye criminal who is ruthless enough though to try and
cash in on a kidnapping performed by someone else (Victor McLaglen)
simply by trying to destort the facts - until the real kidnapper
forces him to make a confession ... John Carradine, with whom Lorre
would collaborate time and again over the years, is also in this one
in an early role [John
Carradine-bio, click here].
Then though, 20th
Century Fox made Lorre a rather absurd offer: Wanting to cash in
on their own successful Charlie
Chan-series starring Warner Oland, the studio wanted to launch a second series
centered around an Oriental supersleuth, this time of Japanese origin, and
opposed to Charlie
Chan he was supposed to be a man of action who was versed in
jiu jitsu and a master of disguise.
The character in question is Mr.
Moto, protagonist of a series of novels by John P.Marquand,
and the pilot film of the series, Think Fast,
Mr. Moto, was
directed by Norman Foster in 1937, a former actor who had only recently
picked up directing but who would become a B-movie and TV-veteran over the
Of course, to cast Peter Lorre, a man with an unmistakably Austrian
accent as a Japanese, a man with an unmistakeable voice as his as a master
of disguise, and despite his rather stocky figure feature him as action
hero on top of that seems to be a recipe for desaster as it is, and
neither director Foster nor Lorre himself thought he could pull it off -
but after all, this was the first good-guy role offered to Lorre since quite
a long time, so he saw himself forced to accept.
Think Fast, Mr.
Moto was typical B-fare, a lazily scripted
crime thriller about a Chinatown storeowner - Mr Moto himself, who in this
one as opposed to Charlie
Chan is only an amateur detective - who uses all his
ingenuity and cunning to fight and defeat a gang of smugglers who want to brutally
butt in on his business. As a whole the film was nothing special, and
Peter Lorre certainly couldn't fool anybody into thinking he was Japanese,
but at least he played the unlikely role with dignity and took his
character seriously, despite the fact that he deplored him.
When Think Fast, Mr.
Moto became a success (at least by B-movie
Century Fox was quick to make the movie into a series, with Thank
You, Mr. Moto (1937, Norman Foster) being released a mere 5 months
after the first film. This time Moto is given a background as a hobby
archeologist who travels to China for some excavations, but ultimately he
only slides into another murder mystery ...
Mr. Moto's Gamble (1938, James Tinling) was actually supposed to
be a Charlie
Chan-film called Charlie Chan at the Ringside, but then
Chan-actor Warner Oland fell ill, and 20th
Century Fox, not willing to waste a good (?) script or even a day
of shooting, simply changed the screenplay around a bit to make it into a Mr.
Moto-film - which is why Moto in this film is teamed up with Charlie
Chan's Number One Son Keye Luke. In this one, Moto is a
professor of criminology (quite a career considering he was a mere
storeowner in film number one) who together with Charlie
Chan's Number One Son - who just happens to be his student - investigates the killing of a prize fighter. If anything, Mr.Moto's
Gamble shows how interchangeable scripts for Oriental detective-films
in the late 1930's were. Still, it was one of the better films of the
Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938, Norman Foster) relocates its lead
character - disguised once again as an archeologist - to the exotic
settings of Cambodia (which is of course merely represented by moderately
convincing studio sets) and is more an adventure movie than the previous
films, complete with native uprisings, wild jungle animals and boobie
traps aplenty. Somehow charming, but ultimately silly.
In Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938, Norman Foster) Moto goes undercover
as a convict and has himself sent to Devil's Island to help his cellmate
(Leon Ames) escape and this way track down an international gang of
killers. This time around, Moto is an agent of Scotland Yard.
1938 was the year in which Hitler annexed his native Austria and the
Sudetenland to the German Reich and with this action brought Europe to the
brink of war (which would actually break out one year later and eventually
be called World War II) - and someone at 20th
Century Fox' script department had obviously thought that
impending war would be a great subject for their next Mr.
Last Warning (Norman Foster), which was released in early 1939,
before the actual outbreak of the war.
In this film, set in Port Said, Egypt, two foreign agents, George
Sanders and Ricardo Cortez - who curiously enough poses as a ventriloquist - plan to blow
up the French fleet to create a war between France and Great Britain, but
they haven't taken into account that gouvernment agent Mr.Moto, posing as
a peaceful storeowner (as opposed to Think Fast,
Mr. Moto, in which
he was a peaceful storeowner), is already on their trail and ultimately
sees to it that they get their just desserts. Despite its sensationalist
premise, Mr. Moto's
Last Warning is by and large one of the worst and most boring
films of the series.
Danger Island (1939, Herbert I.Leeds) is based on a novel by
John W.Vandercook, Murder in Trinidad, which interestingly enough
has no connection whatsoever to the Mr.
Moto-series and was previously filmed in 1934 under its
original title with Nigel Bruce and Heather Angel in the leads and
directed by Louis King, and would again be filmed as Caribbean Mystery
in 1945 by Robert D.Webb - both films with no Mr.
Moto in sight. It was just that 20th
Century Fox owned the rights to the book and wanted to make
maximum profit out of it (and interestingly enough, Danger Island
was originally projected as a Charlie
In the film, Moto is again working in the employ of the US American
gouvernment, and this time he's supposed to smash a diamond smuggler ring
in Puerto Rico, with Warren Hymer playing his body guard/comic relief.
Takes a Vacation (1939, Norman Foster) sees Moto once again in his
function as archeologist, as he is entrusted with bringing the crown of
the Queen of Sheba from Egypt to its final destination, a museum in San
Francisco, curated by Lionel Atwill [Lionel
Atwill-bio - click here] - with all the usual shenanigans both
crime and adventure cinema would suggest ensuing in the process.
Takes a Vacation, the Mr.
Moto-series was put to a rest, for reasons not quite clear - but it
seems rather likely that since Japan was the main ally of Nazi-Germany,
Japanese movie heroes were no longer that high in demand.
In all, the Mr.
Moto-series was never quite as popular and never quite as good
as the Charlie
Chan-series which it was cashing in on. The reasons for it
were manyfold: For one, the scripts of the Mr.
Moto-series were usually rather sloppily written, the films
lacked the humour of their Charlie
Chan-counterparts, despite Peter Lorre's best efforts the Mr.
Moto -characterremained rather bland throughout, and the series never
found its true destination between crime drama, espionage thriller and
adventure yarn while on the other hand being totally formulaic all the
same. Still, despite the rather low quality of the films, the series did
wonders to Peter Lorre's career as by becoming a Japanese, he could
finally shake the typecasting of the perpetual movie heavy (even though he
would repeatedly play bad guys for the rest of his career).
Moto-films, Peter Lorre only made a couple of films in 20th
Century Fox' employ, and none of them were really
- Lancer Spy (1937, Gregory Ratoff) is a World War I drama
about an English spy (George Sanders) impersonating a German baron
returning to the motherland in order to do a bit of espionage. Dolores
Del Rio and Lionel Atwill are also in this one, and Lorre is given
little to do other than add a bit of colour to the proceedings.
- I'll Give a Million (1938, Walter Lang) on the other hand is
a comedy that stars Warner Baxter as a millionaire who saves hobo
Peter Lorre from suicide - and suddenly has the idea of trying his
luck as a hobo. The film however is carried mainly by Lorre and John
Carradine-bio, click here] as a pair of hobos.
The termination of the Mr.
Moto-series - which according to Peter Lorre was long overdue
anyways - unfortunately also meant the cancellation of his contract with 20th
Century Fox. Lorre did one more film for the company, I was an
Adventuress (1940, Gregory Ratoff) - in which he and Erich von
Stroheim play a pair of crooks who use a phony countess (Vera Zorina) to rob
rich men blind, until she falls in love with one of her prospected victims
(Richard Greene) - but that was it.
(By the way, the Mr.
Moto-series wasn't continued until 1965, but the movie The
Return of Mr.Moto [1965, Ernest Morris], in which Henry Silva took
over from Lorre - who had been dead for one year by the time this was
released - was rather abysmal and did not result in another series.)
The 1940's: Peter Lorre all over
After the termination of his contract with 20th
Century Fox, Peter Lorre suddenly found himself on the
open market, and unfortunately he didn't find himself as much in demand after his role in the Mr.
Moto-series as he thought himself to be. Consequently the
first few films he made after the Mr.
Moto-series were rather insignificant and are by now largely
There's Strange Cargo (1940, Frank Borzage), an A-film and
basically a vehicle for Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, there's the
B-prison movie Island of the Doomed Man (1940, Charles Barton), in
which Lorre plays the sadistic owner of a penal island, and then there's
the B-thriller Stranger on the Third Floor (1940, Boris Ingster),
in which Lorre plays a murderer for whose crime Elisha Cook jr gets
convicted. In the RKO-produced
You'll Find Out (1940, David Butler) Lorre acts as a suspect in a
horror/musical/comedy/murder mystery alongside Boris Karloff [Boris
Karloff bio - click here] and Bela
Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click
here], but somehow the film was intended to be more of a showcase for Kay
Kyser and his Orchestra than anything else.
The Face Behind the Mask (1941, Robert Florey) is another
B-movie, this time produced by Columbia,
in which Lorre, a kind watchmaker turns to a life of crime after he has
been disfigured. In the Republic-production
Mr.District Attorney (1941, William Morgan), Lorre's role is rather
small, even if he is the villain who gets things rolling in the first
place and who kills two people during his limited screentime.
From the Republic
B-movie, it was back to A-movies with the MGM-produced
They Met in Bombay (1941, Clarence Brown), yet another vehicle for
Clark Gable, this time partnered by Rosalind Russell. Lorre by the way
plays a Chinaman in this one ...
Then though, Peter Lorre got a call from Warner
Brothers to play in a film of a first-time director opposite
Humphrey Bogart, who had just had a big success with High Sierra
(1941, Raoul Walsh) but was still a few years away from becoming a movie
icon and had yet to make his mark in cinema history.
The director in question is of course John Huston, and his film is The
Maltese Falcon (1941), already the third adaptation of the novel
of the same name by Dashiell Hammett (previous version were The Maltese Falcon
directed by Roy Del Ruth
in 1931 and Satan Met a Lady
by William Dieterle
in 1936), but the first version that got it right and that would be a
blueprint for many hardboiled detective films to follow.
Maltese Falcon is the story of small-fry private eye Sam Spade
(Humphrey Bogart) whose partner is murdered and who when investigating the
case to clear himself of suspicion gets on the trail of a bunch of people (Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet,
Mary Astor) who are chasing after the legendary statue of the Maltese
Falcon that might have never existed. Still, these characters would kill anybody
standing in their way. Spade however cleverly plays them
against one another and in the end sees to it that they all get their just
desserts, even Mary Astor, the woman he has fallen in love with but who
has murdered his partner in the first place ...
The film is of course
Humphrey Bogart's film (and it was ultimately his breakthrough movie as it
is), but that shouldn't distract from a great supporting cast, including Lorre
who gives a subtle performance as a soft-spoken criminal played with the
understatement the role demands to not drift off into the ridiculous.
Brothers liked Lorre's performance in The
Maltese Falcon as they cast him in quite a number of movies over
the next few years (and quite a few bona fide classics among them) before
offering him a contract. Obviously they also thought he and Bogart worked
well together (the two had also become personal friends and drinking
buddies while filming The
Maltese Falcon) so they were immediately put in another film
opposite each other, the propaganda comedy All Through the Night (1941,
Vincent Sherman). In this one Bogart is a gambler who learns about a plot
of a Nazi cell to blow up a battleship in the New York harbour - and
suddenly he turns patriotic and foils the plan. Lorre's role in the film,
a bar pianist who in the end turns out to be one of the Nazis, is rather
small, but what makes it interesting is that he plays the accompanist of
barsinger Kaaren Verne, who would become his second wife in 1945 (their
marriage was divorced in 1950, though). In the film, she plays Bogart's
love interest though. Conrad Veidt by the way is also in
All Through the Night's cast.
effort was Invisible
Agent (1942), a film from Universal's
Man-series, but throwing out pretty much all the intentions of
Man-creator H.G.Wells and substituting them with an overly
patriotic espionage plot centered around Jon Hall [Jon
Hall bio - click here] as the title character.
Curt Siodmak by the way was responsible for the rather ridiculous script [Curt
Siodmak-bio - click here], which is made even more ridiculous
by casting Peter Lorre, an actor with an unmistakably Austrian accent, as
a Japanese in a film mainly set in Germany ...
Man Will Get You (1942, Lew Landers) is a Columbia-produced
film trying to cash in on the success of the stageplay Arsenic and Old
Lace starring Boris Karloff (in its original run) [Boris
Karloff bio - click here], so the
powers-that-be at Columbia
commissioned a comedy centered around Karloff and hired among others Peter
Lorre and former boxer Max Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom to support him. True,
both Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff gave amusing performances, but as a
whole, the film is unfortunately nowhere near as funny as Arsenic and
Old Lace and is by today largely forgotten, still it's interesting to
note that Peter Lorre, who wasn't in the original performance of the play,
later starred in the movie Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra)
- which was actually shot in 1941 - while Karloff didn't. More below
Lorre's next film seemed to be nothing more than yet
another American propaganda
effort - at least on paper -, and even his role wasn't all
that big - basically the film was another showcase for Humphrey Bogart -,
yet the film would turn out to be one of the greatest melodramas of all
time: Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz). Basically, the film is
about a cynical barowner (Bogart) who tries to stay out of everybody's
hair in wartime Casablanca - until he meets his former love (Ingrid
Bergman - did I even have to mention that ?) and finally he realizes it's
time to do the right thing - this being helping the Allied forces in their
war efforts in any which way he can -, even if that means he has to let
his lover go with someone else (resistance fighter Paul Henreid). The
rest, of course, is history, the film was a phenomenal success, made
Humphrey Bogart the superstar he deserved to be, and has left its mark in
movie history and deservedly so.
As mentioned above, Peter Lorre's role
is small, he plays one of many shady war profiteers who populate the still
essentially neutral Casablanca, but as usual he sees to it that he makes
the most of his character, and over the years he has become one of the
most memorable characters of the movie.
By the way, the (rather stellar)
supporting cast also includes Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, Claude
Rains and Dooley Wilson as Bogart's loyal black bar pianist Sam.
next film after Casablanca
on the other hand was by far less
memorable, The Constant Nymph (1943, Edmund Goulding), another Warner
Brothers-production which is basically a cheesy romance based on a
book by Margaret Kennedy starring Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine playing
a 14-year old girl - she was actually 25 years of age when this film was
made and was nominated for an Oscar for her role - who fall in love with
each other, but eventually, he marries her cousin Alexis Smith who is more
his age - but in real life she is 4 years younger than Fontaine - with all
the expected consequences. Lorre only plays a small role in this one as a
suitor of one of Fontaine's sisters, but it's a change to see him in a
In mid-1943, Peter Lorre
finally got a long-deserved contract with Warner
Brothers which ran until 1946, and besides providing him with a
steady income, it also gave him roles in some of the studio's biggest
productions, almost exclusively A-pictures (even if he only rarely played
- Background to Danger (1943, Raoul Walsh) is a propaganda
effort based on a book by Eric Ambler (who didn't intend his
book to be propaganda at all), that reunites Lorre with Sydney
Greenstreet, who plays the villain in this one. George Raft is the
hero, while Lorre is caught somewhere in the middle.
- Peter Lorre would be teamed up with Sydney Greenstreet in an Eric
Ambler adaptation the very next year in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944,
Jean Negulesco), with Greenstreet again playing a villain (if more
subtle than in Background to Danger) and Lorre actually in a
good guy role, that of a writer of crime novels looking for
inspiration in all the right places - which is the cause of his
problems in the first place ...
- Between the two Ambler-adaptations, Lorre would make a couple of
other movies, both propaganda
films , The Cross of Lorraine (1943, Tay Garnett) starring a young
Gene Kelly in (need I say it) a non dancing role, and the Humphrey
Bogart starrer Passage to Marseille (1944, Michael Curtiz),
which once again pairs Lorre up with Sydney Greenstreet and which also
stars Claude Rains, all of whom also have been in director Curtiz' Casablanca
- yet this tilm pales in comparison.
- The Conspirators (1944, Jean Negulesco) is yet another propaganda
effort, this time starring Hedy Lamarr, plus Paul Henreid, and
once again the duo of Lorre and Greenstreet, the last three all
imported from Casablanca
once more - but the more Casablanca
rip-offs Lorre (or anyone else for that matter) made, the worse they
- Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) on the other hand
is anything but bad, it's quite probably the penultimate
horror comedy (the only rival to that throne I can think of would be
Roman Polanski's Fearless
Vampire Killers from 1966). In the film, based on a Broadway
play starring Boris Karloff (who is not in the film but ably
substituted by Raymond Massey), newly-wed Cary Grant has to learn that
his aunts (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair) kill lonely men more or less as
a hobby on the day of his wedding, while his one step brother (John
Alexander) thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt and likes to bury corpses in
the basement and his other stepbrother (Raymond Massey) quite simply
(but unsuccessfully) tries to kill everyone in the cast. Lorre plays
Massey's surgeon-companion, the only man Massey actually listens to,
and gives a great performance as the subdued and cowardly crook in
contrast to Massey's raging and disfigured madman.
- Another kind of propaganda
film is Hollywood Canteen (1944, Delmer Daves),
basically a revue film about any number of Hollywood stars (most under
Brothers-contract of course) doing their job at the home front to
entertain the troops. The film though is pretty much as insignificant
and forgettable as its cast is stellar.
- Hotel Berlin (1945, Peter Godfrey) reunites Lorre with
Raymond Massey, but actually it seems to be little more than the
wartime edition of the Greta Garbo-starrer Grand Hotel (1932,
Edmund Goulding) - which is hardly surprising since Austrian Writer
Vicki Baum wrote the source material for both or these films.
- Confidential Agent (1945, Herman Shumlin), a film based on a
novel by Graham Greene, is set during the Spanish Civil War
(1936 - 1939), with Charles Boyer playing the lead, a fighter on the
Republican side, while Lorre plays a man whom he trusts until he turns
out to be a fashist agent. Lauren Bacall stars as Boyer's love
- Three Strangers (1946, Jean Negulesco) once
again teams Lorre up with Sydney Greenstreet in a film scripted by John Huston and
Howard Koch. This one's about three strangers (hence the title)
- Lorre, Greenstreet, Geraldine Fitzgerald - who gather in front of a
statue of a Chinese Goddess at the Chinese New Year which supposed to
make wishes come true - but only if exactly three strangers gather at
the Chinese New Year. Unfortunately, before their wish for a vast
fortune does come true in form of a winning lottery ticket, their
lives have all taken a turn for the worse, and in the end, Lorre has
to burn the lottery ticket in order to not be (falsely) accused of
murder. By and large, the film was intended as a parody of the mystery
thriller, and originally Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor of The
Maltese Falcon-fame were intended to play the Peter Lorre- and
Geraldine Fitzgerald-roles, respectively. Lorre however is competent enough to fill Bogart's shoes ...
- Black Angel (1946, Roy William Neill) is a full-fledged film
noir based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, with genre regular Dan Duryea in the lead.
In this one, Duryea plays a drunk whose no good ex-wife (Cionstance
Dowling) has been murdered and who is now helping June Vincent, the
wife of the man falsely convicted for the murder (John Phillips), to
find the real killer, and they both strongly suspect sleazy nightclub
owner Peter Lorre. However, in the end Duryea himself turns out to be
- Just like Black Angel, The
Chase (1946, Arthur D.Ripley) is based on a novel by Cornell
Woolrich, a largely overlooked film noir with a few unexpected and
unusual plottwists. The main story is about a chauffeur (Robert
Cummings) falling in love with the wife (Michčle Morgan) of his
gangster boss (Steve Cochran) and trying to make a getaway with her - which leads to an ... extended dream sequence (!).
Lorre by the way plays Steve Cochran's bodyguard. Interestingly, the
film was produced by Seymour Nebenzal for Nero
Film, just like Lorre's breakthrough M.
- Don Siegel's directorial debut The Verdict (1946) was the
last film that teamed up Peter Lorre with Sydney Greenstreet. In this
one, Greenstreet is the ex-chief of Scotland Yard fallen from grace
who now teams up with Peter Lorre to teach the current chief a lesson.
However, the film was one of the weaker team-ups of Lorre and
Greenstreet, partly due to Greenstreets ill health during the making
of the film.
- The Beast with Five Fingers (1946, Robert Florey), a
full-fledged horror film based on the novel of the same name by
William Fryer Harvey and scripted by Curt Siodmak [Curt
Siodmak-bio - click here], would be Lorre's last film under
Brothers-contract. By and large though, the film about a man
(Lorre) thinking he is pursued and terrorized by the hand of a dead
man, is rather a disappointment (not due to Lorre's performance) and
pales in comparison to its source novel.
With his contract with Warner
Brothers expired, Lorre once again found himself on the open
market. At this time, Lorre thought it a good idea to form his own production company Lorre Incorporated
together with Samuel
H.Stiefel to have
increased artistic control over his films, something Lorre had always wanted.
Stiefel was in his time a big time theatre operator and was sometimes
billed as The Father of Negro Show Business for having given early
breaks to later Afro-American music greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke
Ellington and Cab Calloway in the 1920's and 30's. However, he was a
relative newcomer to the movie business, so Lorre Incorporated did
not immediately take off, and instead of having increased control over his
movie work, Lorre did only do relatively few films in the late 1940's and
had to go on one
theatrical tour after the other (mostly in one-man-shows, since Lorre was
popular and talented enough to carry an evening all by himself) to provide
the company with funds. Besides that, Lorre also saw himself forced to
accept tons of radio work - which he did with aplomb despite the fact
that his morphine addiction (he started taking morphines in the late
1920's) had by then grown worse than ever.
When Lorre finally returned to the movie screen, it was a film hardly
worthy of his talents, the film noir parody My
Favorite Brunette (1947, Elliott Nugent), which was basically a
showcase for its lead Bob Hope playing a baby photographer being dragged
into a murder mystery by pure chance. In the film, which also featured Lon
Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr-bio -
click here], Lorre plays a mobster's bodyguard (pretty much like
Chase), but he and all others in the cast are actually little
more than colourful background to Bob Hope's comedy, which starts out
great but loses steam about halfway through the film.
Casbah (John Berry) from 1948 was the third adaptation of the
novel Pépé le Moko by Henri La Barthe, which was previously
filmed as Pépé le Moko in 1937 by Julien Duvivier with Jean Gabin
playing the lead and as Algiers in 1938 by John Cromwell starring
Charles Boyer. Casbah, in which Tony Martin plays the lead, a thief
trying to hide from the law (Peter Lorre) in the Casbah, and which also
stars Yvonne De Carlo, is the weakest of the three adaptations, at least
in part because the film was spiced up with a few musical numbers
and thus leaned heavily towards the cheesy side of things.
Rope of Sand (1949, William Dieterle) is a adventure film set in
South Africa, about a bunch of men - Burt Lancaster, Paul Henreid, Claude
Rains - chasing for diamonds while Lorre as a lethargic drunk is watching the
whole action from a distance and cannot be bothered to take sides.
Missed Opportunities and Supporting
Roles in All-Star Films
Peter Lorre in the 1950's
The 1950's started out great:
Finally Lorre's involvement with Samuel H.Stiefel seemed to pay off as Stiefel
produced his first film with Lorre that also starred Mickey Rooney,
another of Stiefel's protegées: Quicksand (1950, Irving Pichel).
is a little, well-made film noir about a young man (Rooney), a car
mechanic who borrows some money from his boss's cash register, and
in an effort to cover up this petty crime he is sucked deeper and deeper
into a life of crime, with Lorre as a casino owner smirkingly watching the
boy's descent from the sideline. The film's only letdown is its ending,
when the boy decides to repent for his sins, takes himself a lawyer and
gives himself up to the police.
Sure the film did not
feature Lorre in the lead as he had hoped for,
but by and large it was a solid movie.
The sad part of it though is that
when the movie was finished, Lorre - who had allegedly put quite a bit of
his own money into the production of Quicksand - had to learn he was not only bankrupt
but also accused of tax evasion. Lorre closed down Lorre Incorporated
and broke up with Stiefel, whom he reportedly held partly responsible for
his situation, but the drama doesn't stop there: All of a sudden, Lorre
also found himself evicted from his own villa,
and to support himself he even had to accept a job to tour the British
countryside doing Edgar Allan Poe-recitals ...
Great Britain, Lorre also made his next film, Double Confession
(1950 Ken Annakin), a little crime drama in which Lorre plays a contract
killer who seems to show just a little too much affection to his boss - if
you know what I mean ...
Britain, Lorre traveled to Germany, the country he had to leave in rather
a haste almost 20 years ago, but now, he who had made it big in Hollywood
was welcomed with open arms, and the Germans were generally grateful that
he found time for them and toured their country with Poe-recitals. And
soon, too, Lorre had offers from various stages, including an offer from
Bertold Brecht for whom he had played at the beginning of his career and
with whom he had remained friends ever since, even through Brecht's rather
unsuccessful atint in Hollywood. Lorre however had to decline offers because
he was preparing a new film - and not just any old film, it was to be his
debut as a screenwriter and director, it would have him in a starring
role, and it was supposed to be his triumphant return to Germany.
film in question is Der Verlorene/The Lost (1951, Peter
Lorre) produced by veteran producer Arnold Pressburger (whose career, much
like Lorre, took him from Austria to Germany to France to Great Britain to
the USA and back to Germany), a film about a scientist who has committed
murders under the Nazi regime and who since has hidden his true identity -
until his former assistant (Karl John) starts working at the same hospital
he works at, and he knows more about the scientist than is good for him
Rather surprisingly, The Lost
is not only a good movie, it's a masterpiece, a film noir style thriller
about guilt and retribution in post war Germany and about Germany's
problematic, Nazi past, and rather than being a genre film one would have
expected after Lorre's long career in genre movies, it's more of an art
film - and was consequently shown at the Venice film festival of 1951 ... and deservedly so, The Lost did not only show a great actor in his
best role since god-knows-when, it also showed a mature and intelligent
director adapting a multi-layered screenplay (which was co-written by
Lorre, Axel Eggebrecht and Benno Vigny), and the film was quite unlike anything
the German film industry - then focussing on light entertainment - put
out these days.
Of course, this was also the film's
downfall: It didn't just entertain, it also confronted the Germans with a
problematic episode of their past that has grown uncomfortable since and
which they wanted to suppress - and thus the film bombed in Germany and
never got the widespread release it would have deserved elsewhere.
he had made a masterpiece, still Lorre returned to the USA a broken man,
first to New York where he played on Broadway, then to Hollywood, where he
at first found himself reduced to a television character actor (see below)
before finally the offer to do another movie arrived: Beat the Devil
(1953), directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, just like The
Maltese Falcon. Thing is, Beat the Devil sure enough was no
Maltese Falcon, it was - despite being co-scripted by Truman
Capote - more of a light adventure crime comedy in which a quartet of
criminals - Lorre, Robert Morley, Marco Tulli, Ivor Bernard - and an
American couple (Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida) all want to get their hands on
a piece of land supposedly loaded with uranium. Jennifer Jones and Bernard
Lee by the way are also in this film which was mainly shot in Italy.
Returning from Italy to the USA, Lorre
travelled via Germany, where he married Annemarie Brenning, his third wife
(he has been divorced from Kaaren Verne since) whom he met at the set of
The Lost and with whom he already had a daughter who was 4 weeks old at
Back in the USA, Beat the Devil proved to
be a flop, and it put an untimely end to Humphrey Bogart's short lived
production company Santana Pictures, which co-produced the film.
However, rather unexpectedly, the film put Lorre back on the map in
Hollywood, and all of a sudden, he was hired for any number of big budget
production, not in the lead (which at the time was quite unlikely due to
his recently rather rotund figure caused at least in part by glandular
complications), but still:
The first of these films was the Walt Disney
production 20.000 Leagues under the Sea (1954, Richard
Fleischer), a likeable science fiction adventure based on the novel by
Jules Verne, in which Lorre plays the sidekick of Kirk Douglas, the
hero of the picture. The role of Captain
Nemo is played by James Mason.
In Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956, Roy Rowland), a
musical starring Dan Daily and Cyd Charisse, he was one of many stars
making an uncredited cameo appearance, others included Debbie
Reynolds, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis jr and Tony Martin.
Congo Crossing (1956, Joseph Pevney) has Lorre
third-billed behind Virginia Mayo and George Nader, playing a
disillusioned policeman in Belgian Congo.
Around the World in Eighty Days (1956, Michael
Anderson) is yet another Jules Verne adaptation, this one starring
David Niven as Phineas Fogg and Cantinflas as Passepartout, plus a
host of big names in small roles, including John Gielgud, Noel Coward,
Trevor Howard, Fernandel, Charles Boyer, Gilbert Roland, Cesar Romero,
Cedric Hardwicke, Shirley MacLaine, Charles Coburn, George Raft, Red
Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine [John
Carradine-bio, click here], Frank Sinatra, Victor McLaglen,
ex-B Western hero Tim McCoy, Peter Lorre of course, and Buster Keaton.
Buster Keaton would also be the topic of Lorre's next
feature film, The Buster Keaton Story (1957, Sidney Sheldon), a
rather fictionalized bio-pic of the silent era slapstick legend
starring Donald O'Connor as Keaton and Lorre as a bossy director.
Silk Stockings (1957, Rouben Mamoulian) is a
remake of the Greta Garbo starrer Ninotchka (1939, Ernst
Lubitsch) as a musical comedy starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.
Lorre, despite weighing about 200 Pounds at the time and thus
seriously lacking in grace, gets to dance in this one.
The Story of Mankind (1957) is another all-star
picture, this time produced and directed by Irwin Allen (who over the
years had developed a liking for this kind of films). This one is
about the council of elders from outer space that decides the future
of the human race - and to do this it takes a journey through human
history. Among the stars in this film are Hedy Lamarr (as Joan of
Arc), the Marx
Brothers (who don't share a single scene with one
another), Virginia Mayo as Cleopatra, Agnes Moorehead as Queen
Elisabeth I, Vincent Price [Vincent
Price bio - click here], Charles Coburn, Cedric Hardwicke, Cesar
Romero, Dennis Hopper as Napoleon, John Carradine, frequent Hitler-portrayer
Bobby Watson as - you guessed it - Adolf
Hitler, and of course Peter Lorre, playing the infamous
Roman emperor Nero. The film however is more of a mess than anything
else - if an entertaining one.
Another mess is the Jerry Lewis-comedy The Sad Sack
(1957, George Marshall), based on the comic strip of the same name by
George Baker about a highly incompetent GI - played by Lewis of
course. Unfortunately, the film focusses almost exclusively on the
highly overrated Lewis and gives Lorre (and the rest of the cast)
little more to do other than being a catalyst for his childish jokes.
Hell Ship Mutiny (1957, Lee Sholem, Elmo Williams)
was an attempt of the film's star Jon Hall [Jon
Hall bio - click here] to recapture the essence and success of
the South Seas-adventure films that made him into a star in the 1930's and
40's, often co-starring Dorothy Lamour or Maria Montez, but somehow
the film, that besides Peter Lorre also features John Carradine, fails
The Big Circus (1959, Joseph M.Newman) is
producer Irwin Allen's attempt to recapture the success of Cecil
B.DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) by making film
about a financially troubled circus that runs into even more trouble
when someone tries to sabotage the show. Victor Mature as the circus
owner heads a cast that also includes Rhonda Fleming, Red Buttons,
Vincent Price [Vincent Price
bio - click here], Gilbert Roland and Peter Lorre as a clown.
Peter Lorre on
As mentioned above, from the early 1950's onwards (coinciding
with his return to the USA) and to the end of his career, Lorre took roles
in several TV-series and TV-movies.
The most interesting of the bunch
- An episode of the anthology series Climax!
Lorre played in five episodes of the series between 1954 and 1957)
called Casino Royale (1954, William H.Brown jr) which is
actually the very first adaptation of a James Bond-novel
by Ian Fleming - even if great liberties were taken with the source
material, like making Bond (as played by Barry Nelson) and US American
secret agent. Lorre plays Bond's nemesis Le Chiffre and can thus be
credited as being the very first Bond-villain.
- There's also an episode of Studio
57, Young Couples Only
(1955, Richard Irving), an
early adaptation of a story by Richard Matheson, which is an eerie
suspense/horror/science fiction tale with Peter Lorre playing a creepy
janitor who eventually turns an appartment building into a rocket
ship. But as silly as this may sound, the episode is actually pretty
good thanks to above-average performances by all involved (especially
Lorre of course) and a clever build-up to an incredible ending, which
would actually anticipate Matheson's later work on the Twilight
- Then there's an episode of the series The Best of Broadway
which features a small-screen version of Arsenic and Old Lace
(1955, Herbert B.Swope jr) which did not only feature Lorre repeating
his role from Frank Capra's film from 11 years earlier, it also
finally featured Boris Karloff [Boris
Karloff bio - click here] in the role that was written for him in
the first place. However, other than this, the TV-show pales in
comparison to the film version, since it was recorded live (as was
standard back in the day) the direction was very stagey and the
camerawork static, the colour photography of the show compared
unfavourably to the atmospheric black and white of the film, and lead
Orson Bean certainly was no Cary Grant.
- There's of course also Collector's Item (1958, Buzz Kulik), a
pilot for a proposed series that never came into being, which is
remarkable for being the first collaboration between Lorre and Vincent
Price [Vincent Price bio
- click here], before they would become the horror comedy dream team (more
about that below).
Other TV-appearances by Peter Lorre included the Lux Video
Theatre (1952), Suspense (1952), serveral
appearances on the Red
Skelton Show (1954 - 1964), Douglas Fairbanks jr
Presents (1955), Producers' Showcase (1955), Screen
Directors Playhouse (1956), a few episodes of Playhouse 90
(1956 - 1960) - including a small-screen version of F.Scott Fitzgerald's The
Last Tycoon (1957, John Frankenheimer), 2 episodes of Alfred
Hitchcock Presents (1957 and 1960), one of which (The
Diplomatic Corpse, 1957) was directed by Casablanca-co-star
Paul Henreid, the short-lived espionage series Five Fingers
(1959), the Western shows Wagon Train and Rawhide
(both 1960), the crime series Checkmate, creted by Eric
Ambler and starring Doug McClure, Sebastian Cabot and Anthony George, the
classic 77 Sunset Strip (1963), and the Kraft Suspense Theatre
Fade Out - The 1960's
The 1960's saw Peter Lorre's career on a slow but steady
decline, and despite some highlights late in his life, Lorre by that time
definitely was an actor who had seen better days.
Lorre's first film in the 1960's, Scent of Mystery
(1960, Jack Cardiff), was rather an oddity, the first film shot in Smell-o-Vision,
which meant in specially equipped theatres, audiences could not only hear
and see but also smell the movie. Why anybody would want to smell a
suspense thriller though is beyond me, and apart from the novelty of Smell-o-Vision,
the film was nothing more than a sub-par routine genre film starring
Denholm Elliott, with Lorre as a dirty old man at least adding a bit of
colour to he proceedings.
Voyage of the Bottom of the Sea (1961) was yet
another film produced and directed by Irwin Allen. This one is about an
atomic super sub commandeered by Walter Pidgeon which has become mankind's
last hope after the earth's radiation belt has caught fire (?). The film
also stars Joan Fontaine, Barbara Eden and a young Frankie Avalon. Lorre's
role as a marine biologist is rather small though.
Also produced and directed by Irwin Allen was the Jules
Verne adaptation Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962) which stars Red
Buttons, Barbara Eden, Fabian and Cedric Hardwicke. This time Lorre plays a
slave trader with a benign, even heroic streak, but as a whole the film is
Between the two Irwin Allen-films, Lorre would give one of
his most memorable performances of his later career though, that of the
old drunk-turned-killer Montresor in Tales of Terror (1962, Roger
Corman [Roger Corman bio -
click here]), an anthology film
based on short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Actually the film was only
another in a series of Edgar
Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman and produced by
AIP, itself a
typical B-movie studio in the 1950's that was now going for respectability,
but that doesn't mean the film wasn't good.
What makes Lorre's performance in Tales of Terror
so special is that in his episode - based on both The Black Cat
and A Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe - he gets an
opportunity to compete his acting skills based on understatement with
those of the often overacting Vincent Price (the series' regular) [Vincent
Price bio - click here] - and
against all odds, this works out extremely nicely since the two actors
seem to have a mutual respect for each other and manage to do their thing
without upstaging one another - to simply hilarious results, making Tales of Terror
and especially Lorre's episode one of the favourites of many fans of the
immediately realized they had a winner at hand, and they put Lorre under
contract, quickly putting im into two more horror comedies with Vincent
Price, both of which also star Boris Karloff:
The first film was The Raven (1963, Roger
Corman), a film that is (not really) based on Edgar Allan Poe's poem
of the same name and in which Lorre plays an incompetent sorcerer who
is repeatedly turned into a raven and who helps benign magician
Vincent Price in his fight against black magician Boris Karloff [Boris
Karloff bio - click here] - but
not without getting onto everybody's nerves. The film also stars a
young Jack Nicholson.
The second film was Comedy of Terrors (1964,
Jacques Tourneur), a macabre comedy in which Lorre and Price play
undertakers, who, to pay their rent, create customers (if you
catch my drift), with Boris Karloff playing their old factotum who
just won't die and Basil Rathbone [Basil
Rathbone bio - click here] their landlord who just won't stay
Neither of these films is of the same high quality as Tales of Terror,
but they are both loveable little romps with some wonderful actors giving
some wonderful and amusing performances and are thus completely watchable.
next production featuring Peter Lorre only had a small role for him, that
of the strongest man of the world in Muscle
Beach Party (1963, William Asher), second in the Frankie
& Annette Beach Party-series. Basically Lorre only has a
walk-on appearance at the end of the movie, sorting out a fight between
surfers and bodybuilders, but his casting makes kind of sense since
Vincent Price had a similar role in previous year's Beach
Party (1963, William Asher) and
AIP tried to
get one of their contract players to do a cameo in each film of the
Peter Lorre's next film
though was an insult, much more so because it should turn out to be his
last film ever: The Patsy (1964), a comedy drected by and starring
the overrated Jerry Lewis. This film is about a poor klutz (Lewis, who
else) who has to pose as a millionaire - with all the usual shenanigans.
As usual with Jerry Lewis vehicles (especially those he directed himself),
all of the other actors are just catalysts for his childish comedy and
have no room for developing their own characters, let alone doing some
comedy themselves. Among those wasted in the film besides Lorre are John
Carradine-bio, click here], Rhonda Fleming, Hedda Hopper,
George Raft and Mel Tormé.
days of Peter Lorre's life were not happy ones: His wife had left him
because he couldn't offer her the lifestyle she had expected and they were
planning a divorce, he seemed to be unable to get any more film work, his
health was gradually failing him, and more and more he was suffering from
depressions. Friends who visited him during his last days reported he has
grown apathic and indifferent towards everything. He died in 1964 from a
stroke, interestingly exactly on the day he was supposed to appear at a
hearing considering his divorce.
is true, in his films Lorre was often sold short of his abilities, and
even though many of his movies were great (some were just trash though), a
man of his talents could have and should have made even greater films, and
watching his one directorial effort The Lost it becomes clear this
man actually belonged in the director's chair as well.
all said, Peter Lorre leaves behind an incredibly rich cinematic heritage,
full of films that have made movie history, and by filmfans around the
world he is fondly remembered even today, and even for his lesser films