Peter Lorre: 3 Career-Defining Performances

Once seen, once heard, never forgotten. Many have this ability to be immortalised after only a brief glimpse, but Peter Lorre was one of the very finest; a unique talent in cinema who managed to make the transition from Germany to the English-speaking world in the early 1930s and become a major Hollywood star in the 1940s. His name has gone on, along with the names of his many co-stars, such as Humphrey Bogart and Vincent Price, to be the stuff of legend in the Hollywood Golden Age and beyond. Anyone who has seen Corpse Bride will recognise how Enn Reitel’s take as The Maggot that lives in Emily’s head is essentially an impersonation of Lorre’s slightly nasally, squeaky voice.

Born as László Löwenstein in Ružomberok, Austria-Hungary, in 1904, Peter Lorre began acting in Vienna in his teenage years and then moved to Berlin to work on the stage (including with noted playwright Bertold Brecht). By the end of the decade, Lorre would begin to move into films, becoming a star in German cinema before fleeing to Britain and Hollywood in the early 1930s to escape Nazi persecution. His first English-language role (outside of translating earlier films) would be as Abbott in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934. He would end up with Hitchcock again a few years later for Secret Agent, before making a name for himself as Japanese detective Mr Moto in eight films between 1937 and 1939. Never mind that Lorre was European, the 30s were a time in which the USA didn’t care what nationality you were; if you weren’t American, you could be anything else.

He would continue to find success moving forward, starring in films such as Casablanca and Tales of Terror, along with a string of Jules Verne adaptations in the 1950s and 1960s, before passing away in 1964, aged just 59. In that time, Lorre worked with Frank Capra on Arsenic and Old Lace, played Le Chiffre in a TV adaptation of “Casino Royale” in 1957 (and thereby taking the title of first ever Bond villain on screen) and reunited with Hitchcock in two episodes of the TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”.

An influential figure, he appeared in the big-budget Oscar-winners and the low-budget B movies. He acted with the greats, overcame morphine addiction, and made an indelible mark on the world of cinema. For anyone wanting to search out a place to start with the great man, or to explore the very best work of this monumental screen artist, here are three certifiable career-defining performances; Peter Lorre’s greatest and perhaps most outlandish turns put to film.

1. M (1931)

In only his third film role, Peter Lorre announced his arrival with what many regard as his defining performance.

A film by the German Expressionist maestro Fritz Lang (responsible for the landmark that is Metropolis, and eventually You Only Live Once and The Big Heat, amongst others), Lorre’s turn as the child murderer stalking the Berlin streets not only helped the film to critical acclaim, but also made Edvard Grieg’s “The Hall of the Mountain King” one of the most sinister things you can possibly whistle.

Announced by a silhouette against a Wanted poster for his own arrest in one of the greatest entrances in cinema history, Lorre’s unique ability to make the abhorrent individual both malevolent and pathetic at the same time is stunning. Disgusting and perverse, his incessant pleading for mercy to the mob at the film’s climax is nonetheless almost convincing. His wide eyes and grasping hands give him such an air of wretchedness that you almost believe that it was the voices in his head, a split personality, that was behind it all. In just ten minutes, his range from shrieking to weeping is astonishing. One of the great psychopaths of early cinema, Lorre’s turn as Hans Beckert is one of the big reasons that Lang, one of the greatest directors of all time, regarded M as his masterpiece.

2. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Despite M making his reputation worldwide, Peter Lorre ended up being typecast as criminals and crooks throughout his career. Moving to an anglophonic film industry didn’t help, and, beginning with Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, these characters became his bread and butter for many years. Still, being able to pull these characters off well isn’t always a bad thing, especially when you’re cast alongside Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, a film universally regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Here, Lorre plays Joel Cairo, crook and hired hand for Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), a man of extreme wealth who spent seventeen years looking for the mysterious Maltese Falcon, a statuette of almost priceless value.

Small in stature but with wild eyes and a distinctive voice, Lorre is exceptional as a smarmy, double-dealing crook, ready to play ball one moment then whipping out a pistol if the wind blows in his direction. His quickness adds life to what could have become a background character indistinguishable from all others in film noir. He more than holds his own with Bogart’s Sam Spade, and against Sydney Greenstreet as the larger-than-life Mr Gutman. Lorre’s little moments of humour and comedy give the performance a lasting impact, and certainly makes Cairo one of the great henchmen ever put to celluloid.

3. The Raven (1963)

Peter Lorre wasn’t always in the spotlight of the best directors of all time. He wasn’t always in those cinematic masterpieces that are seared into our collective cinematic consciousness. Sometimes, he ended up in smaller films by lower-budget filmmakers, and sometimes those films didn’t make too much sense. In the last few years of his life, he appeared in two movies in Roger Corman’s Poe cycle of films – firstly in 1962’s Tales of Terror, and then finally in The Raven in 1963. Where the first films in the Poe cycle (kicking off with 1960’s House of Usher) were horrific tales, The Raven went for a far more comedic tone, ending in a terrific battle of wizard laser beams and flying chairs between Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. Peter Lorre spends half the film as a raven, before managing to be transformed back to a lowly, second-rate magician. It’s a wild ride.

The Raven illustrates all the skills that Lorre had gained over the years. From sadistic killer to comedy magician, his timing and skilful exaggerated movements make it a wonderful turn at the end of a career cut far too short. Uptight and angry, he more than manages to hold his own against other stalwarts of the genre. Not that he was new to horror; his small role in The Beast with Five Fingers is delightful if far too underseen. The Raven stands out because it makes full use of the madness in Lorre’s eyes, the glee with which Lorre still performed after three decades in the game. This is Peter Lorre not quite as we’re used to; a vital cog in a fun 90 minutes of delightfully silly cinema.

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Fellow silver screen icon Vincent Price once described Peter Lorre as “the most inventive actor I’ve ever known,” – quite the compliment from someone who shared the screen with some of the most iconic names in the history of cinema. But that was Peter Lorre. He was a screen presence like no other, and an interesting human being beyond that; a vital figure of cinema in the first half of the 20th century.


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