Friday, June 29, 2012

Peter Lorre

It was Peter Lorre's birthday Tuesday, so I had a Peter Lorre marathon at home and it just reminded me how he was probably one of the finest actors from the 1930s, and also one of the biggest wastes of talent in Hollywood history. There was too much tragedy to fit in one blog post, but I think I got the gist of it.

"I came to Berlin with ten borrowed marks in my pocket, and I went to the theater. The manager told me to come in, because he said I didn't look like an actor. He sent me over to see Brecht. We talked for about half an hour and it was as if we had known each other for twenty years. "You're not going to get that part," he told me. I felt terrible. It was very Brechtian, really, because he waited a moment and then said: "You're going to play the lead in another play I have." Deep down in my heart, you see, I'm a Cinderella." 
- Peter Lorre                                 
Lorre with mother, Elvira

Born Ladislav Loewenstein in 1904 Lorre was on the stage by his late teens, against the advice of his father who would've preferred a more lucrative career for his son, like banking.  Highly acclaimed theatrical performances in Berlin led to his casting in his first talking picture, and the movie that catapulted him into mainstream stardom, Fritz Lang's M.                                                                                                     
 Lorre in Man Equals Man
Upon seeing Lorre's performance in M, Hitchcock cast him in "The Man Who Knew too Much".  Lorre spoke almost no english and spent every waking hour learning the script phonetically, not wholly understanding what his lines meant yet still managing to pull off a performance that, paired with the american release of M, put him on Hollywood's a-list.Peter moved to California in 1933 upon the election of Hitler in Germany, and became an American citizen in 1941. Soon after the move he was cast in "Mad Love" and the Mr Moto series (which he hated), cementing Lorre's type as the sinister foreigner for most of his career. Initially one of Warner Brothers main supporting actors, Lorre was cast in huge blockbusters Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, followed by numerous (9 in total) pairings with Sidney Greenstreet. What you don't hear a lot about is how badly Lorre was treated by the studios. He's no Judy Garland, but he had his fair share of abuse.  from the beginning, due to his naivety and not having a good grasp on the english language, his contracts were considerably lower than that of his costars, even though often he had the more recognizable name. he tried to break free of the studio system by forming his own, Lorre Inc, in the late 40s- but his poor business acumen led to its failure.  He also entrusted his earnings to an account manager who robbed him blind, leaving him in dire financial straights throughout the 50s and 60s up to his death.      
   Lorre on stage in Spring Awakening
From his late teens, Lorre developed a morphine addiction he managed to keep hidden from just about everyone until, during the Mr Moto era, severe pain he'd dealt with for years led to a botched gall bladder surgery and was prescribed the drug, exacerbating his addiction struggle to an unmanageable degree and taking a toll on his health.  Its just a tragic story. You can't help but fall in love with him a little even when he's playing psychopaths.  He had the same draw Monroe did, if he's in a shot you can't keep your eyes off him. If you watch his earlier films like Face Behind the Mask, it's easy to see how badly Hollywood blew it for him with the Moto films and the later parodies of himself. Lorre tried to return to the stage in the 50s and made his directorial debut in Germany with Der Verlorene (the Lost One) that bombed at the time, but due to his health and appearance issues the only work he was offered from Hollywood were poking fun at his former typecast, B-horror films, and TV shows. he was happy to be working, and had taken on the attitude that if that was the Lorre people wanted he wouldnt disappoint - but he was constantly depressed and felt he'd been wronged and forgotten by the studio system.               

From M to Arsenic and Old Lace to his place in the history books as the first ever Bond villain, you cant help but want things to have gone well for Peter Lorre. In interviews he seems like a genuinely nice person.  On film his talent is unmatched.  It's a shame it couldn't have worked out easier for him, but at least now, like most great artists, he is getting the respect he deserves after his death.   


  1. Thanks for this very interesting post. It made me realize that I knew very little about Peter Lorre and yet it's hard to picture the classic years of Hollywood without him!

  2. Great post! Just one correction, though -- Peter was born in 1904, not 1907. Have you read his authorized biography, "The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre", by Stephen D. Youngkin?

  3. Crap I fixed it, thanks for the correction Cheryl :) I havent read it yet, ive been looking for it but may have to resort to ordering it online. Ive heard its one of the greatest bios ever.

  4. I think you'll enjoy the book very much. It's not easy to find in bookstores, however -- not even when it was first published back in 2005. But it's now in paperback, plus the Kindle and Nook. I have more information on my Peter Lorre website -- I also have a link to a short YouTube video on my Lorre News blog -- I helped the author with his research. I also compiled Peter's credits -- stage, film, radio, and TV -- for the book's appendix.

  5. I didn't know much about P. Lorre either. It's terrible how the studios treated him! But I agree with your appraisal of Lorre on film; when he's in a scene you cannot take your eyes off him.

  6. Your post describes everything I feel about Peter Lorre. Especially the phrase "You can't help but fall in love with him a little even when he's playing psychopaths". I first watched him in M, but while watching Arsenic and Old Lace I realized how much of a good actor he was, it was striking.
    Do you know if the biography "The Lost One" that was written about him has been translated in any other language ?

    1. As far as I know its only in English, I looked online but didnt find it in any other language (kind of odd, i wouldve assumed it would be in German also). doesnt mean there isnt a translation out there, I just didn't see one.