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Peter Lorre - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

October 2007

Films starring Peter Lorre on (re)Search my Trash

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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.

 


Early Years

 

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. 

Eventually, the Loewensteins moved to Romania, and in 1913 to a town near Vienna, Austria. 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 Vienna.

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.

 

In 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

 


Eventually, Peter 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 1931. 

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 his films 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 Monte Carlo/Bombs 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 the USA.

  • 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 though.
  • 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 made.

 


 

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.

 


Then 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.)

 


Reportedly, Lorre 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 agent ...

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.

Mad 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.

 

While Mad 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 up.

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.

 

In 1936, Lorre was on loan from Columbia again, this time to Gaumont British to film above mentioned Secret Agent with Alfred 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.

Then 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 ...

 

However, 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 years.

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 standards), 20th 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 Charlie 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 series.

 



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. Moto-movie, Mr. Moto's 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 Chan-film, too).

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.

 

Mr. Moto 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.

 

After Mr. Moto 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).

 

Besides the Mr. Moto-films, Peter Lorre only made a couple of films in 20th Century Fox' employ, and none of them were really significant: 

  • 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 [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 the Place

 


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 forgotten:

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.

Basically, The 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.

 

Quite obviously, Warner 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.

 

Another propaganda effort was Invisible Agent (1942), a film from Universal's Invisible Man-series, but throwing out pretty much all the intentions of Invisible 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 ...

 

The Boogie 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 though.

 



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.

 

Lorre's 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 romantic role.

 

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 the lead):

  • 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 got ...

  • 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 Warner 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 interest.
  • 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 the killer.
  • 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 his Warner 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 in The 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).

Quicksand 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 ...

 

In 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 ...

 

From Great 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.

 


The 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.

 



True, 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 the time.

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 to succeed.
  • 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 Television

 

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 are probably:

  • An episode of the anthology series Climax! in all 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 Zone.
  • 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 (1963).

 


 

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 pretty forgettable.

 


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 series.

 

AIP 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 dead.

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.

 



AIP's 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 series.

 

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 [John Carradine-bio, click here], Rhonda Fleming, Hedda Hopper, George Raft and Mel Tormé.

 

The last 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.

 

It 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.

That 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 ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
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... and for the life of it,
you can't decide
WHICH IS WORSE!!!

 

A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
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directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
starring
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

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