Peter Lorre is remembered mainly for his odd, quirky movie roles in crime dramas and horror films. He enjoyed a long career and was featured in many film roles, but I think most people remember him for the villainous and sniveling sidekick characters he played, and are unfamiliar with his more nuanced performances.
Lorre, a Hungarian by birth, was short, kind of bug-eyed and had a distinctive voice, which also gave him a voice actor career. His acting career began onstage in Vienna, where his parents relocated. From there he moved to Berlin and got his start in films, after numerous stage appearances. With the changing politics in Germany, Lorre left for Paris, then London.
Here are some of the films from my memory. They show many sides to Peter Lorre.
M (1931) Lorre stars as a murderer in Fritz Lang’s classic, and disturbing) German film.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) Hitchcock’s original version, made in England, before the Hollywood years.
Lorre plays Abbott, the criminal mastermind plotting to assassinate a head of state. His gang kidnap a couple’s daughter to keep them from tipping off the police. Lorre had left Europe to escape the Nazis. Like Hitchcock, Lorre would soon relocate to America.
In these early films, Lorre arguably does his finest acting. The camera is drawn to his face.
In M, his facial expressions are broad and exaggerated. Hitchcock had him him be the opposite, subtle and confident. His character projects dignity and kindness toward his captives, maskit brutality Particularly in the 1930s, Lorre arguably gave his better performances. In the hands of talented directors, Lorre was an actor, not a personality.
Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1938) Lorre played the Japanese detective Mr. Moro in eight films. The character was taken from a series of books, but the films were not based on the books. Mr. Moto’s Last Warning is arguably the best of the series. Moto is a shadowy character, not as showy or as much of an cultural stereotype as Charlie Chan onscreen. He fought, knew martial arts and went undercover. As good as Lorre was in this role, an Asian actor should have played the part.
Lorre was a fine actor, though he was usually typecast because of his physical attributes or his past roles as a murderer.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) Directed by John Huston, this the story of private detective Sam Spade and the search for a jeweled falcon. Humphrey Bogart stars and Lorre plays a mysterious character who hires Spade to find the falcon but is less than honest about why the object is important and the danger Spade will fall into.
Cairo is one of several mysterious characters. There is a shiftiness to the quirky Cairo, he’s not as smart or as brave as he pretends to be. Bogart, Lorre and Greenstreet made several films together in the 1940s.
Casablanca (1942) Again teaming with Bogart and Greenstreet, Lorre’s role was in the first part of the film. He is carrying letters of transit, the holy grail of safe passage out of Casablanca. He has killed to get these letters and he is sought by the Nazis for his crime and to keep the letters from falling into the wrong hands.
Lorre is Ugarte, he is looking to sell the letters, but the Nazis are closing in, so he begs Rick to hold them. Ugarte is shot by the Nazis trying to escape. Ugarte is a small-time crook looking for his big score. Not a particularly demanding role for Lorre, but it is a high profile film. It is Ugarte getting the letters and giving them to Rick that sets the story in motion. A small, but critical role.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) Directed by Frank Capra, a screwball comedy, with Lorre playing Dr. Einstein, a not very good plastic surgeon who changes the appearance of Jonathan Brewster, who is wanted by the police. Dr. Epstein, who drinks heavily, changes Jonathan into a replica of a Boris Karloff monster.
Jonathan and the doctor are on the run, needing to dispose of a dead body, and drop in to hide at his aunt’s house. Lorre plays Dr. Einstein as mostly fearful of being caught and just a pawn in this comedy. Although his is a small part in a large cast of characters, he brings a macabre vibe to his nervousness role. The film, an adaptation of a very successful Broadway play, was equally successful.
Black Angel (1946) A film noir starring Dan Duryea as an alcoholic songwriter trying to solve a murder before the wrongly accused, and later convicted in the murder, is put to death. He teams us with the accused’s wife to find the true killer.
Lorre plays a nightclub owner who they believe is the actual killer. He’s not a very nice man, who puts the moves on the wife, who sings in his club now. His character tries to be debonair, but leans on being a tough guy with a cigarette. In the end he’s innocent, but still not a nice guy. His part was small, I suspect it was for marquee value.
Rope of Sand (1949) Starring Burt Lancaster, Lorre retransmit with Paul Henried and Claude Rains from Casablanca in this film noir set in the South African desert. Lancaster is out to reclaim diamonds he found on mining property.
Lorre plays a bar character, offering unwanted philosophy to Lancaster. It’s a brief part, the kind of character found in watering holes in dark corners of the world. Lorre adds color in his few scenes.
Great cast. Lousy story. A Hal B. Wallis production is usually better than this. It must have looked good on paper.
Beat the Devil (1953) John Huston’s film, adapted for the screen by Huston and Truman Capote, starring Humphrey Bogart (also producer), Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones, Robert Morley and Lorre. Filmed in Italy, a crime caper, and intended spoof of film noir.
Lorre is one of the bumbling partners in crime who are out to score uranium in Africa. In the meantime, all these characters are waylaid in Italy, feeling each other out as they all have the same goal.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) A big budget Walt Disney film of the Jules Verne story. Lorre co-stars as Conseil, the assistant to Professor Pierre Aronnax, an authority on oceanography. Is there a sea monster, or a man-made submersible? The Professor and Conseil survive the sinking of their ship and meet Captain Nemo.
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) Irwin Allen’s science fiction film about the efforts of a research submarine to save the planet.
A big budget affair and cast. Lorre is retired Commodore Lucius Emery, who helps Admiral Nelson with a plan to fire a nuclear missile into the Van Allen radiation belt to extinguish the threat to Earth’s survival. Lorre adds some stateliness to the story as a fellow scientist in this sci-fi story of intrigue.
Lorre’s character is there to provide the occasional comic relief and to express fear and curiosity at things that also produce those emotions in the audience. Lorre is the audience’s emotional guide in this undersea story.
Tales of Terror (1962) A rather camp horror film with Lorre starring with Vincent Price in one of the three stories. An American International Film, a loose adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe story, directed by Roger Corman.
Lorre is Herringbone, a hapless drunk, who depends on his young wife to support his evening drinking. He happens upon a wine tasting and challenges Luchresi (Price) to a contest. Later, Luchresi helps Herringbone home and meets the young wife. They begin an affair, but Herringbone becomes wise, and vindictive. He drugs them and walls them up in the basement. Her black cat gives them away to the police.
Lorre and Price are delightful in this low-budget story. Lorre gets the humorous lines and shines as bungles his crime.
One thought on “Peter Lorre (Actor)”
There are certain actors you just don’t forget, even if they had smaller roles in certain pictures. Peter Lorre is one of them, at least in my book. Not quite sure what it is about him. Lorre and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca or the Maltese Falcom – two true classics!
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