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Peter Lorre

1905 - 1964

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03 Life Stories

Peter Lorre
1905 - 1964

On July 25, 1934, the New York Times reported that “Peter Lorre, European stage and screen actor ... arrived in New York yesterday aboard the Majestic on his way to Hollywood to begin work for Columbia Pictures.” That was the first time American audiences heard of the renowned performer. It would not be the last.

He was born Laszlo Lowenstein, on June 26, 1904, in Rosenberg, Hungary; his first job was that of bank clerk. However, the stage training he received in Vienna led to an acting debut in Zurich. For the next seven years, he would perform on stage in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, and received bit parts in numerous German films. Despite this experience, the surprise was great when he was chosen by Fritz Lang to play the central character in the famed director’s first sound film, M (1931). Lorre’s portrayal of a psychopathic child murderer is among the screen’s most memorable performances: His melancholy expression, alternately pathetic and sinister, highlighted by his globular eyes which bulged with fear and rage, gave the character an almost clinical authenticity. The film was a worldwide success, and its star was soon an international sensation. The next year saw Lorre appear in several more films, but when the Nazis came to power in 1933, he exiled himself to Paris, London, and finally, to the United States.

Lorre’s first two roles in American films offered him exceptional opportunities for character studies. In Mad Love (1935), he played a love-crazed surgeon, opposite a terrified Frances Drake, and in Crime and Punishment (1935), he took Josef von Sternberg’s character of Raskolnikov and convincingly transformed him into a truly anguished human being, in a fabulous performance. Lorre then took on a series of “Mr. Moto” films, in which he played the title role of the Oriental detective who got into no end of trouble in such titular stories as Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937), Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938), Mysterious Mr. Moto of Devil’s Island (1938), and Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939). Lorre needed the rest, as it was reported, on May 15, 1937, that the busy actor suffered a nervous breakdown, from exhaustion due to overwork.

On October 3, 1941, The Maltese Falcon opened at the Strand Theatre. The film was called, “The stuff that dreams are made of”; its director, John Huston, was hailed as giving “promise of becoming one of the smartest directors in the field,” according to the New York Times. Its stars, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Peter Lorre, were hailed as geniuses.

On November 26, 1942, Casablanca was hurried into release, at the Hollywood Theatre in Manhattan, to exploit the prominence of South Africa in the war news of the day. The picture, which starred Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Greenstreet, and Lorre, was billed in a joint advertisement with Errol Flynn’s Gentleman Jim – little did Warner Bros. know that the film would go on to become, according to the American Film Institute’s 100 Years ... 100 Movies poll, the number one film of the century.

Peter Lorre was a remarkably versatile performer. He could handle tragedy, intrigue, and dark comedy, with equal aplomb, as was witnessed in Frank Capra’s gem, Arsenic and Old Lace, which opened on September 1, 1944, at New York’s Strand Theatre (his costar, Cary Grant, was another of cinema’s great rubber band actors, who could be stretched in any direction, and come out flexible and effective). However, as the decade came to a close, Lorre was experiencing personal problems: on May 20, 1949, he filed for bankruptcy.

Throughout the next decade, Lorre appeared in many films, many of them masterpieces: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954); Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Story of Mankind (1957), and a gorgeous turn as a clown in The Big Circus (1959). Perhaps his most wacky turn was in Mike Todd’s Scent of Mystery (1960). What made this film so quirky was the fact that it was the first, and the last, major film in Smell-O-Vision – the final great “smellie.” When the film opened, on February 18, 1960, the ad said it all: “First (1893) They Moved / Then (1927) They Talked / Now (1959) They Smell.”

The career of Peter Lorre boasted nearly 100 films, and a singular which was often imitated, but never equaled. The life of the man who brought such unique skill to the silver screen ended, on March 23, 1964, of a heart seizure, at the age of 59. His accomplishments in cinema earned him a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 6619 Hollywood Boulevard; his performances in his cinematic vehicles will, forever, earn him a place as one of the greatest character actors in film history.