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Peter Lorre

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Peter Lorre

Peter Lorre
Born László Löwenstein
(1904-06-26)26 June 1904
Rózsahegy (now Ružomberok), Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia)
Died 23 March 1964(1964-03-23) (aged 59)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Occupation Actor
Years active 1929–64
Spouse(s) Celia Lovsky
Kaaren Verne
Anne Marie Brenning
(1953–64) 1 child
Children Catharine Lorre (1953-1985)

Peter Lorre (26 June 1904 – 23 March 1964) was a Hungarian actor. Lorre caused an international sensation in the German film M (1931) in which he portrayed a serial killer who preys on little girls. Soon in enforced exile, his first English language film was Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) made in Great Britain. Settling in Hollywood, he later became a featured player in many Hollywood crime and mystery films. In his initial American films though, Mad Love and Crime and Punishment, he continued to play murderers, but was then cast playing Mr Moto, the Japanese detective, in a run of B pictures.

From 1941 to 1946 he mainly worked for Warner Bros. The first of these films at Warners was The Maltese Falcon (1941), which began a sequence in which he appeared with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet. This was followed by Casablanca (1942). the second of the nine films in which Lorre and Greenstreet appeared. Lorre's other films include Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

Frequently typecast as a sinister foreigner, his later career was erratic. Lorre was the first actor to play a James Bond villain as Le Chiffre in a TV version of Casino Royale (1954). Some of his last roles were in horror films directed by Roger Corman.

Early life

Lorre was born László Löwenstein on 26 June 1904, as the first child of Jewish couple Alajos Löwenstein and Elvira Freischberger, in the Austro-Hungarian town of Ružomberok in present-day Slovakia, then known by its Hungarian name Rózsahegy. His parents had recently moved there,[1] following his father's appointment as chief bookkeeper at a local textile mill. Besides working as a bookkeeper, Alajos Löwenstein also served as a lieutenant in the Austrian army reserve, which meant that he was often away on military maneuvers.[2] When Lorre was four years old, his mother died, probably of food poisoning, leaving Alajos with three very young sons, the youngest only a couple of months old. He soon remarried, to his wife's best friend, Melanie Klein, with whom he had two more children. However, Lorre and his stepmother never got along, and this colored his childhood memories.[2]

At the outbreak of the Second Balkan War in 1913, Alajos moved the family to Vienna, anticipating that this would lead to a larger conflict and that he would be called up. He was, at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, and served on the Eastern front during the winter of 1914-1915, before being put in charge of a prison camp due to heart trouble.[3]

Acting career

In Europe (1922–1934)

Lorre began acting on stage in Vienna at the age of 17, where he worked with the Viennese Art Nouveau artist and puppeteer Richard Teschner. He then moved to the then German town of Breslau, and later to Zürich in Switzerland.

In the late 1920s, the short actor[4] moved to Berlin, where he worked with German playwright Bertolt Brecht, including a role in Brecht's Mann ist Mann and as Dr Nakamura in the musical Happy End (music by composer Kurt Weill), alongside Brecht's wife Helene Weigel and co-stars Carola Neher, Oskar Homolka and Kurt Gerron.

The actor became much better known after director Fritz Lang cast him as child killer Hans Beckert in M (1931), a film reputedly derived from the Peter Kürten case.[5] Lang said he had Lorre in mind while working on the script and chose not to give him a screen test because he was already convinced of the actor's appropriateness.[6] He believed the actor gave his best performance in M and that it was among the most distinguished in film history.[7] Sharon Packer observed that Lorre played the "loner, [and] schizotypal murderer" with "raspy voice, bulging eyes, and emotive acting (a holdover from the silent screen) [which] always make him memorable."[5] In 1932 Lorre appeared alongside Hans Albers in the science fiction film F.P.1 antwortet nicht about an artificial island in the mid-Atlantic.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Lorre took refuge first in Paris and then London, where he was noticed by Ivor Montagu, associate producer for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), who reminded the film's director Alfred Hitchcock about Lorre's performance in M. They first considered him to play the assassin in the film, but wanted to use him in a larger role, despite his limited command of English at the time,[8] which Lorre overcame by learning much of his part phonetically. Michael Newton wrote in an article for The Guardian in September 2014 of his scenes with Leslie Banks in the film: "Lorre cannot help but steal each scene; he's a physically present actor, often, you feel, surrounded as he is by the pallid English, the only one in the room with a body."[9] After his first two American films, Lorre returned to England to feature in Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936).[10]

A day after shooting on The Man Who Knew Too Much had been completed and having gained visitor's visas to the United States, Lorre and actress Celia Lovsky, his first wife, boarded a Cunard liner in Southampton on 18 July 1934 to sail for New York.[11]

First years in Hollywood (1935–1940)

Lorre soon settled in Hollywood, and was soon under contract to Columbia Pictures, who had difficulty finding parts suitable for him. After some months employed effectively for research, Lorre decided that Crime and Punishment, (1866), the Russian novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky would be a suitable project with himself in the central role. Columbia's head Harry Cohn agreed to make the film so long as he could loan Lorre to MGM, possibly as a means of recouping the cost of Lorre not appearing in any of his films.[12]

For MGM's Mad Love (1935), set in Paris and directed by Karl Freund. Lorre's head was shaved bald in order for him to perform as Dr Gogol, a demented surgeon. In the film, Gogol replaces the wrecked hands of a concert pianist with those of an executed knife throwing murderer. An actress who works at the nearby Grand Guignol theater, who happens to be the pianist's wife, is the subject of Gogol's unwelcome infatuation.[13] The Hollywood Reporter commented on his role in this film on June 27, 1935: "Lorre triumphs superbly in a characterization that is sheer horror. ... There is perhaps no one who can be so repulsive and so utterly wicked. No one who can smile so disarmingly and still sneer. His face is his fortune."[14]

As had been planned, Lorre followed Mad Love with the lead role in Crime and Punishment (also 1935) directed by Josef von Sternberg. "Although Peter Lorre is occasionally able to give the film a frightening pathological significance," wrote Andre Sennwald in The New York Times on the film's release, "this is scarcely Dostoievsky's [sic] drama of a tortured brain drifting into madness with a terrible secret."[15] Columbia offered him a 5 year contract at $1,000 a week, but he declined.[16]

Returning from England, after the second Hittchcock picture he was offered and accepted a 3 year contract with 20th Century Fox.[16] Starring in a series of Mr. Moto movies, Lorre played John P. Marquand's character, a Japanese detective and spy. Initially positive about the films, he soon grew frustrated with them. "The role is childish," he once asserted, and eventually tended to angrily dismiss the films entirely.[17] He twisted his shoulder during a stunt in Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939),[17] the penultimate entry of the series. In 1939, he attended a lunch at the request of some visiting Japanese officials; Lorre wore a badge which said "Boycott Japanese goods."[18]

Late in 1938, Universal wanted to borrow Lorre from Fox for the role ultimately performed by Basil Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Lorre declined the role because he thought his menacing roles were now behind him, although he was ill at this time.[19] He had tested successfully in 1937 for the role of Quasimodo in an aborted MGM version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1937, according to a Fox publicist one of two roles Lorre much wanted to play (the other was Napoleon).[20] By now, frustrated by broken promises from Fox, Lorre had managed to end his contract.

After a brief period as a freelance, he signed for two pictures at RKO in May 1940.[21] In the first of these, Lorre appeared as the anonymous lead in the B-picture Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), reputedly the first ever film noir.[22] The second RKO film was You'll Find Out (also 1940), a musical comedy mystery in which he co-starred with horror actors Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, as well as band leader Kay Kyser.[23]

Mainly at Warner Bros. (1941–1946)

Left to right: Sydney Greenstreet and Lorre in The Maltese Falcon (1941), the first of their nine films together.

In 1941, Peter Lorre became a naturalized citizen of the United States.[24] Director John Huston effectively ended a period of decline for the actor and saved him from more B-pictures by casting him in The Maltese Falcon released during the year.[25][26] Although Warner Bros. were lukewarm about Lorre at first, Huston was keen for him to play Joel Cairo. Huston observed that Lorre "had that clear combination of braininess and real innocence, and sophistication... He's always doing two things at the same time, thinking one thing and saying something else."[26] Lorre himself reminisced fondly in 1962 about the "stock company" he now found himself working with, Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Claude Rains. In his view, the four of them had the rare ability to "switch an audience from laughter to seriousness."[27] Lorre was contracted to Warners on a picture-by-picture basis until 1943 when he signed a five year contract, renewable each year, which only lasted until 1946.[25]

The year after Maltese Falcon, he portrayed the character Ugarte in Passage to Marseille (1944), reuniting them Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains; The Mask of Dimitrios (1944); The Conspirators (1944, with Hedy Lamarr and Paul Henreid); Hollywood Canteen (1944); Three Strangers (1946), a suspense film about three people who are joint partners on a winning lottery ticket also Geraldine Fitzgerald, with third-billed Lorre cast against type by director Jean Negulesco as the romantic lead; and Greenstreet and Lorre's final film together, suspense thriller The Verdict (1946), director Don Siegel's first movie, with Greenstreet and Lorre finally billed first and second, respectively.

Lorre returned to comedy with the role of Dr. Einstein in Frank Capra's version of Arsenic and Old Lace (released in 1944), and starring Cary Grant and Raymond Massey. Writing in 1944, film critic Manny Farber described what he called Lorre's "double-take job," a characteristic dramatic flourish "where the actor's face changes rapidly from laughter, love or a security that he doesn't really feel to a face more sincerely menacing, fearful or deadpan."[29]

Lorre's last film for Warner was The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), a horror film in which he played a crazed astronomer who falls in love with a character played by Andrea King. Daniel Bubbeo, in The Women of Warner Brothers, thought Lorre's "wildly over-the top performance" had "elevated the movie from minor horror to first-rate camp."[30]

Lorre's continuing friendship with Bertolt Brecht, in exile in California since 1941, had led studio head Jack Warner to 'graylist' him, the actor thought. His contract with Warner Bros. was terminated on May 13, 1946. Warner would be a 'friendly' witness at his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in May 1947.[31] Lorre himself was sympathetic to the short-lived Committee for the First Amendment, set up by John Huston and others, and added his name to advertisements in the trade press in support of the Committee.[32]

Post war (1947–1964)

After World War II and the end of his Warner contract, Lorre's acting career in Hollywood experienced a downturn,[33] whereupon he concentrated on radio and stage work. In 1949 he filed for bankruptcy.[34] In the autumn of 1950, he traveled to Germany to make the film noir Der Verlorene (The Lost One, 1951) which Lorre co-wrote, directed and starred in. According to Gerd Gemünden in Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema, 1933-1951, with the exception of Josef von Báky's Der Ruf (The Last Illusion, 1949), it is the only film by an emigrant from Germany which uses a return to the country "addressing questions of guilt and responsibility; of accountability and justice." While it gained some critical approval, audiences avoided it and it did badly at the box-office.[35]

Lorre returned to the United States in February 1952[35] where he resumed appearances as a character actor in television and feature films, often parodying his 'creepy' image. In 1954, he was the first actor to play a James Bond villain[10] when he portrayed Le Chiffre in a television adaptation of Casino Royale, opposite Barry Nelson as an American James Bond. Lorre starred alongside Kirk Douglas and James Mason in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) around this time.

Lorre appeared in NBC's espionage drama Five Fingers (1959), starring David Hedison, in the episode "Thin Ice", and the following year in Rawhide as Victor Laurier in "The Incident of the Slavemaster" (1960). Lorre appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents broadcast in 1957 and 1960, the latter is a version of the Roald Dahl short story "Man from the South" with Steve McQueen also featuring.[33] and in a supporting role in the film, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961). In his last years he worked with Roger Corman on several low-budget films, including two of the director's Edgar Allan Poe cycle (Tales of Terror, 1962 and The Raven, 1963).

Marriages and family

He was married three times: Celia Lovsky (1934 – 13 March 1945, divorced); Kaaren Verne (25 May 1945 – 1950, divorced) and Anne Marie Brenning (21 July 1953 – 23 March 1964 (his death)). In 1953, Brenning bore his only child, Catharine. In later life, Catharine made headlines after serial killer Kenneth Bianchi confessed to police investigators after his arrest that he and his cousin and fellow "Hillside Strangler" Angelo Buono, disguised as police officers, had stopped her in 1977 with the intent of abducting and murdering her, but let her go upon learning that she was the daughter of Peter Lorre. It was only after Bianchi was arrested that Catharine realized whom she had met.[36] Catharine died in 1985 of complications arising from diabetes.[37]

Health and death

Peter Lorre's crypt at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Lorre had suffered for years from chronic gallbladder troubles, for which doctors had prescribed morphine. Lorre became trapped between the constant pain and addiction to morphine to ease the problem. It was during the period of the Mr. Moto films that Lorre struggled with and overcame his addiction.[38]

Having quickly gained 100 lbs (45 kg) and not fully recovering from his addiction to morphine, Lorre suffered personal and career disappointments in his later life. He died in 1964 of a stroke. Lorre's body was cremated and his ashes were interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood. Vincent Price read the eulogy at his funeral.[39]

Legacy and mimicry

Lorre has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6619 Hollywood Boulevard.

Lorre's accent and large-eyed face became a favorite target of comedians and cartoonists. In particular, several Warner Bros. cartoons used a caricature of Lorre's face with an impression by Mel Blanc, including Birth of a Notion, Hair-Raising Hare and Racketeer Rabbit.

In 1963, actor Eugene Weingand, who was unrelated to Lorre, attempted to trade on his slight resemblance to the actor by changing his name to "Peter Lorie", but his petition was rejected by the courts. After Lorre's death, however, he referred to himself as Lorre's son.[40] The incident was dramatized in Peter Lorre vs. Peter Lorre, a 45-minute radio play broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Afternoon Play on 10 May 2010 and again on 11 January 2013.


See also


  1. ^ In his biography of Lorre, Friedemann Beyer states that Lorre's family were outsiders in Rózsahegy as they, who had only arrived there very recently, were German-speaking Jews in a majority Slovak town. Friedemann Beyer: Peter Lorre. Seine Filme - sein Leben, München 1988, p.8 ("Sie waren Juden, und sie sprachen deutsch in einer Gegend, in der überwiegend Slowaken lebten.")
  2. ^ a b Stephen D. Youngkin The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 2005, p.5, 6. ISBN 0-8131-2360-7.
  3. ^ Youngkin (2005), p.7, 8
  4. ^ "Per Lorre FAQ", Stephen D. Youngkin's Peter Lorre website
  5. ^ a b Sharon Packer Movies and the Modern Psyche, Westport, CN: Praeger, 2007, p.88
  6. ^ Barry Keith Grant (ed.) Fritz Lang: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2003, p.78
  7. ^ Youngkin, p.64
  8. ^ "The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)". Retrieved 2009-06-11. 
  9. ^ Michael Newton "Peter Lorre: master of the macabre", The Guardian, 12 September 2014
  10. ^ a b Philip French "Peter Lorre: a great screen actor remembered", The Observer, 31 August 2014
  11. ^ Youngkin (2005), p.98
  12. ^ Sarah Thomas Peter Lorre, Face Maker: Stardom and Performance Between Hollywood and Europe, Berghahn Books, 2012, p.56
  13. ^ Bartłomiej Paszylk The Pleasure and Pain of Cult Horror Films: An Historical Survey, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009, pp.34-36
  14. ^ Gregory William Mank Hollywood Cauldron: Thirteen Horror Films from the Genre's Golden Age, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1994 [2001], p.147
  15. ^ John Baxter Von Sternberg, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2010, p.197
  16. ^ a b David Shipman The Great Movie Stars: 2, The International Years, London: Macdonald, 1989, p.336-38
  17. ^ a b Younkin The Lost One (2005), p.156-57
  18. ^ Leonard Lyons. "The New Yorker". The Washington Post (1923-1954) [Washington, D.C] 1 July 1939, p.6
  19. ^ Youngkin (2005), p.164
  20. ^ Youngkin (2005), p.163
  21. ^ Youngkin (2005), p.164, 168
  22. ^ Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, New York & WoodstocK: Overlook Press, 1992, p.269
  23. ^ Youngkin (2005), p.170
  24. ^ Jennifer Fay Theaters of Occupation: Hollywood and the Reeducation of Postwar Germany, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, p.65
  25. ^ a b Sarah Thomas Peter Lorre, Face Maker: Stardom and Performance Between Hollywood and Europe, Berghahn Books, 2012, p.90
  26. ^ a b Youngkin (2005), p.178
  27. ^ Youngkin (2005), p.162
  28. ^ Wesley Alan Britton Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006, p.46
  29. ^ Farber, Manny, The New Republic, July 10, 1944
  30. ^ Daniel Bubbeo The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002, p.124
  31. ^ Youngkin (2005), p.244
  32. ^ Youngkin (2005), p.298-99
  33. ^ a b Anne Billson "Peter Lorre: one of cinema's most deliciously sinister presences", SSunday Telegraph, 23 March 2014
  34. ^ Stephen D. Youngkin The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005, p.309
  35. ^ a b Gerd Gemünden Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema, 1933-1951, New York: Coluimbia University Press, 2014, p.161-62
  36. ^ Schwarz, Ted. The Hillside Strangler, p. 212. Quill Driver Books. 2004. ISBN 1-884956-37-8
  37. ^
  38. ^ "Peter Lorre" on Classic Images past issues, 1998
  39. ^ Youngkin, Stephen D. (2005). The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre. University Press of Kentucky. p. 448.  
  40. ^ Youngkin, Stephen D. (2005). The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre. University Press of Kentucky. p. 443.  
Further reading

External links

  • Peter Lorre at the Internet Movie Database
  • Peter Lorre at Find a Grave
  • Peter Lorre at AllMovie
  • Watch Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's M
  • The Lorre Library of Sound
  • The Peter Lorre Companion
  • Photographs of Peter Lorre
  • The Lodger on Mystery in the Air, 1947, starring Peter Lorre and Agnes Moorehead
  • Listen to Jack Benny Show 1941-03-09 (402) Guest Peter Lorre - Murder at the Racquet Club
  • Listen to Jack Benny Podcast 1946-03-24 (579) Guest Peter Lorre - I Stand Condemned
  • Mystery in the Air (1947)
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