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Actober: Peter Lorre and the Making of a Hollywood Villain

I don’t want to go down in history as a monster.

Peter Lorre

Peter Lorre (born László Löwenstein) was the first child of Alajos Löwenstein and his wife Elvira Freischberger. László’s mother died when he was only four years old, leaving Alajos with three very young sons, the youngest only being several months old. He soon married his wife’s best friend Melanie Klein, with whom he had two more children.

However, Lorre and his stepmother never got along. When the Second Balkan War broke out in 1913, Alajos moved to Vienna with his family. Lorre received his elementary and secondary education in Vienna. After completing his studies, he took up the job of a bank clerk. But the stage-struck Lorre could not continue with his job, and left home to pursue acting and theaters.

He began his stage career in Vienna before moving to Germany where he worked first on the stage, then in film in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Lorre caused an international sensation in the German film M (1931), directed by Fritz Lang, in which he portrayed a serial killer who preys on little girls. Lang said that he had Lorre in mind while working on the script and did not give him a screen test because he was already convinced that Lorre was perfect for the part.

The director said that the actor gave his best performance in M and that it was among the most distinguished in film history. With his hoarse voice, protruding eyes, and exceptional acting, Lorre immortalized the character of ‘Hans Beckert’ in the movie. However, the success of ‘M,’ led to Lorre being typecast and appeared as villain in several movies, finding it hard to shake off this villain identity.

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Lorre left Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power, being from a Jewish family, Lorre sensesd the very real danger. His first English-language film was Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) made in Great Britain. Lorre was first considered to play the assassin in the film, but Hitchcock wanted to use him in a larger role despite his limited command of English at the time, which Lorre overcame by learning much of his part phonetically.

Lorre settled in Hollywood and was soon under contract to Columbia Pictures, which had difficulty finding parts suitable for him. In his initial American films, Mad Love and Crime and Punishment, he continued to play murderers, but he was then cast playing Mr. Moto, the Japanese detective, in a run of B pictures. Initially positive about the films, he soon grew frustrated with them. “The role is childish,” he said, and eventually tended to angrily dismiss the films entirely. He twisted his shoulder during a stunt in Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939) which was the final straw for Lorre.

From 1941 to 1946 he mainly worked for Warner Bros. His first film at Warner was The Maltese Falcon (1941), which began a sequence in which he appeared with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet. 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.”

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The year after Maltese Falcon, he portrayed the character Ugarte in Casablanca (1942). While Ugarte is a small part, it is he who provides Rick with the “Letters of Transit”, a key plot device. Lorre made nine movies with Sydney Greenstreet counting The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, a team which came to be called “Little Pete-Big Syd.”

After World War II and the end of his Warner contract, Lorre’s acting career in Hollywood experienced a downturn, whereupon he concentrated on radio and stage work. In 1949 he filed for bankruptcy. 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. While it gained some critical approval, audiences avoided it and it did badly at the box office.

Feeling a little defeated, Lorre returned to the United States, in 1952, where he resumed appearances as a character actor in television and feature films, often parodying his “creepy” image. He was the first actor to play a James Bond villain when he portrayed Le Chiffre in a 1954 television adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale. The 1950s saw Lorre appearing on the small screen rather than the big screen, appearing in shows like NBC’s espionage drama Five Fingers and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Towards the end of the 50s and into the 60s, Lorre’s career had drastically changed. 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) with Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone; and The Raven (1963), again with Price, as well as Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson.

By the early 60s, his health was failing. 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. He died in 1964 from a stroke. His body was cremated and his ashes were interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood.

Lorre was honored with a star on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame,’ in 1960. He was also inducted into the ‘Grand Order of Water Rats,’ which is the oldest theatrical fraternity in the world, proving that playing the bad guy can pay off.

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