Peter Lorre, an actor best known for his supporting roles in films of the 30s and 40s, was born Ladislav (Laszlo) Lowenstein. Though he was born in Ruzomberok, Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia), his family moved to Vienna when he was quite young. He joined an improvisational theater group at 17, and later moved to Berlin, where he acted on the stage and in film. It was here that he adopted the stage name of Lorre. Fame came to him when director Fritz Lang cast him as the child killer protagonist in the immortal 1931 film M.
Soon after, Nazis came to power in Germany and, according to trivia buffs, Josef Goebbels himself warned Lorre to leave the country. Lorre lived in Paris before taking refuge in London. It was here that he met the great director Alfred Hitchcock, who cast him in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much. Legend has it that he bluffed Hitchcock about his limited command of English and made it through the initial meeting by smiling and laughing. He learned much of his part in the thriller phonetically.
Lorre eventually made his way to Hollywood, where he usually ended up playing evil foreigners of some kind or another. He made many good friends, including Humphrey Bogart.
In 1941 he became a naturalized citizen of the United States, but his film career began to take a downturn after World War II. He focused on radio and stage work, and in 1951 he co-wrote, acted and directed in Der Verlorene (The Lost One), which was critically acclaimed.
During the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation of Communist infiltration in the United States, he was asked to name anyone suspicious he had met since moving to the country. He supposedly responded by giving them a list of everyone he knew.
As time went on, Lorre became overweight and never really conquered his morphine addiction. He was married three times, and he had a daughter with his last wife, Annemarie. Lorre died of a stroke in 1964 at the age of 59. His good friend Vincent Price read the eulogy at his funeral.
As Lorre’s last movie was produced in 1964, he is not the most well-known of actors to people today. So check out a few of these Peter Lorre classics.
M: Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, which I actually prefer to the director’s other famous work, Metropolis. Lorre is Hans Beckert, a serial murderer who targets children. The police attention to the case is so strong, that it is upsetting the business of the criminal underground. They decide to take matters into their own hands. The final scene, where Beckert must face his fate, is chilling. So is the whistling throughout the film to the tune of “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Though Beckert is the character whistling, Lorre was unable to do so, and it was done by Lang.
The Man Who Knew Too Much: Though I prefer the 1954 remake, this is one of his earliest roles as a criminal in English-speaking films. The Lawrence family is on vacation in Switzerland, when their French acquaintance is shot. Before he dies, he tells Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) of an assassination plot. Fearing that their plan will be revealed, the assassins (headed by Lorre as Abbott), kidnap Bob’s daughter.
Secret Agent: Another Hitchcock. This time, Edgar Brodie is recruited by British intelligence during World War I to find a German spy and kill him. He is teamed with two professional agents. One is Elsa Carrington, who will pose as his wife, and the General (Lorre), a deadly assasin known as The General. After the General kills the wrong man, Elsa & Edgar begin to get suspicious.
Casablanca: One of the greatest films of all time, thought it had a lukewarm response when it first came out. Lorre was payed a paltry $500 for his role as Ugarte. His theft of transit papers from two Nazis sets the whole plot of the romance/drama/thriller in motion. His real-life friend Humphrey Bogart co-stars as Rick, who agrees to hide the papers for Ugarte. Lorre’s part is brief but memorable.
The Maltese Falcon: Bogart again co-stars as Sam Spade, a detective investigating the murder of his partner and the connection to a mysterious dame. He soon finds himself involved in the search for a priceless statue of a falcon and is pursued by dastardly criminals Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and Joel Cairo (Lorre). One of the best and most well-known film noirs ever.
Photos courtesy of imdb.com