His life was as noir as his films: Actor Peter Lorre lived the turbulent plots of his movies
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 January 2006)

An air of desperate melancholy hung over Peter Lorre, even when he parodied himself in mock-horror films, milking the great performances of his youth for late-in-life gags. The neurosis he carried like a worn satchel was at least in part the result of his unhappy Mittel-European childhood and adolescence. He was born in small-town Hungary in 1904, lived for a while in Romania, found his vocation in Vienna and after much anguish became known around the world, a character actor in the movies who was more famous than many a star.

Pain and trouble flooded his young life. There was the mother who died when he was four, the stepmother who so frightened him that he hid under his bed, the businessman father who was usually elsewhere, the schoolteachers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who hammered facts into him like carpenters driving nails, the school kids who knew at a glance that he was a frog-faced undesirable.

There were park benches where he slept after breaking with his family and afternoons begging for coins in the Viennese coffee houses.

This was painful but effective training for an actor destined always to play some version of the outsider, the pervert or the marginal man. He was like a walking apology, and he spent much of his career speaking in a low-decibel hiss, as if hoping we wouldn't hear the shameful things he was saying. Like all great screen actors, Lorre did the crucial work with his eyes. Whether waiting in heavy-lidded repose or spinning in wide arcs of terror, they were never less than eloquent.

I find him irresistibly watchable even in one of his lesser parts, such as the terrified Commissar Brankov in the 1957 Fred Astaire film Silk Stockings, based on the Cole Porter musical. But even I was dispirited by the announcement of a 613-page biography, The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre (University Press of Kentucky), by Stephen D. Youngkin. It sounded like another subject being smothered beneath mountains of irrelevant data and leaden speculation.

All to the contrary: The three decades Youngkin spent on his book and the 300 interviews he conducted have given us an enthralling account of Lorre's life and art, set plausibly in the cultural geography that sustained him, from Vienna to Los Angeles.

By 1921, aged 17, Lorre was an eager student of his craft, a part of Vienna's Theatre of Spontaneity (also called the Therapeutic Theatre), where he and other would-be actors improvised plays with psychiatric patients. This was, Youngkin tells us, the birth of psychodrama. From the founder of that theatre Lorre acquired his marquee-appropriate name, a replacement for Laszlo Loewenstein, which had accompanied him into the world.

In four years he was doing small parts in Shakespeare, Ibsen and Pirandello. Then he was off to Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht recognized his talent. But even as Lorre flourished at the centre of Berlin theatre, a new misfortune came into his life. Given morphine after an operation, he became a lifelong addict.

It was a frantic time. During part of 1931, he spent his days playing the whistling child killer in Fritz Lang's nightmarish film classic, M, and his evenings giving perhaps the best stage performance of his life, in Man Equals Man, written and directed by Brecht -- an extremely rare example of an artist working simultaneously in two media for two great directors. He fell under Brecht's spell and admired him ever after; he actually liked him, a feeling acknowledged by few other Brecht collaborators.

Hitler destroyed Lorre's world and six million of his fellow Jews. Escaping, Lorre became one of many inadvertent gifts to American culture by the Nazis. After performing in England as an assassin in Alfred Hitchcock's first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, he joined the other German emigres in Hollywood. There, Youngkin tells us, the Germans who met at parties could be divided into two groups: Those who had sold out and those who were waiting to be bought out.

At first Lorre sold himself too cheaply. For three years, he spent his time playing a Japanese detective called Mr. Moto in eight B-movies.

From this circle of hell he was rescued by John Huston, who in 1941 was preparing to direct his first film, The Maltese Falcon. Huston cast Humphrey Bogart as Dashiell Hammett's hero, Sam Spade, and put together a company that included Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Ward Bond, Elisha Cook Jr. -- and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, a bad guy with effeminate qualities and a tendency to become hysterical when things didn't go his way.

The Hollywood censors, all-powerful at that moment, worried about Cairo. After all, in the book Spade's secretary says, "This guy is queer." The memo from the censor's office said, "We cannot approve the characterization of Cairo as a pansy." In the script Huston limited this aspect of Cairo's self-presentation to a gardenia-scented calling card; the rest he left to Lorre's style and the audience's imagination.

It was the best Lorre film, as he and many others believed. He and Bogart, soon great friends, worked together on three more pictures. One of them, Beat the Devil, also made with Huston, was a parody of the very thrillers that had made their reputations.

Having run out of interesting parts in America around 1950, Lorre left America for Germany. He was received more as a foreigner than as a prodigal son, but he assembled the money to make The Lost One, with himself as both director and star. It seemed to be an attempt to revive memories of his triumph in M; set in the Hitler period, it concerned a doctor who becomes a killer. It failed, in Germany and elsewhere.

Back in America, with his health declining and his bank balance low, he accepted whatever was available. This included Scent of Mystery, Mike Todd's unsuccessful attempt to establish Scentovision, which delivered the smells of drama to movie audiences. He made The Raven for Roger Corman and Muscle Beach Party with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. He last appeared in The Patsy, starring Jerry Lewis.

In 1964, he died of a stroke, aged 59. Never a good manager of his business affairs, he left his one offspring, a daughter, nothing but unpaid income-tax bills. To the rest of us, he bequeathed indelible memories.

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