Peter Lorre, born László Löwenstein, was an Austro-Hungarian actor who began on the stage in Vienna, and soon made his way to Berlin. His work as a stage actor was so impressive that, no matter how lousy the play itself was, Lorre would always get rave reviews for his performances. He played nearly every sort of role imaginable on stage, but he would shy away from playing romantic leads. Not because he wasn’t capable or because of his appearance, but because he felt the need to keep the romantic part of his life private, and not play act romance for an audience. His big break in film was in Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking thriller M, where he played Hans Beckert, a child killer, yet a sympathetic one. In the film, both the police and the criminal underworld were trying to find Beckert, with the criminals after him because he was impeding their business. Beckert hated himself because he killed and he could not control himself. The parents of the murdered children wanted him to be shown mercy, because his death would not solve anything or bring their children back. Showing this kind of sympathy for such a character was unheard of, especially in a film made in Germany in 1931.
Lorre fled Germany two years after M was made because of the rising tensions and the growing power of the Nazi party, since Lorre was a Jew himself. The first film he did in English was Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, where he portrayed a criminal mastermind. Because Lorre did not know English, he learned his lines phonetically.
Lorre moved to Hollywood and did a series of B-films, the Mr. Moto series, where he played a Japanese detective. Even though he finally wasn’t the menacing figure he was in much of his earlier work, he soon grew frustrated with the role, considering it stupid and childish.
In the 1940s, he signed a contract with Warner Brothers, and was featured in some of the most famous films of that era. The Maltese Falcon, Arsenic and Old Lace, Casablanca, all of them featured Lorre, yet he played a criminal in every single one. His last film for Warner Brothers was The Beast with Five Fingers, a horror film where once again Lorre plays a villain; a delusional man who blames the dismembered hand of a pianist for a number of murders.
Unfortunately, Lorre was grey-listed from Warner Brothers because of his close friendship with Bertolt Brecht, the German Communist writer of works such as The Threepenny Opera and the Fritz Lang directed Hangmen Also Die! Lorre was a socialist himself, was supportive of the Hollywood Ten, and a member of the Committee for the First Amendment. This all put a bit of a damper on his career, as you would expect. When he was interrogated by the HUAC, asked if he met anyone suspicious since arriving to the United States, the jokester responded by listing everyone he ever met.
After he severed ties with Warner Brothers, he focused on radio and stage work. He also spent a bit of time speaking with veterans of WWII, not as an actor or anything, but as a human being just to reach out and learn from them and hear their experiences. He returned to Germany in 1950 to write, direct and star in the film Der Verlorene. It was a brilliant film noir about a German doctor working for the Nazis, who murders his girlfriend after he learns she’s been giving his secrets to the Allies. All of this is covered up by the Nazis, and after the war, once he sees one of the Nazis who helped aid and abet his crimes, he is overcome with guilt and remorse and essentially puts himself on trial. It’s a film told in a series of flashbacks, and was thematically about Germany’s and the rest of the world’s accountability in the crimes of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, when the film was released in 1951, the world was not ready to face its demons, and it did not do so well. It discouraged Lorre so much that he moved back to the US, never returned to Germany, and never directed another film.
After he returned to the US, he fell back on his character actor persona, often parodying the menacing roles he was typecast as. He did a few Roger Corman films with Vincent Price, including The Raven and Tales of Terror. The movies were fun, but clearly not Lorre at his best.
Peter Lorre died in 1964 of a stroke. For decades, he suffered from morphine addiction that began from chronic stomach and gallbladder issues. He spent time in sanitariums to attempt to dry him out, and when everything from electroshock therapy to hypnosis didn’t work, the doctors just threw up their hands and prescribed him more morphine. He was married three times, and was in the process of divorcing his third wife at the time of his death, yet remained friends with all of his ex-wives. He left behind a daughter, Catherine, who made headlines when the Hillside Stranglers were finally apprehended. She was nearly one of their victims, but when they realized that she was Peter Lorre’s daughter, they let her go. Why? Because they were Peter Lorre fans.
All in all, Peter Lorre was a brilliant actor, a genuinely kind human being, and much more than the creepy guy with a goofy voice that was so commonly caricatured in Warner Brothers cartoons. Dare I say it, he was the best actor of his generation, and had he been given the chance to direct more than just Der Verlorene, he’d be known as one of the best directors, too.