Saturday, 3 May 2008


This is the story of a nice little man torn between his deep errant artist's soul and his public image. The story of a stranger in some strange lands, in the strangest of all: Hollywoodland. The story of an eternal émigré lost forever under the shadow of a single letter, a letter bigger than him: a M.

This is the story of a man of many lives searching a place where he could belong. The story of his hits and misses. This is the story of Peter Lorre, the Lost One.

« We live in times when there is a tremendous exaggeration on the glamour of viciousness, of angriness, of hardness, all the so-called basic faults. Well, kindness has become identied almost with weakness and attractiveness. To me, it's much more fascinating to make kindness fascinating... » (Peter Lorre)


Born June 26, 1904 in Hungary, László Loewenstein was supposed to stay a bank teller in Vienna to please his family but the role of a dwarf in a primary school production of Snow White and - more seriously - his real acting debut on the stage of the Vienna's Kammerspiele decided otherwise.

In 1922, his implication in the Theater of Spontaneity founded by Jacob Levy Moreno - the father of the Psychodrama concept - helped the young László to perfect his technique in front of spectators like Arthur Schnitzler. But Moreno gave him more than this opportunity, introducing him to his circle of friends, and found him his professional name: Peter Lorre - the conjunction of his friend Peter Altenberg's Christian name, of the ressemblance of László Loewenstein to a character of the german popular litterature, and the word Lorre (the sound of the name Lora told by a parrot!)

Peter Lorre moved to Breslau, Germany, in 1924 to start his professional acting career but the side-effects of an appendisectomy triggered a succession of health problems leading to a drug addiction.

« Everyone needs help from everyone. » (Bertolt Brecht)

The young actor went on his stage work from Zurich's Schauspilhaus to Vienna's Kammerspiele, where he earned respect from critics, and finally arrived in Berlin with the idea of meeting Bertolt Brecht. Interested by Peter Lorre because of his unusual type (« I didn't look like an actor »), Brecht cast him as « a half-cretin of a high school student » in Pioniere in Ingolstadt, a play by Marieluise Fleißer (1928), where he became an overnight sensation (« I was the hottest thing on the Berlin Stage »).


« Just wait a little while. The nasty man in black will come. » (M, 1931)

Actress Celia Lovsky, the future first Mrs Lorre, invited Germany's top film director Fritz Lang and Seymour Nebenzal, co-founder of the Nero-Film AG production company, to a dress rehearsal of the play Frühling Erwachen, a tragedy by Frank Wedekind where Lorre played the lead role.

« That he so convincingly transformed himself into a compulsive child murderer goes far toward explaining public reaction to the actor in the streets, where mothers with children allegedly fled from him. » (Stephen D. Youngkin, The Lost One - A life of Peter Lorre, Page 61)

The character of child murderer Hans Beckert in Lang's movie M (co-written by the Master with his wife Thea von Harbou), propelled Peter Lorre to international stardom but, in some ways, sealed the rest of his career as a burden, if not a curse. A fame based on such a calling card (« I was a murderer, but I was a matinee idol ») prompted Lorre to develop and cultivate an already very cynical sense of humor. To an obnoxious lady who told him how she was impressed by his role, the actor answered: « Did it really please you so much, madam? Well, then send me your daughter in the morning. »


Peter Lorre and Celia Lovsky fled from a tormented Germany to Austria two days before the infamous Reichstag Fire, and joined a group of émigrés in Paris after a halt in Czechoslovakia. Among them: Billy Wilder and Franz Waxman (then Franz Wachsmann). Ironically, Joseph Goebbels, the sinister minister of propaganda, toured the UFA studios just after the actor's exile and asked for Peter Lorre because Hitler wanted to meet him. Informed that the star was Jewish he replied dryly: « I never want to hear that name again. »

The part of the terrorist villain in the first version of The man who knew too much (1934), shot by Alfred Hitchcock in England, saved Lorre from hunger and boredom, and a five-year contract with Columbia Pictures allowed him to move with his wife Celia to Hollywood - though Harry Cohn, the studio's boss, had no precise idea of how to use his talents.

The sincere desire of Peter Lorre to fit with the Hollywoodland way of life (« As long as Hollywood wants me, I want Hollywood ») and his wish to work on ambitious artistic projects of his own, such as an adaptation of Czech humorist Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Švejk, were rapidly confronted to the studio system and its total lack of imagination. His first american movie, Mad Love (1935), where he played an insane surgeon, marked the beginning of a constant struggle versus typecasting.

« I made the Moto series purposely. I wanted to get the flavour of M out of the cinema palate of the American fan . » (Peter Lorre)

After his release from his Columbia contract, Peter Lorre became Mr. Moto - the japanese detective created by author John P. Marquand - in a series of films produced by 20th Century-Fox between 1937 and 1939. Even with the help of gifted stuntman Harvey Parry, the adventures of the so polite asian sleuth (« Please don't be alarmed. I am only attempting to break into the safe ») quickly exhausted the actor's enthusiasm if not his fragile health, not to mention his hopes to gain the intellectual respectability an actor revealed by Brecht could expect.


« Much as Alfred Hitchcock had rescued Lorre in Paris, transforming imminent anonimity into international fame, John Huston now saved the actor from fading into the world of B movies and beyond... » (Stephen D. Youngkin, The Lost One - A life of Peter Lorre, Page 178)

Considered as the ideal choice for the role of Joel Cairo by John Huston for his adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941), Peter Lorre got along so well with Humphrey Bogart that the two actors became friends and self-appointed kings of irreverence on the Warner Bros. lots. For instance, they enjoyed to call the studio czar Jack Warner, whose motto was « Every actor is a shit », a « kreep» (spelled with a « k »).

After All through the night, Lorre almost missed another on-screen rendez vous with Bogey in Casablanca (1942) because of a commitment to Universal for The Invisible Agent, and formed a duo with british heavy actor Sydney Greenstreet in several movies that left a trace into pop culture.

« As long as they pay me, and well, I'll be anything they want me to be, a Martian, a cannibal, a monster, a king, even Bugs Bunny, I don't give a damn » confessed Peter Lorre to a friend during his Warner Bros. days and Jack Warner certainly tried his patience with The Beast with five fingers (1946), a swan song of the horror genre co-written by the great Curt Siodmak. Gone were the golden years of cynical whiticisms, collegian pranks and camaraderie.


Three weeks after the end of his contract with Warner Brothers, Peter Lorre formed his own production company with Mickey Rooney and the manager of the star. Facing the consequences of this unwise move, his drug addiction and the interest of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (because of this friendship with Bertolt Brecht), Lorre decided to leave for Europe in 1949 with Kaaren Verne, his second wife.

« I attempted it once as a comedian, and then as a clown, but in vain; I was typecast as a villain. » (Peter Lorre)

In 1951, he directed, co-wrote and starred in Der Verlorene (The Lost One), a haunting movie shot in Germany about the dark times of the country during Hitler's regime. The terrible condition of both the production and its star and the refusal of German audiences to look back to this aspect of their past affected the fate of a movie, which earned artistic recognition many years after the death of its director.

Rejected by Hollywood, rejected as an artist, Peter Lorre returned to the United States. There, he tried to put his life order and found a professional relief in television (his participation in an adaptation of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale as James Bond's first foe in 1954 remains famous) and radio.


After a farewell to the glory days on the big screen with Humphrey Bogart and John Huston (Beat the Devil) and his role in 20000 Leagues under the sea, Lorre lost his long fight against typecasting with spoof cameos of his sinister image (« I need the hum of the cameras and the illumination of the spot-light. I will make films until I die ») and horror-comedies for American International Pictures such as The Comedy of Terrors.

Peter Lorre died in 1964.

« My name is Peter Lorre. I hope you believe me. »

The Lost One - A life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin (The University Press of Kentucky, $39,95) is much more than a magnificent biography of a fascinating actor (completed by an impressive appendix and a consequent amount of notes), it's almost a novel about what makes a Man: his dreams, his hopes, his misadventures, his choices... The Lost One is the definite book about Cinema, from the beginning of the era of speaking movies in Europe to the golden age of Hollywood, with illustrious protagonists: Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart or John Huston - to name only a few.

The book of Stephen D. Youngkin is inspired, interesting, intelligent, entertaining and moving. This contribution to the History of Cinema should be adapted, not for a prime-time spring biopic but for a classy feature film. Cinephiles or not, should you buy only one book about movies or actors this year it must be The Lost One - A life of Peter Lorre.

« We are such stuff as dreams are made on » (Shakespeare)

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