Peter Lorre: 10 essential performances

From his astonishing debut as the child-killer in Fritz Lang’s M, Peter Lorre went on to become one of Hollywood’s best-recognised character actors.

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

M (1931)

M (1931)

“You always remember the eyes,” notes a co-star in a 1996 episode of cheapjack TV documentary series Biography titled The Master of Menace. Despite a career-length battle against typecasting that would often leave him facing bankruptcy, and with nearly 80 features to his name, the naming of the episode says a lot about Peter Lorre’s legacy in popular culture. The wince-inducing opening narration goes even further: “His bulging eyes, nasal voice and convincing portrayals of tormented characters branded him the Master of Menace, the Sultan of Sinister.”

Not that Lorre wasn’t proud of his earliest roles, more that as an actor who found fame and freedom in the experimental arenas of the Berlin and Viennese stage (where he studied under both Freud and Brecht), he found himself temperamentally unsuited to the commercial demands of the Hollywood machine.

Projects he cherished – such as Crime and Punishment (1935) for von Sternberg or his sole directorial credit, The Lost One (1951) – would bomb, while the audience-friendly work he resented would, in the case of the Mr Moto series, engender seven sequels. With studio heads at Columbia and Fox keen to pigeonhole him as a horror icon in the wake of Universal’s monster movie successes, Lorre would have to fight for passion projects to little avail, or take better roles in smaller pictures – none of which helped his propensity (as a result of a botched operation in his 20s) for bouts of morphine addiction.

Of course, there were still hits, his five films with Humphrey Bogart being the most notable examples (he’d make nine with Maltese Falcon co-star Sydney Greenstreet). Yet it would be in his varied work for radio and television – which included the first screen Bond villain, playing Le Chiffre for CBS’s 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale – that Lorre would recapture some of the lost freedom of his early stage career.

While it’s true that much of his later work would see him parodying his screen persona for an easy buck in the likes of Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962) and The Story of Mankind (1957), by all accounts he’d made peace with his public image for his films with Roger Corman and Vincent Price – up until his final film with Jerry Lewis, The Patsy (1964) that is, when his battle with chronic fatigue and depression finally caught up with him.

So embedded in popular culture now is that voice and those magnificent, somnolent eyes, that it’s easy to forget what an extraordinary presence Peter Lorre was in his smallest of supporting roles, drawing attention as he slouched against a wall at the side of the frame, or even (as in 1957’s Silk Stockings) upstaging Fred Astaire’s hoofing with his own peripheral, table-supported mazurka. His child-killer in M (1931) is of course nothing short of monumental, but this month’s retrospective at BFI Southbank proves him so much more than just a Master of Menace. Here are 10 of his most unforgettable performances to get you started…

M (1931)

Director Fritz Lang

M (1931)

M (1931)

We hear him before we see him, his silhouette cast across a reward poster offering 10,000 marks for his apprehension. “What a pretty ball you have there. What’s your name?” Then comes his whistle as he buys young Elsie Beckmann the balloon that will soon seal both their fates. Her worried mother calls out the window, as the ball rolls into frame before coming to a halt, the balloon caught in the power-lines above.

We still haven’t seen his face – we won’t for another 10 minutes – but when we do, are we immediately certain this baby-faced man pulling faces in the mirror is the child killer the city is so terrified of? We soon are. Yet Lorre’s biggest coup, in his greatest screen performance, is to imbue his monstrous Hans Beckert with pity – sympathy even – the tragic victim of the hypocrisies of the kangaroo court in front of which he’s finally hauled. It may have been the role that sealed many of those to come, but it’s a performance for the ages.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

With Hitler’s goons paying close attention to what they saw as the German Expressionist movement’s promotion of decadence and obscenity, and artists and academics rounded up, Lorre took Goebbels’ advice when he suggested he flee to Paris in the spring of 1933. With only one acting gig to his name all year, it was a call from London that set him on his path to America the following year.

Learning his part phonetically (after bluffing his grasp of English through a first meeting with Hitchcock), Lorre’s slimy, badger-haired villain Abbott uncovers much greater depth than the narrative enablers around him, finding room for some subtle emotional perversions that must have tickled his director. He’d gnaw on the scenery for Hitchcock even more two years later in Secret Agent (1936), the rights to which Hitch had to buy from the actor, an avid collector of hot literary properties.

Mad Love (1935)

Director Karl Freund

Mad Love (1935)

Mad Love (1935)

Lorre’s first American picture wasn’t made for Columbia, with whom he’d signed a $1,000-a-week contract on the back of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Resisting the villainous roles that were being offered for as long as he could, the actor made a deal with studio boss Harry Cohn, agreeing to be loaned out to MGM for horror picture Mad Love in exchange for Cohn greenlighting his cherished adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Lorre may not have loved the film, but it proved to be one of his most iconic roles.

The film itself is an Expressionist masterpiece, directed by noted cinematographer Karl Freund and awash with psychosexually motivated grotesquerie. A bald-pated Lorre plays Dr Gogol, a master surgeon manically infatuated with the actress he watches perform sadomasochistic acts on a Parisian grand guignol stage. When her pianist husband injures his hands in a train crash, Gogol amputates them, replacing them with the hands of a recently executed murderer, hands with a life of their own. Lorre tempers the unhinged psychosis of the lurid finale with an off-kilter sensitivity at the start, his mad scientist nothing short of quintessential in the annals of B-moviedom.

Crime and Punishment (1935)

Director Josef von Sternberg

Crime and Punishment (1935)

Crime and Punishment (1935)

By no means a great Dostoyevsky adaptation, or even a great von Sternberg film, but Lorre’s commitment to the part of ‘Roderick’ Raskolnikov is undeniable. Delivering a strikingly nuanced turn – not least in the scene in which terror turns to cockiness as an innocent man confesses – there’s little to suggest the reputedly fractious relationship between director and star.

The film was a bomb, doing little to help his argument with studio bosses for more varied roles. Yet for all its narrative and thematic compressions, Raskolnikov’s final long night of soul (not too long here, in fact) finds, in von Sternberg’s lighting schemes and Lorre’s last, upward gaze, if not quite transcendence, then at least a kind of beatification by light of an actor more often than not cast in shadow.

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Director Boris Ingster

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Lorre may only have one real scene, right at the end of the picture, but it’s an absolute show-stopper. Mike (John McGuire) gives a circumstantial testimony that leads to a murder conviction for Elisha Cook Jr’s cabbie, hours later threatening his neighbour after accusations of irresponsible behaviour in the courtroom. Just after failing to hear the neighbour’s usual snoring, he falls asleep, wracked with guilt, his fragile mental state projected as an extended Expressionist nightmare (a tour-de-force sequence from director Boris Ingster), in which he imagines himself arrested for two murders. Awakening to find his neighbour dead, just as he’d dreamt, his suspicions turn to Lorre, the man he’d seen lurking on the landing.

Playing his short scene as a Gollum-esque inflation of M’s Hans Beckert, Lorre flits between childlike wonder and teeth-baring psychosis in a beat. The film may lay claim to being the first film noir, but Lorre pushes it firmly into the realm of unadulterated horror.

The Face behind the Mask (1941)

Director Robert Florey

The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

Whether it was down to the fact he was playing another grotesque, the hours spent in uncomfortable tape and prosthetics, a recent bout of surgery or the news arriving daily out of Europe, Lorre didn’t enjoy his time on superior proto-noir The Face behind the Mask at all. Yet despite his embittered on-set drinking, he delivers a mighty performance as the innocent immigrant who takes over a crime syndicate as a means of paying for his reconstructive plastic surgery, having been badly disfigured in a boarding house fire.

With Lorre’s expressions chillingly frozen in the eponymous mask for much of the film’s running time, it’s a performance that seems to channel all of Universal’s monstrous Big Five: from the Phantom’s vengeful, disfigured shame, to the Wolfman’s transformation from man into monster, from Quasimodo’s self-exclusion to Dracula’s elegant disdain. Finally, of course, in a bleak and damning indictment of the pursuit of the American dream, as Frankenstein-ian ‘other’.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director John Huston

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

“Peter Lorre was one of the finest and most subtle actors I have ever worked with,” wrote director John Huston in his autobiography. “Beneath that air of innocence he used to such effect, one sensed a Faustian worldliness. I’d know he was giving a good performance as we put it on film but I wouldn’t know how good until I saw the rushes.”

One of his most celebrated performances, Lorre’s sweatily-permed Joel Cairo may be looking to steal a treasured lead falcon, but it’s his scenes he unfailingly walks away with. Quite how he managed to squeeze such gay abandon past the censors – so completely evident is it that there’s more to his and Sydney Greenstreet’s relationship than just boss and goon – is anybody’s guess. Dashiell Hammett’s novel may have made such characterisation more explicit, but Lorre’s discreet gestures – not least his business with the umbrella and later frisking of Bogart’s private detective Sam Spade – feel like a direct challenge to Jack Warner’s ungraceful note to the actor, not to play the character “too nancy”.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Director Frank Capra

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Featuring one of the actor’s great comic creations, Frank Capra’s nimble adaptation of the macabre Broadway smash sees Lorre’s first turn as the put-upon plastic surgeon, Dr Einstein (he’d reprise the role alongside Boris Karloff for television in 1955). Firmly under the cosh of escaped lunatic – and nephew to the serial-poisoning old dears – Jonathan (Raymond Massey), the doctor wheedles and whinges his way through the film, seemingly on the verge of tears, terrified of incurring his master’s wrath.

Kept on hand to alter Jonathan’s appearance in order to evade capture (the latest procedure performed after an intoxicated viewing of Frankenstein), the pair force their way into the midst of the ongoing farce, Lorre tremulously grasping for the bottle at every opportunity. There’s something bittersweet in Lorre’s playing the doctor’s chronic alcoholism for laughs, given the actor’s own personal struggles, his manic desperation imbued with the sad weight of experience. It’s just a shame his straight-man sounding-board is such a stiff (Erich von Stroheim had played the Jonathan part, after Karloff on Broadway), as his later scenes – riffing with an irrepressible Cary Grant – find a hilariously flustered zing.

The Verdict (1946)

Director Don Siegel

The Verdict (1946)

The Verdict (1946)

Don Siegel’s debut feature, a cracking little noir-ish detective yarn set in Victorian London, was the last of Lorre’s nine collaborations with Sydney Greenstreet. It also offered a great opportunity for the actor to play against type, casting him as a decadent playboy and best friend to Greenstreet’s discredited inspector, back on the case when a seemingly impossible murder occurs in his building.

Lorre’s Victor relieves a little of his layabout ennui by sketching (an opportunity for the actor to show off his own, real-life hobby), his eagerness to illustrate his friend’s new book as much a teasing red herring as a ribbing of Lorre’s usual onscreen persona: “I’ve done three stabbings already, how about a nice juicy strangling?” If you’ve a taste for more from one of Hollywood’s most eccentric yet stylistically complementary double-acts, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) is also playing in the BFI Southbank season, and is not to be missed.

Beat the Devil (1953)

Director John Huston

Beat the Devil (1953)

Beat the Devil (1953)

John Huston’s quick-witted comedy was hated by seemingly everyone on release (especially by star and financier, Humphrey Bogart), but a reassessment of its droll charms is surely overdue. Providing one of the last great roles for Lorre, as the white-haired, philosophical misfit O’Hara (“Why do you always make jokes about my name? In Chile, the name O’Hara is a tip-top name. Many Germans in Chile have come to be called O’Hara.”), Huston rescued him from the brink of ruin after the disastrous performance of his sole venture as director, The Lost One (1951).

Plot isn’t the thing here – its machinations are as relaxed as its summer setting – instead, Beat the Devil playfully mines behaviour for its laughs. Lorre gets many of Truman Capote’s best lines, not least in his introductory speech. “What is it, time? The Swiss manufacture it, the French hoard it, the Italians squander it. Americans say it is money, Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.”

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