A product of Berlin's post World War I experimental theatre scene, Peter Lorre honed his craft in plays by Shakespeare, Goethe and Shaw, but achieved international fame as a child killer in Fritz Lang's incendiary "M" (1931). After making his English language debut for Alfred Hitchcock in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934), Lorre was lured to Hollywood with the promise of a studio contract. Warehoused for a year by Columbia Pictures, Lorre was loaned out to play more maniacs in "Mad Love" (1935) and "Stranger on the Third Floor" (1940). Against the better judgment of the Warner Brothers front office, first time filmmaker John Huston took a chance on Lorre by casting him as the villainous Joel Cairo to Humphrey Bogart's steely shamus Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon" (1941). Lorre and Bogart became frequent co-stars in such World War II era fare as "Across the Pacific" (1941), "Casablanca" (1942) and "Passage to Marseilles" (1944). Despite playing the occasional heroic role, Lorre remained typecast as misfits and miscreants. Plagued by ill health and drug addiction, Lorre capped his career with a run of tongue-in-cheek horror films, including "The Raven" (1963) and "Comedy of Terrors" (1963) with horror kings Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. Dead at 59, Lorre's legacy survived him, due to his roles in iconic Bogart films and the devotion of horror film fans who echoed the late actor's designation as The Lord High Minister of All That is Sinister.
Peter Lorre was born László Löwenstein in the town of Rózsahegy in northern Hungary on June 26, 1904. Lorre's father, Alajos Löwenstein, was the bookkeeper for a textile company and a reserve officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. In 1908, Lorre's mother died of blood poisoning. Alienated by his father's second marriage, Lorre developed into a withdrawn child, even as the family relocated several times due to his father's business ambitions and his military service. Lorre acted for the first time in a school production of "Snow White," playing one of the dwarfs. While in middle school, he was chosen to appear in an evening of one-act plays staged at the Vienna Kammerspiele, after which he expressed to his disapproving father his desire to become an actor. After obtaining a business degree, Lorre worked briefly as a bank teller. Prone to tardiness, he allowed himself to be fired so that he could pursue acting full-time. With Vienna's economy in ruins after the First World War, Lorre lived an itinerant life, sleeping on park benches. Unable to pay for theatre, he worked as an unpaid audience extra, clapping on cue. Theatrical impresario Jacob Moreno invited Lorre to join his experimental theatre troupe and provided him with the stage name he would carry through life: "Peter" from the late poet Peter Altenberg and "Lorre" from the German word for parrot.
Honing his craft in Breslau and Zurich in Switzerland, Lorre headed to Berlin in 1927. During this time, he underwent surgery for a burst appendix. When complications arose, revision surgery was performed and Lorre was prescribed morphine for pain. This led to a lifetime addiction to narcotics for the actor, who borrowed increasing amounts of money to pay for his habit while even resorting to forging prescriptions. In 1929, playwright-theatre director Bertolt Brecht cast Lorre in productions of "Happy End" and "Man Equals Man." He made his film debut in "Die verschwundene Frau" ("The Missing Wife") (1929), one of the last silent films made in Austria. Lorre kept his participation in the film a secret, preferring to let the official record show that he made his cinema debut for director Fritz Lang in "M" (1931). Inspired by the crimes of German serial killer Peter Kürten, Lang cast Lorre as Hans Beckert, a man compelled to abduct and murder young children. Only weeks after the film's premiere, Kürten was executed by guillotine while Lorre became an international celebrity, admired at home by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and abroad by silent film star Charlie Chaplin. Though he would play comical and even heroic roles throughout his career, Lorre was largely associated with horrific and supernatural themes for the rest of his life. With the rise of the Third Reich, Lorre joined the first wave of Jews fleeing Europe in 1933. With his fiancée, actress Celia Lovsky, Lorre traveled to Czechoslovakia and then on to France. In Paris, the actor received an invitation from England to appear in a film being produced by the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation.
Hitchcock cast Lorre in the role of a scar-faced political assassin in the classic "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934). Not yet able to speak English, Lorre learned his lines phonetically. Taking a break from shooting that summer, Lorre married Lovsky in a civil ceremony, having arrived at Westminster's General Register's Office wearing his ghoulish make-up. Featured prominently in posters for "The Man Who Knew Too Much," Lorre drew rave reviews and received an invitation from Hollywood. Armed with the promise of a contract from Columbia Pictures, Lorre sailed to America but had to wait for a year before he was cast in an American film. Unsure of what to do with his latest acquisition, Columbia head Harry Cohn eventually loaned Lorre to MGM for "Mad Love" (1935). Sporting a bald pate that made his naturally wide eyes seem ready to pop from his skull, Lorre delivered an immortal performance as the obsessive Dr. Gogol, a brilliant surgeon unhinged by his love for another man's wife. Lorre agreed to the loan-out on condition that Columbia foot the bill for an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, to star himself and to be directed by Josef von Sternberg. Cohn kept his word, but the film was both a box office and critical failure.
Lorre rebounded by returning to England to work for Hitchcock again, playing another assassin in "Secret Agent" (1936). At Twentieth Century Fox, Lorre stepped into the role of a cunning Japanese crime fighter in a series of whodunits beginning with "Think Fast, Mr. Moto" (1937) and ending after eight installments in 1939. At MGM, Lorre appeared with Joan Crawford and Clark Cable in Frank Borzage's South Seas melodrama "Strange Cargo" (1940). Though he had turned down the lead in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939) because he wanted to distance himself from menacing roles, Lorre was back in form for the eerie "Stranger on the Third Floor" (1940) and "The Face Behind the Mask" (1940), appearing in the latter as a gentle immigrant who turns to crime after being disfigured in a boarding house fire. At Warner Brothers, Lorre was cast as the flamboyantly gay criminal Joel Cairo in John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), opposite Mary Astor and Lorre's soon-to-be frequent co-stars, Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet. Though a proposed sequel to the hit film never got off the ground, Bogart and Lorre were reteamed in Vincent Sherman's "All Through the Night" (1941) and again, with Greenstreet, in Michael Curtiz's "Casablanca" (1942). Though Lorre's role was small and his character killed offscreen well before the film's midpoint, the success of "Casablanca" was greatly enhanced by his sweaty portrayal of the cut-rate underworld parasite Ugarte. By this time, Lorre had become such a popular cultural touchstone that his appearance was parodied in Loony Tunes shorts and his voice mimicked by Paul Frees in Spike Jones' novelty cover of "My Old Flame." Lorre worked with Bogart and Greenstreet again in the wartime adventure "Passage to Marseilles" (1944) and was paired with Greenstreet in atypically heroic roles in "The Mask of Dimitrios" (1944) and "The Verdict" (1946).
Lorre returned to villainous form in the classic noir "Black Angel" (1946) and in the psychological horror film "The Beast with Five Fingers" (1946), directed by Robert Florey. He had by this time separated from Lovsky, though the two would remain friends throughout the rest of his life. Lorre's second wife was German actress Kaaren Verne, but the union lasted only five years. Lorre scored a rare shot at a comedy with the Bob Hope vehicle "My Favorite Brunette" (1947) before he returned to Germany to direct and star in "Der Verlorene" (The Lost One") (1951), as a vivisectionist who murders his unfaithful wife and spirals into homicidal mania. Twenty years after "M" and too close to Germany's defeat in World War II, the film was unsuccessful. To the delight of fans, John Huston reunited Lorre with Bogart in "Beat the Devil" (1953), filmed in Italy and the United Kingdom. That year, Lorre married for the third time and fathered a daughter. In 1954, he played the first Bond villain in a TV production of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, adapted for the CBS anthology series "Climax!" (1954-58).
With the bulk of his assignments amounting to little more than rent-paying gigs during this period, Lorre did enjoy his role as a singing and dancing Soviet commissar in MGM's Technicolor musical "Silk Stockings" (1957) opposite Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman revived Lorre's career by casting him in the omnibus thriller "Tales of Terror" (1962), in a blackly humorous retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado co-starring Vincent Price. Corman would use Lorre and Price again in "The Raven" (1963), co-starring Boris Karloff, while Jacques Tourneur would reunite the three for "Comedy of Terrors" (1963) as unscrupulous morticians who resort to murder when their business takes a dive. Dubbed by magazine editor Forrest J. Ackerman as "The Lord High Minister of All That Is Sinister," Lorre made his final film appearance in "The Patsy"(1964), starring Jerry Lewis. Separated from his third wife and in poor health, Lorre suffered a fatal stroke in a rented apartment on Hollywood Boulevard on March 23, 1964, at the age of 59.
By Richard Harland Smith