Every once in a while, an artist comes along that introduces us to a new perspective on the sexual awakening of a young and beautiful woman. Someone who delves deeply into the psyche and produces an explicit, erotic and even profound exposition on such a delicate and beautiful topic. Sadly, Peter Lorre didn’t do any of that stuff…
Peter Lorre was born on June 26th, 1904 in Austro-Hungary, the third most powerful of the hyphenated countries. Lorre’s original birth name was Lazlo Lowenstein, voted that year as the third most Jewish sounding name behind “Hymie McJew” and “Winona Ryder”. Fortunately, being Jewish then, in that area of the world, was considered advantageous if you ignored a lot of things and had an unconventional idea of what the word “advantageous” meant.
Lorre got the acting bug at age seventeen, although it later turned out to be just a very social katydid. He started out performing in Vienna, in Richard Teschner’s puppet show. Sadly, his acting wasn’t wooden enough to make puppeteering a career. So, he moved to Berlin and started performing on the stage. Lorre’s performances stood out due to his dynamic acting skills and the fact that he would only perform if accompanied by his favorite reindeer. Director Fritz Lang asked Lorre if he could be a murderous pedophile; Lorre refused, but did agree to play one in Lang’s movie, M.
Now, when an entire nation associates you with a creepy child-murderer, that usually designates the end of a career; but, in Lorre’s case, it was the beginning of offers from all over. Roles that varied from pedophile/murderer circus clown to pedophile/murderer congressman (note: “Mr. Schmidt Goes to Washington” was never completed). As the Nazis rose to power, German Jews became more and more nervous. For Lorre, in 1933, just like at the end of the fable “The Boy Who Cried Dung”, the shit got very real very quickly. Peter Lorre left Berlin for Paris, talked to a couple of Parisians, then decided to keep going to London.
Eventually, he hooked up with Alfred Hitchcock. Peter Lorre had an irrational fear that the great director wouldn’t cast him if he knew Lorre couldn’t speak English; so, Lorre faked it. He reacted to vocal inflections the way one would with a toddler or an egomaniac. The ploy worked, despite the fact that Hitchcock wasn’t a toddler.
Peter Lorre came to America, where he was able to grow as an actor. Instead of playing a child-murderer in movies, he’d moved on to portraying people who killed adults. Mad Love and Crime and Punishment were two of those movies, although if you watch them in fifteen minute increments, they count as nine movies. As an actor, he was unfulfilled; however, as a human being who needed food to live, he was open to pretty much anything. And, in 1936, pretty much anything was what he got: Lorre starred as the Japanese detective, Mr. Moto, in a series of movies that were just jaw-dropping.
Universal Studios signed Lorre in 1941. He made movies with Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon), George Raft (Background to Danger) and Cary Grant (Arsenic and Old Lace). Lorre’s roles at Warner Brothers dried up due to the fact that the House Unamerican Activities Committee didn’t know what the word “communist” meant.
His roles became more campy in the sixties, including a puzzling cameo in Muscle Beach Party. Lorre died of a stroke in 1964, before he could reprise that role in a second beach movie. His life was spent fighting against playing the parts he was best at. So, his story is really no different than anyone else’s…