Peter Lorre (26 June 1904 – 23 March 1964) was an American actor of Jewish Austro-Hungarian descent. Lorre caused an international sensation with his portrayal of a serial killer who preys on little girls in the German film M (1931). In enforced exile in Hollywood, he later became a featured player in many Hollywood crime and mystery films. The Maltese Falcon (1941), his first film with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet, was followed by Casablanca (1942). Lorre and Greenstreet appeared in a further seven films together. Frequently typecast as a sinister foreigner, his later career was erratic. Lorre was the first actor to play a James Bond villain as Le Chiffre in a TV version of Casino Royale (1954). Some of his last roles were in several horror films directed by Roger Corman.
Lorre was born László Löwenstein on 26 June 1904, as the first child of Jewish couple Alajos Löwenstein and Elvira Freischberger, in the Austro-Hungarian town of Ružomberok in present-day Slovakia, then known by its Hungarian name Rózsahegy. His parents had recently moved there, following his father’s appointment as chief bookkeeper at a local textile mill. Besides working as a bookkeeper, Alajos Löwenstein also served as a lieutenant in the Austrian army reserve, which meant that he was often away on military maneuvers. When Lorre was four years old, his mother died, probably of food poisoning, leaving Alajos with three very young sons, the youngest only a couple of months old. He soon remarried, to his wife’s best friend, Melanie Klein, with whom he had two more children. However, Lorre and his stepmother never got along, and this colored his childhood memories.
At the outbreak of the Second Balkan War in 1913, Alajos moved the family to Vienna, anticipating that this would lead to a larger conflict and that he would be called up. He was, at the outbreak of World War Iin 1914, and served on the Eastern front during the winter of 1914-1915, before being put in charge of a prison camp due to heart trouble.
Lorre began acting on stage in Vienna at the age of 17, where he worked with the Viennese Art Nouveau artist and puppeteer Richard Teschner. He then moved to the then German town of Breslau, and later toZürich in Switzerland. In the late 1920s, the young and short (165 cm (5 ft 5 in)) actor moved to Berlin, where he worked with German playwright Bertolt Brecht, including a role in Brecht’s Mann ist Mann and as Dr Nakamura in the musical Happy End (music by composer Kurt Weill), alongside Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel and co-stars Carola Neher, Oskar Homolka and Kurt Gerron. The actor became much better known after director Fritz Lang cast him as a child killer in the film M (1931). In 1932 he appeared alongside Hans Albers in the science fiction film F.P.1 antwortet nicht about an artificial island in the mid-Atlantic.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Lorre took refuge first in Paris and then London, where he was noticed by Ivor Montagu, associate producer for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), who reminded the film’s director Alfred Hitchcock about Lorre’s performance in M. They first considered him to play the assassin in the film, but wanted to use him in a larger role, despite his limited command ofEnglish at the time, which Lorre overcame by learning much of his part phonetically. He also was featured in Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936).
The Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew (1940) uses an excerpt from the climactic scene in M in which child-murderer Lorre is trapped by vengeful citizens. His passionate plea that his compulsion is uncontrollable, says the voice-over, makes him sympathetic and is an example of attempts by Jewish artists to corrupt public morals.
Lorre soon settled in Hollywood, where he specialized in playing sinister foreigners, beginning with Mad Love (1935), directed by Karl Freund. He starred in a series of Mr. Moto movies, a parallel to the better known Charlie Chan series, in which he played John P. Marquand’s character, a Japanese detective and spy. Initially positive about the films, he soon grew frustrated with them, “the role is childish” he once asserted, and eventually tended to angrily dismiss the films entirely. He twisted his shoulder during a stunt in Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939), the penultimate entry of the series. In 1939 he attended a lunch at the request of some visiting Japanese officials; Lorre wore a badge which said “Boycott Japanese goods”.
Late in 1938, Universal wanted to borrow Lorre from Fox for the role ultimately performed by Basil Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Lorre declined the role because he thought his menacing roles were now behind him, although he was ill at this time. He had tested successfully in 1937 for the role of Quasimodo in an aborted MGM version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1937, according to a Fox publicist one of two roles Lorre much wanted to play (the other was Napoleon). By now, frustrated by broken promises from Fox, Lorre had managed to end his contract, and went freelance for the next four years. In 1940, Lorre appeared as the anonymous lead in the B-picture Stranger on the Third Floor, reputedly the first ever film noir. The same year he co-starred with horror actors Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in the Kay Kyser movie You’ll Find Out.
Lorre played the role of Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and portrayed the character Ugarte in Casablanca (1942). While Ugarte is a small part, it is he who provides Rick with the ‘Letters of Transit’, a key plot device. Lorre made nine movies altogether with Sydney Greenstreet counting The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, most of them variations on the latter film, including Background to Danger (1943, with George Raft); Passage to Marseille (1944, reuniting them with Casablanca stars Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains); The Mask of Dimitrios (1944, with character actor Greenstreet receiving top billing); The Conspirators (1944, with Hedy Lamarr and Paul Henreid); Hollywood Canteen (1944); Three Strangers (1946), a suspense film about three people who are joint partners on a winning lottery ticket starring top-billed Greenstreet, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and third-billed Lorre cast against type by director Jean Negulesco as the romantic lead; and Greenstreet and Lorre’s final film together, suspense thriller The Verdict (1946), director Don Siegel’s first movie, with Greenstreet and Lorre finally billed first and second, respectively.
Lorre also branched out into comedy with the role of Dr. Einstein in Frank Capra’s version of Arsenic and Old Lace (released in 1944), and starring Cary Grant and Raymond Massey. In 1941, Peter Lorre became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Writing in 1944, film critic Manny Farber described what he called Lorre’s “double-take job,” a characteristic dramatic flourish “where the actor’s face changes rapidly from laughter, love or a security that he doesn’t really feel to a face more sincerely menacing, fearful or deadpan.” After World War II, Lorre’s acting career in Hollywood experienced a downturn, whereupon he concentrated on radio and stage work. In 1949 he filed for bankruptcy. In Germany he co-wrote, directed and starred in Der Verlorene (The Lost One, 1951), an art film in the film noir idiom. He then returned to the United States where he appeared as a character actor in television and feature films, often parodying his ‘creepy’ image.
In 1954, he was the first actor to play a James Bond villain when he portrayed Le Chiffre in a television adaptation of Casino Royale, opposite Barry Nelson as an American James Bond. (In the spoof-filmversion of Casino Royale, British comedian Ronnie Corbett comments that SMERSH includes among its agents not only Le Chiffre, but also “Peter Lorre and Bela Lugosi”.) Lorre starred alongside Kirk Douglasand James Mason in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) around this time. In 1959, Lorre appeared in NBC’s espionage drama Five Fingers, starring David Hedison, in the episode “Thin Ice”. He appeared in a supporting role in the 1961 film, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and, in the same year, he was interviewed on the NBC program Here’s Hollywood. In this period he worked with Roger Corman on several low-budget films, including two of the director’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle (Tales of Terror, 1962 and The Raven, 1963).
He was married three times: Celia Lovsky (1934 – 13 March 1945, divorced); Kaaren Verne (25 May 1945 – 1950, divorced) and Anne Marie Brenning (21 July 1953 – 23 March 1964, his death). In 1953, Brenning bore his only child, Catharine. In later life, Catharine made headlines after serial killer Kenneth Bianchi confessed to police investigators after his arrest that he and his cousin and fellow “Hillside Strangler” Angelo Buono, disguised as police officers, had stopped her in 1977 with the intent of abducting and murdering her, but let her go upon learning that she was the daughter of Peter Lorre. It was only after Bianchi was arrested that Catharine realized whom she had met. Catharine died in 1985 of complications arising from diabetes.
Lorre had suffered for years from chronic gallbladder troubles, for which doctors had prescribed morphine. Lorre became trapped between the constant pain and addiction to morphine to ease the problem. It was during the period of the Mr. Moto films that Lorre struggled with and overcame his addiction. Abruptly gaining a hundred pounds in a very short period and never fully recovering from his addiction to morphine, Lorre suffered many personal and career disappointments in his later years. He died in 1964 of a stroke. Lorre’s body was cremated and his ashes were interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood. Vincent Price read the eulogy at his funeral.
Lorre’s accent and large-eyed face became a favorite target of comedians and cartoonists. In particular, several Warner Bros. cartoons used a caricature of Lorre’s face with an impression by Mel Blanc, including Birth of a Notion, Hair-Raising Hare and Racketeer Rabbit.
In 1963, actor Eugene Weingand, who was unrelated to Lorre, attempted to trade on his slight resemblance to the actor by changing his name to “Peter Lorie”, but his petition was rejected by the courts. After Lorre’s death, however, he referred to himself as Lorre’s son. The incident was dramatized in Peter Lorre vs. Peter Lorre, a 45-minute radio play written/produced byMichael Button, directed by Toby Swift and broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Play on 10 May 2010 and again on 11 January 2013. The cast starred Stephen Greif as Peter Lorre, Peter Marinker as Lester Salkow, Kerry Shale as Robert Shutan, John Chancer as Curtis Gemmil, Helen Longworth, Kenneth Collard, Nathan Osgood and John Rowe.