This is Anne Sharp of peterlorrecompanion.com, and this is my audio commentary for the 1940 film “Island of Doomed Men” starring Peter Lorre.
Now, this is not a great film, certainly not in the sense of “M” or “Maltese Falcon” or other justly celebrated Peter Lorre films. In fact I think it could be fairly argued that this is a terrible film. That’s not why I’d like to call it to your attention. It’s not a so-bad-it’s-good movie. This is a run-of-the-mill, B-movie exploitation film that contains one of Peter Lorre’s best film performances, and it’s the perfect illustration of the art of Peter Lorre. He was a gifted actor, a highly skilled theater professional who could go into any project, whether it be a highly artistic cutting edge play by Bertolt Brecht or a silly little Hollywood B-movie and make something fascinating and entertaining and even meaningful out of it.
Watching the first few scenes of this film, you could fall right asleep. The photography is boring—it’s just a bunch of two-shots of men in suits talking to each other; the dialogue is ridiculous; the acting is pathetic. But something interesting happens when Peter Lorre enters the frame in a few minutes. The whole texture and atmosphere of the film changes. It suddenly becomes interesting. I think this has everything to do with who Peter Lorre was as a performer and what he did as a theatrical craftsman.
Peter Lorre had an unusual start in the acting profession. He came up in the 1920s when mainstream acting was standardized, not that experimental, not that innovative, but he got in on the cutting edge. His first professional job as a teenager in Vienna was as part of an experimental theater troupe organized by the psychologist Jacob Moreno, who at that time was developing techniques that we now know as roleplaying and psychodrama, which are psychological methods of helping people to work out issues. You’ve probably engaged in roleplay yourself in certain contexts, in school projects and stuff like that. What this theatrical troupe did is that Moreno took these young actors, and he taught them the basics of performance on the stage—how to use your voice and body and face the audience—and trained them in improv, which was a cutting edge thing then. He called it the Theater of Spontaneity. He had a little theater behind the Vienna Opera, and what they’d do is they’d bring in an audience and the troupe would act out scenarios. They’d either take an item out of the news, like a murder or something, or ask the audience to throw out situations that were on their minds, like, “I’m having a fight with my husband about money.” The actors would get together and they’d improvise a scene around that situation, the idea being that seeing something that’s occupying your mind acted out by third parties, you see the situation in a new light and maybe get some insights into it that will be useful to you in dealing with it in real life.
So this was Peter’s training for the first three years of his career as an actor, and one of the things I think it did for him was it made him flexible. He could go into any situation, whether it’s a formal, traditional play, where you’re given a script and you hit your marks and do your thing, or he could go to a cutting-edge theater troupe like Bertolt Brecht’s when he went to Berlin in the late 1920s, and they hired him right off the street because he was clearly so creative and so smart and just what they were looking for, a guy who could get what they were trying to do.
One of the things it also did for him was to get him in the habit of being an active contributor to the projects he worked on. Peter was known for not so much building his parts in a self-aggrandizing way, though I suppose there was an element of that to it, but he would rework his dialogue, add bits of business, when the director allowed him to. And smart directors allowed him to because they knew it would improve the project. Other actors who were smart went with it when Peter started to improvise and interpolate bits because they knew that if they worked with him, he would not only make himself look good but he’d make them look better too. Though as his costar in the film “Mad Love,” Frances Drake, said, “You had to be good to keep up with Peter.” One thing I’ve noticed in this film is the actors get a little better when Peter enters the frame. I think that he was a catalyst to get them to draw on their own creativity, to get energized and involved in the project.
The person who really discovered this film was my friend in Peterfandom Nancy Simpanda. This was in the late 1990s when we had organized an online Peter Lorre fandom, and we were really getting into it and really excited. This was back in the day of VHS, before downloads were readily available online, and it wasn’t that easy to get the more obscure Peter Lorre films. We did a lot of copying off cable and trading. And she discovered a copy she had of “Island of Doomed Men” she had taped off cable, and she started watching it, the way most of us do, saying, “This is a really bad film and I’m really embarrassed for Peter to have been in it.” “And then,” she said, “partway through it, I realized something. I realized Peter is funny as hell in this film!
“What it is,” she said, “is he’s acting out the Freudian concept of an anal retentive”—what we would call nowadays an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
Mr. Danel is a control freak. He’s a prissy little jerk, and Peter is just satirizing the hell out of that sort of person. Which Peter would do. He was a very anti-authoritarian person. During the 1930s he had a file with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI as a “premature anti-Nazi” because of his agitation against the Hitler regime. Being a refugee from Hitler’s Germany he would naturally be that way, and as a progressive Jew he was very aware of the fascist tendencies going on in the world. He would certainly have been aware of the situation that was the basis for this film.
At that time France was still a colonial power, and they owned a bit of territory on the South American continent called French Guiana. And off the coast of French Guiana was a couple of islands, including the notorious Devil’s Island, that they were using as prison camps for French prisoners. They made them live under unbelievably inhumane conditions and worked them to death, for no other reason than a kind of institutionalized sadism. News had gotten out to the international community in the late 1930s about what was going on. It was a scandal, and Hollywood responded by making a bunch of exploitation films about Devil’s Island. Actually, Peter appeared in three of them. There was this one. There was a film that came out the same year, 1940, called “Strange Cargo,” a much more prestigious A-film starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, which had a very good role for Peter in it. It’s a good film, it’s a little weird. It was banned in Detroit because of religious symbolism that upset the local Catholic organizations, strange story. The third film that Peter appeared in that was a Devil’s Island take was the Warner Bros. World War II propaganda film “Passage to Marseille,” in which a group of zany Devil’s Island prisoners escape and try to sail to France in order to join the Resistance! It’s total garbage and I don’t recommend it. “Island of Doomed Men” is a far better film.
So Peter the progressive Jew, anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist, was offered this film and he took it. He probably did need the money. He was in between contracts with Columbia and Warner Bros., so he was kind of a free agent at that time, taking freelance jobs. And I think what he saw in this property was an opportunity to stick it to the man. The similarities between Mr. Danel and Hitler could not have escaped Peter, and I think that he deliberately made him a satirical portrait of the Hitlerian world view, of the anal-retentive control freak who despises everything natural and creative and human about the world around him, exemplified by his horror of his servant’s monkey. I watched this once with one of my nephews and he said, “He hates that monkey because it reminds him of HIM!” And I think he’s right. It’s his animus.
Now there’s an interesting shot where Peter walks up to this table and there’s strangely positioned on it two guavas and a fly switch. I believe—and Nancy Simpanda was the one who pointed this out—that those objects were originally positioned in a slightly different way by Peter but that it was decided that that couldn’t make it into the final cut. This was a time when censorship was very much in effect in studio-era Hollywood, but you could get away with certain things—I don’t know if they could have gotten away with the guava-and-fly-switch trick—but, as my mother used to say (she was a 1940s woman) “You could get away with things in films as long as children and innocent people couldn’t pick up on it.” I don’t know what it says about all the whippings and cat-o’-nine-tails and things that go on in this film, but it was the custom of the time.
I do think that Charles Barton, the director of this film, was in on the joke. I think that he let Peter do what he wanted to and shape this film to his own vision. Peter did go on to have his own directing credit with the 1951 German film “Der Verlorene,” which was not a successful film commercially, but is a fascinating film I do recommend if you’re at all interested in Peter. He had the potential to be a really great director. He was very cinema savvy, and I think you can see certain elements from this film carried on in “Der V.” You notice how when Peter’s in this film it suddenly becomes three-dimensional. Suddenly there’s interesting blocking, there’s dramatic tension in the scene. And this, I think, is the greatest scene in this film. It’s a quiet argument between Mr. and Mrs. Danel that’s choreographed to a Chopin nocturne. I think this is all Peter. I can’t believe that he and Rochelle Hudson just walked onto the set one day and made this happen. They must have at least discussed beforehand what they were going to do, what the meaning of this scene was going to be.
One thing you see in performances by Peter Lorre he’s had time to work on is he did a lot of background work. There’s a lot of backstory to his best characters. You get the feeling in this scene of two people who have really lived together, who have had a lot of arguments and come to a lot of truces, and there’s been a lot of defeats and triumphs between them. But there’s also the basic struggle of an enslaved person fighting for her freedom. As Mrs. Danel says later in the film, she’s just as much a prisoner as the men in the prison camp. She’s trying to talk him into letting her go with him to the mainland next time he goes, and he says “No. I can’t let you do that. Cause I know you’d run away from me.” And she says, “You’re keeping me a prisoner here!” and he says “No I’m not. You’re my wife and you belong to me, and you have to stay here with me and do what I say.” And she’s like “No I don’t.” “Yes you do.” “No I don’t.” “Yes you do.” Her story of liberation, how she escapes this terrible abusive man, is parallel to the story of the dopey FBI agent who gets himself arrested for murder so that he can go to jail and then get paroled to Mr. Danel’s island. One of the stupidest plot lines in any of Peter Lorre’s several stupid films, including the Jerry Lewis ones.
Another thing. I may be off on this, but I think there is this dimension of psychological expertise in the art of Peter Lorre. He did come from Jacob Moreno’s Theater of Spontaneity, which was meant to be a tool of psychoanalysis, and he grew up in Freud’s Vienna. Of course when he was young Freud was already being viewed skeptically by younger people in the psychoanalytic profession, and new theorists were coming up that were trying to develop more clinically, scientifically effective methods of treating troubled people. But as a well-read aware guy Peter would have known the basics of Freudian psychology, including Freud’s theories about the meaning of popular culture. Freud wrote essays like the one on “Gradiva,” a cheap romance novel that he psychoanalyzed to figure out why people read this piece of crap book, what deep psychological meaning it had for them. So deep analysis of pop culture/mass culture was part of the Freudian mindset. And I think that Peter was very aware of the fact that although he might be working in not very prestigious areas of Hollywood at this point, there was still a certain cultural value to these projects. You know, if he did a play with Bertolt Brecht, he’d reach maybe a few thousand people with the message of that play, whether it was anti-fascist or about free will or about the value of communism, whatever it was Brecht was trying to get across. But if he takes “Island of Doomed Men,” millions of people all over the world are going to see that film.
If you’re getting a message through about fighting for your freedom against abusive people, whether they be fascist heads of state or abusive spouses, I think there’s an importance and seriousness to that mission, even if you’re attacking it in the context of a cheap little exploitation film. A satirical black comedy is the perfect vehicle for taking on the bullies. Bertolt Brecht did himself in “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” also in a play that Peter Lorre commissioned from him in the 1940s called “Schweyk in the Second World War.” Peter had licensed theater rights to the Jaroslav Hasek novel “The Good Soldier Schweyk” about a Czech dog breeder who was constantly sticking it to the German occupier, and Peter and Brecht wanted to make a vehicle for Peter for his long-delayed Broadway debut in which he would play the good soldier Schweyk sticking it to the Nazis. The play didn’t turn out to be very good and Peter never appeared in it. But “Island of Doomed Men” is in its own way a Brechtian anti-fascist story in the context of American pop culture. It’s very relatable, it’s hella entertaining in its own way.
I think too of the Susan Sontag essay “Notes on Camp” where she talks about the gay concept of high camp and low camp. Low camp is the so-bad-it’s-good kind of show, like “The Room,” that the creators wanted to be a good show but turned out to be a bad show that was entertaining in its badness, and the people who made it weren’t even aware of how bad it was. And then there’s high camp, in which the creators know exactly what they’re doing, and they do things in a deliberately crude or over-the-top way with the intention of being entertaining, the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” sort of deal. I think “Island of Doomed Men” falls into the high camp category. Peter certainly had a fine sense of high camp. Being a Viennese who’d worked in Berlin, he had a certain snarky sense of humor, very similar to the 20th century snarky sense of humor that you find in Hollywood comedies of the studio era, of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, and certainly he had that Jewish sense of black comedy that gets you through the dark times.
This period of his career was an interesting one. He made some really fascinating films in the late 1930s and early 1940s before he became a member of the Warner Bros. chain gang and started making “Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca” clones. Some of which are very good. But this was an interesting time in his career. When he first came to America in 1934 he was still a hot property because of “M,” which was made in 1931 in Germany but didn’t get released in the United States until 1933, so the filmmaking community in America was very excited about Peter Lorre and very happy to have him in their midst and work with him because of what Peter had done in that film.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s the granddaddy of all police procedural films, it’s the granddaddy of all film noir. It’s a film about a serial killer who’s stalking the city of Berlin killing little girls. The police can’t find this guy, and the criminal underworld get sick of being shaken down by the police who are trying to find him, and so they organize their own hunt for this guy. Peter Lorre played the murderer. You’re cutting between these two factions trying to find the murderer and the murderer’s stalking Berlin. It’s a very suspenseful film. You hate this horrible little guy who’s doing these terrible crimes and can’t wait for them to catch him and give him his comeuppance. And when they catch him in the end, and they’re about to do god knows what to him, he suddenly gives this speech where he says, “Do you know what it’s like to be me?” And suddenly you see this monster as a human being, as someone you could almost feel pity for, despite his terrible crimes. This is one of the most famous dramatic reversals in theater history, in film history, and it made Peter an international star. Charlie Chaplin was quoted as saying “This is the greatest film actor who’s ever lived,” and rightly so, I think.
Everybody who worked with Peter after that wanted to get him to do it again, do that magical thing where he makes us feel all the feels, fear and hatred and compassion and everything. Make us feel everything again, Peter! And “Island of Doomed Men” is another example of this. Mr. Danel is a monster. He’s a mass murderer. He’s a wife abuser. But we see him as a fully dimensional human being. And that’s what Peter did. I think he was a humanist in the progressive Jewish tradition, and he brought this to his work. There are very few characters in the cinema of Peter Lorre who are one-dimensional, evil people. The exceptions are all Nazis or, in the case of “Invisible Agent,” a Japanese spy.
When he came to Hollywood in 1934, the first two projects that they produced for him were:
(a) a very prestigious version of the Dostoevsky novel “Crime and Punishment” directed by Josef von Sternberg, which sounds like it should have been great, but was actually terrible, because Sternberg didn’t want to do it. He was not interested in working with Peter Lorre. He wanted to make more Marlene Dietrich films, but the studio, Paramount, had called a pause on that and given this instead. According to Peter’s leading lady in that film, Marian Marsh, Peter and Sternberg were constantly arguing in German through the production, and it shows in the film. I think Peter is unusually tense and gives an unusually choppy, unfocused performance in it. It just shows that he was not fully in control of what was going on, the way he is in, say, “Island of Doomed Men.”
(b) He also made a film for MGM, “Mad Love,” which was one of MGM’s brief experiments with the horror genre, trying to compete with the success of Universal Pictures’ monster rallies. In fact it was intended to go head-to-head with Universal’s “Bride of Frankenstein.” I personally think that “Mad Love” is a better film than “Bride of Frankenstein.” I love it. It’s my favorite Peter Lorre film. I think he’s brilliant in it. But it wasn’t a success either.
So Peter tumbled into this limbo in Hollywood where no one really knew what to do with him next, although they knew he was talented, he had so much potential to make something great out of their projects.
Another complicating factor was Peter had strategized to not only take on Hollywood but take on Broadway. He had commissioned his friend the playwright Ferdinand Bruckner to write a play for him about Napoleon, which is brilliant casting. It’s actually a very good play. So Ferdinand Bruckner wrote it for Peter and Peter hired Sidney Kingsley, a very prestigious American playwright, to adapt it in American English (it was written in German.) And it was all set up to premiere on Broadway in 1936, but a couple of things happened. One is that in 1936 another producer scooped Bruckner and Peter by putting on a rival Napoleon play starring Maurice Evans, and that bombed. Also a movie studio was working on a Napoleon film starring Charles Boyer. And I think the producer said, “That’s too much Napoleon, we’re just going to bag this project.” So Peter’s two-pronged approach to storming American culture did not come off the way he wanted them to.
Whether it was a result of this failure or one of the causes, Peter was also having problems with his morphine addiction. Peter was a classic functional addict. He had become addicted to morphine in his early twenties in Europe, but he kind of had it under control. He was able to go on and have a long and distinguished career as an actor despite his addiction. So he was managing it, but like any addict he had his breakdowns. We know he was hospitalized while he was in England making Alfred Hitchcock’s “Secret Agent,” and also at least once in California around this time. So he went into this B-picture period, which was not good for him in terms of prestige, because people saw him as a failure and a sellout, a great actor who was degrading himself by making stupid pictures in Hollywood. But from our standpoint as Peter Lorre fanciers, it was a rich and rewarding time when he made some good films, maybe low budget, but some of them provided him with fascinating characters to play, including “Nancy Steele Is Missing!” “Crack-Up,” “Island of Doomed Men,” “Stranger on the Third Floor”—which was an “M”-inspired thriller which is regarded as the first true film noir, and which made Peter the king of film noir. He went on to make “Maltese Falcon” and any number of great films noir.
So it was a very exciting time for Peter as a creative being. He also made the Mr. Moto pictures, which were incredibly successful and profitable. One of them featured Peter’s costar in “Island of Doomed Men,” Rochelle Hudson, which may be one of the reasons why they worked so well together here, that they’d worked together before. Rochelle Hudson’s a good actress. In Frances Drake’s sense, she could keep up with Peter very well.
One of the paradoxes of Peter’s work is that when you come to his most famous films, they’re not necessarily the best films for Peterwatching. Take “Casablanca.” Everybody knows about Peter Lorre in “Casablanca,” a very famous role. But if you look at it from the perspective of Peterwatchers, it’s very disappointing. He’s only in the film for about three minutes. It’s a very memorable performance in that the main plot point about the letters of transit would be meaningless if you didn’t remember that character doing what he did. So the casting of Peter was absolutely crucial to the success of that film. But I don’t really want to see Peter screaming and being dragged away by the Nazis. I want to see him in a role where he’s able to linger onscreen and do his magic. So I would rather even see “Stranger on the Third Floor,” which he’s only in for about three minutes, and has a terrible time in it, and screams and does his Peter Lorre schtick of being horrible yet sympathetic. But it’s a film that focuses on him. It doesn’t make us spend an hour and a half with this drippy character played by Humphrey Bogart (whom even Humphrey Bogart despised) in order to get to the Peter part, or the Conrad Veidt part, that you really want to see.
Another thing Nancy Simpanda pointed out to the fandom, a very good insight, is that Warner Bros. did not for the most part make very good use of Peter. They used him in so many films as a piece of set decoration. They used his name to help sell a film to the public because they knew that although he was not a “leading man,” he was well loved by audiences and his name on a poster or window card would sell tickets. So you’d go to this movie expecting this fun, exotic thriller with Peter Lorre in it. Peter Lorre shows up and has a few lines in it and that’s it. That’s NOT it! I’d much rather see a film like “You’ll Find Out,” another Peter film that came out in 1940, which SOUNDS ridiculous. It stars Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and the Kay Kyser big band. Your first thought is, “Oh, god, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi singing with a big band, that is so embarrassing.” Well, they don’t. They don’t sing at all. They actually have very cool roles as suave, sinister dudes hanging out with beautiful debutantes in a haunted house. And Kay Kyser’s a very entertaining guy, his band’s really good. It’s some nice swing music. It’s a very hip little film.
“You’ll Find Out” brings me to the topic of Peter Lorre’s reputation as a horror star. Peter made about 80 feature films. I’d say there was only about eight of them that could reasonably be called horror films, and “Mad Love” and “The Beast With Five Fingers” would be the only that could be classified as true horror. The others are horror spoofs, like “You’ll Find Out” and the Roger Corman comedy/horror films he made near the end of his life. But he had that reputation as one of the big horror stars, along with Karloff and Lugosi. And one of the things that solidified his reputation as a horror film star was “Island of Doomed Men.” Although I think it would be a tremendous stretch to describe it as horror, it was shown as a horror film on television in the late 1950s and early 1960s because it was included in a film distributor’s package called “Shock Theater”—or it might have been in “Son of Shock”—that was marketed to local television stations to show as horror films. You may be aware of the phenomenon during the broadcast television era of horror film show hosts like Vampira and Morgus and whoever it was in your local market—we had The Ghoul and Sir Graves Ghastly, these characters played by local actors who hosted horror film shows. And “Island of Doomed Men” was one of those films that was shown by the Ghoulardis of the day. So people started viewing him, again, as a horror film star. That might have been one of the reasons that Roger Corman lured him into appearing in “Tales of Terror,” “The Raven” and “Comedy of Terrors,” these monster rally films that he didn’t really belong in because he wasn’t really a a horror star.
One strange cultural artifact of “Island of Doomed Men” being in the “Son of Shock” package was that the “Rawhide” Western TV series hired Peter to do an episode called “Incident of the Slavemaster,” which is basically a Wild West restaging of “Island of Doomed Men.” Peter played a former Confederate officer who was keeping Union soldiers captive and working them to death. Instead of a wife he had a daughter, and it was the “Rawhide” guys who discovered the situation and had to liberate the men and the daughter. Peter was visibly not well when he made it—he always tended to be a little chubby but he seemed uncharacteristically bloated in this one—and just not into it. So I wouldn’t recommend it, but I think it’s an interesting artifact. People loved what he did in “Island of Doomed Men” so much, they were doing that thing they always did with him—“Do it again, do it again!”
For Peter to make his magic, he needed rehearsal time. He needed time to do background work. For film projects, even a B-picture, he usually got that. For radio and television, not so much. Though there are some really good ones among them that I would recommend, they don’t match the quality of his film performances
One thing I discovered through my years of online Peterfandom, meeting people through online fan forums and my own Peter Lorre website, is I’m not the only person out there who feels the way I feel about Peter. Obviously my friend and collaborator in Peter Lorre fandom Nancy Simpanda also gets his appeal and thinks he’s worth serious study. But there are a lot of women who love Peter just as much as we do. There always have been. And a lot of people, male and female, but mainly male, are shocked by that, because Peter is so not what a woman is supposed to be attracted to.
First of all, there’s his image issue. At the time I was growing up in the mid 20th century he was a loaded symbol of everything that Americans hated and feared about foreigners. I think he was well aware of that, and when he was cast as the wicked foreigner, he just went with it. I believe he saw it as a part of his role as a theatrical therapist to act out the fantasies, negative and positive, of the people he worked for, whether they were the people who were making the productions or the people who viewed them. Maybe that’s one of the reasons he brought so much humor and satire and black comedy into his work. Along with acting out our deepest fears about people like him, he was kidding us, reminding us, “This is not the way it really is, right? I’m really a cool guy, and we’re just role playing here.”
And we who love Peter see that. We see the dimensionality involved in what Peter represents. We’re not fans of his because we are into degenerate foreigners, though we all know about bad boys. And bad girls too, but putting that aside, what do we see in him as a man? He certainly didn’t fit the standards of physical perfection for his time, when both in America and Hitler’s Germany there was a very active eugenics movement that wanted to breed people like livestock, selecting for the most healthy and beautiful elements. The ideal then was the tall, muscular Viking, the SS officer. Peter may have used the stage name Peter Lorre—Lorre is Dutch for parrot—but he was really Ladislav Loewenstein, grandson of a rabbi, from an observant Jewish family. He had classic Jewish features and if he had grown to normal height he probably would have been just an average handsome Jewish guy. His growth was stunted in his childhood by chronic lung infection, one of the reasons he was so short and also why his body was kind of a funny shape, like a teddy bear, with a great big rib cage. That was caused by a condition called barrel chest, in which persons who have damaged lungs have trouble getting enough oxygen, so the rib cage is abnormally expanded in front and in back.
But, you know, he made the most of it. He was going to go out and go on that stage and make people look at him and make people listen to him. And by god they did, partly because there was something attractive about him, despite his unconventional looks. I think you can see in “Island of Doomed Men” that the cinematographer and director saw him as a handsome man and photographed him in flattering ways. He looks gorgeous in some of these shots, like the shot of him lying in bed pretending to be asleep. His face looks like a Brancusi sculpture, all rounded planes, the eyes, the cheeks, the lips. It’s not an Anglo look but it’s easy on the eyes.
I do think Peter had, especially in his youth, a certain kind of beauty, his very own. He had his own personal allure, which was one and the same with his talent as an actor. He made you look at him, he had all sorts of seductive, charming ways of getting you to pay attention and direct your mind to what he wanted you to see. And there was a sexual element to the Peter Lorre persona, usually expressed as something sinister, tied in with the undesirable, degenerate foreigner trope. We certainly see that in this movie. Mr. Danel is clearly passionately attached to his wife and she is repulsed by him. We’re never told exactly why. It’s enough that he’s keeping her prisoner on this island. But here we see Mr. Danel take the cat-o’-nine-tails that a foreman used to beat his prisoners and march off to his wife’s bedroom.
Talking about censorship again, the production code that was still in force, married characters did not get into bed with each other—the only people who were allowed to get into bed with each other were Laurel and Hardy. Usually when you see a loving couple, or at least a couple who’s getting along, in a classic Hollywood studio era film, they sleep in twin beds next to each other with a nice little nightstand between them. In this film we see that Lorraine has her own room and Mr. Danel sleeps in another, smaller room. That’s supposed to tell you volumes about their relationship. And here we see Mr. Danel carrying his cat-o’-nine-tails in a very interesting way, and he’s about to beat his wife. And she stops him with one withering comment. And the handle of the whip droops. And he slinks out, defeated and ashamed. Freudian Freudian Freudian.
If you don’t think Peter made some lewd jokes with that whip handle on set…I’m sorry, and I will be the first to admit this—in terms of the #MeToo movement, Peter would have been busted. He was a fanny pincher. He was a maker of lewd jokes. Hazel Court said on the set of “The Raven” he was always pinching her butt. And he went beyond that. He was in the habit of biting people, men and women. He once bit a woman’s bottom while she was playing the piano at a party. I’m not defending that and I’m not saying it was an artifact of the times. It was part of who he was. And part of being a Peter Lorre fan is acknowledging that like his characters he was a complicated human being.
This leads me to the topic of fandom, and why I’m not active in online Peter Lorre fandom anymore, although I still have my website. There was a controversy that arose between the online Peter Lorre fandom that Nancy Simpanda and I managed and certain people who were connected with the Peter Lorre estate who ran across our work. This was in the early days of the World Wide Web, and the wave of online fandom was not familiar to people yet, and they interpreted what we were doing, which by the standards of today would be seen as just affectionate fanfic treatment of our beloved idol, as being defamatory towards Peter and disrespectful and promoting a bad attitude towards Peter. So we started trolling them, hoping they’d go away, and they just trolled us back. It became a turf war about Peter. One onlooker described it as being like watching the Sharks and the Jets in “West Side Story.” I’m not proud of that and I wish I could take it back.
I’m a lover of Peter Lorre, I always will be at this point. It’s been going most of my life and I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. I love to write about him. I really wanted to do this audio recording. I’d love to do more. But I shouldn't have to fight and I will not do it.
Peter belongs to everyone. He’s a precious resource we can all enjoy in our own way. I’m a critic. I can be snarky. I can get things wrong. And you may not like what I say. That doesn’t prevent you from saying what you want to say about him and enjoying him your own way. And I will respect that.
Getting back to the audio commentary. I think here, again, is an example of Peter sneaking stuff past the censor. This may or may not have been in the original script, this may have been something Peter inserted himself. There’s a very dark thing happening in this scene. Mr. Danel is obviously breaking down mentally. His slaves have broken out of their chains, they’re waiting outside the door. You can tell he’s out of his mind because there are a few stray hairs loose on his forehead. That beautiful double-breasted dressing gown he’s wearing also appears in the film “You’ll Find Out.” The evening suit he wears earlier in the film is very similar to the one he wears in “Casablanca,” maybe the same one.
What Mr. Danel is saying here is “Okay, Lorraine, you don’t love me, you don’t want to be with me. You love this guy, you want to be with him. I’m not going to let you do that. What I’m going to do is kill him right in front of you and then I’m going to give you to those men out there to gang rape.” That is what he’s saying in this scene! Not in so many words, but that’s what he’s saying. Again, this got right past the censor. This was okay, like the cat-o’-nine-tails and the whipping post. It was a different time.
This is a wonderful scene, Mr. Danel having a nervous breakdown, going to a place in his mind where he’s happy and he’s in control of everything, he’s in control of his wife, he’s in control of his slaves, and everything is beautiful and everything belongs to him. He tells you that with his facial expressions and his voice. Imagine Clark Gable doing that—no way! Cary Grant—oh, please! Ronald Colman—get outta here! This is an Olivier-level actor. This is a Benedict Cumberbatch-level actor. I think there’s a lot of parallels between the two. People are always getting down on Benedict because “he’s weird looking,” “he’s not a real leading man.” Well, he’s brilliant. He’s one of the greats. It’s probably going to take decades before that’s formally recognized, but it will be. Just as we’re just now recognizing—well, we Peterfans are—that he’s one of the greats.
And now Mr. Danel’s going to do something very interesting. He’s been stabbed in the back and he’s dying. He’s going to his happy place. This is one of those wonderful death scenes they used to have where a person in the midst of dying is able to deliver this very elaborate emotional speech. It just doesn’t happen any more. It’s more realistic, but it’s a loss. And look what happens. He’s smiling. Mr. Danel is now in his perfect world. He’s happy at last.
He’s flying away to Heaven. Oh, no, it’s the plane, that’s the other guys escaping the island. That’s okay. Hope they’re happy. Hope they get over their traumas that Mr. Danel imparted on them.