The Essential Peter Lorre

by Anne Sharp

Because for many years only a handful of Peter Lorre’s films were in regular circulation, and his radio and TV performances were (and still are) even harder to track down, a sort of urban legend has arisen that most of Peter’s work in America is trash and that it was an insult to Peter to have to do it. To date I’ve seen every one of Peter’s feature films except for his ultra-rare European films “Die Verschwuendene Frau,” “Schuss im Morgengrau” and “Du Haut en Bas,” and I’ve heard and seen as many of his radio and TV performances as I could get hold of, and I can assure you that judging by what I’ve seen Peter maintained a respectable standard of what assignments he would and wouldn’t accept. I doubt very much that he ever felt mortified by having to act in any of them, and unless you’re very easily embarrassed by silly or trivial entertainments, you won’t feel uncomfortable watching or listening to any of them. Peter always maintained a certain easy poise and confidence, what used to be called being “cool,” which allowed him to keep his dignity even when those around him were acting like twerps, and this in itself almost always makes him a pleasure to watch.

Most of the performances by Peter that I would recommend that you seek out are in films. Acting for radio and television generally involves less preparation and rehearsal time than film work and this shows in Peter’s performances, which though perfectly well executed usually aren’t as substantial since in films he generally had better material to work with, or at least more time to rehearse and even sometimes permission to improve what he was given.

Here is a selection of what I consider the most interesting, entertaining and significant recorded examples of Peter at work.  


“M” (1931)

You have to see this film if you’re at all interested in Peter. His haunting performance as a childlike serial killer is deservedly famous, and the film’s stylish, realistic depiction of urban life had a huge impact on the Hollywood films noir that Peter would later appear in.

“Die Koffer des Herrn O.F.” (1931)

Nifty comedy with musical numbers in the style of Rene Clair, with Peter as a mischievous newspaper editor who plays a prank that turns a sleepy little German town into a champagne and chorus girl-filled hotspot.

“F.P. 1 Antwortet Nicht” (1932)

Hans Albers plays a heroic, slightly crazy test pilot involved in the creation of a mid-Atlantic refueling station for aircraft. Peter, with his hair and eyebrows bleached blond and styled to make him look like a mini-Albers, is very funny and sweet as his adoring sidekick.

"Was Frauen Traeumen” (1933)

This romantic comedy showcases Peter in a role that is the complete opposite of the one he played in “M,” a bumbling junior police detective on the trail of a jewel thief played by Gerda Maurer. Note the “M” like sequence at the start of the film in which Maurer spots a diamond in a jeweler’s window and is overcome by the urge to steal it. This is the only musical film Peter appeared in (and yes, there are several Peter Lorre musicals!) in which he actually did his own singing, and though he barely manages to hit a single note of the melody in the duet he performs with Maurer, he easily steals the number from her through pure comic showmanship.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934)

Once, after a screening of this at New York’s Film Forum, I heard a young woman say to her friend, “Peter Lorre’s hot–I never thought I’d say that!” Wrapped in a velveteen jacket, a dashing white streak in his hair and a becoming dueling scar over one eye, Peter is the embodiment of elegant, aristocratic Old Vienna in exile, as eloquent with the way he smokes a cigarette as when he speaks in his lusciously heavy accent. Peter liked to claim he hardly knew any English when Hitchcock hired him for this film, but the wonderfully nuanced line readings he delivers in this film prove he was fibbing.

“Mad Love” (1935)

This surprisingly adult psychosexual thriller about a lonely orthopedic surgeon (Peter) whose crush on a pretty actress (Frances Drake) gets scary after her husband (Colin Clive) becomes his patient was an attempt by MGM to challenge Universal’s domination of the SF-horror film market. It’s both an intelligent homage to the Universal classics, with references to “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” and “The Invisible Man,” and a horror classic in its own right. Drake said that the film’s director Karl Freund was only interested in making the film look great (which it does) and basically left her and Peter to direct themselves, which is probably why Peter’s scenes are so dramatically brilliant. Whether it was the writing team, Freund, or Peter himself who devised such marvelous set pieces as the execution, where the guillotining of a convict is shown only through Peter’s eye movements, or the sequence in which the surgeon played by Peter, overcome by a panic attack, hallucinates that the reflections he sees of himself in various surgical mirrors are urging him to commit a crime, they’re the sort of bravura effects that tend to happen over and over in the cinema of Peter Lorre. If he didn’t invent them, he certainly inspired them, and it’s hard to imagine any other actor carrying them off.

“Crime and Punishment” (1935)

“Mad Love,” which was never meant to be anything but a silly potboiler for MGM, turned out to be a classic. This film, which was intended to be a prestige vehicle that would introduce Peter to the American public as a serious actor, is not so great, probably due to the fact that its director, Josef von Sternberg, just wasn’t interested in doing it and seems to have invested most of his energy in making it look as gorgeous as his films with Marlene Dietrich (and his leading lady Marian Marsh look as much as possible like Dietrich.) Marsh reported that Sternberg and Peter were constantly arguing in German on the set, and Peter’s performance is uncharacteristically awkward and disjointed, as though he didn’t have a grasp of his characterization and was more or less playing it scene by scene. Sternberg’s attitude towards Peter seems to be reflected in the unflattering angles he uses on him early in the film. However, in the final scenes showing Raskolnikov’s spiritual enlightenment, he creates some of the most beautiful images of the young Peter ever filmed, demonstrating how Peter might have come to be seen by the public if he and the cinematographers who worked with him had been as careful about how he was photographed as Dietrich and Sternberg were about Dietrich.

“Crack-Up” (1936)

This action thriller with hints of “F.P.1" and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” is one of Peter’s best films of the 1930s, giving him a wonderful showy role as a suave spymaster who masquerades as a cute little mentally challenged guy who does funny impressions of owls.

“Nancy Steele Is Missing!” (1937)

There are textual hints in Thomas Harris’ early Hannibal Lecter novels that he originally imagined Lecter as a sort of Peter Lorre character (small, dark, of undefined European origin, brilliant-charming-scary in equal amounts), and there is something strikingly Lecteresque about Professor Sturm, the elegant homicidal sociopath Peter plays in this well-crafted thriller.

“Think Fast, Mr. Moto” (1937)

“Thank You, Mr. Moto” (1937)

“Mr. Moto’s Gamble” (1938)

“Mysterious Mr. Moto” (1938)

The decision by the creators of the Moto series to cast a Jewish actor as the Japanese Mr. Moto when there were plenty of Asian-American actors around Hollywood is not defensible. Previously Hollywood had successfully groomed Asian actors for stardom, notably Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa. In fact, the character that Peter created in the Hauptmann-Weill-Brecht musical “Happy End,” the Japanese gangster Dr. Nakamura, was an homage to Hayakawa.

Though racial prejudice inarguably played a part in the casting of Mr. Moto, the series itself is actually quite enlightened for its time in its treatment of its Japanese hero, not in small part due to Peter’s respectful approach to the character. He uses the (for that time) progressive tactic of revealing the different social personas of Moto, having him play the sweet, harmless little Japanese gentleman around whites he doesn’t know very well, then dropping the mask when he’s around other Asians or has serious work to do. That way the audience is in on the secret that he’s a man of action, which makes it more fun when he suddenly dives on an opponent and flips him over his head. It also helped American audiences to see him as a “regular guy” rather than an exotic foreigner.

In general the Moto pictures were reasonably well scripted and had good production values for a B series (with the exception of the inexcusable “Mr. Moto Takes a Chance,” which barely deserves to be classed with the rest of the Moto films.) In my opinion “Think Fast, Mr. Moto,” “Thank You, Mr. Moto,” “Mr. Moto’s Gamble,” and “Mysterious Mr. Moto” are the best of them, and naturally Peter is wonderful in all of them.

“I’ll Give a Million” (1938)

A mediocre Depression farce about rich people getting mixed up with poor people that is made considerably more tolerable by some very good comic performances, notably by Peter as a winsome hobo who spends most of the film padding around adorably in an oversized evening suit.

“Strange Cargo” (1940)

News of the horrific abuse of prisoners at the French penal colony known as Devil’s Island spawned several Hollywood exploitation movies circa 1940. Peter was cast in two of them, the low-budget “Island of Doomed Men” produced by Columbia, and MGM’s more expensively produced “Strange Cargo,” an action thriller with strains of religious allegory about a mysterious Christian who saves the souls of a group of French convicts while helping them escape from a tropical prison.  Peter’s character is a sort of prototype of Ugarte in “Casablanca,” an underworld character in a white linen suit who is referred to contemptuously by all the other characters as Mr. Pig, especially the vulgar Sadie Thompson-style prostitute played by Joan Crawford, whom he stalks with masochistic, Dr. Gogol-like adoration. No one could do unrequited yearning like the young Peter Lorre.

“I Was An Adventuress” (1940)

One of the all-time favorites of Peter’s lady fans, this elegant romantic comedy offered the beautiful ballet star Vera Zorina a role we Lorre ladies would all like to play: Tania, a con artist turned society lady pursued by her former partners in crime, the gentle kleptomaniac Polo (Peter), and suave criminal mastermind Andre (Erich von Stroheim.) Comparisons of the shooting script and finished film reveal that director Gregory Ratoff allowed Peter and Stroheim to make key changes that significantly improved it. As Eve Halliday of the Peterlorre online discussion group observed, there are numerous Stroheimian touches in the film, such as the sequence in which Andre fetishistically touches up Tania’s nail polish, and the scene in which Tania confesses her criminal past to her husband at a crossroads next to a shrine to the Virgin Mary. As for Peter, his Polo is so sweet and puppylike that Tania and Andre, who in the script are rather mean to him, are forced to be much nicer to him on film. As Bonita Kelso of Peterlorre has pointed out, Stroheim and Peter are pure magic together, a sort of Viennese Jewish American version of Laurel and Hardy, and it’s a real shame that there weren’t more Polo and Andre films.

“Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940)

Critics consider this exquisite low-budget crime thriller to be the the first true film noir, and though Peter’s screen time is relatively brief, he is clearly the focal point of a production that's plainly an homage to his role in “M.” As the Stranger who’s only seen in glimpses as he stalks his victims, Peter doesn’t so much act his part as he dances it, moving with a stealthy catlike grace, especially in his big scene with Margaret Tallichet, with its “M”-inspired show-stopping monologue in which he confesses that he’s a psychotic on the run from an abusive mental hospital (which Peterlorre’s Nancy SimPanda has suggested that Peter himself may have written.)

“You’ll Find Out” (1940)

The fact that Peter’s presence in a film contributed significantly to its box office appeal is underlined in his being cast as a featured player in this vehicle for the popular radio entertainer Kay Kyser and his swing orchestra. The wacky routines and novelty songs of Kay and his fellow musician-comedians are tastefully balanced by the mature, sophisticated charms of Peter, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as sinister Europeans lurking atmospherically at an American society girl’s birthday party. Though it’s really a “Cat and the Canary” style horror spoof rather than a genuine horror film there are some truly eerie moments, particularly the first seance scene with its floating faces and synthesized ghost voices. Peter is startlingly slender in this film (Nancy SimPanda describes this period as his skinny Chihuahua phase) and his frail, elegant figure in its white evening suit, the exquisite bone structure of his face and the ivory cigarette holder he slips between visibly rotting teeth are gorgeously decadent.    

“Island of Doomed Men” (1940)

If you want to see the artistry of Peter Lorre blossom like a lotus out of the muddy waters of Hollywood, you need to see this B-grade exploitation film, which contains the most exquisitely rendered, fully developed character study in all his English-language films. Mr. Danel, the ruthless owner of a diamond mine which he operates Devil’s Island style with enslaved convicts, is the perfect metaphor for mid twentieth century fascism, and Peter, with his fine sense of the absurd and gift for high camp, lays bare this species of tyrant far more eloquently than his colleague Brecht did in his highfalutin art plays.

The scenes in this film without Peter are so bad, and the ones with him in them are so dramatically effective, especially the ones depicting Mr. and Mrs. Danel’s marital tensions, that it’s impossible not to conclude that Peter was allowed to rework his own scenes. It’s no wonder Peter had ambitions to direct, given his demonstrated ability to improve almost any film he participated in, and this is the most outstanding example of Peter the uncredited writer/director at work. Rochelle Hudson gives an admirable performance as Mr. Danel’s rebellious wife, matching him at every dramatic turn of their scenes together. As Frances Drake observed, you had to be good to keep up with Peter.

“The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Jack Warner warned Peter not to play the gay character Joel Cairo as too “nancy,” and the result is a subtly nuanced performance that slipped a couple of outrageously bawdy gestures right past the censorship office. Innocent persons might see nothing in the way Joel manipulates the handle of his umbrella in his initial conversation with Sam Spade, and the moment in which his hand makes contact with Spade’s buttock just before Spade turns around and punches his lights out may be too quick to register. Otherwise Peter’s Cairo is perfectly demure with his tidy formal wear and glossy poodle cut (one of Peter’s most becoming looks.) The film’s success boosted Peter’s popularity and encouraged Warners to hire him as a contract player. It also spawned the questionable idea that Peter ought to be put in a lot of movies with Sydney Greenstreet.

“The Face Behind the Mask” (1941)

This is another one of Peter’s most celebrated film noir performances. The director, Robert Florey, said that Peter hated making it and would drink himself silly during filming, which wasn’t typical behavior for him. Perhaps he was self-medicating for pain related to having his teeth pulled for dentures, which happened around this time, or he was frustrated at having to play with his face immobilized with tape to create the “mask” of his disfigured character, or he was uncomfortable with the early scenes in the film in which he had to play a buffoonish teenaged immigrant, or he was just made miserable by playing a character who suffers so much, or the news from Europe of the impending genocide was getting to him.

“All Through the Night” (1942)

Director Vincent Sherman says in his memoirs that he was aware of how bad the script he was given for this anti-Nazi propaganda comedy was, which is probably one of the reasons why he gave Peter permission to embellish his role as a thuggish Nazi spy. The result is one of Peter’s most famous cinematic set pieces, in which his character, Pepi, strolls into a shop owned by a German-American baker, nonchalantly bullying him at first, then escalating into murderous intimidation. Nightclub entertainers who mimicked Peter using the line, “Did you get the information?” were misquoting this scene. Peter was later asked in comedy sketches to spoof himself using this line. It became his version of Charles Boyer’s “Come with me to the Casbah” or Humphrey Bogart’s “Play it again, Sam,” the famous words he was always identified with but never actually said.

“The Boogie Man Will Get You” (1942)

This very silly screwball comedy with elements borrowed from “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “George Washington Slept Here” gives us a hint of what it might have been like if Boris Karloff  had been allowed to play the character he created onstage in AAOL opposite Peter in the Warners film. The answer is that Jack Warner was an idiot not to postpone the filming until Karloff could participate, because on the evidence of “Boogie Man” Karloff and Peter made a marvelous comedy team.  (A television production of AAOL made during the 1950s that finally united Peter and Karloff in the roles they should have played in the Warners film may be fantastic for all I know, but I’ve never seen it and I suspect they were both a little too over the hill by then to really give it their all.)

“Boogie Man” is the first film in which Peter really seems to hit his stride in the American idiom. Dr. Lorencz, the cocky rural shyster with a Siamese kitten in the pocket of his frock coat, is one of his most entertaining comic creations. He must have been given permission to ad lib as much as he liked as his scenes are brimming over with his eccentric sense of fun. Not to mention that the old-fashioned country minister’s outfit is immensely becoming to him.

“Casablanca” (1942)

Because this is such a celebrated and well-loved film, Peter’s part in it has become his most famous American performance, though it only lasts a few minutes and is unsatisfactory from a Peter watcher’s standpoint as he gets dragged off the screen halfway through, never to reappear.  He wears a handsome linen evening suit similar to one he wears in “Island of Doomed Men,” maybe the same one.

“The Cross of Lorraine” (1943)

The other World War II propaganda films that Peter appeared in seem like cotton candy next to this depiction of French POWs in a Nazi camp, which for a Hollywood film of its time is shockingly brutal. Peter’s German biographer Friedemann Beyer noted the absurdity of casting a 5’2” Jew as an SS officer, but Peter makes us believe in his sadistic Nazi bully, one of his very rare characterizations that does not contain one redeeming element.

“The Constant Nymph” (1943)

Because of the studio-era convention that Jewishness not be mentioned in a Hollywood film, the character played by Peter in this film, who is specifically identified as a German Jew in Margaret Kennedy’s original bestseller and its popular stage version, has his name changed from Jacob Birnbaum to Fritz Bercovy. Nevertheless, given this rare opportunity to play a member of his own ethnicity, Peter pitches right in and plays him as a veritable caricature of the nouveau riche European Jew (note the spats, the striped shirt with contrasting collar, and the occasional hand-wringing.) Fritz is one of Peter’s best roles at Warners, wistful, romantic, and normal as blueberry pie.  

“The Mask of Dimitrios” (1944)

After the success of “The Maltese Falcon,” some publicist at Warners decided to float the meme that Peter and Sydney Greenstreet were a legendary movie team. This caught on in a big way, although on closer examination it really is little more than PR. “Little Pete and Big Syd” may have been cast in several of the same Warner Bros. films in the early to mid 1940s, and even played in some of the same scenes together. But most of the time, when they do have significant interaction together, as in “Mask of Dimitrios,” there really isn’t any theatrical magic there, unless you’re engaged by the obvious visual joke of a big fat man alongside a petite one. To me Peter seems downright uncomfortable in his scenes with Greenstreet in “Mask of Dimitrios,” having to slow down, hold back, and dutifully feed the older actor his cues. Otherwise he turns on the Viennese charm, playing the economics professor turned mystery writer Cornelius Leyden like a wandering pussycat curiously observing the behavior of all the odd and occasionally dangerous creatures he meets.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944)

Warners did its best to make this film as faithful to the original production of the hit Broadway play as possible, even importing several members of its original cast, with the tragic exception of Boris Karloff, whom the producers forced to stay with the show while the film was being made. This criminal act of greed was aggravated by the fact that Peter had to play Dr. Einstein, one of his most memorable and ingeniously crafted comic screen characters, not with Karloff, not even with Erich von Stroheim (who played Jonathan Brewster in the play’s national tour), but with Raymond Massey.

The cultural meme that Peter Lorre characters are always cringing and whining is in large part derived from his portrayal of Dr. Einstein in this film. But this is simply Peter’s artistic empathy at work. The whining and cringing make sense when you consider that the poor doctor is exhausted, starving, on the brink of delirium tremens from alcoholic withdrawal, and has spent many months as the hostage and slave of a homicidal maniac who forces him to repeatedly perform complex and delicate surgical procedures without proper equipment under the threat of violent death if he makes any mistakes, and you’ll see the exquisite psychological realism in Peter’s rendition of this physician on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Also note Peter’s endearing interpolation of some eloquent German ad libs.

“Hotel Berlin” (1945)

Another not so hot anti-Nazi propaganda picture that nevertheless contains a gem of a performance by Peter as a distinguished research scientist whose soul has been destroyed by the Nazi machine (one German critic described him to me as a prototype for Dr. Rothe in Peter’s movie “Der Verlorene.”) Peter has two memorable set pieces, one in which he sarcastically searches his hotel room for a “good German,” and another in which he puts on a pair of tortoiseshell glasses that look like the ones he used in “Mask of Dimitros” and reads a speech by President Roosevelt urging a postwar reconciliation between the German and American peoples.

“Three Strangers” (1945)

Reportedly John Huston wrote this film before World War II as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, but it made a perfect noir-flavored postwar vehicle for Peter, along with the inevitable Sydney Greenstreet, as well as the British ingenue Joan Lorring, who became one of Peter’s best screen partners as well as the one leading lady with which he was allowed to create a credible romance. This and “Mask of Dimitrios” are by far the best of the Little Pete-Big Syd films.

“Black Angel” (1945)

In their song “Peter Lorre,” the British pop group the Jazz Butcher evokes an image of Peter as a nightclub owner with an attitude: “Don’t spit on his shoes or mess up his hair or he will shoot you dead and go back upstairs.” The perfect description of Peter’s character in “Black Angel,” a tough wiseguy with a bittersweet streak of Viennese sentimentality.

“The Chase” (1946)

Another sterling postwar noir vehicle for Peter, in which he creates another Viennese American gangland character, this time a feisty henchman whose boss seems to prefer him to the beautiful wife he keeps locked in her bedroom.

“The Verdict” (1946)

The last of the Little Pete-Big Syd films, this is a highly entertaining locked-room mystery set in Victorian London, with Peter as an impish rake who has a couple of ever so slightly erotic scenes with a Cockney cocotte played by Joan Lorring.

“The Beast With Five Fingers” (1946)

A very stupid script by Curt Siodmak, which Jack Warner forced on Peter and director Robert Florey out of sheer vindictiveness, keeps this film from being the supernatural horror classic that it ought to have been, with its unforgettable special effects sequences devised by Luis Bunuel in which Peter’s character is stalked and taunted by a crawling disembodied hand. Peter the theatrical psychoanalyst offers a brilliant interpretation of his character’s psychosis, playing his scenes with the ghostly hand with a strange serenity, as though he were experiencing the insane logic of a nightmare: “Yes, of course the hand’s playing the piano, it used to belong to a pianist....I’ll throw it in the fire, that’ll stop it...oh no, it’s crawling out again, now it’s really mad at me....”

“My Favorite Brunette” (1947)

This Bob Hope comedy is a surprisingly astute satire of the film noir genre, down to its inclusion of Peter, doing what appears to be essentially a reprise of his gangster sidekick from “The Chase” (he even seems to be wearing the same costume.)

“Casbah” (1948)

A first-class remake of “Pepe le Moko” that in my opinion is substantially better than the more famous Charles Boyer version, “Algiers,” with musical numbers featuring songs by Harold Arlen and the Katherine Dunham dancers. In typical Peterian fashion, Peter subtly alters the arc of the story by playing Inspector Slimane as though he were as much in love with Pepe le Moko as Pepe’s women, making his attempts to lure him out of the Casbah into a fatal seduction. Nancy SimPanda thinks that the bit where an actress tells Peter “Inspector, I think you’re cute!” was an ad-libbed practical joke on Peter and I think she’s right.

“Rope of Sand” (1949)

One of the best of the “Casablanca” clones, this was not a Warners picture but an independent production by Hal Wallis which offers Peter, Claude Rains and Paul Henried substantial roles that are essential to the story rather than doing the usual thing and just using them as nostalgic set dressing. Peter’s character is particularly engaging, a scruffy reincarnation of Ugarte who shows up in a South African bar to offer his criminal services to Burt Lancaster with the best lines Peter was ever given in an American film: “I am free as the wind, a fountain of extraordinary knowledge, splendidly corrupt and eager to be of profitable service.”

“Quicksand” (1950)

Though this was not a fortunate film for Peter, as his business manager Sam Stiefel financed it using what was left of Peter’s life savings without bothering to consult Peter about it, it’s one of Peter’s finest films noir, with a racy Cornell Woolrich-style scenario that involves him in an agreeably sleazy love triangle between a punk (Mickey Rooney) and a low-rent femme fatale (Jeanne Cagney.)

“Double Confession” (1950)

This extremely talky and artificial British mystery comes to life when Peter shows up in yet another reprise of his gay gangster character, this time flirting outrageously with his uptight English boss (William Hartnell.)

“Der Verlorene” (English title: “The Lost One,” 1951)

One of the first postwar German films to depict the Nazi era, this is also the only film in which Peter had the opportunity to direct himself and write his own material. I've got lots to tell you about this one.

“Silk Stockings” (1957)

What was Peter doing in a Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse musical? A little dancing, a little lip synching, but mostly being adorable. The fact that director Rouben Mamoulian gave him so much screen time shows he understood that there’s nothing like a good Peter Lorre musical.

“The Story of Mankind” (1957)

This stupid and vulgar historical pageant is by far the worst film Peter ever appeared in, so you won’t be missing a thing if you skip directly to the sequence in which he delivers a stunning character sketch of the psychotic Emperor Nero presiding over the burning of Rome, recreating that thrill of mingled terror and pity he made us feel in “M.” Next to “Island of Doomed Men,” this is the best example of how Peter could find dramatic gold in the most undistinguished settings.

“Tales of Terror” (1962)

Knowing Peter’s love of Poe, director Roger Corman lured him into participating in this omnibus film dramatizing three Poe stories. Peter’s episode, “The Black Cat,” has practically nothing to do with the original story, but his comic portrayal of a mean drunk taking out his frustrations on his long-suffering wife and her lover encouraged Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson to devise more elaborate scenarios for him and his costars Vincent Price and Joyce Jameson.

“The Raven” (1963)

Peter’s second Corman film ostensibly based on Poe is a comic fairy tale about a power struggle between three aristocratic sorcerers in a remote part of Europe during what appears to be the Renaissance. With its witty, literate Richard Matheson script and Corman’s generous permission to improvise around it as much as he liked, it’s the best film vehicle devised for Peter in his post-“Verlorene” career. The crabby, supercilious Dr. Bedlo (whom, I'm guessing, Matheson named after the eponymous morphine addict in Poe's story "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains") is the ideal comic role for the portly Old Peter, Vincent Price makes an excellent comic foil (the tall-short business for once being used for real comic effect) and the young Jack Nicholson seizes the opportunity of being cast as his son and plays it like the star he was soon to become, even daring to improvise with the master (it was his idea for Rexford Bedlo to annoy his father by playing with his buttons while talking with him, and you can tell Peter approved despite the slap he gives him.)

“The Comedy of Terrors” (1963)

Abandoning all pretense of basing this film on Poe, Corman and Matheson instead devised an original story that’s an homage to Peter’s screwball horror comedies of the early 1940s, “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Boogie Man Will Get You.” But where “Tales of Terror” and “The Raven” were more suitably tailored to their middle-aged stars, “Comedy of Terrors” is full of physical business and slapstick that would really be more appropriate for younger actors, particularly Peter, whose stunt double is obviously doing a substantial part of his role in a rubber mask. Still Peter is very sweet in a sort of reprise of his timid Dr. Einstein in AAOL, and though obviously meant to be ridiculous his successful courtship of Jameson is quite romantic.


“Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthoefe,” Nov. 4, 1932

This German radio adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play features Peter in the role of stockbroker Sullivan Slift. The part is considerably expanded to give Peter more air time and his wonderfully unmannered performance stands out in comparison to that of the female players, who seem to have all been directed to talk like zombies.

“Suspense: Till Death Do Us Part,” Dec. 15, 1942

“Suspense: Back for Christmas,” Dec. 23, 1943

Nice little thrillers in which Peter plays scheming wife murderers.

“Inner Sanctum: The Black Seagull,” March 7, 1943

This supernatural romance about a grieving widower features the most full-bodied, flavorful radio performance by Peter that I’ve heard to date.

“Mystery in the Air,” 1947

I’ve heard nine of the thirteen episodes of Peter’s very own radio series from the summer of 1947 (Abbott and Costello were on vacation) and read the scripts for three others, which bear out the impression that this was an exceptionally literate, tasteful, and dramatically effective series.  My favorite is “The Mask of Medusa,” a hallucinatory fantasy about a mad avenger who turns murderers into living waxworks. Peter absolutely kills in this one (playing one of the waxworks), and in a kinetic adaptation of de Maupassant’s “The Horla” (you can hear the studio audience roaring at the end.) “The Marvelous Barastro,” “Queen of Spades,” and “The Black Cat” are also especially good. I hope someday that a recording of the “Leiningen versus the Ants” episode turns up as I would love to know how Peter conveyed the experience of being eaten alive by South American army ants.

“The Big Show,” March 9, 1952

This two-hour variety show features Peter performing the monologue “The Cask of Amontillado” from his one-man stage show.


“Texaco Star Theatre,” March 15, 1949

As part of his guest appearance on Milton Berle’s variety series, Peter performs “The Man With a Head of Glass,” another monologue from his stage show.

“Playhouse 90: The Last Tycoon,” March 14, 1957

Extraordinary performance by Peter as an alcoholic movie director down on his luck.

“Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Man from the South,” Jan. 3, 1960

Peter approaches the role of an ogrish gambler who chops off people’s fingers with characteristic delicacy and tact.

Recommended reading

In English:

Youngkin, Stephen D., James Bigwood and Raymond G. Cabana, Jr. “The Films of Peter Lorre.” Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1982.

    A well-researched overview of Peter's career in film.

Youngkin, Stephen D. “The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre.” Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2005.

     The authoritative biography.

Thomas, Sarah. “Peter Lorre: Face Maker: Stardom and Performance between Hollywood and Europe.” New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.

    Insightful and perceptive analysis of Peter’s work and its meaning in twentieth century popular culture.

In German:

Beyer, Friedemann. “Peter Lorre: Seine Filme--sein Leben.” Munich: Heyne, 1988.

    A survey of Peter’s life and work.

Lorre, Peter. “Der Verlorene: Roman.” Munich: Belleville, 1996.

    Includes a novelized version of “Der Verlorene,” with essays about the making of the film.

“Peter Lorre: Ein Fremder im Paradies.” Michael Omasta, Brigitte Mayr, and Elisabeth Streit, editors. Vienna: Zsolnay, 2004.

    Collection of essays, photos and documents published as part of the Austrian Filmmuseum’s commemoration of Peter’s 100th birthday.

(c) Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.