Peter Lorre, Horror Boy

by Anne Sharp

Out of the eighty feature films that Peter Lorre appeared in, there are only eight that have enough of a supernatural or horrific science fiction element to be classified as horror films–“Mad Love,” “You’ll Find Out,” “The Boogie Man Will Get You,” “The Beast With Five Fingers,” the “Black Cat” sequence from “Tales of Terror,” “The Raven,” and “The Comedy of Terrors”–and of these only two, “Mad Love” and “The Beast With Five Fingers,” are straight horror. The rest of them are comedy spoofs.  The fact that Peter is thought of as a horror actor in the same category as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price, whose work in the horror genre does constitute a major portion of their movie careers, has little to do with what he actually did in front of a camera and lots to do with the peculiar ways in which American audiences got to know him.

When he first came to Hollywood, Peter had played exactly one scary character onscreen: the serial killer in "M." But since it was his work in “M” that had sold him to Hollywood, that was the angle they used to publicize him. Fan magazines described him as an actor who made women scream and strong men faint. When he made guest appearances on radio variety programs,  he was invariably introduced by the host with a joke about how weird and scary he was. Though he avoided being typecast as a horror star in films, he did accept guest star spots in episodes of radio series like “Suspense” and “Inner Sanctum” that could be classed as horror plays (though comparatively tasteful ones.) He also served as a host for Armed Forces Radio Service broadcasts of “Mystery Playhouse,” which included horror as well as mystery and suspense plays, and starred in his own 1947 summer replacement series “Mystery in the Air,” which didn’t really feature mysteries but tales of suspense, terror and the supernatural, albeit comparatively sophisticated ones and based on respectable works by the likes of Pushkin, Poe and de Maupassant.

Peter’s reputation as a horror star solidified in the late 1940s when Jack Warner, who did not appreciate Peter’s antiauthoritarian attitude, forced him to appear in the horror film “The Beast With Five Fingers,” which was both a serious demotion and a transformative event in Peter’s movie career. The extraordinary sequences (created by Luis Bunuel, interpreted beautifully under Robert Florey’s direction)  in which Peter’s character plays a cat and mouse game with a crawling disembodied hand echo the famous climax of “M” in giving Peter a bravura showcase for displaying extreme rage and fear. When Warner subsequently declined to renew Peter’s studio contract, Peter turned to entrepreneur Sam Stiefel, who, though grossly mismanaging his business affairs and leaving him in financial ruin, encouraged him to engage in some remarkable creative ventures, such as the film noir “Quicksand,” his successful touring one-man show, and “Mystery in the Air.”  Both the one-man show and “Mystery in the Air” capitalized on the BWFF business of Peter showing off his ability to roar and scream and sob in a spectacular frenzy of negative emotions. Remember that this was a time when American men were supposed to be tough, stoic and in control at all times, like Gary Cooper or Ernest Hemingway. To see and hear this small, exotic looking European man losing control so uninhibitedly was really shocking. This was one of the reasons people laughed at him: he made them so uncomfortable they had to make a joke of it.

And Peter’s exhibitions of taboo masculine behavior were popular. Stephen D. Youngkin reports that gangsters adored Peter’s live show, would follow him from town to town to see it multiple times, and shower him with gifts. Young female fans would scream with excitement and mob him when they saw him in the street. It was at this time that the Spike Jones band created their hit novelty recording of “My Old Flame” featuring a parody of the sort of macabre vignettes featured in “Mystery in the Air” and Peter’s stage show, in which Paul Frees, imitating Peter’s voice, lasciviously describes setting his girlfriend on fire. At this point Peter’s past associations with the horror genre coalesced with the history of parody Peters, from his self-spoofing early radio appearances to the lurid Peter caricatures in the Warner Bros. cartoons “Hair-Raising Hare” and “Birth of a Notion.” And perhaps this was appropriate, given the times.

Arch Oboler, a radio writer known for his “Lights Out!” series, which was much more gruesome and considerably less tasteful than “Suspense” or “Inner Sanctum,” devised a half-hour free-form radio play, “An Exercise in Horror: A Peculiar Comedy” (broadcast May 24, 1945) in which he dealt, in his customary crude but effective style, with the theme of Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust. Oboler himself introduces the program, which proceeds with shocking playlets depicting Nazi crimes against humanity. He then introduces Peter, who first enacts a “My Old Flame”-like vignette in which he plays a sadist preparing to cut off his wife’s ear, and then breaks character to continue as the real Peter, delivering a speech in which he tries to create a picture for his American audience of the immense number of people killed by the Nazis, evoking sports stadiums crowded with individuals, screaming and dying in agony. And Peter delivers this speech in the very same raving manner in which he delivers his lines in the “Mystery in the Air” episodes, and in his recordings of the “Man with a Head of Glass” and “Cask of Amontillado” bits from his stage show, and in the frenzied style of his struggles with the Beast with Five Fingers, and this in itself sheds a provocative light on his work from this period. It doesn’t seem possible that Peter would have been so cold as to treat a text about the murder of six million of his fellow Jews as though it was just another horror script. It may be that there was just a synergy between the work that Peter found to do at this time, his personal struggles and the terrifying news from Europe, that made both actor and audience ready for a good long scream.

(c) Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.

The men behind Spike Jones' novelty hit "My Old Flame": Peter Lorre impressionist Paul Frees, bandleader Spike Jones, and a very cool Peter Lorre.