The Peter Lorre Story
by Anne Sharp
Ladislav Loewenstein was born June 26, 1904 in Rozsahegy, Hungary (now part of Slovakia), the eldest son of a middle-class German speaking Jewish family, and grew up in suburban Vienna and various rural outposts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Though his father tried to steer him into a respectable career as a banker, he was determined to become an actor, and spent much of the 1920s learning his trade in various small theatrical companies, notably with psychologist Jacob Moreno's experimental troupe in Vienna. It was Moreno who recommended that he adopt the stage name Peter Lorre. During this period Peter started using morphine, eventually developing a habit that he never really overcame, but which he managed to keep a secret from the public and many who worked with him. In the late 1920s and early 1930s Peter made an impression in the art theaters of Berlin in productions of "Engineers in Ingolstadt," "Danton's Death," "Spring Awakening," and "Tales from the Vienna Woods." He became part of the theatrical coterie of avant-garde playwright Bertolt Brecht, appearing in productions of "Happy End" and "Man Equals Man."
Peter had a phenomenal success with his first sound film appearance as a serial killer in Fritz Lang's 1931 thriller "M." Now considered a classic of German cinema, "M" earned its fame in large part due to its ingenious climax, in which the murderer played by Peter, whom the audience is encouraged to hate and fear throughout the film, is caught by a lynch mob and makes a hysterical plea for mercy. The young Peter's heart-rending delivery of this speech made an unforgettable impression on critics, audiences and, most significantly, the international filmmaking community. Though Peter chose his next few roles carefully to avoid being typecast as an "M"-style psychopath, it was precisely that quality of mingled menace and pathos that producers, directors and scenario writers would strive again and again to coax out of him.
After Peter left Germany shortly following Hitler's election in 1933, the American release of "M" and his first English-speaking role as a terrorist in British director Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 suspense thriller "The Man Who Knew Too Much" brought him to Hollywood's attention. He relocated to southern California and settled in as a permanent resident of Hollywood's star colony, becoming an American citizen in 1941.
He made his American screen debut in 1935 starring in the Frankensteinian horror melodrama "Mad Love" and as Raskolnikov in "Crime and Punishment," which with a host of radio appearances geared to exploit his image as a professional impersonator of criminals and madmen established him as an audience favorite. The trademark Peter Lorre character--dangerous yet vulnerable, with an eccentric charm all his own--seemed to fascinate the media artisans who worked with him to ring infinite changes on that marvelous creature first glimpsed in "M." Actually it was Peter's inclination to play against type, to infuse even the most underwritten part, such as his popular detective series character Mr. Moto or the shady exotics he portrayed in numerous films noir and Warner Bros. features such as "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon," with subtle gestures and emotional shadings worthy of the Berlin art theater, that made the various "creeps" he portrayed so intriguing and entertaining. At the same time Peter took the initiative in developing various stage and screen properties that offered more creative potential, including stage plays he commissioned from Brecht, Ferdinand Bruckner, and Edwin Justus Mayer. In Germany he cowrote, directed and starred in "Der Verlorene" ("The Lost One"; 1951), a film noir set in WWII-era Hamburg.
Years of morphine addiction and ill health eventually took their toll on Peter's looks and energy level. Audiences still loved him, however, and during the 1950s and 1960s he evaded attempts to typecast him as a horror actor, preferring television work and roles in non-genre pictures such as "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Silk Stockings." Near the end of his life he did agree to appear in several of low-budget director Roger Corman's horror pastiches, notably "The Raven," which feature some of his most charming and creative later work. He suffered a fatal stroke on March 23, 1964.
(c) Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.