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The Times (25/Mar/1964) - Obituary: Peter Lorre

(c) The Times (25/Mar/1964)



Mr. Peter Lorre, for many years one of the character actors most in demand for villainous roles in Hollywood films, died on Monday at the age of 59, as reported briefly in later editions of The Times yesterday.

He was born in Rosenberg, Hungary, on June 26, 1904. His family had no interest whatever in the theatre and, indeed, did not approve of children going to the theatre at all, but he later recalled Sneaking to the theatre during his spare time after they had moved to Vienna. He ran away from home and joined a theatrical company at the age of 17, and though after this escapade his family put him to work in a bank he soon managed to return to his first love.

After some experience on the stage he was caught up in the new talking pictures, and after a film of no interest he created a sensation in his second film role, in Lang's M (1931). This remarkable study of a child-killer gave him a great opportunity to create a rounded character out of what could so easily have become a two-dimensional monster, and he seized it to give us a definitive screen portrait of the psychopath, horrifying yet pathetic.

The advent of Hitler sent him, like so many other prominent figures in Germany's artistic" life, into voluntary exile. His first stopping place was France, where he appeared in De haut en bas, a good-natured story of life in a tenement directed by another German emigre, G. W. Pabst; then he went on to England to appear in a Hitchcock thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which he played for the first time a role which was subsequently to become his hallmark: the ruthless professional killer.

Hollywood offered him the role of Raskolnikov in an interesting version of Crime and Punishment directed by Josef von Sternberg, and succeeded, with the director's help, in conveying much of the original's flavour in spite of an over-simplified screenplay. In 1936 he returned to England to appear in another Hitchcock film, The Secret Agent, based on Ashenden, and gave a splendid performance as the agent disguised as a Mexican general, terrorising the other characters with a certain macabre good humour.

Back in Hollywood he made a series of thrillers built round a character called Mr. Moto, and various minor thrillers and horror films, until it looked as if he was doomed, to descend into a premature and unmerited obscurity among the B-pictures, but in 1941 he was again offered a part in which he could show his talent, in Huston's brilliant detective story The Maltese Falcon; his exotic and heavily-scented crook, half cowardice and half guile, was a personal and original creation, and established him again in the public eye as a major addition to the select gallery of "the men you love to hate". This film also saw him teamed for the first time with Sidney Greenstreet, whose suave and ponderous villainy provided a perfect counterpoint to the shifty and excitable brand provided by Lorre, so that the combination caught the public's fancy and was repeated in several other films, most notably that masterpiece of all-star nonsense Casablanca, and The Mask of Dimitrios, and Three Strangers, both directed by Negulesco from scripts by Huston.

After the war the type of thriller in which Peter Lorre chiefly shone went out of fashion, and he branched out into horror and comedy, producing a tour de force of insane frenzy in The Beast with Five Fingers and gaily caricaturing himself in a Bob Hope vehicle, My Favourite Brunette, as he had done earlier in Capra's version of the stage farce Arsenic and Old Lace. In the later 1940s he returned to Germany for the first time since the advent of the Nazis and acted on stage and in some films there, most notably Der Verlorene (1951), which he directed himself. This film showed that he possessed outstanding talent as a director, otherwise alas unexploited. and was hailed by a number of distinguished Continental critics as the best film made in Germany since the war, but it was thought excessively daring in its study of the Nazi mentality and not widely shown. In 1953 he appeared, again with a good-natured parody of the sort of role for which he was best known, in Huston's inconsequential comedy-thriller Beat the Devil, and in 1956 he returned to Hollywood.

There he concentrated chiefly on comedy, with the smiling hero-villain of Congo Crossing, the temperamental director in The Buster Keaton Story, and the drunken commissar in Mamoulian's musical version of Ninotchka, Silk Stockings, but his brief appearance as Nero in The Story of Mankind did somehow manage to triumph over its comic-strip surroundings and create a memorable glimpse of extravagant insanity.