The Eerie One

Bee Wilson

  • The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen Youngkin
    Kentucky, 613 pp, $39.95, September 2005, ISBN 0 8131 2360 7

He thought they looked like two soft-boiled eggs, others preferred to call them poached. Either way, any attempt to describe the appearance of Peter Lorre must deal with those eyes. What teeth are to Julia Roberts and lips to Angelina Jolie, his bulging eyes were to Peter Lorre, his unavoidable calling card and a feature quite out of proportion with the norm. He featured in Looney Tunes more than once as a caricature – just two vast eyes and a menacing whine. Many adjectives have been applied to Lorre’s eyes, but none is adequate to convey their peculiar intensity, the way they veered between kindness and madness, and the manner in which he made them protrude even further when he wrinkled his forehead and wiggled his ears, which he often did. Lorre, who enjoyed disconcerting strangers by staring them down, boasted that it was impossible to look into both his eyes at once. ‘When I worked with actors I liked,’ he reminisced, Humphrey Bogart being the chief example, ‘I taught them how to act with me: “Just pick one eye and look at it. The camera will never know the difference.”’

Because Lorre was also rather small and chubby (though his weight fluctuated wildly), at least one film writer of the 1930s thought him Buddha-like – a ‘Buddha contemplating the mysteries and miseries of the human soul’. This is all wrong. Lorre’s eyes were far too animated: too agonised on the one hand and too comical on the other. There is more truth in the snap judgment of Ernst Josef Aufricht, a theatre manager who met Lorre in Berlin at the end of the 1920s before he was made famous by Fritz Lang’s M. When Lorre turned up at the Schiffbauerdamm Theatre asking for work, Aufricht laughed and said, ‘You look like a tadpole,’ before sending him off to Bertolt Brecht to ask for the part of the village idiot.

Brecht admired Lorre’s tadpoleish looks and he was soon directing him in major roles. He starred, for example, in Mann ist Mann at the same time as he was filming M. His first substantial Brechtian role was in a controversial play written by Brecht’s protégée Marieluise Fleisser called Pioniere in Ingolstadt. The play’s main preoccupation is the sordid brutality of the military and of provincial life. Opening night was Saturday 30 March 1929; the conservative element in the audience booed and hissed, the liberated element clapped, and a Nazi Brownshirt unleashed a stinkbomb in protest at the sexual content of the play, which included orgiastic sex in a cemetery. The plot concerns some soldiers who have arrived in the town of Ingolstadt to build a bridge. They are shown boorishly using the local women, before leaving town over the bridge they have built. A pitiable and hopeless local student called Fabian feels envy for their sexual success and loses his virginity to a local prostitute. The student was played by Peter Lorre. Reviews were mixed but not about Lorre. In 8-Uhr-Abendblatt the critic Kurt Pinthus set the tone for much subsequent appreciation of his acting:

And a new face was there, a frightful face: the hysterical son of the petty bourgeoisie, whose bug-eyed, bloated head swells in a yellowish manner out of his suit; how this lad staggers between sluggishness and hysterical outbursts, as he timorously walks and grasps and sometimes greedily fumbles. Even people older than I am have never seen anything so uncanny in the theatre.

It is tempting to speculate what might have happened to Lorre’s career if the Brownshirts who were playing with stinkbombs in 1929 had not gone on to far nastier forms of thuggery. Might he have ended his days as a pillar of the German theatrical establishment rather than gurning in comedy-horror B-movies with Vincent Price? Might his persona have gained the gravitas it always lacked? Lorre himself seems to have thought so. In his bloated later years, when he presented a rather sad and incongruous figure at the Beverley Hills Tennis Club, he was inclined to harp on his intellectual past. ‘I think he felt,’ one of his friends later said, ‘had Hitler not happened and had he gone on as Bertolt Brecht’s actor . . . he would have been himself and been appreciated for what he really was.’

On the other hand, it’s quite possible that his career would not have been so radically different in Germany or Austria from what it was in Hollywood. Nowhere in the world could he have become a leading man, not with those eyes. Even before he became enslaved to what he called the ‘latrine’ of Hollywood, Lorre’s place in the theatre world was eccentric. Stephen Youngkin’s reverent and scholarly new biography shows that the recurring themes of Lorre’s acting life were already set before he fled to Paris from Vienna in 1933: his distinctive mixture of comedy and creepiness, his struggle to avoid being typecast, his hopeless addiction to morphine, his seriousness about acting coupled with a refusal to see it as anything deeper than ‘facemaking’, his compulsion for stealing the show from the sidelines, and his ability somehow to rise above bad material and to make good material great.

One evening in Vienna in 1933, as Nazi thugs skirmished with police outside, Lorre sat in a ‘subterranean bohemian wine place called Majolica Hall’ with some friends: a group of writers, actors and composers. One of them started teasing him, saying how funny it was that he always seemed to play ‘a monster or a second violin’, never an ‘important classic part’. ‘You’re thinking of Hamlet,’ Lorre said, adding that he knew all the parts by heart. Someone urged him to give them a rendition. The audience waited, half-embarrassed at the thought of fat, hunched little Peter doing ‘To be or not to be’. But instead, he recited the part of the first gravedigger. ‘It was terrific,’ one of his friends recalled. At the end, Lorre rounded on his audience. ‘You sons of bitches, you thought I was going to play Hamlet and make a fool of myself. My part is the gravedigger and if I had ever played it on the stage I would have stolen that play.’

Lorre was born Ladislaw (‘Laczy’) Loewenstein in 1904, in the Hungarian town of Rozsahegy, now part of Slovakia. He was the eldest of three boys. His mother died after giving birth to the third, and his childhood was spent in various parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a hated stepmother. His father, Alajos, was a lieutenant in the Habsburg army. Not much is gained by searching for the roots of Laczy’s acting in his childhood. A picture survives of him as a seven-year-old wearing a cute bobble hat with his big eyes looking as yet entirely unthreatening. Soon afterwards, he landed the part of the largest dwarf in Snow White at school. We don’t know if he stole the show. It was only when his father forced him into a tedious job in Vienna’s Anglo-Austrian bank that he caught the acting bug. He got himself sacked for wiggling his ears at his boss, a story he later embellished, and embarked on a life of poverty and freedom, sleeping on wooden benches in the Prater and cadging rations of free hot chocolate and gugelhupf cake courtesy of the Hoover Relief Administration.

At last, in the early 1920s, he found his ‘ideal school of acting’, an experimental venue nicknamed the Therapeutic Theatre (its real name was the Stegreiftheater), run by Jacob Moreno, a former medical student who felt that theatre had lost its immediacy. Deeply of its time, the Therapeutic Theatre combined direct psychiatric therapy with the ‘ecstatic pathos of Expressionism’; Freud meets Strindberg, without the formal discipline of either. The young Loewenstein – who came to the Therapeutic Theatre complaining that his bourgeois parents did not understand him – fitted in straight away. It was Moreno who gave him his stage name, from an acquaintance called Peter and from the German word for ‘parrot’, thanks to his gift for mimicry. Moreno’s method was largely based on improvisation: his actors were required to use ‘facial muscle acrobatics’, switching rapidly from saint to murderer, using the face as if it were an ever-changing mask. Even at this early stage of his acting life, Loewenstein was particularly good at playing ‘pimps, murderers, gamblers etc’. It is fascinating to watch ‘Peter Lorre’ in his schlockier Hollywood films and see how these facial acrobatics remained with him – how he brought the tools of Viennese psychodrama to the studio picture. The tackier the film, the more noticeable it is.

Take the Mr Moto series. This was a group of movies (beginning with Think Fast, Mr Moto and ending with Mr Moto Takes a Vacation) produced by Twentieth-Century Fox between 1937 and 1939 to cash in on the popularity of Charlie Chan. Based on third-rate mystery novels churned out by John P. Marquand, the films feature an inscrutable and delicate Japanese detective/ spy called Mr Moto, a master of jujitsu. Who better to play Moto than a dumpy, tragicomic Hungarian? The director of the first film, Norman Foster, felt that Lorre was all wrong for the part, but hoped that the make-up department could work some magic. Lorre, however, refused a makeover: slicked back hair and small glasses would do. ‘Acting,’ he told a Fox studio publicist, ‘comes from the inside.’ It was as if he were still at the Therapeutic Theatre, not at the most exploitative of the studios. ‘Mr Moto,’ he went on,

is a Japanese, a clever, swift-thinking, rather suave person. Well then, I become that person and what I do is right. I do not need to study a real Japanese man to know what to do. That is wrong. There is a typed idea of each nationality and actors think they must imitate that idea, as if Japanese or Chinese men were not as varied as we are ourselves! All Chinese do not clasp their hands and run about with a jumpy step. Each man moves according to what he is. When you have imagined what he is, you must move as he does.

Lorre’s acting as Mr Moto is simply extraordinary, and not necessarily in a good way. You can see him constantly rearranging the mask of his expression. In a single banal scene where Moto hunts for a clue, his face shifts from fish-eyed impassivity to darting ratiocination to an innocent grin. Moto is a more sinister figure than the affable Charlie Chan, in keeping with American prejudice against the Japanese (a prejudice that eventually killed the series off); his adventures are preposterous, but he often turns out to be a cold-blooded killer. Most of the time, Lorre plays him in a quieter version of his usual Mitteleuropean accent, but with more of a fixed smile. When in the presence of enemies, however, he employs a strange cod-Japanese intonation, with ‘l’s for ‘r’s and ‘ee’ randomly added to the end of words, as in his catchphrase, ‘Softly, Softly, Catchee Monkey’. Things get even more confusing when he goes into one of his brilliant disguises: over the course of the series, the ‘Oriental Sherlock’ imitates a pedlar, a Mongolian camel driver, an ancient guru, a curio dealer and an archaeologist. In the end, Lorre was glad to give the series up, claiming later on that the part was ‘really childish’. It makes you wonder why he took it in the first place, when it so obviously parodies his talents. Essentially, there were two reasons: drugs and M.

Drugs had been a problem for Lorre ever since his years in German provincial theatre in his early twenties. In 1925, when he was 21, his appendix ruptured and the ensuing operations left him with terrible abdominal pains, which the doctors alleviated by pumping him full of morphine. It rapidly became an expensive habit, one that he never kicked. The drugs – morphine, Dilaudid, cherry-flavoured Cheracol cough mixture and any other prescription drugs he could lay his hands on – went some way to destroying each of his three marriages (his philandering didn’t help) and left him penniless on his death in 1964. By the time of Mr Moto, he had already pursued several ‘fast cure’ treatments for his addiction, at huge cost but to no avail. Youngkin recounts how during the filming of one of the Moto films, a stuntman came into Lorre’s dressing room, to find a doctor injecting him with narcotics. While he was making the films, the drugs weakened him to the point where he was barely able to run up stairs, but the studio put out phoney stories to the effect that Lorre took his part so seriously that he did jujitsu, wrestling and acrobatics in his spare time, incurring frequent bruises, torn ligaments etc. As Youngkin writes, this ‘nicely explained his retreats to area sanitariums, where, in reality, he wrestled with his chronic drug addiction’. Drugs provided the financial incentive for making the Moto films (though he was markedly underpaid, earning only $10,000 a picture to Warner Oland’s $40,000 as Charlie Chan), but were also the palliative that enabled him to participate in such rubbish. A couple of years after the series ended, while he was making the Warner Bros film All through the Night, the director Vincent Sherman asked Lorre: ‘How the hell did you make all those Mr Motos?’ ‘I took dope,’ Lorre replied.

This wasn’t all there was to it, though. At least initially, the Moto films seemed attractive to Lorre, offering him a starring role and a chance to play a good guy, albeit of a rather ambivalent kind. ‘I made the Moto films purposely,’ he told one interviewer. ‘I wanted to get the flavour of M out of the cinema palate of the American fan.’ It didn’t work. Few roles have ever typecast an actor so decisively as Lorre’s part as the child killer in that 1931 film. Fritz Lang wrote it – ‘simply a cops-and-robbers story’, he insisted – after reading about some criminals offering to help police catch the notorious Vampire of Düsseldorf, Peter Kürten, who had knifed, strangled, axed and hammered to death forty men, women and children. In M, it is a lynch mob that catches the killer, because they can’t stand the way the intensive and inept police search for him is ruining their businesses. The killer himself, Hans Beckert, is more exclusive than Kürten was. He kills only little girls – eight when the film begins, soon to be joined by another, Elsie Beckmann, whom we see bouncing a ball on her way home from school and accepting a fatal gift of a balloon from a man in a dark overcoat whistling a tune from Grieg’s Peer Gynt.

Before we have even seen Lorre’s face, Lang has marked him as one of the creepiest figures on celluloid. Twenty years after M, the actress who played little Elsie, Inge Landgut, came to see Lorre in Hamburg while he was making his only film as director, Der Verlorene, about another killer. Even though she was now grown up, the experience totally unnerved her. She could still only see Lorre as ‘the eerie one’ – the one who had killed her already. ‘I was happy, nearly relieved when I shut the door . . . and stood outside in the fresh air.’ After M, mothers would huddle their children close to them if they saw Lorre passing on the street; society ladies sent him fan mail begging him to whip them.

Fritz Lang called Lorre’s performance ‘one of the best . . . in film history and certainly the best in his life’. It was the only film where he had material worthy of him; the one film where he played Hamlet and not the gravedigger. To appreciate his brilliance, it is worth measuring his performance against that of other screen bogeymen. Compared to the florid scariness of Bela Lugosi or the camp madness of Boris Karloff, Lorre is distressingly human – ‘a small fat man, sweating in his uncomfortable clothes’, as Pauline Kael wrote. You can almost smell the goulash on his breath, and taste his all too ordinary greed as he sits at a café and gulps down two cognacs, after a mother’s timely arrival has thwarted his intention to kidnap yet another girl outside a bookshop. More recent screen murderers – Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs or John Malkovich in practically anything – have tried to convey clinical control, as if the scariest thing were a killer unaffected by his own actions. Lorre himself was perfectly capable of playing this kind of detached psychopath, doing a softly chuckling terrorist in Hitchcock’s The Man who Knew Too Much. But Lang and Lorre knew that it is scarier still to show a murderer terrified by himself and rather clumsy, an inept figure who doesn’t notice that someone has daubed a chalk ‘M’ on his back or who drops the knife he uses to peel an orange. When he is cornered, Beckert fumbles and swears as he struggles to pick a lock. He goggles his eyes in the mirror, clawing at his own jowls, as if his face might come away if he tugged hard enough. ‘I can’t help myself,’ he screams before the lynch mob’s kangaroo court, and bites his fist. The facial gymnastics, which in Moto were so pointless, are here used to show the murderer’s divided self. Lang – a sadistic director – pushed Lorre to his limits on set, forcing him repeatedly to redo a scene where he is kicked in the shins until he couldn’t walk for three days. As Beckert breathlessly laments the impossibility of escaping ‘from myself’, Lorre’s face moves from blank incomprehension to childlike smile to evil, animal ecstasy as he re-enacts the blissful relief that killing brings; ending in a bulging-eyed, haunted stare as he repeats ‘Must . . . don’t want to . . . must.’ Graham Greene rightly said that one feels ‘an overwhelming pity’ for him.

After this, it was no wonder that his Hollywood career was something of a let-down, or that casting directors were hung up on the idea that he had to play creeps. Late in life he complained to an actress friend, Blandine Ebinger, about his typecasting. ‘It’s always the same. A murderer. A criminal.’ ‘But you can choose,’ she replied. ‘No, Blandine,’ he said, ‘I can’t choose. I’m stamped.’ Stamped he might have been, but he acted his various disturbing cameos with an astonishing air of freedom. In Hitchcock’s feeble early film Secret Agent (1936), he makes John Gielgud’s hero look stiff and two-dimensional. Lorre’s part, as a shock-haired Mexican mercenary, is ridiculous but he somehow endowed this absurd and nasty clown with depth, making his lust for every woman in sight almost sympathetic. As so often, he seems the only person in the film who is fully alive.

For as long as Lorre is on the screen, you find you can’t look anywhere else. This was partly because of his quite deliberate scene-stealing manoeuvres. Robert Alda, the father of Alan, acted with Lorre in a horror film which has since become a cult called The Beast with Five Fingers. You ‘had to be prepared’ for his ‘little tricks’ all the time, Alda claimed. When other actors had turned away, you could safely assume they were out of the scene. ‘Not Peter. He would turn his back on you and his hands would be going behind his back, and he would have things to do with his back pocket, or that famous trick of his of unleashing his collar from the front, or those hands were giving themselves a self-manicure, or anything to keep the camera’s eye on him.’ If you keep your eyes on him you see him deliberately making too much play with some sugar tongs or lighting cigarette after cigarette in an ostentatious manner.

His mesmerising quality wasn’t just a matter of tricks, however. John Huston, who directed him as Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (a gay character, though the studio insisted that only gardenia perfume could be mentioned), said that Lorre’s work often seemed quite nondescript on set, but the rushes made it plain that ‘some subtlety of expression was seen by the camera and recorded by the microphone that the naked eye and ear did not get.’ The Maltese Falcon was part of what Lorre later regarded as the golden era of his time in Hollywood: the years at Warner Bros, when in the vast physique of Sidney Greenstreet the tiny Lorre finally had a worthy counterpoint, and when his friendship with Humphrey Bogart flourished in bars and in the saunas at the Finlandia Baths where they went to steam off their hangovers. In All through the Night (1942), Lorre was a bug-eyed Nazi agent to Bogart’s racketeer. In Casablanca (1943), he was the neurotic, baby-faced Ugarte to Bogart’s Rick. In his scenes with Bogart, it’s he, not Bogart, who dominates. But Bogart was the star and he was merely a ‘character’. That was always how it was for Lorre.

For a while, in the mid-1940s, it looked as though he might just manage to live the Hollywood dream, as his friends Bogart and Bacall did. He ditched his first wife, the German Expressionist actress Celia Lovsky, who had subordinated her whole life to his (and continued to do so even after the divorce, up until his death and beyond – she seems to have been Youngkin’s principal source and he writes of her ‘immutable’ devotion to him). Lorre’s second wife, Karen Verne, was a former toothpaste model and actress, much more in the Bacall mould than Celia. After they married, Lorre rented a ranch for them in Mandeville Canyon. He slimmed down to a dapper figure on a diet of steak and spinach. Youngkin writes that he ‘lived out a kind of frontier fantasy’, outfitting himself in ‘tooled belts, silver buckles, piped pockets and stitched boots’, collecting cowboy hats from local wranglers and revelling in American vernacular (‘Hello pop’ or ‘ Cream him, daddio!’). Youngkin includes a photo of Lorre and Verne riding on horseback, in crisp, clean shirts, looking the epitome of West Coast health.

It was all pretty illusory. The marriage was ruined by his drugs, her drink and their inability to have a child. What’s more, Lorre knew full well that he was not ‘the all-American boy’ (his own phrase) whatever he wore or said. Youngkin shows how the Bogart period of Lorre’s life was also the time when another ‘emblematic personality’ reappeared: Brecht, who in 1941 showed up in what he liked to call the ‘cesspool’ of Hollywood. Brecht and Lorre would often meet in the evenings – with Lorre frequently lending Brecht money he could ill afford – to talk through the finer points of stagecraft. For Lorre, Brecht was the anti-Hollywood. Where Bogart was always immaculately dressed, Brecht made a point of not washing or shaving if he had an important meeting, in case it seemed he was trying to ingratiate himself with capitalist studio executives. His hairstyle was once described as ‘like a treatment for lice’. Lorre had a lot of sympathy with Brecht’s contempt for commercial movies, these ‘laxatives of the soul’, as the playwright called them. Brecht, moreover, was one of the few people who appreciated Lorre’s greatness. According to Eric Bentley, he believed that Lorre was the modern Hamlet and was fond of quoting the line ‘He is fat and scant of breath’ to prove what a great Hamlet Lorre would have made. The obstacle was getting anyone to finance such a project. In 1946, a Brecht-Lorre modernisation of Macbeth fell through, because no studio would make it.

In 1947, Brecht returned to Germany to ‘get his theatre together again’. He told a friend, ‘I need Lorre . . . Without him, I can hardly imagine the whole thing. He has to play my parts and great classical parts too. We have a very definite style prepared and conversations and recitations by Lorre showed me that he has grown and that he has his best time as an actor (and director) before him.’ He would ‘again become a great German actor’. Brecht was wrong. Lorre was more addicted to American fame than either of them realised. While the playwright did indeed enjoy his glory days after the war, Lorre had little before him but more drugs, bankruptcy and more tawdry Hollywood roles. His own attempt to become more like Brecht, his 1950 direction of Der Verlorene, a critique of Hitler’s Germany, was a critical failure. The one great happiness of his last two decades was the birth of a daughter, Catharine, from an ill-judged third marriage.

Brecht had not been wrong about Lorre’s greatness, though; it was just that he had never really understood in what it consisted, because he never appreciated film as an art form. While Brecht excoriated the cesspool of Hollywood from without, Lorre purified it from within. No film with him in it is entirely worthless.