Sunday, February 13, 2011

Peter Lorre: The Silver Screen's Ultimate Villain


A Man With a Good Criminal Heart

By: Menschenleer

Peter Lorre was the first villain of the silver screen in which people saw a truly remorseful yet horrible monster. Misunderstood and seeming to have much regret about his misdeeds, Lorre was portrayed in most of his films as a treacherous and evil character- with a disarming mixture of decency and desperation. Once called a “sad-eyed innocent villain,” Peter Lorre was perhaps remembered as a foe, but never forgotten as an entrancing and magnificent actor.

At 5’5”, with unbelievably large eyes and a fetching devilish smile, Peter Lorre could have been seen as non-threatening, but the scripts for most of his films read him as a plotting rogue and criminal. As a result, Lorre wasn’t usually a leading man, but captured the silver screen as the dominant personality in almost all of his work. In most of his early films Lorre was a chubby but handsome fellow, wearing dapper suits and constantly chain smoking. The world found themselves arrested by this man with broken English and a rare but captivating smile.

Studying theatre for the better part of his 20’s, Peter Lorre was given the lead role in Fritz Lang’s German film “M” as a pedophile and child murderer named Hans Beckert. At the tender age of 27, Lorre began his vocation as a messy-haired sinister mentally ill man searching out children to mutilate in the streets of Berlin. With virtually no speaking lines until the last twenty minutes of the film, Lorre gave an incredibly thoughtful and frenzied speech in which he plead for clemency for his crimes.

Not only did Peter Lorre’s cries for understanding and help invoke tears to the eyes of avid watchers, but Lorre changes some of the minds of people who staunchly believe in the death penalty. But, like any villainous character, Lorre is eventually nearly mobbed by an angered crowd screaming for an inhuman demise. This would mark the beginning of Peter Lorre’s career as a scoundrel. Lorre could not escape the Hans Beckert character in the 1931 film, earning him an extremely unpleasant name in the future of his movie career.

Following several German films, Peter Lorre tried his hand at English movies. In 1934 at age 30, Lorre was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much as Abbott, a kidnapper of a young girl. With an evil looking thick scar over his left eye and forehead, a constant cigarette jutting from his lips, Lorre excellently acted as a typical criminal with no remorse. Just learning English, with his unmistakable rolling R’s, Lorre had to learn much of his part phonetically, stumbling over simple sentences and words. The beauty of his work was not only shown in his speaking (his dialogue a mystery to him until coached properly), but the guilt and sorrow he privately lets the camera witness when talking of the little girl he has abducted. No other actor since Lorre has convincingly and beautifully showed this kind of acting ability.

In 1935, Lorre filled his usual role- that of a mad scientist by the name of Dr. Gogol in Mad Love. Obsessed with leading lady Yvonne Orlac, a famous stage star, Dr. Gogol devotes his entire life to pleasing this woman who finds him repulsive and disgusting. In order to make her love him, Dr. Gogol, a pudgy bald young man, decides to perform a bizarre surgery on Yvonne’s husband, one in which perhaps the classy and beautiful stage actress will finally succumb to Dr. Gogol’s advances. This plan is sacked when police find Dr. Gogol attempting to murder his great love, believing “Every man kills the thing he loves.” Dr. Gogol is knifed in the back and killed by Yvonne’s dedicated husband.

In 1936, Secret Agent, another Hitchcock film was released featuring another version of Lorre. Not only was Lorre again an odd criminal with a vested interest in damaging others lives, but he was a severe eccentric and philanderer of women. The very first time we meet Lorre’s character, The General, he is chasing a young woman from a bomb shelter shouting, “Sweetie! Darling! A moment! I love you!” With a tiny pencil-thin mustache and a noticeable gold earring, The General is described as “The Hairless Mexican.” His accomplice and fellow spy, leading man, Ashenden, asks the leader why The General is called such a strange name. The leader simply laughs and says, “Because he has lots of curly hair is not a Mexican.”

The General, in his infinite search for a lady, also has a keen crush on the leading woman, Elsa, who is flattered, but uninterested in his advances. When told by his accomplice, Ashenden, that The General will not have a wife like Elsa, Lorre loses his composure completely, tearing at the walls and breaking knick-knacks all over the place. “I should have a wife as well!” The General cries out,” Why can’t I have a beautiful wife too? Why? Why? It’s not fair!”

Robert Young, playing Marvin in the film, was written in the script as a dashing and charismatic man who was supposed to have conquered the screen with his good looks and clever remarks… but was horribly jealous when Lorre’s character, The General, topped Robert Young’s wit immeasurably. Lorre stole the screen from everyone without meaning to. The General was just an accomplice in the film, but happened to capture every viewer of the movie with his hilarious attempts at flirtation with women and his every move. Lorre might have been a supporting actor in the credits, but proved himself to be main character by merely his presence in a room.

Peter Lorre continued his career successfully without a break in films and television in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Starring with such famous stars as his close friend and co-star Humphrey Bogart, Lorre was given semi-lucrative parts in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. Playing a flamboyant homosexual in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon as Joel Cairo, Lorre perfectly depicted an untrusting and suspicious proper gentleman. The hero in the film, Humphrey Bogart, is weary of Joel Cairo’s motive throughout the film eventually knocking Cairo out with a swift crack of his fist. Needless to say, the only menacing thing about Joel Cairo in the film is his little pistol, which is taken away from him over and over by Humphrey Bogart.

Following Mad Love, Peter Lorre quickly filled the main role as Roderick Raskolnikov in the film adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. For all of Dostoyevsky’s so called genius and mental acuity, he certainly never imagined a gallant and famously incredible character like Peter Lorre to portray Raskolnikov. In fact, Dostoyevsky’s vision of Raskolvikov was a hilarious joke compared to Peter Lorre’s version. After murdering a poor pawnbroker, Lorre’s character becomes entangled with guilt and shame at what he has done. As the title portrays, Raskolvikov admits his crime and is therefore punished. This is a perfect and beautifully made film for any Peter Lorre fan.

One of Peter Lorre’s more interesting parts was Dr. Einstein in the dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace released in 1944, starring Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane. Peter Lorre played the murderous doctor and accomplice of Jonathon, Cary Grant’s brother who bore a startling resemblance to Boris Karloff. Raymond Massey, playing Jonathon, is constantly followed by the bumbling and soft spoken Dr. Einstein who would rather end their killing spree instead of continuing the murders they have already committed. Peter Lorre is given the opportunity in this film to escape, while in his earlier works, he was often annihilated or jailed.

Although known as a desperate and inhuman criminal in many of his films, Peter Lorre in his personal life was a kind and gentle man, a passionate lover of life and deeply devoted to his acting career. Strangely, decades after his death, Lorre also saved the life of his daughter, Catharine. Hillside Strangler’s Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono attempted to abduct Catharine, that is, until they found a photograph of her father in her wallet. The duo, afraid to murder a well known actor’s daughter, quickly abandoned Catharine Lorre, deciding to focus their murderous search for victims elsewhere.

A guarded secret unseen by most film goers was Peter Lorre’s wide smile, an unusual look for the actor. Deep dented dimples appear on Lorre’s customary serious face, showing the innocence and playfulness in his personal character. Perhaps the reason directors hid this trait was because they did not want Lorre to seem anything but the criminal and immoral man he was often depicted as. Not only were Peter Lorre’s characters considered to be a regular criminals, he was close friends with classically evil characters Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price.

The World Inferno Friendship Society, an anachronistic ensemble of violinists, pianists, trumpeters, saxophones, accordion players and a myriad of other instruments musically immortalized the life and times of Peter Lorre. Addicted to Bad Ideas, released in 2007, is a beautiful and amazingly accurate musical portrayal devoted to Peter Lorre. Among the many songs featured on the album are With a Good Criminal Heart, I Just Make Faces, Cathy Catharine, Heart Attack ’64, Peter Lorre Overture, and “M” is for Morphine. Although many books about Peter Lorre have been written and dedicated artists have painted his picture, The World Inferno Friendship Society has trumped them all incalculably. With indelible heart, incredibly thoughtful lyrics, and enchantingly haunting music, Addicted to Bad Ideas is the perfectly ideal album for the Peter Lorre devotee.

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