On this day in 1904, Peter Lorre was born. I once had this boss who had worked in television. I had mentioned Lorre for some reason and she dismissed him out of hand, “Oh, he was married eight times!” I believed her, in part because I’m gullible. But also, it just seemed like Lorre would be the kind of guy who married a lot of women. And there is something to that. He was married three times—staying married most of his adult life.
He started acting on the stage in his late teens and didn’t make his first film until he was 25. But fairly quickly he became a star for his performance as the pedophile serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M. This led to his first English language film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. And since he was on the run from the Nazis (Lorre was nominally Jewish), he ended up settling in the United States in 1935.
Lorre is best known for his acting in films like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. These days, I most associate him with all of his Mr Moto films, because a couple of years ago I went through a period where I watched them all. They are rather bad films, but it is fun to watch the Austrian Lorre playing a Japanese character. I had intended to write an article about the racism in the films, but I never got around to it. Other than the casting, I’m not sure the films are that racist. Although they certainly push stereotypes of the cunning oriental. To do it justice, I’d have to go back and watch the films again—I’m not keen on that prospect, even with Lorre.
Sadly, Lorre had health problems for most of his life. These were mostly with his gallbladder, which kept him on morphine for many years. Then later in life, he put on quite a lot of weight. That’s all fine, but in the final films, he really does look sickly. You can see this in two of my favorite of his films at the end of his life: The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors. (Both films were written by Richard Matheson and available as a single DVD!) He was only 59 when he died of a stroke. I can’t help but think that modern medicine would have done a better job of treating his health problems.
Nonetheless, he managed to make an enormous number of films. He was a great actor, but his career was based primarily on the fact that there is just something very charming about him. Even when playing villains, his humanity comes through. That was clear enough when he was 27 in M. Here he is in Casablanca. I love the look he gives at the very end when Rick says, “I am a little more impressed with you.” It seems like the first time that Ugarte fully realizes what he’s done. It’s just a shame the character is used as nothing more than a plot device to get Rick the letters of transit. But we’ll always have this scene:
Happy birthday Peter Lorre!