Flix Character Spotlight: Peter Lorre

Peter Lorre was the epitome of the the Golden Era Hollywood character actor, providing solid support in a variety of movies and TV for more than 30 years. Born László Löwenstein in Austria-Hungary (now the Slovak Republic) in 1904, he ran away from home at age 17 and began to act in theatre. Changing his name in 1925, he worked in Germany, Austria and Switzerland before being cast as the psychopathic child-killer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), the role that made him famous in Europe, and he worked steadily there.

Like many artists, Lorre fled Germany when the Nazis took over in 1933, eventually landing in London, where Alfred Hitchcock cast him as the villain in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Lorre’s performance in that film brought him to the attention of Hollywood, where he mostly worked in crime and espionage movies, as well as films noir. (Lorre holds the distinction of being the first actor to portray a James Bond villain —Le Chiffre — in a TV version of Casino Royale.)

He frequently appeared with fellow character specialist Sydney Greenstreet; the pair co-starred in 9 films together, most famously The Maltese Falcon, in which their characters are both hunting “the black bird.” Lorre also often acted with Falcon lead Humphrey Bogart, and, while Lorre & Greenstreet didn’t socialize off-duty, Lorre and Bogart became close friends. Lorre reportedly encouraged Bogart to marry Lauren Bacall despite the couple’s 25-year age difference, saying, “Five good years are better than none!”

Lorre with Bogart and Bacall

Where he had been a lead in Europe, in Hollywood Lorre generally employed his distinctive looks and smooth voice in either secondary parts or maniac villain roles. In The Mask of Dimitrios, however, character actors, particularly Lorre and Greenstreet, play the leading parts and, along with suspenseful direction by Jean Negulesco and a subtle script by Frank Gruber, the result is a really great, if little-known, spy noir. Lorre plays Cornelius Leyden, a mystery writer who is intrigued by the tale of notorious spy/con artist/thief Dimitrios Makropolous, whose corpse has just washed ashore in Istanbul. Leyden thinks Dimitrios’ life would make a fascinating novel, so he begins to retrace the deceased man’s path through Europe.

Along the way, he meets the mysterious Mr. Peters (Greenstreet), who doesn’t believe that Dimitrios is dead, and the two strike up an alliance. Negulesco fought to cast Lorre, saying he believed the actor to be the best working in Hollywood at the time, and Lorre doesn’t disappoint. He convincingly portrays Leyden’s determination to get to the bottom of the story, his gradual realization of Dimitrios’ consuming amorality, and his eventual disillusionment. Lorre and Greenstreet play off each other well and the film’s only disappointment is that they are absent from the frequent flashbacks.

The film is not currently available on video but TCM screened it last month, which is sometimes done as a test for possible DVD releases, so I’m hopeful that will happen soon.

Check out The Mask of Dimitrios trailer below:

Thanks Paula for your contribution! Be sure to check out her fun James Bond-related interview with a fellow cinephile Julian Bond on Paula’s new blog Paula’s Cinema Club.

What are your thoughts of Peter Lorre? Any favorites from his work?

39 thoughts on “Flix Character Spotlight: Peter Lorre

  1. Oh you so tease us with the Bogart connection, but don’t mention “Casablanca” I know it’s perhaps too obvious, but Lorre and Bogart go together like peanut butter and chocolate……french fries and ketchup……Rick and Ugarte! Mention Casablanca again Sam!

    1. I haven’t seen Casablanca yet, Markus [runs away and hide] It’s on my to-watch list. It’s weird that I haven’t seen it as Bogart was my dad’s fave actor.

    2. Thanks Markus…I didn’t include Casablanca because Lorre is only in it for a couple of scenes at the beginning. But yeah they go together like gin and tonic 😉

  2. Great look at one of the all-time great character actors in cinema, Paula. I’d add that Peter Lorre (as Hans Beckert) was simply stunning in his first major role in Fritz Lang’s ‘M’, and is the one film that shouldn’t be missed for anyone interested in this stellar performer. I’ll try and catch ‘The Mask of Dimitrios’. Thanks for the recommendation and post.

    1. You’re welcome & thanks for your comment 🙂 he was really stunning in M, so much so that people would yell “It’s him!” when Lorre was out and about. I picked Mask of Dimitrios because I’d just seen it & it’s been a while since i’d seen M.

  3. PrairieGirl

    I remember seeing Peter Lorre a lot when I was a kid, so a lot of his movies must have been shown on TV, or else he was in shows on TV. I just remember every time I saw him I thought “this is the creepiest guy I ever saw!” ;-D

    1. Ha..ha.. he does look rather creepy, that’s what I told Vince yesterday. I’m not familiar w/ him at all, that’s why I love that Paula was gonna feature him as I know lots of people do and I can learn something new 😀

    2. He could be really creepy but other times, like in Casablanca, I sometimes feel sorry for him. He definitely had unusual looks and made the most of what he had 🙂

      1. PrairieGirl

        Hi Paula, I agree, he was a little forlorn in Casablanca. And yes, he has a very unique look that once you’ve seen him, you never forget him.

  4. Great choice. I’m a big Peter Lorre fan. This is either despite or because of the fact that he is the closest human equivalent to a pug.

    Lorre is perhaps the template for a character actor–someone who may not put butts in the seats, but is always worth watching.

    1. thanks so much. I am a big fan of his too & yes, I agree that is what a character actor is. I’m trying to think of some current actors like that & I’m coming up blank right at the moment…is there anyone doing that now, do you think?

  5. Hi, Paula, Ruth and company:

    Excellent choice for the spotlight!

    Peter Lorre was one of the great old school character actors to grace the stage before moving on to the big and small screens. Who made his short stature and accent work for him in countless roles.

    His greatest, most memorable characters were in ‘M’, ‘Arsenic And Old Lace’, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Casablanca’. Where Mr. Lorre delivered more in brief times on screen than the lead actors. Rubbing elbows and holding his own with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

    1. hI Jack, thanks so much. I can’t really say it any better than that.

      I had forgotten he was in Arsenic & Old Lace until I started researching this article…that was one where he played his creepiness for laughs IIRC.

    1. Thanks Rich, I am interested to see it for myself but Netflix doesn’t have it & I can’t find it anywhere else, either. I’m surprised it wasn’t a faster-moving film since Lorre starred in all those suspense pictures.

  6. Sorry for the snafu everyone, apparently an entire paragraph got deleted by accident where Paula talked about The Mask of Dimitrios. It’s fixed now 🙂

  7. Lorre is an absolute icon, one of my favorites. I saw him in a movie just last week- “The Beast with Five Fingers”. My favorites from Lorre: M; Mad Love; Tales of Terror; and of course, Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.

  8. Ted S.

    Since I don’t watch a lot of films from the 30s, 40s and 50s I had no clue who this actor was. Good tribute to him never the less Paula.

  9. a GREAT tribute today! I grew up watching B&W films and they remain near and dear to me.

    didn’t know Lorre’s background. Thank you for the informative post. I liked him in The Maltese Falcon the most I think! a CLASSIC

  10. My two favorite Peter Lorre roles come from The Maltese Falcon and M. His roles have become iconic in cinema and WB enjoyed making animated versions of him for their Looney Tunes franchise.

  11. I love Peter Lorre! He’s been my favorite actor since 1973, and besides seeing his movies on television, I’ve been lucky enough to catch some of them in movie theaters — where he always gets a reaction from the audience. Has anyone here had a chance to read his biography, “The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre”, by Stephen Youngkin? I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about this classic film actor.

    1. Paula

      Hi Cheryl, I found out about The Lost One while I was doing my research for this post. I haven’t read it yet, but I think i’m going to track it down…he had a lot more going on than I ever knew about.

      I’ve never seen any of his films in a proper cinema…that’s great 🙂

  12. Vince

    Thanks for your post, Paula. Lorre is a film noir institution and deserves a classic post on FC. I first saw him in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much and then subsequently in Fritz Lang’s M. Great actor.

    1. Paula

      you’re welcome, thanks for your comment. Those are two great movies & he’s great in them…Lorre is one of the best 🙂

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