Peter Lorre

The native form of this personal name is Löwenstein László. This article uses the Western name order.
Peter Lorre

Peter Lorre in 1946
Born László Löwenstein
(1904-06-26)26 June 1904
Rózsahegy (now Ružomberok), Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia)
Died 23 March 1964(1964-03-23) (aged 59)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Stroke
Occupation Actor
Years active 1929–64
Spouse(s) Celia Lovsky
(m. 1934; div. 1945)

Kaaren Verne
(m. 1945; div. 1950)

Anne Marie Brenning
(m. 1953; his death 1964)
Children Catharine Lorre

Peter Lorre (born László Löwenstein; 26 June 1904 23 March 1964) was an Austro-Hungarian-American actor. In Austria, he began his stage career in Vienna before moving to Germany where he had his breakthrough, first on the stage, then in film in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Lorre caused an international sensation in the German film M (1931), in which he portrayed a serial killer who preys on little girls.

Because he was Jewish, he left Germany after 1933. His first English-language film was Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) made in Great Britain. Eventually settling in Hollywood, he later became a featured player in many Hollywood crime and mystery films. In his initial American films, Mad Love and Crime and Punishment, he continued to play murderers, but he was then cast playing Mr. Moto, the Japanese detective, in a run of B pictures. From 1941 to 1946 he mainly worked for Warner Bros. The first of these films at Warners was The Maltese Falcon (1941), which began a sequence in which he appeared with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet. This was followed by Casablanca (1942), the second of the nine films in which Lorre and Greenstreet appeared. Lorre's other films include Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Frequently typecast as a sinister foreigner, his later career was erratic. Lorre was the first actor to play a James Bond villain as Le Chiffre in a TV version of Casino Royale (1954). Some of his last roles were in horror films directed by Roger Corman.

Early life

Lorre was born László Löwenstein on 26 June 1904, the first child of Jewish couple Alajos Löwenstein and Elvira Freischberger in the Austro-Hungarian town of Rózsahegy in Liptó County (now known as Ružomberok, in present-day Slovakia). His parents had recently moved there[1] following his father's appointment as chief bookkeeper at a local textile mill. Alajos Löwenstein also served as a lieutenant in the Austrian army reserve, which meant that he was often away on military maneuvers.[2]

László's mother died when he was only four years old, leaving Alajos with three very young sons, the youngest only a couple of months old. He soon married his wife's best friend Melanie Klein, with whom he had two more children. However, Lorre and his stepmother never got along, and this colored his childhood memories.[2] At the outbreak of the Second Balkan War in 1913, Alajos moved the family to Vienna, anticipating that this would lead to a larger conflict and that he would be called up. He was serving on the Eastern Front during the winter of 1914–1915 before being put in charge of a prison camp due to heart trouble.[3]

Acting career

In Europe (1922–1934)

Lorre began acting on stage in Vienna aged 17, where he worked with Viennese Art Nouveau artist and puppeteer Richard Teschner. He then moved to the German town of Breslau, and later to Zürich. In the late 1920s, the actor[4] moved to Berlin, where he worked with German playwright Bertolt Brecht, including a role in Brecht's Mann ist Mann and as Dr. Nakamura in the musical Happy End.

The actor became much better known after director Fritz Lang cast him as child killer Hans Beckert in M (1931), a film reputedly derived from the Peter Kürten case.[5] Lang said that he had Lorre in mind while working on the script and did not give him a screen test because he was already convinced that Lorre was perfect for the part.[6] He believed that the actor gave his best performance in M and that it was among the most distinguished in film history.[7] Sharon Packer observed that Lorre played the "loner, [and] schizotypal murderer" with "raspy voice, bulging eyes, and emotive acting (a holdover from the silent screen) [which] always make him memorable."[5] In 1932, Lorre appeared alongside Hans Albers in the science fiction film F.P.1 antwortet nicht about an artificial island in the mid-Atlantic.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Lorre took refuge first in Paris and then London, where he was noticed by Ivor Montagu, associate producer for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), who reminded the film's director Alfred Hitchcock about Lorre's performance in M. They first considered him to play the assassin in the film, but wanted to use him in a larger role despite his limited command of English at the time,[8] which Lorre overcame by learning much of his part phonetically.

Michael Newton wrote in an article for The Guardian in September 2014 of his scenes with Leslie Banks in the film: "Lorre cannot help but steal each scene; he's a physically present actor, often, you feel, surrounded as he is by the pallid English, the only one in the room with a body."[9] After his first two American films, Lorre returned to England to feature in Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936).[10] Lorre and his first wife actress Celia Lovsky boarded a Cunard liner in Southampton on 18 July 1934 to sail for New York a day after shooting had been completed on The Man Who Knew Too Much, having gained visitor's visas to the United States.[11]

First years in Hollywood (1935–1940)

Lorre settled in Hollywood and was soon under contract to Columbia Pictures, which had difficulty finding parts suitable for him. After some months employed effectively for research, Lorre decided that Crime and Punishment, (1866), the Russian novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky would be a suitable project with himself in the central role. Columbia's head Harry Cohn agreed to make the film so long as he could loan Lorre to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, possibly as a means of recouping the cost of Lorre not appearing in any of his films.[12]

For MGM's Mad Love (1935), set in Paris and directed by Karl Freund. Lorre's head was shaved bald in order for him to perform as Dr Gogol, a demented surgeon. In the film, Gogol replaces the wrecked hands of a concert pianist with those of an executed knife throwing murderer. An actress who works at the nearby Grand Guignol theater, who happens to be the pianist's wife, is the subject of Gogol's unwelcome infatuation.[13] The Hollywood Reporter commented on his role in this film on June 27, 1935: "Lorre triumphs superbly in a characterization that is sheer horror. ... There is perhaps no one who can be so repulsive and so utterly wicked. No one who can smile so disarmingly and still sneer. His face is his fortune."[14]

As had been planned, Lorre followed Mad Love with the lead role in Crime and Punishment (also 1935) directed by Josef von Sternberg. "Although Peter Lorre is occasionally able to give the film a frightening pathological significance," wrote Andre Sennwald in The New York Times on the film's release, "this is scarcely Dostoievsky's [sic] drama of a tortured brain drifting into madness with a terrible secret."[15] Columbia offered him a 5 year contract at $1,000 a week, but he declined.[16]

Returning from England, after the second Hitchcock picture he was offered and accepted a 3 year contract with 20th Century Fox.[16] Starring in a series of Mr. Moto movies, Lorre played John P. Marquand's character, a Japanese detective and spy. Initially positive about the films, he soon grew frustrated with them. "The role is childish," he once asserted, and eventually tended to angrily dismiss the films entirely.[17] He twisted his shoulder during a stunt in Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939),[17] the penultimate entry of the series. In 1939, he attended a lunch at the request of some visiting Japanese officials; Lorre wore a badge which said "Boycott Japanese goods."[18]

Late in 1938, Universal wanted to borrow Lorre from Fox for the role ultimately performed by Basil Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Lorre declined the role because he thought his menacing roles were now behind him, although he was ill at this time.[19] He had tested successfully in 1937 for the role of Quasimodo in an aborted MGM version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1937, according to a Fox publicist one of two roles Lorre much wanted to play (the other was Napoleon).[20] By now, frustrated by broken promises from Fox, Lorre had managed to end his contract.

After a brief period as a freelance, he signed for two pictures at RKO in May 1940.[21] In the first of these, Lorre appeared as the anonymous lead in the B-picture Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), reputedly the first film noir.[22] The second RKO film was You'll Find Out (also 1940), a musical comedy mystery in which he co-starred with horror actors Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, as well as band leader Kay Kyser.[23]

Left to right: Sydney Greenstreet and Lorre in The Maltese Falcon (1941), the first of their nine films together

Mainly at Warner Bros. (1941–1946)

In 1941, Peter Lorre became a naturalized citizen of the United States.[24] Director John Huston effectively ended a period of decline for the actor and saved him from more B-pictures by casting him in The Maltese Falcon released during the year.[25][26] Although Warner Bros. were lukewarm about Lorre at first, Huston was keen for him to play Joel Cairo. Huston observed that Lorre "had that clear combination of braininess and real innocence, and sophistication... He's always doing two things at the same time, thinking one thing and saying something else."[26] Lorre himself reminisced fondly in 1962 about the "stock company" he now found himself working with: Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Claude Rains. In his view, the four of them had the rare ability to "switch an audience from laughter to seriousness."[27] Lorre was contracted to Warners on a picture-by-picture basis until 1943 when he signed a five year contract, renewable each year, which only lasted until 1946.[25]

The year after Maltese Falcon, he portrayed the character Ugarte in Casablanca (1942). While Ugarte is a small part, it is he who provides Rick with the "Letters of Transit", a key plot device. Lorre made nine movies with Sydney Greenstreet counting The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, a team which came to be called "Little Pete-Big Syd", although they did not always have much screen time in joint scenes.[28] Most of these motion pictures were variations on Casablanca, including Background to Danger (1943, with George Raft); Passage to Marseille (1944), reuniting them with Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains; The Mask of Dimitrios (1944); The Conspirators (1944, with Hedy Lamarr and Paul Henreid); Hollywood Canteen (1944); Three Strangers (1946), a suspense film about three people who are joint partners on a winning lottery ticket also Geraldine Fitzgerald, with third-billed Lorre cast against type by director Jean Negulesco as the romantic lead; and Greenstreet and Lorre's final film together, suspense thriller The Verdict (1946), director Don Siegel's first movie, with Greenstreet and Lorre finally billed first and second, respectively.

Lorre returned to comedy with the role of Dr. Einstein in Frank Capra's version of Arsenic and Old Lace (released in 1944), and starring Cary Grant and Raymond Massey. Writing in 1944, film critic Manny Farber described what he called Lorre's "double-take job," a characteristic dramatic flourish "where the actor's face changes rapidly from laughter, love or a security that he doesn't really feel to a face more sincerely menacing, fearful or deadpan."[29]

Lorre's last film for Warner was The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), a horror film in which he played a crazed astronomer who falls in love with a character played by Andrea King. Daniel Bubbeo, in The Women of Warner Brothers, thought Lorre's "wildly over-the top performance" had "elevated the movie from minor horror to first-rate camp."[30]

Lorre believed his continuing friendship with Bertolt Brecht, in exile in California since 1941, had led studio head Jack L. Warner to 'graylist' him, and his contract with Warner Bros. was terminated on May 13, 1946. Warner would be a 'friendly' witness at his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in May 1947.[31] Lorre himself was sympathetic to the short-lived Committee for the First Amendment, set up by John Huston and others, and added his name to advertisements in the trade press in support of the Committee.[32]

Post war (1947–1964)

Lorre in Quicksand, 1950

After World War II and the end of his Warner contract, Lorre's acting career in Hollywood experienced a downturn,[33] whereupon he concentrated on radio and stage work. In 1949 he filed for bankruptcy.[34] In the autumn of 1950, he traveled to Germany to make the film noir Der Verlorene (The Lost One, 1951) which Lorre co-wrote, directed and starred in. According to Gerd Gemünden in Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema, 1933-1951, with the exception of Josef von Báky's Der Ruf (The Last Illusion, 1949), it is the only film by an emigrant from Germany which uses a return to the country "addressing questions of guilt and responsibility; of accountability and justice." While it gained some critical approval, audiences avoided it and it did badly at the box-office.[35]

Lorre returned to the United States in February 1952[35] where he resumed appearances as a character actor in television and feature films, often parodying his 'creepy' image. In 1954, he was the first actor to play a James Bond villain[10] when he portrayed Le Chiffre in a television adaptation of Ian Fleming's novel Casino Royale, opposite Barry Nelson as an American James Bond referred to as "Jimmy Bond." Lorre starred alongside Kirk Douglas and James Mason in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) around this time. Lorre appeared in NBC's espionage drama Five Fingers (1959), starring David Hedison, in the episode "Thin Ice", and the following year in Rawhide as Victor Laurier in "The Incident of the Slavemaster" (1960). Lorre appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents broadcast in 1957 and 1960, the latter a version of the Roald Dahl short story "Man from the South" starring Steve McQueen.[33] He had a supporting role in the film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961). In Lorre's last years, he worked with Roger Corman on several low-budget films, including two of the director's Edgar Allan Poe cycle, Tales of Terror (1962) with Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone and The Raven (1963) with Price, Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson.

Marriages and family

He was married three times: Celia Lovsky (1934 13 March 1945, divorced); Kaaren Verne (25 May 1945 1950, divorced) and Anne Marie Brenning (21 July 1953 23 March 1964 (his death). In 1953, Brenning bore his only child, Catharine. In later life, Catharine made headlines after serial killer Kenneth Bianchi confessed to police investigators after his arrest that he and his cousin and fellow "Hillside Strangler" Angelo Buono, disguised as police officers, had stopped her in 1977 with the intent of abduction and murder, but let her go upon learning that she was the daughter of Peter Lorre. It was only after Bianchi was arrested that Catharine realized whom she had met.[36] Catharine died in 1985 of complications arising from diabetes.[37]

Failing health and death

Niche of Peter Lorre at Hollywood Forever

Lorre had suffered for years from chronic gallbladder troubles, for which doctors had prescribed morphine. Lorre became trapped between the constant pain and addiction to morphine to ease the problem. It was during the period of the Mr. Moto films that Lorre struggled with and overcame his addiction.[38] Having quickly gained 100 lbs (45 kg) and not fully recovering from his addiction to morphine, Lorre suffered personal and career disappointments in his later life. He died in 1964 of a stroke. Lorre's body was cremated and his ashes were interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood. Vincent Price read the eulogy at his funeral.[39]

Legacy and mimicry

In February 1960, Lorre was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6619 Hollywood Boulevard. Lorre's accent and large-eyed face became a favorite target of comedians and cartoonists. In particular, several Warner Bros. cartoons used a caricature of Lorre's face with an impression by Mel Blanc, including Hollywood Steps Out, Birth of a Notion, Hair-Raising Hare and Racketeer Rabbit among others.

In 1963, actor Eugene Weingand, who was unrelated to Lorre, attempted to trade on his slight resemblance to the actor by changing his name to "Peter Lorie", but his petition was rejected by the courts. After Lorre's death, however, he referred to himself as Lorre's son.[40] The incident was dramatized in Peter Lorre vs. Peter Lorre, a 45-minute radio play broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Afternoon Play on 10 May 2010 and again on 11 January 2013.



  1. Friedemann Beyer states in his biography of Lorre that Lorre's family were outsiders in Rózsahegy as they had only arrived there very recently. They were German-speaking Jews in a majority Slovak town. Friedemann Beyer: Peter Lorre. Seine Filme - sein Leben, München 1988, p.8 ("Sie waren Juden, und sie sprachen deutsch in einer Gegend, in der überwiegend Slowaken lebten.")
  2. 1 2 Youngkin (2005), pp. 5-6
  3. Youngkin (2005), pp. 7, 8
  4. "Per Lorre FAQ", Stephen D. Youngkin's Peter Lorre website
  5. 1 2 Sharon Packer Movies and the Modern Psyche, Westport, CN: Praeger, 2007, p.88
  6. Barry Keith Grant (ed.) Fritz Lang: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2003, p.78
  7. Youngkin (2005), p.64
  8. "The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)". Retrieved 2009-06-11.
  9. Michael Newton "Peter Lorre: master of the macabre", The Guardian, 12 September 2014
  10. 1 2 Philip French "Peter Lorre: a great screen actor remembered", The Observer, 31 August 2014.
  11. Youngkin (2005), p. 98
  12. Sarah Thomas Peter Lorre, Face Maker: Stardom and Performance Between Hollywood and Europe, Berghahn Books, 2012, p. 56
  13. Bartłomiej Paszylk The Pleasure and Pain of Cult Horror Films: An Historical Survey, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009, pp.34-36
  14. Gregory William Mank Hollywood Cauldron: Thirteen Horror Films from the Genre's Golden Age, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1994 [2001], p. 147
  15. John Baxter Von Sternberg, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2010, p.197
  16. 1 2 David Shipman The Great Movie Stars: 2, The International Years, London: Macdonald, 1989, pp. 336-38
  17. 1 2 Younkin (2005), pp. 156-157
  18. Leonard Lyons. "The New Yorker". The Washington Post (1923-1954) [Washington, D.C] 1 July 1939, p.6
  19. Youngkin (2005), p. 164
  20. Youngkin (2005), p. 163
  21. Youngkin (2005), pp.164, 168
  22. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, New York & WoodstocK: Overlook Press, 1992, p.269
  23. Youngkin (2005), p. 170
  24. Jennifer Fay Theaters of Occupation: Hollywood and the Reeducation of Postwar Germany, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, p.65
  25. 1 2 Sarah Thomas Peter Lorre, Face Maker: Stardom and Performance Between Hollywood and Europe, Berghahn Books, 2012, p.90
  26. 1 2 Youngkin (2005), p. 178
  27. Youngkin (2005), p. 162
  28. Wesley Alan Britton Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006, p.46
  29. Farber, Manny, The New Republic, July 10, 1944
  30. Daniel Bubbeo The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002, p.124
  31. Youngkin (2005), p. 244
  32. Youngkin (2005), pp. 298-99
  33. 1 2 Anne Billson "Peter Lorre: one of cinema's most deliciously sinister presences", SSunday Telegraph, 23 March 2014
  34. Youngkin (2005), p. 309
  35. 1 2 Gerd Gemünden Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema, 1933-1951, New York: Coluimbia University Press, 2014, p.161-62
  36. Schwarz, Ted. The Hillside Strangler, p. 212. Quill Driver Books. 2004. ISBN 1-884956-37-8
  38. "Peter Lorre" on Classic Images past issues, 1998
  39. Youngkin (2005), p. 448
  40. Younkin (2005), p. 443. "After the actor's death, however, he brazenly began passing himself off as Lorre's son, repeatedly contradicting his earlier testimony."


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