When Peter Lorre died of heart failure in 1964, the obituaries were quick to lament the passing of a screen villain in the mould of Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. A short, round-faced man with (as one critic put it) "the look of a demonic, pop-eyed frog", he had spent more than 30 years playing screen bogeymen.
Lorre was born Ladislav Loewenstein in Rozsahegy, in Austro-Hungary, in 1904. His career encompassed a spell as a law clerk, a period sleeping rough in Vienna, a name change, exile, emigration, drug addiction, bankruptcy, brushes with the authorities and several marriages, as well as success and celebrity.
Think of the actor and there are certain stock images that spring to mind: Lorre acting opposite a dismembered hand in Robert Florey's 1947 shocker The Beast With Five Fingers, or Lorre as the psychopathic Dr Gogol, replacing a concert pianist's ruined hands with those of a recently dead killer in Mad Love (1935). By way of only slight contrast was Lorre purring malevolently as a Blofeld-style villain in The Maltese Falcon or Lorre as the pathetic, parasitical Ugarte in Casablanca (1941).
There is a symbolic moment midway through his first important movie, Fritz Lang's M (1931). He plays the child molester and killer Hans Beckert. As Beckert stands on the street, talking to a girl he hopes to make his next victim, a criminal writes a big chalk "M" on the shoulder of his coat without him noticing. This is the mark by which the underworld and cops can identify him and flush him out.
Chased down as if he is vermin, Beckert faces a "people's court" comprising petty gangsters and thieves. With those huge, frightened eyes, Beckert pleads for his life. Clammy, hysterical, he falls to his knees, whimpering "I can't help it." Suddenly summoning an unexpected articulacy, he bemoans the curse he is under as he runs the streets. "And with me run the ghosts of the mothers and children."
It's an extraordinary piece of acting, ferocious but controlled, that makes audiences feel pity for Beckert just when their revulsion ought to be at its height. Lorre's virtuosity is not in doubt. His misfortune, once he decamped to Hollywood, was that the qualities that had made him so utterly distinctive as Beckert were too often mobilised for cheap shock effects.
Right from the outset, Lorre was philosophical and wryly self-mocking about the notoriety that M brought him. After he played Beckert, he told a British journalist, he could not enter a restaurant without women "giving him one look and wondering whether to marry him or call the police." Fans - to his bafflement - regarded him as a source of erotic fascination.
Lorre could never take his profession altogether seriously. He called acting "making faces". When he was studying a part, he told journalists, he became so absorbed that he was in a fever pitch. "Yet this does not stop me from from really feeling that we actors are a silly lot."
Yet others took him very seriously indeed. Bertolt Brecht revered Lorre and regarded him as one of the most distinctive actors of his generation. Alfred Hitchcock, who cast him in two movies, found him (in the words of Hitchcock's biographer, John Russell Taylor) "wild and weird and fascinating to work with". Charlie Chaplin thought Lorre a genius. John Huston claimed that "the flight of his talent was just unlimited".
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Survey his career, though, and for all the memorable movies in which he appeared, there is a sense of under-achievement and anti-climax. "In the wake of M, Lorre watched the 'lively,' naive,' 'melancholy,' 'explosive,' 'carefree' personality that had found expression on stage slip from public view. The mantle of screen villainy concealed it," Stephen Youngkin writes in The Lost One, his new biography of Lorre.
How, with such supporters behind him, did his career take so many wayward turns? Instead of playing eccentrics in B-movies, Lorre could have been a pivotal figure in the Berliner Ensemble, continuing his working relationship with Brecht. When he did briefly return to Germany after the war, he showed he had the potential to become a great film-maker. In The Lost One (1951), his only feature as a director, he played a guilt-ridden Nazi scientist. Many attributed the film's box-office failure to the fact that it broached subjects too dark and provocative for post-war German audiences to accept.
Then again, if Lorre had pursued his career in Europe, making brooding art-house movies and appearing on stage, he almost certainly wouldn't have the iconic status he enjoys today. No one can blame him for heading to Hollywood. As a Jew, he wasn't going to stay around in Nazi Germany. Had he stayed, his prospects would have been grim in the extreme. One of the most chilling passages in Youngkin's biography explains how scenes of Lorre in M were eventually used in Fritz Hippler's Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew (1940).
And, given his drug dependency, it is questionable whether he would have had the stamina to take on really challenging work on stage or screen, wherever he had been based. Youngkin's book traces Lorre's morphine addiction back to the mid-1920s, when he spent several months in hospital, suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis. "For those who knew Lorre well, the letter 'M' on his back stood for morphine as well as murderer," Youngkin writes.
For all his regrets about not realising his potential as a stage actor, it was clear that much about Hollywood appealed to Lorre. Yes, the studio work soon grew numbing and repetitive, but he enjoyed the celebrity. He was - as his wife Celia Lovsky put it - "happily unhappy". "Yes, he was pigeonholed and unhappy at being typecast, but he was having a great time," says Youngkin.
His genius is summed up in his first English-language film, Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Lorre hardly knew any English when he played the role, but he still delivers his lines with intelligence, grace and malevolence. "Are you all right?" he is asked as he is sent tumbling in the snow. "You had better ask my nurse. My English is not good enough for me to know," he replies.
Here, as always in his best roles, there is a strange ambivalence about his character. He evokes pity, revulsion and humour at the same time. The effect, of course, was quite deliberate. "I had to be a villain enough for a child, with the clear perception of childhood, to dislike me, and yet for a grown-up to see nothing out of the ordinary in me at all."
'The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre' by Stephen Youngkin, is published by The University Press of Kentucky. See www.peterlorrebook.com
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