Thursday, 25 September 2014
A Tribute to Peter Lorre: A Fine Actor
In the days of Classical Hollywood, we got a number of great actors: Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Henry Fonda to name a few. We saw lots of great men in those old days, but I'm not sure how many left quite as much of an impression as a certain Austrian-born actor. Peter Lorre was the unfortunate victim of typecasting. There is no doubt about that, but he is still a fascinating character in every way possible who always managed to find something useful to bring to his roles (okay, maybe with the exception of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea).
Though he is remembered for his role in classical Hollywood, Peter Lorre was born an Astro-Hunagarian of Jewish descent. His first big breakout movie was a German film called M, directed by Fritz Lang of Metropolis fame (who would also go on to work for for Hollywood in the Studio Era) but thanks to some bad ideas proposed by one Adolph Hitler, he had to get out of their as fast as possible and eventually settled in Hollywood, where with the success of M he managed to find various acting roles in Hollywood.
M was unfortunately the beginning of Peter Lorre's experience in typecasting. In that film, he played a serial killer who preyed on children. By the time he started making his name in Hollywood, he became the go-to guy for sidekicks, villains, or (more often) sidekicks to villains. It certainly didn't help that the Nazis made an anti-semetic propaganda film called The Eternal Jew which took a single scene from M out of context and tried to use that as proof that Peter Lorre was a "typical" Jew that needed to be annihilated.
The funny thing is that by most accounts, like many great actors he was precisely the opposite of his on-screen persona. While on film Peter Lorre was often cast as thieves and murderers or characters who at the very least had something sleazy about them (his single scene in Casablanca, for instance). The real Peter Lorre was said to be a nice guy with a sense of humor that rarely (if ever) showed up on camera (supposedly, while attending Bela Lugosi's funeral, he asked "Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart, just case?")
One story I've heard (though I can't validate it's authenticity) goes that Lorre was in a restaurant and found a whole bunch of people being kept behind a bar. The waiter came up to him and Lorre asked why all the people were being kept back, to which the waiter replied that they were just tourists and they wanted to seat "important people like yourself" first. Lorre responded to this by removing the barrier and immediately seating every single one of the tourists himself. When asked why, he said "I know what it feels like to be kept out", referring to his experiences with the Nazis early in his career.
Now Peter Lorre didn't always play villains. While his character may have had a sleazy vibe he technically had a heroic role in Casablanca (since he provided Rick with the tickets that eventually allowed Ilsa Lund and Victor Lazlo to get to America). In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he got to play one of his few truly sympathetic roles as Conseil, whose conflicting morals made him a perfect surrogate for the audience. In yet another amusing example of Peter Lorre's sense of humor, he allegedly went on to claim (at least according to Walt Disney) "the squid got the part that's usually reserved for him".
Peter Lorre really was an amazing individual, not just as an actor but as a person too. This was a man who was a role model in every way you could imagine. As an actor he could usually be expected to deliver an excellent performance no matter what was expected of him, and as a person he seems like he was a really great guy to be around. As far as stars of classical Hollywood go, Peter Lorre might be one of the greatest and most admirable you can find.