This was what Peter Lorre looked like the day he took a break from filming The Man Who Knew Too Much and dashed off to the the registry office to marry his mistress of foie years, Celia Lovsky.

Peter Lorre holds a very special place in my heart and my career. In the eighth grade, I saw a film on the CBC’s Great Movies that changed my life forever. It was Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster and Peter Lorre as Dr. Herman Einstein. My first black comedy. When I discovered it was based on one of the longest running shows on Broadway, I got a copy of the script and - at the ripe age of 13 - red penciled the play down to half an hour and presented it in the auditorium on our last day of elementary school.

In my first year of high school at Toronto’s Vaughan Road Collegiate, the drama club announced Arsenic as its annual production. Although it was unheard of for a ninth grader to be cast in the school play, I auditioned and did a shameless impersonation of Peter Lorre. The role of Dr. Einstein was mine. Two years later, I made my professional theater debut at the Red Barn Theatre in Jackson’s Point playing Dr. Einstein yet again (and still channeling Peter Lorre) opposite two great comic actors, Joel Kenyon and Eric Donkin.

Though he’s been dead for almost half a century, Peter Lorre has really never really left us. His movies are constantly replayed on Turner Classic Movies; generations of kids have grown up watching caricatures of him in vintage Looney Tunes cartoons; Tim Burton has revived his essence in films like Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie; and various rock bands pay homage to him in their songs. In 2007 Brooklyn-based punk band, The World/Inferno Friendship released a full-length album about Lorre called Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre’s Twentieth Century.

The Criterion Collection has just released two breathtaking BluRays of Lorre’s earliest triumphs: Fritz Lang’s M and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. If you think you’ve seen these movies before, forget about it. These BluRay remasters are definitive. Virtually brand new movies with extraordinary bonus features (including the English language version, long thought lost, with Lorre making his English-speaking film debut).

So who was Peter Lorre? Most people think of him as Vincent Price and Boris Karloff’s sad-faced sidekick in Roger Corman’s bargain basement Edgar Allan Poe comedies in the early 1960s. But there was so much more to the diminutive, bug-eyed Hungarian actor.

 He was born Laszlo Lowenstein on June 26, 1904 in Roszahegy in Hungary’s mountainous north (which now belongs to Slovakia). His father was a bookkeeper, who also served in the Austro-Hungarian reserves.

His mother, whom Laszlo adored, died of food poisoning when he was four and his father remarried his late wife’s best friend shortly afterwards. When he brought her home to meet his three sons, Laszlo, the eldest, hid under the bed. This gesture of defiance set the the tone for the relationship; Laszlo and his step-mother never got along.

When Laszlo was 13, his father moved the family to Vienna where they lived near the Prater, the famous amusement park.

In 1922, Alois secured a position for his clever but unambitious eldest son at a bank where he managed the foreign exchange department. But unbeknownst to the elder Lowenstein, his son was moonlighting as an actor. On his official residence registration form, he listed beamter (official) as his occupation and auch schauspieler (also actor) right next to it.

He and some friends had rented a barn (long before Mickey and Judy) and built a stage. Not knowing anything about the theatre, they improvised plays.

“ I was an actor before I had ever been part of an audience,” Lorre said years later.

Eventually Lazslo’s double life caught up with him and he was fired from his job at the bank.

He began hanging out in Vienna’s literary cafes where his friends included future screenwriters Walter Reisch and Billy Wilder. All three would eventually end up in Hollywood. Known in those days as “Lazzy”, he was what we would today call “a performance artist”, given to parodies and making up puns and bawdy rhymes.

In 1922 Jakob Moreno, a former medical student, founded the Theater of Spontaneity in Vienna. Known today as psychodrama, there’d never been anything like it before on stage. A combination of the aesthetic and psychiatric, the company’s actors would improvise hair-raising scenarios that would terrify audiences and relieve the actors of whatever problems were gnawing away at their psyches. 

One day, Moreno’s brother Wilhelm brought his friend Lazzy to the theater. This improvisational theatre style suited the still-teenaged Lowenstein perfectly. With a bizarre sense of humor, and unpredictable line readings, the young Lowenstein possessed an ability to switch emotions in a fraction of a second. He also had an incredible gift for mimicry and Moreno’s great gift to this theatrical Magyar genius was a new name. He became Peter Lorre (“lorre” being the German word for parrot).

Over the next few years the newly renamed Lorre would work in theaters throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland moving from dramas to predominantly comedies and farces. His wicked sense of humor and satire made people laugh hysterically.

At this time Lorre underwent a botched gall bladder operation that resulted in his life-long addiction to morphine.

He arrived to Berlin determined to meet Bertolt Brecht, the theatrical rebel and genius, about whom he had heard much in the hinterlands. Lorre thought Brecht one of the two greatest writers of the Twentieth Century (the other being James Joyce).

Brecht, who detested handsome leading men, was immediately taken with the plump, gnomish young man with hideous teeth. He wanted actors on the stage who looked like real people. Lorre fit the bill. His mumbling, fumbling, out of left field line deliveries and improvised lines delighted the anti-establishment Brecht. He wrote roles specifically for Lorre and gave him free rein to pursue his non-verbal acting technique. Lorre played Dr. Nakamura in Brecht and Kurt Weill’s short-lived musical Happy End and Gayly Gay in Mann ist Mann.

Stephen Youngkin, who wrote the definitive and massive biography of Peter Lorre, The Lost One: The Life of Peter Lorre, said: “When I first interviewed Brecht scholar Eric Bentley, I naturally asked about Brecht’s influence on Lorre. He told me it was actually the other way around, that Brecht saw actors he liked, things they were doing - in Lorre’s case, the clashing of of opposite characteristics, doing two things at once - and informed those aspects into a new style of acting. Lorre was just doing what he had always been doing. It was an incredibly adaptable form. The same style could easily be plugged into different holes and given a new name, a new theoretical label. So, in a sense, Lorre’s performances were Brechtian, by default, before we - or he - knew the use of the word.”

It was around this time that Lorre met actress Celia Lovsky, who was seven years his senior. She thought Lorre a genius and eventually sacrificed her own career to bolster his. At their first meeting, the two took a long walk together through the streets of Berlin in silence. At last Lorre blurted: “I love you!” Celia burst out laughing and demanded to know how that was possible. Taking her question the wrong way, Lorre screamed: “Untier!” The German word for monster, it remained Celia’s nickname ever after. And sometimes just Unty.

It was in this period of non-stop theatrical activity that Lorre underwent a botched gall bladder operation that resulted in his life-long addiction to morphine.

Lorre became the sensation of Berlin theatre. Even if the productions he appeared in were panned, Lorre’s talent triumphed over the material. Determined to make him a superstar, Celia dragged the film director Fritz Lang to see her boyfriend in a revival of Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (in which Lorre played the 14-year-old hero).












 














   


Peter Lorre holds a very special place in my heart and my career. In the eighth grade, I saw a film on the CBC’s Great Movies that changed my life forever. It was Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster and Peter Lorre as Dr. Herman Einstein. My first black comedy. When I discovered it was based on one of the longest running shows on Broadway, I got a copy of the script and - at the ripe age of 13 - red penciled the play down to half an hour and presented it in the auditorium on our last day of elementary school.

In my first year of high school at Toronto’s Vaughan Road Collegiate, the drama club announced Arsenic as its annual production. Although it was unheard of for a ninth grader to be cast in the school play, I auditioned and did a shameless impersonation of Peter Lorre. The role of Dr. Einstein was mine. Two years later, I made my professional theater debut at the Red Barn Theatre in Jackson’s Point playing Dr. Einstein yet again (and still channeling Peter Lorre) opposite two great comic actors, Joel Kenyon and Eric Donkin.

Though he’s been dead for almost half a century, Peter Lorre has really never really left us. His movies are constantly replayed on Turner Classic Movies; generations of kids have grown up watching caricatures of him in vintage Looney Tunes cartoons; Tim Burton has revived his essence in films like Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie:  and various rock bands pay homage to him in their songs. In 2007 Brooklyn-based punk band, The World/Inferno Friendship released a full-length album about Lorre called Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre’s Twentieth Century.

The Criterion Collection has just released two breathtaking BluRays of Lorre’s earliest triumphs: Fritz Lang’s M and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. If you think you’ve seen these movies before, forget about it. These BluRay remasters are definitive. Virtually brand new movies with extraordinary bonus features (including the English language version, long thought lost, with Lorre making his English-speaking film debut).

So who was Peter Lorre? Most people think of him as Vincent Price and Boris Karloff’s sad-faced sidekick in Roger Corman’s bargain basement Edgar Allan Poe comedies in the early 1960s. But there was so much more to the diminutive, bug-eyed Hungarian actor.

 He was born Laszlo Lowenstein on June 26, 1904 in Roszahegy in Hungary’s mountainous north (which now belongs to Slovakia). His father was a bookkeeper, who also served in the Austro-Hungarian reserves.

His mother, whom Laszlo adored, died of food poisoning when he was four and his father remarried his late wife’s best friend shortly afterwards. When he brought her home to meet his three sons, Laszlo, the eldest, hid under the bed. This gesture of defiance set the the tone for the relationship; Laszlo and his step-mother never got along.

When Laszlo was 13, his father moved the family to Vienna where they lived near the Prater, the famous amusement park.

In 1922, Alois secured a position for his clever but unambitious eldest son at a bank where he managed the foreign exchange department. But unbeknownst to the elder Lowenstein, his son was moonlighting as an actor. On his official residence registration form, he listed Beamter (official) as his occupation and auch Schauspieler (also actor) right next to it.

He and some friends had rented a barn (long before Mickey and Judy) and built a stage. Not knowing anything about the theatre, they improvised plays.

“ I was an actor before I had ever been part of an audience,” Lorre said years later.

Eventually Lazslo’s double life caught up with him and he was fired from his job at the bank.

He began hanging out in Vienna’s literary cafes where his friends included future screenwriters Walter Reisch and Billy Wilder. All three would eventually end up in Hollywood. Known in those days as “Lazzy”, he was what we would today call “a performance artist”, given to parodies and making up puns and bawdy rhymes.

In 1922 Jakob Moreno, a former medical student, founded the Theater of Spontaneity in Vienna. Known today as psychodrama, there’d never been anything like it before on stage. A combination of the aesthetic and psychiatric, the company’s actors would improvise hair-raising scenarios that would terrify audiences and relieve the actors of whatever problems were gnawing away at their psyches. 

One day, Moreno’s brother Wilhelm brought his friend Lazzy to the theater. This improvisational theatre style suited the still-teenaged Lowenstein perfectly. With a bizarre sense of humor, and unpredictable line readings, the young Lowenstein possessed an ability to switch emotions in a fraction of a second. He also had an incredible gift for mimicry and Moreno’s great gift to this theatrical Magyar genius was a new name. He became Peter Lorre ( “lorre” is the German word for parrot).

Over the next few years the newly renamed Lorre would work in theaters throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland moving from dramas to predominantly comedies and farces. His wicked sense of humor and satire made people laugh hysterically.

At this time Lorre underwent a botched gall bladder operation that resulted in his life-long addiction to morphine.

He arrived in Berlin determined to meet Bertolt Brecht, the theatrical rebel and genius, about whom he had heard much in the hinterlands. Lorre thought Brecht one of the two greatest writers of the Twentieth Century (the other being James Joyce).

Brecht, who detested handsome matinee idols, was immediately taken with the plump, gnomish young man with hideous teeth. He wanted actors on the stage who looked like real people. Lorre fit the bill. His mumbling, fumbling, out of left field line deliveries and improvised lines delighted the anti-establishment Brecht. He wrote roles specifically for Lorre and gave him free rein to pursue his non-verbal acting technique. Lorre played Dr. Nakamura in Brecht and Kurt Weill’s short-lived musical Happy End and Gayly Gay in Mann ist Mann. 

Stephen Youngkin, who wrote the definitive and massive biography of Peter Lorre, The Lost One: The Life of Peter Lorre, said: “When I first interviewed Brecht scholar Eric Bentley, I naturally asked about Brecht’s influence on Lorre. He told me it was actually the other way around, that Brecht saw actors he liked, things they were doing - in Lorre’s case, the clashing of of opposite characteristics, doing two things at once - and informed those aspects into a new style of acting. Lorre was just doing what he had always been doing. It was an incredibly adaptable form. The same style could easily be plugged into different holes and given a new name, a new theoretical label. So, in a sense, Lorre’s performances were Brechtian, by default, before we - or he - knew the use of the word.”

It was around this time that Lorre met actress Celia Lovsky, who was seven years his senior. She thought Lorre a genius and eventually sacrificed her own career to bolster his. At their first meeting, the two took a long walk together through the streets of Berlin in silence. At last Lorre blurted: “I love you!” Celia burst out laughing and demanded to know how that was possible. Taking her question the wrong way, Lorre screamed: “Untier!”  The German word for monster, it remained Celia’s nickname ever after. And sometimes just Unty.

It was in this period of non-stop theatrical activity that Lorre underwent a botched gall bladder operation that resulted in his life-long addiction to morphine.

Lorre became the sensation of Berlin theatre. Even if the productions he appeared in were panned, Lorre’s talent triumphed over the material. Determined to make him a superstar, Celia dragged the film director Fritz Lang to see her boyfriend in a revival of Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (in which Lorre played the 14-year-old hero).

Lang, an international sensation following his futuristic Metropolis, was about to start production on his first talking film. Like Brecht, he didn’t want a pretty boy for his shocking and unprecedented tale of a serial killer, who murders little girls. In Lorre, Lang had found the perfect actor (unknown to film audiences), who could play the tragic and tortured Hans Beckert in what would become Lang’s most enduring masterpiece, M.

Peter Lorre’s life was changed forever after the release of M. (Ironically, the Nazis would use clips of Lorre’s child molester and his image on the poster of their virulent anti-Semitic 1940 documentary, The Eternal Jew.) The rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis made it impossible for the Jewish-born Lorre to remain in Germany. He and Celia fled to Paris where they all but starved for the next year. Enter Alfred Hitchcock, who sent for Lorre to play the assassin in the rotund British director’s next film The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Lorre spoke no English (although he’d learned his role phonetically for the English language version of M). Hitchcock took a liking to the impish Lorre and recast him as Abbot, the droll but deadly anarchist leader plotting the assassination in the Albert Hall. Lorre, who again leaned his role phonetically, was a sensation and it was his image (not the film’s glamorous stars Leslie Banks and Edna Best) that appeared on the posters. By the end of shooting, the ambitious Lorre was fluent in English.

Lorre was a revelation to movie audiences. Like Brando, years later, he had a unique, untheatrical voice and an unprecedented manner of delivering lines. No one had ever combined two emotions in one speech. (Think of Casablanca when, both amused and tortured, Lorre asks Bogart: “You despise me, don’t you, Rick?” What other actor would have said a line like that?) He was lovable at his most menacing and menacing when he should have been lovable. The secret of keeping an audience off-balance and waiting to see what you do next.

Hollywood sent for this acclaimed oddball actor. They wanted him to join the league of horror stars like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. (The trio did eventually form a one-time-only triumvirate in the 1940 haunted house farce, You’ll Find Out.) Under contract to Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures, Lorre begged the mogul to make a screen version of Crime and Punishment.  Instead, Cohn loaned out his new star with the bad teeth to MGM where they were making one of their few excursions into horror, Mad Love, a remake of the French film, The Hands of Orlac. A shaved-headed Lorre played Dr. Gogol, a crazed, plastic surgeon, who grafts the hands of a dead knife-throwing murderer onto a concert pianist, who lost his own hands in a train wreck - all the while groaning: “I, a poor peasant who have conquered science, why can’t I conquer love?” Back at Columbia, Cohn finally green-lit  Crime and Punishment with Lorre playing the tortured student Raskolnikov under the direction of Josef Von Sternbeg. It’s a terrific performance but was sold to audiences as a horror film. In none of these first American films was Lorre allowed to show his incredible comic talents.

Hitchcock brought him back to England to play the Hairless Mexican (complete with drooping Zapata mustache) in his disappointing spy thriller, The Secret Agent, opposite a woefully miscast John Gielgud as a premature James Bond. Not surprisingly, Lorre was the best thing in the picture.

Returning to America, Lorre signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox and was rescued from playing villains for three years by portraying Mr. Moto, a Japanese sleuth created by John P. Marquand, in a series of B movies under Sol Wurtzel’s banner at Fox’s Western Avenue lot. His drug addiction grew worse - he would often vanish depleted to his dressing room and emerge miraculously transformed - and almost all his physical activity was done by a stunt double (despite Fox’s hyped press releases about Lorre’s martial arts prowess).

Lorre’s career milestones to that date were marked by collaborations with three legendary directors: Brecht, Lang, and Hitchcock. A fourth, making his directorial debut in 1941, would rescue Lorre from the deadly monotony of B-movies. John Huston cast Lorre as Joel Cairo in his own, almost word-for-word adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Gone was Mr. Moto. Instead a svelte, subtly swish Lorre, hair permed and flashing a set of beautiful new teeth, appeared on the screen opposite Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet. The tough, hard-boiled little movie was the sleeper of the year. Lorre found a new home at Warner Brothers and an off-screen playmate in Bogart, whose irreverence, taste for whisky and delight in stirring up trouble matched the tiny Magyar’s. For the rest of the decade, Lorre would co-star with Bogart and/or Greenstreet in some classic movies including All Through the Night, Passage to Marseilles, The Mask of Dimitrios, Three Strangers, and the zenith of their collaboration, Casablanca.

It was in his early days at Warner Brothers that Lorre returned to his comic roots as Dr. Einstein in Frank Capra’s screen version of Arsenic and Old Lace. Capra allowed Lorre to improvise and with that other master of the unscripted line, Cary Grant, the two were hilarious. Watch the scene as Lorre descends the stars begging Grant extemporaneously to flee his aunts’ house. (“Would you stop underplaying?” Grant finally asks his who-me? co-star.) Capra also took Lorre’s suggestion and inserted an UFA-like scene with the camera trained on Lorre drinking from his flask in the basement while Raymond Massey’s shadow on the wall reveals his Boris Karloff look-alike serial killer digging a grave for their latest victim. 

Hollywood during those war years was a refuge for all the Jewish artists, who managed to escape the Nazi death camps. And it was here that Lorre was reunited with Bertolt Brecht. Speaking no English and with no desire to learn, Brecht looked to his former protege as his gateway to movie making. Thinking Lorre to be a bigger star than he was, Brecht spent his days with the actor dreaming up scenarios and urging Lorre to sell them to Warner Brothers.

Interestingly, Brecht was one of the only emigres with whom Lorre hung out. Like his father, who had converted to Catholicism in order to assimilate (despite the fact that the elder Lowenstein davvened every morning till the day he died), Lorre, too, was determined to assimilate into American society. Off screen, he would sport cowboy shirts and talk hipster using words like “Daddy-o” and “coool”.

When he married Celia Lovsky during the shooting of The Man Who Knew Too Much,  Lorre made her give up her career. The actor had old-fashioned notions of the little woman’s place in the home. Celia fell into lock step, became a hausfrau but also continued her slavish devotion to her husband’s career. During the filming of All Through the Night,  Lorre fell in love with its ingenue, Berlin-born Kaaren Verne. Their romance went on for several years although they didn’t marry until he finally divorced Celia in 1945.  Lorre and Karen took Celia with them on their honeymoon. (If it sounds remarkably like the plot of an Ernst Lubitsch bedroom farce, one must remember the great director was also a Berliner.). Celia Lovsky remained devoted to Lorre for the rest off his life functioning as bookkeeper, clipping service and, as always, head cheer leader. No longer the house-bound Mrs. Peter Lorre, Lovsky resumed her acting career and never stopped working for the next thirty years. In addition to three films for Fritz Lang and playing countless European aristocrats and/or flower ladies in movies and TV, she was most memorable as James Cagney’s deaf-mute mother in the Lon Chaney biopic, The Man of a Thousand Faces. Until he died, Lorre would coach Lovsky in her roles.

Lorre’s marriage to Verne ended in 1950. The same year, along with left-leaning colleagues like Melvyn Douglas, Henry Fonda, and Edward G. Robinson, Lorre found himself grey-listed. Not quite blackballed, the actors were no longer on the studios’ approved casting lists for A-budget movies. In addition, Lorre’s business manager and producing partner had embezzled the actor’s life savings.

Lorre went to Europe where he toured theaters and U.S. army bases reading from Poe and appearing - heavily drugged - in a British-made thriller, Double Confession. Then the opportunity arose that Lorre had dreamt of for twenty years.

Returning to Germany for the first time in twenty years, Lorre worked with his fifth milestone director - himself. He co-wrote/improvised, directed and starred in Der Verlorene (The Lost One), a noir thriller taking a cold hard look at the German people’s complicity in the Second World War. An amazing looking film with a painfully thin Lorre speaking German on screen for the first time in decades, it flopped on its initial release and was barely distributed in American art houses. Lorre kept the film cans in his Hollywood apartment until the day he died. A documentary on the making of the movie is available on You Tube with fascinating film clips that makes one wish the Criterion Collection would come to the rescue and give this neglected gem the deluxe BluRay treatment..

The drug addiction had caused wild weight swings but, after Der Verlorene, Lorre could never get his weight down again. Following the bitter failure of his sole dirercting job, Lorre ended up in a German sanitarium where he was visited by Brecht, who begged him to give up Hollywood and return to the stage as the star of his new Berliner Ensemble.

But Lorre was afraid by this time and resigned to a life of Hollywood typecasting. He returned to America with a third - even younger - German wife and became a father for the first time in 1953. The same year, he had a brief career resurgence playing fellow Hungarian Paul Lukas’s valet Conseille in Disney’s live action hit, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Lorre was reunited with John Huston and Bogart for the last time the following year in the misunderstood romp, Beat the Devil (with Robert Morley standing in for the recently deceased Sydney Greenstreet). Lorre wanders through the movie like a bloated Joel Cairo improvising like crazy (which was a necessity as the movie never had a finished shooting script).

There were a few memorable TV appearances: finally playing Dr. Einstein opposite the real Boris Karloff in a 1955 adaptation of  Arsenic and Old Lace; Man from the South,  a half-hour Hitchcock based on a Roald Dahl short story with Lorre wagering his Cadillac against Steve McQueen’s pinky finger; playing Le Chiffre in the first ever dramatization of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale; and, a childhood favorite of mine, as a Sherpa named Tenzing opposite Fess Parker and Paul Ford in a military comedy, Turn Left at Mt. Everest, on Playhouse 90.

But, by 1960, Brecht and Bogart were dead. And Lorre was walking through his movies  and through his life. His work on the campy, low-budget Roger Corman-Poe films with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff had a tragicomic aspect. He never read any of the lines as written and improvised to such an extent that his old friend Karloff - a consummate, by-the-book actor - grew annoyed with him. Lorre’s last movie was The Patsy for Jerry Lewis. Not exactly M.

Peter Lorre died of a stroke on March 29, 1964 - three months short of his 60th birthday. 


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