Many believe that all of the 80-odd movies featuring Peter Lorre are worth seeing, if only for his presence. An exception perhaps is The Patsy, an asinine comedy directed by its self-regarding star, Jerry Lewis, in which Lorre made his final appearance 50 years ago this summer. Looking ill and bloated, he died of a heart attack four days after shooting ended in late March 1964. It was the kind of role Lorre called "latrine duty" and it may well have ended his life. He was 59.
Born Laszlo Lowenstein in Rosenberg, Hungary, in 1904, Lorre grew up in Vienna where he left school to work as a bank clerk by day and to act at night in a theatre company that combined improvisation with Freudian therapy. The manager, probably inspired by Struwwelpeter, the shockheaded hero of a popular 19th-century children's book, gave him the name Peter Lorre. This was not inappropriate, because at 5ft 3in and with unruly hair and a face that was a series of circles (infinitely expressive saucer-like eyes, a round face, a neck that would often disappear) he cut something less than a stellar figure. Graham Greene, who thought him a genius, wrote in 1936 of his performance in Mad Love: "Those marble pupils in the pasty spherical head are like the eye-pieces of a microscope through which you can watch the tangled mind laid flat on the slide."
Within three years of settling in Berlin, Lorre was considered the capital's most exciting actor, acclaimed by Bertolt Brecht as the greatest exponent of his work. An essential figure in creating the playwright's concept of epic theatre, he was capable of miming with his body the opposite of what he was expressing in words. In M (1931), one of the first German sound films, Fritz Lang entrusted him with the demanding part of a sympathetic child murderer and later described Lorre's performance as "one of the best in film history and certainly the best in his life". M uncannily anticipates the coming of the Nazis, as the police and the underworld unite to pursue the hapless killer. It not only made Lorre world-famous but also trapped him for ever within a screen persona. Whatever he brought to subsequent roles by way of humour, pathos, pain and human kindness failed to conceal an insistent membrane of threat and danger.
The Jewish Lorre fled Nazi Germany in 1933, as did the half-Jewish Lang and the communist Brecht. All three ended up in Hollywood, but Lorre was to work with neither again. Life in exile was a challenge to a non-English speaker, but Lorre faced it bravely, finding immediate success typecast as professional central European assassins in two Hitchcock movies. In the first, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), he succeeded in convincing Hitch he could speak English and was deadly serious. Two years later, in Secret Agent and now speaking the language, he gave a brilliantly comic performance that somewhat showed up his stilted co-star John Gielgud. In between he worked in Hollywood, playing a deranged doctor in the horror movie Mad Love, and he was Raskolnikov in Josef von Sternberg's stolid Crime and Punishment. The former was a popular success, the latter a serious failure. Lorre's future was determined.
From that point on the story of Lorre's life was that of an industry lacking the imagination to make proper use of a great actor. It was also the tale of a formidably intelligent, good-humoured artist, cut adrift from his national moorings, acquiescing in his gifts - for tragedy, farce and everything in between - being marketed in small selective packages. Half a dozen colourful scene-stealing performances later, mostly in potboilers, Lorre reluctantly signed with 20th Century Fox to play a B-movie rival to the same studio's Charlie Chan. His Mr Moto, the Japanese super-sleuth, was invariably described as "the oriental Sherlock", and these eight efficient hour-length films made Lorre a household name in neighbourhood movie houses. He played with little makeup and in a manner that mocked stereotypes. His quitting the role in 1939 coincided with the onset of the vogue for film noir, and Lorre appeared in what's now regarded as the first clearly identifiable example of the genre, Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). He virtually reprised his serial killer from M in an American setting.
Thus began the most satisfying period of his time in Hollywood. The second world war brought Americans together on the screen with aliens and exiles, and Lorre signed a contract with Warner Brothers. In The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca he became friends and screen partners with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet, and he was to work on eight movies with his physical and social opposite, the rotund, unflappable Englishman Greenstreet, and six with Bogart. Making his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon, John Huston was initially disappointed after shooting the first encounter between Bogart's hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade and Lorre's cosmopolitan crook Joel Cairo. Then he saw the rushes and found that Lorre filled the screen with a nuanced, wheedling menace that was at once frightening and comic.
In the 40s and 50s, Lorre had some small rewarding roles in big movies, most memorably as an alcoholic plastic surgeon opposite Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace and as a Soviet commissar keeping an eye on Cyd Charisse in Silk Stockings, the musical version of Ninotchka. And he was in demand on radio and then TV, where as Le Chiffre in the 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale he was the first villain (albeit in fuzzy monochrome on the small screen) to threaten James Bond with torture. But morphine (to which he was sporadically addicted since a botched intestinal operation in the 1920s), drink, chain-smoking, alimony and the failure of his own production company left him with serious worries.
He must also, as a friend of Brecht in the McCarthy era, have been anxious about being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But now, as a naturalised American citizen, he saw little future in returning to Europe either to join Brecht's Berliner Ensemble in East Germany or to consort with the great Gustaf Grundgens, his co-star in M, who after a decade of close association with the Third Reich was now the dominant figure in West German theatre. In 1951, however, he did return to Germany for his one attempt at movie direction with the psychological thriller Der Verlorene ("The Lost One"). He played a guilt-ridden German scientist in a displaced persons camp, but to his great regret it was a major failure. A melancholy, visually striking movie in the expressionist manner, it's in need of re-evaluation and was certainly ahead of its time.
In the early 1950s I saw Lorre on stage for the only time, when his career was at a low ebb, and he was touring British music halls. His act consisted of a comic monologue, sending up his own menacing persona, followed by a compelling performance of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart with eerie lighting and extravagantly contorted facial expressions. This I now see as anticipating the final low-budget black comedies based on Poe stories. Directed with great style by Roger Corman, they reunited Lorre with Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price and were apparently a lot of fun to make. At the 1956 funeral of Bela Lugosi (with whom he had appeared along with Karloff in a 1940 haunted-house horror movie called You'll Find Out), Lorre turned to Vincent Price and whispered: "Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart, just in case?"
A season of Peter Lorre films runs at the BFI, London SE1 from Tuesday to 7 Oct; bfi.org.uk
Peter Lorre as the child-murderer Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang's 1931 film M. It was to prove a career-defining role. Corbis