The Peter Lorre Filmography by Stephen Youngkin

In this richly-illustrated book, Stephen Youngkin traces the life and filmography of the versatile Peter Lorre. Available from bookstores and online merchants everywhere.

After the failure of M, Lorre sought to regain control of his career by assuming the persona of a detective. But a series of B-movies in which he played Mr Moto left him feeling stifled and unable to express his full range of talents.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

One of the first thrillers from Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock’s British period, this nimble assassination and kidnap drama also marks Lorre’s first English-language film role. As put-upon plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein, he’d play this character again in the Broadway smash Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

The movie opens with Mike giving circumstantial testimony that lands Elisha Cook Jr. a murder conviction, but after hearing his neighbour’s snoring in an Expressionist nightmare (tour-de-force for director Boris Ingster), he suspects otherwise. As the slithery villain that he’d come to define, Lorre is a force to be reckoned with here. Projects he adored (Crime and Punishment for von Sternberg) would occasionally burlesque his traditional chilling presence, but it was in horror films and spy thrillers that Lorre made his biggest mark after leaving Germany during World War II.

Secret Agent (1935)

After the success of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock and Lorre teamed again for this adaptation of a Somerset Maugham story. John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll, who both starred in Hitchcock’s previous films, join the cast.

Lorre, a former stage actor who frequently found himself typecast as a sinister foreigner, caused an international sensation in 1931 with his terrifying characterization of a serial killer preying on little girls in Fritz Lang’s M. He was a frequent featured player in Hollywood crime films, often opposite Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet.

In this Expressionist drama, Lorre plays a bald-pated plastic surgeon madly infatuated with an actress performing sadomasochistic acts on a Parisian grand guignol stage. While this is not among the filmmaker’s best work, the actor demonstrates an impressive sensitivity in the face of unhinged grotesquerie.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

After a career playing bit parts with a German theatrical troupe, Lorre made his film debut as the psychotic child murderer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). He soon found greater success in roles that burlesqued his traditional chilling presence – he played a deranged doctor who grafts homicidal hands onto a disfigured pianist in Karl Freund’s horror flick Mad Love and Raskolnikov in Josef von Sternberg’s stolid adaptation of Crime and Punishment.

When the Nazis came to power, Lorre fled to Paris and London where Alfred Hitchcock cast him in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), despite his limited command of English (he learned his lines phonetically). He soon landed in Hollywood, working with fellow expatriate American Humphrey Bogart and British character actor Sydney Greenstreet.

Casablanca (1943)

With Hitler’s goons eyeing the German Expressionist movement for decadence and obscenity, Lorre opted to flee to America. He continued to act until the 1950s, though his film career stalled somewhat in the wake of World War II.

The best-known of his films from the period is Casablanca, which paired Bogart and Bergman. Lorre’s cynical Rick is a key character in this landmark drama, and the final scene between him and Ilsa is one of cinema’s most legendary. Despite being pigeonholed as a villain, he gave solid performances in thrillers such as Background to Danger, and comedy-based films such as Arsenic and Old Lace. He also portrayed a Japanese secret agent in the popular Mr. Moto series of movies.

Three Strangers (1946)

One of Peter Lorre’s most memorable roles and arguably his finest portrayal is in this Expressionist film. The bald-pated actor is Dr Gogol, a surgeon manically infatuated with a stage actress who performs sadomasochistic acts on a grand guignol stage. When her pianist husband loses his hands in a train accident, he pleads with Gogol to help, and the doctor grafts them onto a murderer’s hands, resulting in grotesquely lifelike hands that throw knives like a madman.

In this seedy drama from John Huston, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Sidney Greenstreet are two people in collapsing lives. They buy a sweepstakes ticket and share a wish — Fitzgerald wants to lure her husband back and Greenstreet wants money to become a judge. The ticket works and fortune comes their way, but they’re not the only ones who benefited from it.

The Lost One (1951)

After Fritz Lang cast him as a psychotic child murderer in M (1931), Lorre struggled for bit parts until creating his own production company. His lone directorial effort, Der Verlorene (The Lost One), stars Lorre as Karl Rothe, a doctor who worked for the Nazis under an assumed name and now struggles to control his urges to kill.

The picture is not only a showcase for Lorre but also an exploration of the complexities of guilt and obsession. It’s not difficult to see why it was such a huge hit in Germany. Despite his embittered on-set drinking, Lorre gives a tremendous performance as Rothe. His scene where he idly caresses a dead girl’s neck is chillingly effective. Sadly, the film proved to be Lorre’s last, as he would die soon after of morphine addiction.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

A lurid underwater thriller with Walter Pidgeon as efficient Nelson, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Eden and Frankie Avalon and a lively score by Paul Sawtell. Director Irwin Allen specialized in making Hollywood millionaire productions but this one was a flop.

Lorre’s screen image was firmly established after his chilling portrayal of the psychotic child killer in Fritz Lang’s M and the stolid Raskolnikov in Josef von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment. He fought for passion projects with little success while studio bosses pigeonholed him in small selective films.

His final film, a series of eight efficient hour-length films for 20th Century Fox in which he played the oriental Sherlock, Mr Moto, burlesqued his traditional chilling presence but consolidated his reputation as a B-movie star. He died just a few months after its release.