Peter Lorre — Monarch of Menace (1936) 🇺🇸

January 04, 2022

Peter Lorre tells how a mere accident made him famous as the screen’s craftiest “bad man”.

by Tom Kennedy

The wide-shouldered, chunkily-built man with the round, pink-complected face and very prominent brown eyes, rose from his chair, stamped heavily on the solid floor beneath his feet. “The story” he said as he gave this emphatic demonstration, “is the ground I walk on. If I know how to walk — understand the character I am playing — I must go in the right direction, and the character must be ‘right,’ convincing, interesting to the audience. If the ground crumbles under me, I am lost.”

Peter Lorre, hailed in Europe, America and far corners of the world as one of the most forceful character delineators the screen has ever known, is voluble, never verbose; a ready, willing and compelling conversationalist who commands attention by a steads (low of ideas, tersely expressed without vocal bombast, gesticulation or other acting tricks.

I thought you would like to hear him tell how he puts characters together, makes creatures of fiction and dramatic invention “tick,” become startlingly real on the screen. Also why, even as a youth whose father forbade him and his three brothers and sister to enter a theatre, he had determined to be an actor. And why, after creating a sensation in his first film, he had spurned lucrative offers from the film magnates of Hollywood, Paris, London, and returned to the stage.

A cordial, friendly chap, a bit past thirty, is this man who burst upon the consciousness of film-goers with his terribly realistic portrayal of the gruesomely warped creature in the German production, “M.” Short, (he’s about five-feet three), stocky, (his weight is about 160 pounds), Lorre has sandy-brown hair, brushed flat and close to his scalp from a part that makes a line as straight as a draughtsman’s rule at the left side of his head. His is a beaming, smiling countenance that certainly does not associate itself with characterizations in “M,” The Man Who Knew Too Much, and “Crime and Punishment,” the three films by which he was best known before release of the new Alfred Hitchcock English production, ‘’Secret Agent.”

“There are tricks in acting,” Lorre began. “Anybody of intelligence can acquire skill in their use. It doesn’t take long — a few years.”

That’s pretty encouraging for all who would like to become actors. But wait, before you take heart for yourself, if you aspire to an acting career, or for friends who may have such ambitions.

“A part can be built up by means of these tricks,” he continued. “Those who are adroit at mimicry may take some person they know, or have merely observed walking along the street, and put that person into the situation called for by the dramatist. It is not a difficult trick to thus transplant a certain type. But I don’t think we have seen any great acting produced by that method. ‘Great acting’ is an intangible. But we know it instantly when we see it. An audience lounging in the chairs of the auditorium, listless, only partly interested in what’s taking place on the stage or screen, sees a door open, perhaps, a man or woman appears, and immediately the audience comes to attention, eager, alert, interested. Why? That is great acting — there is something essentially ‘right’ about that person, maybe it’s only the way the door is opened, perhaps the lift of an eyebrow. But whatever it is, you are seeing not an actor using an effective trick, but a living character who belongs in the world of illusion before you.”

In other words, the talent — something inside a person — is as essential to greatness in acting as is the craft and the artifices of the art.

“Some actors’,” Lorre went on, “will resort to tricks to gloss over a break-down in the play. They blithely skip or jump over the sunken ground beneath them and carry on. Of course this does not save the play, nor does it fool the audience. I refuse to do that. If the play falls I fall with it.”

There you have the uncompromising artist — blood-brother to the true scientist, like the physician who’d rather stand by, sadly, desolated, and see the patient die by the right therapeutics than survive by the wrong, the expedients of quackery, chance and unsound methods.

You begin to realize that Peter Lorre is something of a psychologist. You’re right. But take no credit for discovery there. Three great psychologists, ranking among the foremost in this branch of science, have repeatedly tried to induce Lorre to abandon acting for psychology.

“But I believe psychology is an art, not a science,” he says. He takes no interest in “inferiority complexes” and such.

I asked: “Do you live in the mood of a character you may be playing in a picture?” I should have known better. Even before I met him for the first time, on the strength of his screen acting, I knew there was no quackery about Lorre.

“No,” he said emphatically. “I am against that. Of course I do not have much private life when I am making a picture, but if I am playing Napoleon I am not walking around the streets or in my home like Napoleon. I am myself when I am not actually acting for the camera.”

Yet this actor, once he has grasped the inner significance of a character, can play that part without elaborate artificial stimulants to the “proper mood.” If the director were to rouse him from his sleep at four o’clock in the morning and declare a scene must be made immediately, Lorre could play it even if he had not seen the script covering that particular portion of the story. Play it perfectly after simply mastering the purely mechanical matters of necessary dialogue and action.

How refreshing, in an era when we read about actors who bust right out at a restaurant, in the streets, in church for all I know, and give forth of lines and gestures that fit neither themselves nor the occasion but are in the “mood” of the character they are currently playing at a picture studio.

One so intensely interested in life, and particularly in mankind, must find some social satisfaction from his1 art or work. I asked Lorre if there were other compensations than the fulfillment of his love of acting and the financial benefits of his profession.

“There is great satisfaction,” he replied, “in the thought that you may be helping people to understand their fellow men, even if these be monsters such as I played in “M.” And people did understand that poor creature — at least thousands and thousands who wrote to me said they felt a certain amount of pity for the man who suffered himself as he became the victim of his pathological abnormalities. We are more civilized if we try to understand even the criminal. We might decide that a criminal must be destroyed, in the interests of society and as a moral obligation to its welfare. But destroying a man for such reason is something entirely different than merely killing because of wrath and repugnance.”

Lorre’s training for his art was most unusual, resulting from the application of his own very original idea. He still believes it is a sound method for the determination of latent talent, and excellent training for the development of the actor.

At seventeen he ran away from home. He organized a company of kindred spirits into a theatrical group that gave no performances before audiences, produced no plays’, had no dialogue prepared in advance. Peter merely told his youthful associates that the situation was thus and so, that each was to represent a certain character or type of person. The “play” was on.

“If people have the talent to play,” he says, “they will do so. They need not have quick-wits, be sophisticated. They may not even know what to answer at a certain point where questions are directed at them. But if they can ‘play’ they will carry the action of the situation along, maybe simply with gesture, perhaps with incoherent mumbling of meaningless words.”

Certainly the idea worked for Peter Lorre. A year later when he obtained a job with a small stock company, Lorre made tremendous strides. Within a short time he had progressed so far that his fame preceded him to Breslau, Berlin, even. Fritz Lang, great German producer-director now in Hollywood, saw Lorre playing the adolescent youth in Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening.” Lang immediately signed him to star in the first talkie the producer was to make. No story, no particular style of part was’ in Lang’s mind for Lorre. About a year later, when Lang was ready to start his production, the sensational Dusseldorf murders were being headlined around the world. A scenario based on them was prepared, and Peter Lorre made his screen bow as the pathological murderer in “M.”

Thus by the accident of birth — birth, that is, as a great screen actor — Peter Lorre’s name became synonymous with “monster” roles. Hollywood producers importuned him, offered him a tremendous salary, to play a “monster” part for them. “I could not see,” Lorre told us, “how anything worthwhile could come out of playing another ‘monster’ in a mere ‘vehicle’ story. Nothing, I am sure, but what money I might make would result.”

So back he went to the stage, after many months returning to films at a Vienna studio. His pictures made there did not receive wide circulation. Then Alfred Hitchcock — the Frank Capra of England —; induced Lorre to come to London and play the villain in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” He was not conversant in English. But you’ll get an idea of this man’s ability to concentrate on study, when we remind you that after four weeks of working in the English language; the first scenes of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” had to be retaken. So greatly had Lorre’s English improved, that the dialogue in the first scenes was too heavily accented to match the English speech he acquired in that short time.

His most pressing concern when he returned from London after making “Secret Agent” was to get his American citizenship papers. That’s about the best proof that he likes this country where, in Santa Monica, he has established his permanent home. Lorre and his wife, the former Cecilie Lvovsky, actress, live there. Since their marriage — they had met as players in a stage production in Berlin — Mrs. Lorre has retired from acting — and that’s a permanent arrangement.

According to present plans, Lorre will play The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a talkie revival of the spectacular film in which Lon Chaney won such fame and applause (transcriber's note: Charles Laughton got the role, of course, not Peter Lorre). He may do a stage play in New York next season, portraying Napoleon.

He’s one actor we do not have to fear will bring us a procession of “type” characters, all along the same lines. Lorre is a stickler for story, the play’s the thing, with him. “I receive stacks of manuscripts submitted by writers all over,” he told us. “When I get one that contains a foreword telling me ‘this is just the part for you’ I immediately turn it back to the agent who has submitted it. I don’t want that sort of thing.”

The eyes have “it,” the it of suggesting a form of terror that has thrilled film audiences; but Lorre, the man behind the mask of menace, is a genial, scholarly chap, who applies psychology as well as art to screen acting.

Source: Screenland, August 1936