Today: Peter Lorre
Take One: When you're strange...
Lorre is a shifty yet fascinating presence in his bite-size chunks of the film. Between M and Stranger he made 30 films, including two for Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Secret Agent) and eight Mr Moto films. But there's still a glimmer of a disturbed mind, leftover from Hans Beckert, present in his third floor stranger. When McGuire's Ward too becomes a suspect he has to track Lorre down to prove his innocence, but Lorre slips away every time. He's an ungraspable figure, a queasy-looking phantom. There's the vaguest hint that he's might actually be Ward's id, the devil he doesn't know in his mind. (The title itself is a tease: Ward lives on the 1st floor; the unnamed "stranger" dwells "upstairs".) And whether all notion of psychological mind play is dispelled by the film's rather too-literal ending is open to interpretation. But it's in these last scenes where Lorre gets to fully flex his creepy onscreen persona. A little bit of Lorre goes a long way.
Take Two: Everybody Comes to Rick's
Many a film had Lorre with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other - the murderous (again), almost permanently smoking Pepi in All Through the Night, his alcoholic surgeon Dr. Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace - but it was a stance he steadily held as petty criminal Signor Ugarte, weaseling his way into Rick's Cafe in Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942).
Lorre's face was of course one of the most distinctive in film history, an immediately recognisable visage: bulging eyes, cherubic countenance, sly half grin. He was perfect casting here. Disingenuous and ingratiating to the nth degree. He's regarded with contempt by Bogart's Rick but knowingly and resourcefully wheedles him in any attempt to get what he wants. He purposely offers: "You despise me, don't you?" Rick's reply, "If I gave you any thought I probably would," tells us just how much of a bottom feeder he is. If Bogie hates Ugarte then clearly Lorre's making a grand fist of conveying his oily mannerisms, playing up his supporting strengths. With tight bow tie and a film of sweat covering that malevolent face, topped off by a slicked-down side-parting, Lorre cuts an uneasy, pitiable figure as Ugarte.
He looked quite the odd one alright, but excelled at onscreen looks. He was one of the keenest observers of his co-stars. The way his eyes dance between Bogart and the rest of the bar, opportunistically sizing up everyone and everything around him, shows how alert Lorre was in character, how watchful a supporting actor he was. Ugarte seeks all available in-roads to dicey deals and illicit introductions, then seems to waltz away via hidden corners of the screen. For a man of such dissolute charms Ugarte is made unceasingly watchable himself through Lorre's expert characterful conveyance. We all know that Ugarte's lot in life wasn't much, and he paid for placing his hard-earned trust in Rick, but he played an instrumental part in that most famous of famous endings.
Take Three: Dial M for Mörder
Lorre hid in the first shadows cast by Film Noir in Stranger on the Third Floor, but was guided nine years earlier by Fritz Lang in giving German Expressionism its most notably reprehensible villain: the child killer Hans Beckert in M (1931). Although the film slyly and daringly muddies the 'eye for an eye' line dividing the archetypal villain/killer and the hordes that demand a retribution kill in return. It posits tricky questions at crucial moments. It's a sophisticated, trenchant and engrossing film, a certified classic, and with themes still resonantly applicable in today's media.
Hans is a despicable character, but also evasively cunning; more so than first apparent. He understands the evil he's committed, as those around him do, but tries for a shot at reprieve - it's all in the way his eyes almost roll back, like a shark's at the height of a kill, when he, with twisted, grasping hands, and begging on both knees, pleads, "I'm pursued by ghosts... except when I do it. When I... Then I can't remember anything." His all-encompassing attempt at conveying pathos, at twisting the kangaroo court's ear into hearing him out during his bathetic confession, is a masterclass in persuasive, astonishing acting.
It could be said that Lorre peaked too soon here, as he never really got the opportunity to deliver such rigorous drama in another film in quite the same masterful way again. But he grasped the chance to explode with rage and self-disgust - like he grasps the imaginary ghosts of his past victims - without too much in the way of scenery chewing, and cemented early his reputation as a fearless and exemplary actor. Lorre's decent into the dark, shadowy places here has resounded unnervingly through nearly 70 years of film history. It's no wonder it's still celebrated now. Peter Lorre's character actor career began in a terrifyingly awesome fashion with an unforgettable lead role.
*this Take Three selection, like Don Cheadle's in Hotel Rwanda a few weeks back, is of course a lead role - but any discussion of Lorre surely demands a discussion of M.