Sunday, July 11, 2010

Take Three: Peter Lorre

Craig here with another Take Three

Take One: When you're strange...

Lorre did Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) because he owed RKO Pictures two days work; just enough time to fit in a slippery six-minute cameo role, though top-billed, as the titular stranger. Boris Ingster's B-movie has been long thought to have kick-started Film Noir - though some point to The Maltese Falcon, also starring Lorre - and the long, angular and accusing shadows from M have certainly followed Lorre to '40s New York; he's hiding in them again, under stoops, around stairwells, sporting a foppish white scarf and fixing passers-by with his signature beady glare (think Steve Buscemi playing Quentin Crisp). Lorre's cypher-like stranger could just be the real killer responsible for several throat-slit murders witnessed by reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire), the blame for which has landed at cabbie Joe Briggs' (Elisha Cook Jr.) feet.

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.

I've mentioned above how Lorre was capable of creating misfortunate characters, and despite much of the film's obvious evidence to the contrary he, in his memorable and lengthy monologue of questionable self-defence near the end, puts his case forward for Hans as his most pitiable creation of all. Lorre had only made three features prior to M, and was known more for comedy, so it was quite a coup for him to play his first lead so early in his career.*

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.



Good timing. I just bought the Criterion version of M so I'll rewatch with your comments in mind.

/3rtfu11 said...

How long must I wait for your Anjelica Huston piece?

Anonymous said...

Excellent review; especially this part here:

"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"

I think you can see the same sort of quality in Maltese Falcon where Bogart and Greenstreet do most of the talking, yet Lorre is always prominent in the background taking everything in.

Here is my Lorre-related Blog entry on the subject if you like, hehe:

David Coley said...

I remember first being introduced to Lorre through caricatures of him on old Looney Tunes. Come to think of it, that's how I became aware of Bing Crosby, Wagner, Of Mice and Men, and who knows what else.

Rebecca said...

This is a great write-up, in a great series. I want to watch all of these again - plus "Maltese Falcon' and 'Beat the Devil' to catch up on Lorre.

Volvagia said...

I view him as a support in M. He's physically in 20-30 minutes of a 110 minute movie and performs for one 8-10 minute scene, right near the end. If anyone's a "lead" it's the head cop (35-40 minutes) or Schranker (32-35 minutes).

Craig Bloomfield said...

/3rtfu11 - I haven't forgotten. I make ongoing notes on actors for this series, but I like to watch the 3 films again (or certainly the bits with the actors in again) before writing about them. I'm waiting/looking into getting 3 Huston films to write about. So, she will get done soon.

herald7 - thank you for reading. I very nearly inc. Maltese Falcon, as he is excelelnt in it. But went for Stranger instead, as there's less been written on that film (as far as I've seen). You're right about his presence in Falcon though. He's often inconspicuously on the periphery of the screen, but somehow we're always drawn to him anyway.

I really enjoyed reading your Lorre post.

David - I saw some of the great caricatures of Lorre in my research. There's so many; he's facially inspiring, let's say.

Rebecca - thank you! There's so many more Lorre films I want to see now.

Volvagia - Yes, he is more of a support in M, but he's so central that the lead/support thing is rather blurred. Either way, I had to inc. M as Lorre and the film are so entwined in many folks' minds, for obvious reasons. Good stat research there though.

Alison Flynn said...

M is one of my favorite movies ever.

Great write-up of this wonderful actor.


i'd disagree that Peter Lorre is supporting in M. He's unquestionably the lead. If the story is totally about you... and everyone else is merely in your orbit, you're the lead. He's like the protagonist AND the antagonist in one. Total lead.

Volvagia said...

Wait, so the lead of Pulp Fiction was...dadadah...The Suitcase!

Craig Bloomfield said...

Ah, but Pulp's suitcase was the macguffin.

Volvagia said...

Because, I'm sorry, but I saw Lorre's character as largely a Maguffin up until that sequence near the end.

Volvagia said...

Here's how I see it: The story wasn't about HANS, it was about the SEARCH FOR HANS, by both the cops and the criminals. In essence you could easily say that the character is a rare "human McGuffin."

mabelorre said...

Hey.. I`ve just dicovered this blog and let me tell you that you`ve given a great review and isight to Peter Lorre`s carrier.

I`m a big Peter Lorre fan and I run a forum dedicated to him: