21 July 2024

A lazy, mischievous grin.
Those bulging eyes.
That nasally drone of a voice.

Of all the leading faces of classic horror, Peter Lorre's shudder-inducing countenance must surely rank as the most instantly recognizable.

He was born László Löwenstein in Rosenberg, Hungary on June 26, 1904. Of Jewish heritage, young László attended school in Vienna and was a student of Austria's most renown psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud.

In his late twenties, Löwenstein moved to Germany and took to the stage, most notably in playwright Bertolt Brecht's Mann ist Mann.

His breakthrough in film came when he was cast as a serial killer in Fritz Lang's 1931 horror masterpiece M, based on the 1929 real life murderous crimes of Peter Kürten - the notorious "Vampire of Düsseldorf."

With a style blending German expressionism and early film noir, M follows pudgy Hans Beckert, a pedophile who walks the streets of 1930s Berlin. Whistling a creepy little tune, the disturbed Beckert stalks and kills helpless young children.

When the local police fail to capture Beckert, an underground crime syndicate takes matters into their own hands, with shocking results.

Lang's film is a powerful piece of cinema, on par with his silent science fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927). Indeed, M is supremely chilling and it rightfully bestowed stardom on the renamed Peter Lorre as its deranged lead, typecasting him as the villain/heavy for decades to come.

In 1933, when Germany came under Nazi control, Lorre relocated to England and got the part of the villainous Abbott in Alfred Hitchcock's original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). He would team up with the Master of Suspense again in 1936 for the lite espionage thriller Secret Agent.

He is simply transcendent in Karl Freund's horror flick Mad Love (1935), playing the part of the renowned surgeon Dr. Gogol, who takes a journey from gentle admiration, to uncontrollable obsession...to utter insanity!

Based on the influential French novel Les Mains d'Orlac (penned by Maurice Renard) and from the same director as The Mummy (1932), the exceptional Mad Love gave Lorre his best role since that of Hans Beckert in M.

Lorre kicked off the 1940s with a couple of excellent efforts, including playing the part of a psychopath-on-the-loose in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), and a brooding, one-man mafioso heavy in Island of Doomed Men (1940).

After appearing in The Maltese Falcon in 1941, Lorre then went on to co-star with Boris Karloff in The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942). He made another classic with Casablanca (1942), took a break from horror for a few years, and returned to the genre with The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), another Mad Love-style thriller.

He continued to work throughout the 1950s, especially in episodic television. But by the early 1960s, Lorre found he hadn't completely escaped the clutches of the horror genre. He appeared in two Edgar Allan Poe adaptations helmed by Roger Corman, Tales of Terror and The Raven (both in 1962).

His last horror outing was 1964's The Comedy of Terrors, directed by the inestimable Jacques Tourneur.

Peter Lorre died of a stroke on March 23, 1964.

The Beast with Five Fingers 1946
The Boogie Man Will Get You 1942
The Comedy of Terrors 1964
Crime and Punishment 1935
The Face Behind the Mask 1941
Island of Doomed Men 1940
The Lost One (Der Verlorene) 1951
M 1931
Mad Love 1935
The Man Who Knew Too Much 1934
The Raven 1962
Secret Agent 1936
Stranger on the Third Floor 1940
Tales of Terror 1962
You'll Find Out 1940
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