Monday, March 24, 2014

Peter Lorre: One Of Cinema's Most Deliciously Sinister Presences

Anne Billson at the Telegraph looks back at the late actor Peter Lorre.

It's 50 years since the death, on March 23, 1964, of one of cinema's most deliciously sinister presences. Peter Lorre was born in 1904, of Jewish Austro-Hungarian descent, and attracted international attention in 1931 with his terrifying but weirdly sympathetic portrayal of a child murderer in Fritz Lang's M, the mother of all serial-killer movies.

Lorre used to tell the story that after he'd left Germany following the Nazi rise to power, he received a telegram from Joseph Goebbels, praising his performance in M and asking him to return. To which Lorre wrote back, "There is no room in Germany for two murderers like we are, Hitler and I."

In London, for Alfred Hitchcock, he was a charming baddie (learning his English dialogue phonetically) in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1924) before swapping over to the side of the good guys to play an exuberant spy with moustache and earring in Secret Agent (1936).  

In Hollywood his accent and slightly bug-eyed look landed him signature roles as a mad scientist, a Japanese detective, and, most memorably, as the slippery Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon. And, of course, he was a vital part of one of the greatest supporting casts ever assembled, in Casablanca.
After the war, his movie career seemed to go off the boil (though he made a welcome contribution to Disney's fabulous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) but he did plenty of television. He was the screen's first ever Bond villain, Le Chiffre, in CBS's Casino Royale (1954), and played opposite Steve McQueen in the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, Man from the South, adapted from a Roald Dahl story.

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