Richard Wilcocks writes:
Peter Lorre appears in the LitFest’s showing of The Beast With Five Fingers at the Cottage Road Cinema on Monday 21 March at 7.30pm. He stands out, almost inevitably, from the other actors in a strong cast, and not simply because of his reputation: he is genuinely one of the greats. The screenplay, taken from a short story by W F Harvey, one-time resident of Headingley, is a little daft, but there’s the horror genre for you. It’s still very enjoyable.
His voice . . . face . . . the way he moved . . . laughed - he was the most identifiable actor I have ever known. (Vincent Price)
His ‘real’ name was László Löwenstein, and the languages of his youth would have included Hungarian, German, and probably Yiddish, because he was born in 1904 in Rózsahegy (now Ružomberok in Slovakia, then in the Kingdom of Hungary) to a fairly well-off Jewish family. He was educated in Vienna and became a bank clerk to please his father, in spite of his fascination with theatre.
Membership of a theatre group which specialized in improvisation led him to stages in Breslau (now Wrocław), Zurich and Berlin, where he became famous for his interpretation of Danton in Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death. Bertholt Brecht took a great linking to him, and cast him in his Happy End and Man Equals Man. In 1931 the film director Fritz Lang cast him as a psychopathic child murderer in his first talkie, which had the short title of M. This caused something of a sensation, and Lorre began to be careful about typecasting. However, although he starred in a fair number of German films after M, people remembered it rather too well, and in 1933, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who was deeply interested in the power of film (just like his master Hitler, whose favourite film was Lives of a Bengal Lancer) sanctioned the use of Lorre’s image on a poster advertising the anti-semitic The Eternal Jew. Lorre was supposed to look like a typical Jew. Sinister, that is…
Lorre took the hint and got out. In England, he quickly teamed up with Alfred Hitchcock to become a villain in The Man Who Knew Too Much, then sailed to the United States to star in Mad Love and to become the Japanese sleuth Mr Moto. His international reputation, which was substantial, escalated to stellar heights when he appeared in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. After the War, still sensitive (rather late in the day) about typecasting, he appeared in The Beast With Five Fingers and similar films. He finished his career with a series of character parts in the likes of Around the World in Eighty Days.