August 31, 2014


Peter Lorre: a great screen actor remembered (Philip French, 8/30/14, The Observer)

Born László Löwenstein in Rosenberg, Hungary, in 1904, Lorre grew up in Vienna where he left school to work as a bank clerk by day and to act at night in a theatre company that combined improvisation with Freudian therapy. The manager, probably inspired by Struwwelpeter, the shockheaded hero of a popular 19th-century children's book, gave him the name Peter Lorre. This was not inappropriate, because at 5ft 3in and with unruly hair and a face that was a series of circles (infinitely expressive saucer-like eyes, a round face, a neck that would often disappear) he cut something less than a stellar figure. Graham Greene, who thought him a genius, wrote in 1936 of his performance in Mad Love: "Those marble pupils in the pasty spherical head are like the eye-pieces of a microscope through which you can watch the tangled mind laid flat on the slide."

Within three years of settling in Berlin, Lorre was considered the capital's most exciting actor, acclaimed by Bertolt Brecht as the greatest exponent of his work. An essential figure in creating the playwright's concept of epic theatre, he was capable of miming with his body the opposite of what he was expressing in words. In M (1931), one of the first German sound films, Fritz Lang entrusted him with the demanding part of a sympathetic child murderer and later described Lorre's performance as "one of the best in film history and certainly the best in his life". M uncannily anticipates the coming of the Nazis, as the police and the underworld unite to pursue the hapless killer. It not only made Lorre world-famous but also trapped him for ever within a screen persona. Whatever he brought to subsequent roles by way of humour, pathos, pain and human kindness failed to conceal an insistent membrane of threat and danger.

Posted by at August 31, 2014 9:30 PM

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