Peter Lorre was born Ladislav Loewenstein on June 26, 1904 in Rozsahegy, Hungary. Both a skilled actor and a unique screen presence, Peter Lorre was one of the movies’ most memorable personalities. Lorre appeared on the stage and had several small film roles in Europe before coming to international attention in 1931 in Fritz Lang’s M. Lorre’s performance as the child-murderer set the standard for all sexual psychopaths on film since. Initially, his cherubic face and protruding eyes project the perfect mask of innocence. But as the film progresses and the massed forces of the police and the underworld close in on him, that innocence collapses into a series of feral outbursts. Lorre’s confession scene is a finely balanced mixture of self-loathing and uncontrollable passion that still produces a painful double blow of revulsion and pity in viewers. Peter Lorre’s performance in M remains one of the greatest in the history of cinema.
Almost as quickly as he achieved world-wide fame, Lorre became typecast. In spite of his diminuitive size, Lorre became synonymous with dread. Fleeing the Nazi machine, Lorre left Germany in 1933, landing in England, where Alfred Hitchcock exploited his image by casting him as the head of a ring of kidnappers who menace young Nova Pilbeam in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).
Two years later Hitchcock cast him in a similar role in Secret Agent. For Mad Love (1935), his first American film and a rare foray into horror for MGM, Lorre’s head was shaved, further emphasizing his bulging eyes and giving him a slick, reptilian appearance. In his second Hollywood outing he played yet another murderer – Raskolnikov in Sternberg’s version of Crime and Punishment (1935) – an excellent performance in a rather disappointing film. Although obssesives and psychopaths were Lorre’s stock-in-trade, he never gave the same performance twice. Each of his villains was a singular creation born out of distinctive character psychology and motivations.
Between 1937 and 1939 Lorre stepped into a more conventional role, playing the Japanese detective Mr. Moto in eight films for 20th Century-Fox. Always beneath the easy-going surface of Lorre’s Moto was a threatening edge that made the character far more interesting than most of Hollywood’s other series detectives. This ability to give subtle shading to his acting was a key to Lorre’s success. All his villainous roles have a darkly humorous touch, while his light or comedic performances feature a sinister undertone. The slight twist in his performances gave them a tension that continues to tantalize audiences.