“He hardly seems dead, just as it is difficult to believe he was ever clinically alive.” –David Thomson

I don’t know about this Peter Lorre. Look at him there in The Maltese Falcon. A pretty man, supposedly drenched in some lilac cologne (though it wouldn’t surprise me if he sprinkled on perfume, either), gloved, and pointing a gun at Humphrey Bogart. A great scene that first meeting between the two icons. Bogie laughing, knocking the gun out of Lorre’s effeminate hand. But don’t you feel that little twinge? That feeling of “watch it, Spade, watch it.” Because if there’s one thing that Peter Lorre traded in, it was unpredictablility. That silly fellow with the curls and the white bow tie could kill you without a second thought.

It’s easy to forget that Peter Lorre was such an incredible actor. But he was pigeonholed quickly. How could any man with that look not be pigeonholed? Then there’s that voice, predatory, at times vaguely sexual, and those buggy eyes, and that face, at once lean and severe, rounding into a doughy visage that didn’t lessen its intensity.

We remember him in our favorites: The Falcon, Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace, maybe Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (not a bad movie, though it didn’t need Lorre).

Well, go back to M and you might say to yourself, “Oh, what’s that?” That’s Peter Lorre, playing a man who murders children, for God’s sake. He’s oddly handsome, too. Watch Lorre there and you might think to yourself that these modern-day serial killer movies are a bit weak, a bit simple. What makes him so daring is his kindness in that movie, putting a real face on a ruthless killer, a man whose brain has a life of its own. Lorre makes you wonder if you’re capable of such crimes yourself.

And he makes the current crop of madmen–from Anthony Hopkins to Heath Ledger–seem like so many slummers trying to win Oscar gold. I’ve read a biography of Lorre, The Lost One, and it’s full of the usual crimes and misdemeanors: drugs, expatriates lost in the sunshine wasteland of Los Angeles, talented people frustrated by the Hollywood machine. Lorre was talented, a genius, whose attempt at directing, like Charles Laughton, was utterly ignored (though I’m guessing Der Verlorene is no Night of the Hunter).

And yet, Lorre seems totally unreal, just as Bogart does, or Michel Simon, or Marilyn Monroe. I know those are all real people, folks who lived and suffered and laughed and died, but they’re part of the great mystery that is movies of the Golden Age. I mean, really, I’ve seen people that resemble Gary Cooper or Bette Davis–but imagine someone trying to be Peter Lorre? Christ, they can even win Oscars portraying Truman Capote, but Lorre? You’d have a caricature straight from Bugs Bunny.

Let me know if you find a living human–and not some preserved specimen–just like him. Worth renting: M, The Maltese Falcon, ignore the overrated Casablanca (Lorre’s only in it for about five minutes), and rent intsead Huston’s Beat the Devil.

Peter Lorre, nee László Löwenstein, was born on June 26, 1904 and died on the 23rd of March, 1964, having closed his career in a Jerry Lewis movie.

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