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The Lost One

The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 680
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  • Book Info
    The Lost One
    Book Description:

    Often typecast as a menacing figure, Peter Lorre achieved Hollywood fame first as a featured player and later as a character actor, trademarking his screen performances with a delicately strung balance between good and evil. His portrayal of the child murderer in Fritz Lang's masterpiece M (1931) catapulted him to international fame. Lang said of Lorre: "He gave one of the best performances in film history and certainly the best in his life." Today, the Hungarian-born actor is also recognized for his riveting performances in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Casablanca (1942). Lorre arrived in America in 1934 expecting to shed his screen image as a villain. He even tried to lose his signature accent, but Hollywood repeatedly cast him as an outsider who hinted at things better left unknown. Seeking greater control over his career, Lorre established his own production company. His unofficial "graylisting" by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, however, left him with little work. He returned to Germany, where he co-authored, directed, and starred in the film Der Verlorene (The Lost One) in 1951. German audiences rejected Lorre's dark vision of their recent past, and the actor returned to America, wearily accepting roles that parodied his sinister movie personality.The first biography of this major actor, The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre draws upon more than three hundred interviews, including conversations with directors Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Frank Capra, and Rouben Mamoulian, who speak candidly about Lorre, both the man and the actor. Author Stephen D. Youngkin examines for the first time Lorre's pivotal relationship with German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, his experience as an émigré from Hitler's Germany, his battle with drug addiction, and his struggle with the choice between celebrity and intellectual respectability.Separating the enigmatic person from the persona long associated with one of classic Hollywood's most recognizable faces, The Lost One is the definitive account of a life triumphant and yet tragically riddled with many failed possibilities.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7185-2
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-XIV)
    (pp. 1-3)

    Walking along Hollywood’s Highland Avenue one fall evening in 1977, twenty-five-year-old Catharine A. Lorre, sole heir to the face and fame of her highly recognizable father, watched a police car pull up and cut her off. Out of the vehicle stepped two undercover vice-squad officers, who flashed their badges and demanded to see some identification. Among the papers in Catherine’s purse was a photo of herself at age ten sitting on her father’s lap. “Look what we’ve got here,” one of the policemen allegedly said, handing the snapshot to the other officer. They let her go.

    Two years later, former...

    (pp. 4-51)

    At the beginning of the twentieth century, Arad looked to the future. Thanks to its position as an important railroad junction, the commercial center of southeastern Hungary boasted one of the largest distilleries in Europe, its own brand of flour (Arad Königsmehl, or King’s Flour); a lumberyard; and wagon, machine, and barrel factories. The surrounding countryside produced grains, fruit, tobacco, honey, and cattle. Underground lay gold, silver, and copper. Above lived nearly 40,000 inhabitants. Predominantly Roman Catholic, the population also included nearly 10,000 Greek Orthodox Christians and 5,000 Jews, together with Greek Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed Protestants. Little wonder the...

    (pp. 52-88)

    Absolutely convinced that Peter Lorre was perfect for the lead in his new picture, Fritz Lang saw no need to screen test the “virgin” actor. With script in hand, he turned up at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. “I sometimes cursed him secretly,” Lorre looked back twenty years later, “as I must have waited fourteen months and couldn’t accept any film offers.” He had even turned down an overture from director Richard Oswald, who promised a three-day guarantee to reprise his role as Moritz Stiefel in a film production ofSpring’s Awakening.¹ Indeed, Lorre supposed Lang had forgotten about him. “I...

    (pp. 89-141)

    A benign fate—as he liked to believe—intervened to end Lorre’sHungerjahrin Paris. At Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd’s Bush, more commonly known as “the Bush” to film habitués, Alfred Hitchcock and Ivor Montagu, his associate producer, readied production ofThe Man Who Knew Too Much(1934) for Gaumont-British film studios. From his German comrade Otto Katz, who held a position on the Soviet-backed Comintern press, Montagu learned that Lorre had left Germany “for conscientious reasons” and was living “professionally at liberty” in Paris.¹ He reminded Hitchcock of the actor’s forceful performance inM. “We wanted him at...

    (pp. 142-175)

    Lorre wanted to play comedy. 20th Century–Fox, which had accepted him—and he it—on a trial basis, met the actor halfway with a dual role in an action-melodrama. Director Malcolm St. Clair had reportedly read the screenplay forCrack-Up(1937) and then sketched his ideas of what the characters might look like. Following his drawings, the casting department came up with Lorre for the role of Colonel Gimpy, the apparently feeble-minded, bugle-blowing mascot of an airship factory.¹ “Colonel Gimpy was a character worth any actor’s while,” explained Lorre. “He’s just this side of sinister, but real, with a...

    (pp. 176-245)

    Fed up with losing control over his work, John Huston, who had coauthored his way into high standing at Warner Bros. in the late 1930s, asked his agent to write a provision into his contract that said if the studio took up his option, he would be allowed to direct a film. After scriptingHigh Sierra(1941), Huston told Henry Blanke, his producer onJezebel(1938) andJuarez(1939), that the time had come. He wanted to direct.

    Asked what he had in mind, Huston replied, “The Maltese Falcon.” After all, the studio owned the rights to the best seller,...

    (pp. 246-278)

    By all appearances, Lorre had gone Hollywood at Warner Bros. With pal Humphrey Bogart, he frequented popular watering holes—Chasen’s, Romanoff’s, the Villanova—and steamed the alcohol out of his pores at Finlandia Baths. He pulled pranks and practical jokes and cracked wise. He spent more than he made, even tapping Bogart for loans both knew he would never pay back, and romanced a woman fourteen years his junior. He made fifteen films in six years, playing sinister villains, insidious foreign agents, a disenchanted scientist, an obsequious writer of detective yarns, a volatile plastic surgeon, a contemplative barfly, an artist...

  11. 7 THE SWAMP
    (pp. 279-310)

    When Mickey Rooney passed through Pittsburgh on a promotional tour in 1943, he met “a beefy guy with a raspy voice.” Sam Stiefel made his pitch over dinner. The theater operator wanted to sell out his interests on the East Coast and manage the actor. His self-confidence swept Rooney off his feet. They shook hands. With easy handouts, Stiefel took up the slack in the actor’s MGM salary, which was proving unequal to his increasingly luxurious lifestyle. Before long, Rooney decided it was time for his new manager to “put the wheels of my independence in motion.” In March 1944...

    (pp. 311-359)

    Peter Lorre’s approach was always soft and silent. He left the United States, and his life in Hollywood, just as quietly. Dissembling about his sudden departure, he said, “I removed myself from the limelight to give picturegoers a rest. They deserve it. I must be a terrifying experience on occasions!” Braced by the lapse of time, he later glossed over the hiatus as a deliberate decision to say no to money and popularity and to take the gamble afresh. The grim present lived harder than the reconstructed past. Tired of “making faces,” he cut himself adrift and floated into another...

    (pp. 360-424)

    Disappointment awaited Lorre in America. Wasted and unable to generate interest inDer Verlorene,the defeated actor-director-writer returned from his lonely mission empty-handed. He had sought to listen and to learn, and perhaps to help himself by helping others. His countrymen had paid him back in indifference, “with interest and interest’s interest.” Friends felt that he also wanted to shout down those who doubted he could rise above the studio star system by proving that he could write, direct, and act. No one heard him. Now he picked up where he had left off, as ifDer Verlorenehad never...

    (pp. 425-450)

    Facial expression,” wrote film critic Béla Balázs, “is the most subjective manifestation of man.” Lorre wore the contradiction of person and persona like so many masks, at times laying bare the inner man, at others obscuring him. Toward the end of his life, he tore away old disguises and created new ones, forever confusing the shadowy line between selves, not as an acting art, but as a survival skill. The face that had expressed the “multiplicity of the human soul” through the characters he portrayed on screen now betrayed his own tangled sensibilities. He reckoned his life in twos—horror...

    (pp. 451-454)

    Three months after Peter Lorre’s death in March 1964, police officers in Elk City, Oklahoma, arrested nineteen-year-old Larry McLean for counseling a devil-worshipping cult allegedly responsible for vandalizing a string of local churches. Dedicated to destroying all emblems of God, the secret society also planned to exhume the body of its idol, Peter Lorre, and restore it to life.

    As a pop icon, Lorre had arrived. Merchandisers found the image far more marketable than the actor. Little wonder that he was busier in death than he had been in life. Ironically, it was Eugene Weingand who kicked off the postmortem...

    (pp. 455-492)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 493-566)
    (pp. 567-580)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 581-614)
  20. Illustrations
    (pp. None)