He spent his entire professional life playing mad scientists, sinister criminals and oily little weasels, his goggle-eyes and oft-imitated raspy, accented voice became the movie personification of evil, and yet nothing in Peter Lorre's long film career quite prepares you for his chilling portrayal of movie history's first serial killer, Hans Beckert of Fritz Lang's classic psychological thriller, M.
No charming, chianti-sipping killer is Beckert—he preys on little girls, luring them with balloons and candy and kind words before leading them into the woods or an empty lot to perform his sadistic, depraved rituals. That by the end of the movie you also question the motives and methods of Beckert's would-be judges, indeed, that some in the audience even feel sympathy for him, is a testament to Lorre's talent, Lang's direction and Thea von Harbou's screenplay, and though he played the part in 1931 and literally hundreds of imitators have followed, I would argue Lorre's Beckert is the most convincing portrait of a serial killer ever essayed, one that makes more recent depictions seem like what they in fact are—cartoon monsters and manipulative contrivances.
As the movie opens, Berlin is already in turmoil as a serial killer preys with impunity on the city's children, eight so far, with the promise of more murders to come.
"Just you wait," sing the children as they play a game, "it won't be long/The man in black will soon be here/With his cleaver's blade so true/He'll make mincemeat out of you!" not quite grasping, as their panicked parents do, just how close the danger really is. And indeed, as one of the children, little Elsie Beckmann, wanders away from her playmates to bounce a ball against a poster seeking information about the killer, Peter Lorre's shadow appears in profile. His back to us, whistling a tune, he buys the girl a balloon and quietly leads her away.
And then as Elsie's mother calls for her child with greater and greater urgency, we see some of the most unforgettable images in movie history—the ball rolling out of the woods, the balloon caught in a power line—that signal that despite all the precautions, another murder has taken place. Unlike the other famous motion picture monsters of 1931, Dracula and Frankenstein, this monster has lost none of his power to shock and there's no retreating into the comforting reassurances that it's just a movie—M was inspired by real events and they are repeated today with appalling regularity.
Lorre actually spends relatively little time on screen and has only one large speaking part, hence the supporting award. In fact, M is first and foremost a police procedural, maybe the first in movie history, as well as a scathing attack on the German society then in the process of sweeping Hitler into power. But it's Lorre's performance that holds the movie together, breathes a sinister life into it, and afterwards, he's what you remember.
We glimpse his shadow, his back, briefly his face a mirror, but not until nearly fifty minutes into the movie do we see Lorre full on, buying an apple from a street vendor. And it's as he's feeding this physical hunger that he sees his next victim and another, terrible hunger hollows him out.
"I have to roam the streets endlessly," he later says, describing the moment, "always sensing that someone's following me. It's me! I'm shadowing myself! Silently, but I still hear it! Yes, sometimes I feel like I'm tracking myself down. I want to run—run away from myself! But I can't! I can't escape from myself! I must take the path that it's driving me down and run and run down endless streets! I want off! And with me run the ghosts of the mothers and children. They never go away. They're always there! Always! Always! Always! Except—when I'm doing it—when I—Then I don't remember a thing. Then I'm standing before a poster, reading what I've done. I read and read—I did that? I don't remember a thing! But who will believe me? Who knows what it's like inside me? How it screams and cries out inside me when I have to do it! Don't want to! Must! Don't want to! Must! And then a voice cries out, and I can't listen anymore! Help! I can't! I can't! I can't!"
It's Lorre's only lengthy speech of the movie, but boy, what a speech, and so convincing is his anger, fear, pleading, wheedling, all the classic stages of grief in the face of a certain death sentence, some critics and audience members forget that it's a self-serving rationalization. The very first time we see Lorre's face, in a mirror, he's pulling comical faces, "to see in himself the monster others see in him," as Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert puts it, and enjoying what he sees. He writes taunting letters to the newspapers while whistling the same tune he whistled as he killed little Elsie Beckmann. And he has the presence of mind to break off a pursuit of a new victim when there's a chance he'll get caught.
It takes a brilliant piece of acting to make you forget that this sweaty, self-loathing weasel has murdered nine children. Viewers (then and now) aren't used to this sort of complex characterization and they wait in vain for the director and the actor to tell them how to feel and what to think. Lorre and Lang were going for something deeper, more lasting. Is he insane, is he bluffing, what should the mob do with him? Here's the messy reality, the movie says, make of it what you will.
Peter Lorre was born Laszlo Lowenstein in 1904 in Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia), but ran away to Vienna at an early age where he worked as a bank clerk and (he claimed) studied briefly with Sigmund Freud before turning to acting, a profession so difficult to break into that Lorre later said, "I am the only actor, I believe, who really had scurvy." Moving to Berlin, the young actor worked with playwright Bertolt Brecht, starring in Mann ist Mann where he came to the attention of Fritz Lang. His performance in M made him an international star.
The Jewish Lorre fled Germany in 1933 soon after the Nazis came to power, eventually landing in London where he starred in Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. At the time of his first interview with Hitchcock, Lorre spoke little English and bluffed his way through the conversation by watching as Hitchcock told stories and then laughing uproariously whenever he thought the director had reached a punchline. Whether Lorre fooled Hitchcock, I can't say, but Lorre got the part and learned his lines phonetically.
His performance in The Man Who Knew Too Much led Lorre directly to starring roles in Hollywood, beginning with Mad Love and Crime and Punishment in 1935. He followed those with dozens of suspense and mystery movies for Warner Brothers including eight Mr. Moto movies, and in 1941 perhaps his best Hollywood role, that of Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon.
The latter movie was the first of Lorre's nine pairings with character actor Sydney Greenstreet, surely one of the most unlikely of Hollywood's successful screen teams, one tall and overweight with a bellowing English stage actor's voice, the other short and thin with a raspy German accent, neither of them remotely attractive and usually playing criminals. Outside of The Maltese Falcon and 1943's Casablanca, the best of their pairings was probably The Mask of Dimitrios, an atmospheric conspiracy thriller that has Lorre and Greenstreet backtracking the trail of the mysterious Dimitrios Makropoulos, international assassin, smuggler and spy.
Despite a career of unforgettable supporting work, Lorre was never nominated for an Oscar.
During the television era, Lorre made numerous guest appearances spoofing his own image and he was often imitated. His cartoon self frequently battled Bugs Bunny, Robin Williams imitated him in Disney's Aladdin and he was the inspiration for Ren in the animated series Ren and Stimpy. In 1997, the Brooklyn band The World/Inferno Friendship Society released an album entirely about Lorre entitled Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre's Twentieth Century. Last year BBC radio broadcast Michael Butt's play Peter Lorre v. Peter Lorre.
Lorre himself shrugged at the sincerest form of flattery. "All that anyone needs to imitate me," he said, "is two soft-boiled eggs and a bedroom voice."
Although as a performer he reached legendary status, Lorre was in his personal life lonely and depressed, addicted to morphine, bad with money. He was married three times and fathered one child, a daughter, Catherine. He worked right up until his death in 1964.