With his big, sad eyes and chubby cheeks, actor Peter Lorre (1904-64) seemed predestined to be a movie villain: the compulsive child-killer of Fritz Lang's "M" or the oily, sexually ambiguous Joel Cairo of "The Maltese Falcon." Even before starring in "M," he had made a splash in the then-sinister part of a drug addict (a performance for which he drew upon his own addiction to morphine) in a German film called "Der weisse Damon" (The White Demon). But around the same time that he was making "M," he was also appearing as a "comic songster" in "Was Frauen traumen" (What Women Dream); had the latter two films come out in reverse order, Lorre once speculated, he would have carved out a career as a farceur.
Lorre's battles against type-casting and addiction are detailed in Stephen D. Youngkin's The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre (Univ. of Kentucky, $39.95). Born Laszlo Loewenstein in Hungary, he fled the anti-Jewish milieu of Berlin in 1933 for Vienna, on the same train with fellow actor Oskar Homolka, director Josef von Sternberg and violinist Jascha Heifetz. A few years later, Vienna wasn't safe for Jews, either, but Lorre got a break: a paid ticket to England to participate in Alfred Hitchcock's first version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much." Merely getting the part required no small prowess as an actor. Lorre recalled that he'd heard about Hitchcock's legendary storytelling abilities, "so I used to watch him like a hawk and whenever I thought the end of a story was coming. . . . I used to roar with laughter and somehow he got the impression that I spoke English." Soon enough, Lorre did speak English; he emigrated to the United States, and he stayed busy in Hollywood until being "gray-listed" in the late 1940s. But he overcame that setback, too, and was working steadily again by the time of his relatively early death.
-- Dennis Drabelle