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The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre, by Stephen D. Youngkin

Reviewed by
Warren Leming

Iconic actor Peter Lorre once was described fondly as a “rococo cherub gone slightly astray,” but as Youngkin’s 613 page opus shows, this extremely talented man strayed very far indeed from his astonishingly accomplished theatrical beginnings propelled by the rise of Nazism, a World War, fickle Hollywood, and a witch hunt, to name but a few of the distractions that his biographer enumerates. Born Laszlo Lowenstein in Hungary in 1904, Lorre doubtless remains one of the singular film figures of the 20th Century. There was never anyone quite like him and as he immodestly pointed out toward the end of his wildly eventful life: “There won’t be anyone like me when I’m gone.” He was right.

Escaping his conservative Jewish family roots, the ambitious young man was clerking in a Viennese bank when he appeared in his first play, though according to legend, he had yet even to see one. Enjoying a success d’estime in Vienna during the early 1920’s, he departed for the happier hunting ground for major roles in Berlin, where he was absorbed into the remarkable work circle around playwright Bertolt Brecht. Lorre began a life-long friendship with Brecht, who instantly tapped him for the lead in Mann ist Mann (1931) and though the play itself was panned at the time, Lorre gave a striking performance that Brecht, not one to gush, never tired of praising.  

A canny student of acting, Brecht had begun as a critic and drew his theoretical ideas from the work of Laughton, Valentin, Chaplin, Wedekind — and Lorre.  Lorre was a great physical actor and a master at what Brecht termed “gestus” — gestures that define, clarify, and advance a role. Brechtian actors reveal humans making hard social and political choices, and eschew overly emotional performances: what Brecht termed the “emotional drug trade.” (Brecht liked to point out that Hitler had learned his rhetorical style “from the stalls.”) Brecht’s dramaturgy insists that people are never “one thing” but composed of many traits; some developed, others less so. Lorre, who easily charmed an audience one minute and terrified it the next, offered a vivid incarnation of Brecht's ideas. 

In 1931 Fritz Lang cast Lorre as the repellent child killer lead in his landmark film ‘M,” and with this, his second film appearance, Lorre suddenly became an international star. Lorre, as Lang asserted, delivered one of the finest film performances ever, yet one that haunted and daunted the actor for the rest of his career. Lorre, in a sense, never recovered from this great early success. This sinister role was to typecast him and thus to hinder his artistic development.  Youngkin plausibly suggests that it may have planted the seeds that destroyed him.

Lorre's politics were of the "fellow traveler" variety. He was never a Party member. Artist's like Brecht and Lorre were frequently asked "not to join the Party," the reason being that a Party membership would have diminished their publicity value. Prompted by Hitler’s ascent to power and an otherwise admirably high spot on the Gestapo’s hit list, Lorre immigrated to Hollywood in 1934. Hollywood was where glitzy film parts the finest actors from the stage, homogenizes their language and style, and reduces their professional lives to a train of serial ingratiation with moguls and media. Lorre’s role in “M” had made him eminently employable so he signed as a contract player and began his long forced march through the ever-deepening mire of a studio system he came to detest. 

Lorre’s first years in la-la land were spent among the refugee German-speaking intelligentsia; for many of whom exile was a personal disaster. Unable to master English, severed from their rich culture, and denied employment, many illustrious refugees sank slowly to penury. His old mentor Brecht, driven across Europe by Hitler’s expanding Reich, joined Lorre in 1941.

Lorre, however, had a chameleon knack of giving people what they wanted. So he took to American life with all the gleeful desperation of a man reprieved from the gallows. He married three times, and each of his wives was cast as caretaker by an alcoholic and drug addicted prima donna. Stars invariably functionalize the people around them: a driver; a cook; confidantes; the current wife and inevitably a mistress. It all resembled a small-time Borgia court around a swimming pool.

The actor admitted to a “dark” side—and indeed, traded on it— but Youngkin, perhaps wisely, tiptoes around racy anecdotal material on Lorre’s sexual kinks and rumored underworld ties. Yet, unquestionably, the man inspired great devotion. His first wife Celia Lovsky, a favorite of the Austrian wit Karl Kraus, gave up her own career for Lorre, and then after the breakup of their own marriage, she “supervised” his later marriages—befriending and caring for her “successors”—and later made of her own plush home a shrine to his memory.

Lorre’s domestic life was marred by serial philandering and a psyche so precarious that it required Celia’s micro-management.  Incapable of saving money, he spent freely. His hectic, lavish life prompted one actor friend to remark: “The links of our chains are forged not of cruelties, but of our luxuries.”  He was constantly in and out of rehab. It is sometimes irksome to behold Lorre’s pampered poolside torment in the midst of Never Never Land while tens of millions are dying from disease, starvation, and a Nazi war machine he narrowly escaped. Brecht, who served seven miserable years in what he called the “Hell of the easy-going,” describes Lorre’s situation in his poem "The Swamp":

I saw many friends
And the friend I loved most
Among them helplessly sunk
Into the swamp
I pass by daily.
And a drowning was not over in a single morning.
This made it more terrible.
And the memory of our long talks about the swamp
Which already held so many powerless.
Now I watched him leaning back
Covered with leeches in the shimmering,
Softly moving slime,
Upon the sinking face
The ghastly blissful smile.

By 1948 Brecht was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and, like many Leftist refugees, hounded out of the country. Despite his close association with Brecht, Lorre was never persecuted, though there were people who denounced him. He eluded HUAC by going to Europe to make a film.

Eager to build a company in Berlin’s Russian Zone, Brecht begged Lorre to join him. Brecht, who considered Lorre “the finest reader of prose and poetry in the German language,” had planned a Lorre Hamlet - an extraordinarily tantalizing prospect, no matter how it turned out. They also planned to perform The Good Soldier Schweik, which Lorre was born to play (and a work from which the young Brecht had drawn his outwardly cynical attitude and verbal style). Lorre, like Charles Laughton, believed that Brecht was the new Shakespeare, but the collaboration they both devoutly wished, alas, never came to pass.  Lorre, apart from his addictions, was already in poor health by the time that Brecht had established himself in Berlin.

By the early 1950s the Hollywood studio system that kept him in relative luxury, under pressure of courts and television, was dissolving into competitive cut-throat independent companies. Desperate to repeat his success with “M,” Lorre returned to Germany in 1951 to direct and star in “The Lost One,” but the production foundered due to his drug problem and growing megalomania. Lorre, the brilliant Brechtian paragon, plummeted in a single decade from Huston’s brilliant Maltese Falcon cast (Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Mary Astor), which set a standard for ensemble play, to the wastelands of B movie back lots and Roger Corman’s no frills epics.

By the early 1960s Lorre was lucky to be re-cycled with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugoisi, and Lon Chaney Jr. in kitschy horror films. Production standards plummeted: the work was fast, dirty and ill-paid. Lorre became lost in reveries of days with Bogart, Brecht, and a life in the theatre he had abandoned. Tragically, Lorre couldn’t reconcile the responsibilities that Brecht insisted were the lot of a great artist, with his own desire for personal comfort and adulation. His health failing, his third marriage ending, unable to remember his lines, and victim to an "Industry" which makes his 1930s films seem like Renaissance dreams, he visited his brother in Europe and, before departing, lamented: " I have to return to latrine duty."

In March 1964 Lorre died of a massive stroke. His friend Vincent Price, after a rabbi’s prayer, delivered the eulogy.  Bankrupt, Lorre left no will. Yet his death spawned a roaring Lorre industry: his unique mannerisms, vocal and facial tics became the mimicked basis for hundreds of TV and radio shows, cartoons, commercials, and feature films. At the end, Lorre called himself, deprecatingly, a "face maker," forgetting to add, it’s a face you never forget.

Mr. Youngkin's prose can wobble at times, but his life of Lorre is a monumental piece of research and sheds new light on a career that has too long been ignored and undervalued. The Brecht connection alone makes this an extraordinary piece of scholarship. We are indebted to the author.

Warren Leming is a writer and critic. (www.coldchicagocompany.org)



Logos 4.4 - fall 2005
© Logosonline 2005