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

The Lost One:
A Life of
Peter Lorre



Chapter 3

Peter Lorre's
(A Sample)

Critics Are
Saying . . .

The Author

What's New!


Peter Lorre

Peter Lorre:
The Man,
The Actor


Photo Album

Poster Art



Radio Programs


Escape to Life

Ever since I came to this country I've been trying to live down my past.
That picture "M" has haunted me everywhere I've gone.
— Peter Lorre

A benign fate – as he liked to believe – intervened to end Lorre's Hungerjahr in 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 of The 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. He reminded Hitchcock of the actor's forceful performance in M. "We wanted him at once," said Montagu. "There was never any question about his coming over to be inspected or tested – even his English was not in question, for a German accent was no obstacle in the part. He came over, not to be approved, but to be engaged."

Katz knew where Lorre was staying and offered to get in touch with him. With the ready consent of Michael Balcon, director of production at Gaumont-British, they cabled the actor to come over. Balcon also agreed to cover Lorre's expenses and secure a period immigration permit to allow him to work on England. Before leaving, Peter contacted his brother Andrew, who was in town for the Paris International Motor Show, an annual event scheduled the first Thursday in October. He shared his good fortune (he had a job in England) and his bad fortune (he was, as usual, short of money). Tapping the filial rock once more, the improvident brother drew French francs and was off to London.

Front – 'The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre' by Stephen Youngkin (2005)

Despite his German triumph in M, Lorre was little known to English-speaking audiences. That, along with his presumably poor English, had relegated him to consideration for only a small role in the picture, said Montagu: "Hitch and I both considered that Peter would be excellent as the 'Hit Man' of the gang in the situation Hitch had envisaged." They "admired him and jumped at the chance to get him and to do him a good turn at the same time, but the production company needed a certain amount of persuading."

Sidney Bernstein – impresario, showman, exhibitor, theater owner, builder of supercinemas and founding member of the National Film Society – undoubtedly put in a good word. Along with Ivor Montagu and Otto Katz, he belonged to the Committee for the Victims of German Fascism, which had initiated the "Reichstag Fire Trial of l933." Bernstein also played an equally active role on a private level, supporting a public boycott of German goods, coauthoring a pamphlet titled The Persecution of the Jews in Germany, boosting membership of the Committee for Co-ordinating Anti-Fascist Activity and extending a helping hand to needy refugees.

An acquaintance from the Berlin days, Bernstein invited Lorre to stay first at his flat on Albermarle Street, where the actor bumped into intellectual luminaries and film celebrities – including Charles Laughton – and then at Long Barn, a Tudor house in Sevenoaks Weald, featuring low ceilings, sloping dark oak floors, exposed beams and leaded windows, which he had leased from Vita Sackeville-West.

"Peter told me that he was deeply embarrassed," recalled Paul Falkenberg, "because he had never been in England before. He was lying in this beautiful bed and he had only one pair of underwear and in comes the butler and opens the curtains and says, 'Good morning, sir, would you like your tea,' and so on. It was a totally new world that opened to him."

German refugee Paul E. Marcus (PEM), who now published a newsletter in London recording the activities of fellow exiles, also remembered hearing Lorre dress up the story of his arrival in London

with a single suit on his body and dress coat in his suitcase . . . Every morning the proper butler asked him which suit he should put on, where there was no choice. One evening his host invited Lorre to go out with him. "Put out the dinner jacket," said Lorre proudly to the butler. While getting dressed, Lorre noticed that the dress coat had a built-in hump from his last movie role, which he could not get rid of. Hence, there was nothing for him to do, except to explain the thing to Mr. Bernstein. He only laughed and they both went out together. Wherever they went on this evening, girls fought their way to Lorre to touch his hump because it would bring good luck.

Bernstein introduced Lorre to Hitchcock and Montagu at London's Hotel Mayfair in Berkeley Square. Lorre listened while Hitchcock sounded out his plans and took in first impressions. "Now all I knew in English was yes and no," recalled the actor, "and I couldn't say no because I would have had to explain it, so I had to say yes to everything, which doesn't quite befit me. Sidney put me wise to the fact that Hitchy likes to tell stories, so I used to watch him like a hawk and whenever I thought the end of a story was coming and that was the point, I used to roar with laughter and somehow he got the impression that I spoke English and I got the part."

Back – 'The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre' by Stephen Youngkin (2005)

"As soon as Hitch saw him," said Montagu, "he agreed, so did Peter, and we developed his part in the picture." Not that of Levine, the hired gunman, as originally intended, but of Abbott, the diabolical mastermind of the gang. From all appearances, the actor answered his search for new and different faces. The director later remarked, "Your big problem in casting is to avoid familiar faces. . . . I've always believed in having unfamiliar supporting players even if your stars are known." Actually, in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock's supporting actors were familiar to British audiences. It was the scarred visage of the second-billed Lorre, his cigarette smoke wafting menacingly out of frame, which appeared in poster artwork for the picture. Alongside ran the byline, "Public Enemy No. l of All the World."

Despite his desperate need for work, Lorre was cautious in accepting the role of an international archcriminal. Abbott's kidnapping of a young girl and his almost Oedipal deference to the androgynous nurse Agnes recalled Hans Beckert's perverse sexual presence in M. The part was a purely menacing one, however, calling for malefic amiability rather than tortured pathos. In the end, a first-rate script and Hitchcock's reputation dispelled Lorre's fears. The actor recalled that he was

almost in despair, when I was given the script of The Man Who Knew Too Much to read, with a view to my taking the part of the spy. This, although of course it did not allow me to get away from my "horrid" screen nature, was a really intelligent and constructive film, and the part called for subtle characterisation. . . . There was no obvious terrorism in it. I had to be a villain without making it apparent until the film had half developed. I had to be a villain enough for a child, with the clear perception of childhood, to dislike me; and yet for grown-ups to see nothing out of the ordinary in me at all. This gave the role a background of reality and I was very glad to play it."

When all was settled, Peter wired Celia in Paris with big news. At a press party, he told her, Rufus LeMaire had walked up to him and put the question: "How tall are you?" After that, the casting director kept his ear to the ground. If Hitchcock liked this newcomer, perhaps Hollywood had room for him. LeMaire cabled Harry Cohn, chief of Columbia Pictures, and received a clearance decision to sign the diminutive Hungarian actor. On May 15, Lorre reportedly inked a five-year contract, renewable in six-month options that carried a weekly salary of five hundred dollars. Celia hurriedly packed up, said good-bye to their fellow exiles in Paris, and sailed for London, where she and Peter moved into Carlton Court in Pall Mall Place. There Celia once again devoted herself to looking after Peter's happy-go-lucky ways, keeping meticulous accounts and staying one step ahead of his creditors.

How quickly Lorre learned English is difficult to say. "I wasn't the man who knew too much English when I started the picture," he later explained. "At that time Peter's English wasn't exactly great," confirmed screenwriter Charles Bennett. "Hitch had recently employed a young female Oxford graduate named Joan Harrison . . . with high honors in French. With language difficulties existing, and since Peter was known to be a French linguist, Hitch asked Joan to discuss the next scene or such with Peter in French. Peter listened bewilderedly for a while, then said in his halting if hopeful grasp of the English tongue, 'Please – please, speak English.'"

Lorre claimed that he learned English in two to three months with the aid of a tutor. At night he sat up with a cup of black coffee and mentally translated his dialogue into German in order to firmly fix its meaning and inflection. After getting a handle on his characterization, he returned to his English lines, rehearsing and memorizing them word by word. However he managed it, by the time filming began on May 29, Lorre had more than a working knowledge of English. His acting is far too subtle and well-shaded to be dismissed as mere parroting.

Pages 89-92 of The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin
Copyrighted Material – Used with Permission of the Author

The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre (2005) by Stephen Youngkin – now in its third printing and winner of the Rondo Award for "Best Book of 2005" – is available in bookstores everywhere, as well as these on-line merchants.

Interested in Peter Lorre's radio and television performances? Check out Radio Showcase and Movies Unlimited. Netflix has Lorre movies for rent.

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