The Lost One:
A Life of
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.
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."
"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
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
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
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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