The Lost One:
Critics Are Saying . . . . .
A selection of reviews of The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre (University Press of Kentucky, Sept. 2005), available in bookstores and through on-line merchants everywhere.
Classic Images: "Book Points"
In the March issue I reviewed a book, Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot, that is the model of a bad biography, filled with dubious assumptions, sappy prose, senseless contradictions, and sloppy research. This month, however, I have a book that does everything right. The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin ($39.95, University Press of Kentucky hardcover) is a beautifully conceived, written and researched volume. The author, an acknowledged Lorre expert, has been working on this since the �70s, and interviewed hundreds of people associated with the actor. What unfolds is a true warts-and-all examination, with first-hand interviews (including Peter�s daughter), telling about both Peter Lorre�s strengths and foibles. We honestly need more authors like Youngkin who aren�t focused on sensationalism, but want instead to paint an honest portrait of the subject. Peter Lorre was a very talented man who, unfortunately, was addicted to morphine.
Peter Lorre, born Laszlo Lowenstein in Hungary, first reached prominence with his deeply moving and powerful performance as a child murderer in Fritz Lang�s M (1931), a German classic that is still revered today. Unfortunately, M also typecast him in villainous roles. He craved variety, and got it occasionally, but the image stuck. His films include Hitchcock�s original The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Secret Agent, Mad Love, the Fox Mr. Moto series, the sleeper Stranger on the Third Floor, The Maltese Falcon, All Through the Night, Casablanca, Invisible Agent, The Beast with Five Fingers, Beat the Devil, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Silk Stockings, and the AIP classics The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors. His subtle, smooth acting graced 82 movies, elevating even the worst material.
Those 82 films worried me. Lorre had an incredibly interesting, complicated and dramatic life, so I wondered if Youngkin, like most authors in his situation, would write off the movies and concentrate on his subject�s problems and marriages. Thankfully, the author puts his 600-plus-page tome to good use; we get it all. His dissections of the films are exhaustive, and very perceptive. I found his comparison of the French version of M, filmed at the same time as the German classic, fascinating. Lorre starred in both, but he was vocally dubbed for the French. His comments on the conflicting performances were incisive. (I would have liked, however, a bit more about the 1951 remake, directed by Joseph Losey, starring David Wayne.)
Lorre made eight films for Fox as the detective Mr. Moto (1937-39). Youngkin�s treatment of the films is terrific, a very entertaining section of the book. I enjoyed the way he naturally tied all the Moto movies together. Many authors could be expected to look down on these second features, but this author judges each film on its own merits. Another strong point is the author�s assessments of Lorre�s television and radio performances.
Youngkin�s writing is marvelous. I love the way he seamlessly wove his interview quotes and newspaper reviews into the text. He makes it look effortless, but I know it�s a difficult procedure. His descriptive abilities are often pithy, imbuing simple phrases with a punch. His style is at once highly literate and instantly readable. His knowledge of film/theatre history is impressive, save a few name misspellings. He has a strong grasp not only on Lorre, but also the people with whom he becomes involved. For many, Lorre�s wife Karen (Kaaren) Verne has been a shadowy figure. Youngkin gets the lowdown on this tragic actress, as he does with all of Lorre�s wives, and he comes up with fascinating material about this otherwise forgotten woman. A very colorful addition is the strange tale of Peter Lorre, Jr., a man who was not, in fact, related to the actor at all. Youngkin�s research into this matter is exceptional.
We get vital background on Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht. While this was interesting, in the case of Brecht, I think the author went a little too far. It breaks the flow of his narrative. There�s so much Brecht that, after a while, you wonder what happened to Lorre. It�s hard to criticize this ample section, however, because Youngkin writes so well, but a little trimming would have helped here. Also important to the story, is how the rise of Nazism affected Lorre and his fellow actors in Europe, and the author handles this tremendously well. Most heartbreaking was Lorre�s association with the film The Lost One, a project he put much into, mentally and physically. It takes up a lengthy portion of the book and is crucial in understanding the actor�s approach to his craft and his psyche. The author doesn�t miss a beat.
Then there are the interviews. Because Youngkin started researching in the �70s, he got to many Lorre friends/co-stars and directors when they were alive. Check out just a few of the amazing people he had access to: Leon Ames, Charles Barton, Thomas Beck, Henry Blanke, David Butler, Jeanne Cagney, Frank Capra, John Carradine, Chick Chandler, Broderick Crawford, Delmer Daves, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Robert Florey, Norman Foster, Tay Garnett, Paul Henreid, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Burl Ives, Fritz Lang, Lotte Lenya, Joan Lorring, Celia Lovsky (Peter�s first wife), Rouben Mamoulian, Victor Mature, Hermes Pan, Lee Patrick, Vincent Price, Cliff Robertson, Dan Seymour, Don Siegel, June Vincent, Hal Wallis, Billy Wilder, and Keenan Wynn, among many others. The discussions of the films, then, take on an air of authority. How wonderful it is to be able to personally quote Chick Chandler while talking about the Mr. Moto series!
The Lorre credit list is a marvel: stage, radio, movies, TV, with cast listings. It�s a massive section, done superbly. Pictures are great, including many personal shots, as well as a strange one of a shirtless Lorre playing tennis.
Stephen D. Youngkin has written an important, definitive work. It�s insightful, masterful, and intelligent take on a very complicated man and actor. He captures the tortuous spirit, the prankster, all the contradictions of Peter Lorre, while also celebrating a remarkable career. There could be no better book on Lorre. Order from University Press of Kentucky, 663 South Limestone Street, Lexington, KY 40508-4008 or the publisher's website. — Reviewed by Laura Wagner; April 2006
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.
The Films of Peter Lorre (1982), also by Youngkin, is out of print, but copies may be purchased through Amazon and Barnes & Noble below. Interested in Lorre's radio and television performances? Check out Radio Showcase and Movies Unlimited. Netflix has Lorre movies for rent.
Amazon U.S. – Hard-Cover
Amazon Canada – Hard-Cover
Amazon Canada – Soft-bound
Amazon U.K. – Soft-bound
Amazon U.K. – Hard-Cover
University Press of Kentucky
Barnes & Noble – Nook and Hard-bound