Hollywood’s Original ‘Bad Boy’ Was Way Too Sinister For The Big Screen
László Löwenstein’s formative years in Austria-Hungary were pretty tough after he arrived in the world in June 1904. But eventually Löwenstein took up a profession that would change his life forever: he became an actor. Soon, his unique persona was causing a stir in Hollywood, and he ultimately made a huge impact on the silver screen. His stage name? Peter Lorre.
A legendary movie villain
Now, if you were to reel off a list of Hollywood’s greatest villains, Lorre would have to be near the top of it. Few actors in the industry have matched his intimidating performances. But the early part of his life was a minefield that he had to carefully navigate before even thinking about his future goals.
Lorre’s younger years
Back in Austria-Hungary during Lorre’s childhood, the future Hollywood star had been the oldest of three kids in his household, and had spent a lot of time with his mom. His dad, meanwhile, was balancing two very different careers — one as a bookkeeper, and another as an army lieutenant. Unfortunately, that meant he didn’t see much of his family.
A tragic loss
Although not ideal, at least to start with Lorre had one parental figure to lean on. Sadly, though, things took a tragic turn when he was just four years old. At that point, his mom suddenly passed away. And there were yet still worse times ahead…
Filling the void
Following the death of his wife, Lorre’s father was hopeful of finding someone to fill the maternal void that she left behind at home: he didn’t want the kids to be alone while he was away. So the widower started a romantic relationship with a woman named Melanie Klein. And she was already very familiar with the family.
You see, Klein had been a close pal of Lorre’s mom before she died. Anyway, after they got together, his father went on to pop the question, leading to their wedding. Once the pair had exchanged their vows, Klein officially became the kids’ new stepmom, and it seemed as though things were moving in a more positive direction. That wasn’t the case, though.
A horrible dynamic
Unfortunately for Lorre, Klein didn’t treat him in the way a loving stepmom would. Instead, she reportedly subjected the youngster to a lot of cruelty, which left him utterly terrified. It even got to the point where he’d dive below his bed to avoid her piercing gaze in the house. And this wasn’t just a phase, either — it went on for years.
But as the toxic dynamic continued to simmer at home, Lorre’s personal life was made even harder once troubling rumors started to emerge about his late mom. As we suggested earlier, her death had come as a real shock to everyone. Prior to that, she’d seemed to be living a healthy lifestyle, and had shown no signs of underlying illness. So the cause of her passing had been a bit of a mystery.
In the end, it was believed that Lorre’s mom had ultimately died after contracting a lethal bout of food poisoning. Now, here’s where the rumors came in. Without beating around the bush, some folks started to wonder if Klein had played a role in what had happened. After all, the sudden death had opened the door for her to join Lorre’s family. Could it be true, though?
Time to leave
Well, given his nasty experiences with Klein at the house, Lorre didn’t exactly dismiss it. Suddenly, her behavior was cast in an even more sinister light in his eyes. So, during his teenage years, the future Hollywood star made a huge decision. Yes, he began to plot an escape route to get away from his stepmom and start a new life for himself.
The next step
Taking the plunge, Lorre eventually left his family home behind as a 17-year-old. He was finally free of Klein’s constant cruelty. But now, the teen had to answer a really big question — what came next? Out on his own, he needed to come up with a way to support himself. Thankfully, though, Lorre wasn’t short of ideas.
Banking and acting
After packing his bags for Germany, Lorre opted for a clerk position at a bank: perhaps his dad’s financial career had influenced that decision? He bagged the role and seemed to be set for the time being. Yet something else piqued his interest, too — and it was a far cry from banking! Yep, the young man started to think about becoming an actor.
So, Lorre attended some local stage-acting classes, hoping to get a better idea if he was suited for it. It quickly became apparent that the young man had talent, and he landed parts in plays in various cities. The fledgling performer trod the boards at venues in Berlin, Germany, as well as in Austria and Switzerland.
Love is in the air
After a tough start to life, things were looking up for Lorre. And life only got better as he continued to indulge his acting passion. During his time in Berlin, the future star was introduced to an actress who also performed on stage. Her name was Celia Lovsky, and they immediately hit it off. The duo soon became an item.
Leaving an impression
But Lorre’s good fortune didn’t end there. His performances on stage eventually caught the eye of a movie director. And not just any old filmmaker — the iconic Fritz Lang. The legendary director got a first-hand view of the actor’s funnyman skills and timing, which he’d honed after getting cast in a batch of comedies.
Yet Lang saw something else in Lorre’s stage performances. Looking a little deeper, the director believed that there was a darkness bubbling under the comedy. For that reason, he thought the actor would be perfect for his next filmmaking project. So, he recruited Lorre to star in the 1931 classic M, taking on the role of Hans Beckert.
Now, this wasn’t Lorre’s first movie role. He’d made his on-screen debut a couple of years beforehand in Die Verschwundene Frau — which translates as The Missing Woman — but it was an uncredited part. Then, the actor appeared in 1930’s The White Devil. Still, it’s fair to say that M was a completely different prospect compared to those projects. He was in the leading role here — and it would change his life forever.
A terrifying performance
As Beckert, Lorre got to flex his villainous muscles in front of a huge audience. The character was a terrifying child killer, who found himself on the run from cops and criminals alike. It was a challenging part, but he knocked it out of the park. It’s almost impossible now to think of anyone else in that role.
But while M was very well received upon its release, Lorre didn’t have the smoothest of times making it. To start with, the actor feared that he wouldn’t be properly compensated for his work on the film. So, when Lang’s cameras weren’t rolling, he returned to the stage to bring in some extra guaranteed income.
Then, there were the stunts. At one point in the movie, Beckert was set to take a tumble down a flight of stairs. And with no stuntmen around back then, Lorre had to do it himself. He winced through 12 painful takes before Lang was happy with what he’d shot. On top of that, a very different problem emerged during another scene as well.
The whistling issue
Lang envisioned that Beckert would belt out an ominous whistle throughout the movie, mirroring the musical piece “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Lorre just couldn’t do it, though: whistling wasn’t among his many talents! So the director had to do it off camera, while his star mimicked the mouth movements!
Reaching a new audience
Anyway, once M hit the big screen, it was soon given an English dub for international audiences. Just like that, Lorre’s masterful performance was reaching even more eyes around the world. And while you might have thought this could only be seen as a positive development, apparently the actor didn’t think so — certainly in the years that followed. He was convinced that people only saw him as a bad guy.
It wouldn’t be the only part with which Lorre took issue, either, as we’ll get into a little later. After M, the actor was incredibly busy: he performed in another three movies in 1931 and five more in the 12 months that followed. But his personal and professional life was turned upside down going into 1933.
At that point in history, the Third Reich was growing in power across Germany. Lorre was understandably worried, so he packed his bags and left the country along with Lovsky, fleeing to London, England. Then, as the pair were adjusting to their new surroundings, the M star made a surprising connection.
A chance encounter
Yes, one day in London, Lorre randomly met an acquaintance of the legendary movie director Alfred Hitchcock. During that period, the filmmaker was hard at work on his next project, seeking out the perfect actor for The Man Who Knew Too Much’s villain. And Hitchcock was a big fan of Lorre’s wonderfully chilling performance in M.
Knowing that, the acquaintance set up a proper meeting between Hitchcock and Lorre. The director went on to outline his plans for the movie, going into a lot of detail. His words were met with plenty of nods and grins by the European performer, but he didn’t say anything in response. Why? Simple — Lorre’s English was extremely limited at that time!
Another villainous performance
In fact, Lorre barely understood anything that Hitchcock told him during their sit-down. Thanks to his expressions and body language, though, the filmmaker still decided to cast him in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Due to the language issue, the actor had to read all of his dialogue phonetically. But it didn’t detract from another great performance.
Marriage and a move
Once the shoot was complete, Lorre then decided to take the next step in his relationship with Lovsky. Yep, the couple became husband and wife, before heading off to America for the first time. In spite of his reservations about typecasting, the M star bagged a couple more roles as villains. He also teamed up with Hitchcock again for 1936’s Secret Agent.
That was another tough shoot for Lorre — but unlike with M, it wasn’t down to stunts or whistling. Instead, he was butting heads with the leading man, John Gielgud. Gielgud was convinced that his co-star was trying to outshine him. In addition to that, it’s also rumored that Lovsky’s husband was struggling with withdrawal symptoms during that spell, as a result of a morphine addiction.
The 20th Century Fox deal
Despite all the drama, though, Lorre completed the shoot in one piece. That brings us on to his next set of projects — the Mr. Moto franchise. After signing a deal with 20th Century Fox, those movies occupied most of his time. In total, he made eight of them in just two years. But the star wasn’t very enamored with the character.
As the shoots went on, Lorre grew ever more irritated with Mr. Moto. And while making the last movie in the series, he hurt his shoulder on a rather physical stunt, which finally pushed him over the edge. Yep, the Hollywood star never wanted to talk about the character again once he was done on Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation.
After saying goodbye to those films, though, Lorre was faced with a different problem. His fears of being typecast as a villain really came to the fore in this period. His bad-guy performances were so good that they were the only roles Hollywood made available to him. Yet he refused all of them.
As opportunities started to dry up at the start of the 1940s, he eventually relented and took on a new antagonistic part — but it was a doozy! The film in question was the classic 1941 mystery thriller The Maltese Falcon, which starred Humphrey Bogart. Lorre was cast in the role of Joel Cairo.
No one did it better
While Hans Beckert was arguably Lorre’s greatest performance, Joel Cairo has to be on the rung just below it. Once again, the actor showcased his unique skill for bringing truly nasty characters to life: no one in Hollywood from that time could measure up. But still, he was absolutely desperate to find more roles that moved away from the usual villainy.
A disastrous hiatus
Unfortunately for Lorre, his hopes were frequently dashed, leading to a pivotal moment. As the ’40s were coming to a close, he went on a hiatus from Hollywood. The Maltese Falcon star instead wanted to try his hand at radio. That didn’t work out, either, as he soon found himself in financial trouble. Everything seemed to be going wrong.
Lorre’s personal life was also in a pretty bad state by this time. He and Lovsky had decided to call it quits on their marriage in 1945 while his second wife, Kaaren Verne, only stayed with him until 1949. The disintegration of that relationship coincided with the actor’s horrible career slump. Would it get better? You bet — he just had to swallow his pride.
Lorre returned to Hollywood in the early 1950s with a slightly different attitude. Putting aside his former hopes of bagging a wider range of roles, the star by now appreciated that people adored his antagonistic performances. So why try to swim against the tide? He was back in the game. And in 1954 he made a significant bit of cinematic history.
James Bond’s first villain
Yes, Lorre became the first actor to portray a James Bond villain on screen during an episode of the anthology TV show Climax!. It was an adaptation of Casino Royale, so he took on the role of Le Chiffre. He beat Joseph Wiseman’s Dr. No to the punch by about eight years! Given his reputation, it seems fitting that Lorre should hold this honor.
Steady stream of work
Anyway, Lorre continued to work on both the big and small screens for the rest of his career, appearing in film and TV roles including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Rawhide, The Raven, Tales of Terror, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The actor’s final role came in the 1964 comedy The Patsy, where he joined Jerry Lewis in front of the cameras.
The end of Lorre’s story
As for his personal life, Lorre found love again with a woman named Anne Marie Brenning. They tied the knot in the early ’50s and welcomed a baby girl into the world soon after, calling her Catharine. She was his first and only child. Sadly, though, her dad passed away in March 1964 at the age of 59. Hollywood villainy has never been quite the same since.