face it. Many Hollywood biographies are cut-and-paste jobs, recycling (if not
actually cribbing) material from other sources – yellowing issues of Variety,
The Hollywood Reporter, vintage tabloids or previously published biographies –
and retelling the same old anecdotes. Happily,
The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre is no such hack job. It is one of
the finest biographies of an actor ever written, on a par with Patricia
Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift andCharles Winecoff’sSplit Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins.
However, the time it took to research and write the Lorre tome may well be
unprecedented. Author Stephen D. Youngkin started working on The Lost One in the early 1970s and the
book was finally published in 2005, so there are many first-hand accounts by
Lorre’s friends and colleagues (most of whom have died over the years).
Lorre’s many wonderful performances and guest appearances on stage, screen,
radio and television… and his growing cultural icon status 45 years after his untimely death, his life was a sad one, and that of his late daughter
Catherine was even sadder. Lorre's melancholia was impossible to hide from the
camera in his final years, partly as a result of a growing awareness as
his health declined that he would leave his daughter in desperate straits,
and that her life would not be an easy one, mainly due to financial
hardship resulting from his almost complete lack of business acumen. (Lorre
entrusted a lifetime’s earnings to a shady money manager who robbed him blind;
and, although steadily employed, the actor was chronically underpaid for his
services; inexplicably, Lorre’s salary was far less than Sydney Greenstreet’s
in the six films in which they co-starred, even though Greenstreet was a
relative newcomer to films). And yet Lorre had many friends and admirers and
even went through a sexy period in the 1940s, attracting the attention of the
stunning (but troubled) starlet Kaaren Verne, who became his second wife in
1945. They were divorced in 1953. Lorre also never quite lost his mordant sense
defines the unique talent and menacingly comic persona of the diminutive,
bug-eyed actor with the purring voice, tracing Lorre’s slowly descending career
arc, from his early stage successes in Weimar Berlin with the trailblazing
dramatist Bertolt Brecht, his starring role as the baby-faced child-killer in
the German thriller M – which catapulted Lorre to international fame (if not
fortune), his escape from Nazi Germany (Lorre was a non-practicing Jew), the
botched gall bladder operation that led to his lifelong pain and addiction to
morphine, and the ongoing typecasting as a sort of comic bogeyman that saw him
end his career in junk like American International Pictures’ Muscle Beach Party
(in a cameo as “Mr. Strangdour”) and in episodes of such TV series as Five
Fingers, 77 Sunset Strip and Route 66. However, Lorre appreciated any work that
came his way.
Lorre in his brilliant, star-making performance as the child murderer in "M"
book also reveals that Lorre tried to reignite his stage career in the early
1950s in A Night at Madame Tussaud’s, a Grand Guignol story in which he
co-starred with the demanding Miriam Hopkins. Unfortunately, the two actors
detested each other on sight and the play (Lorre’s umpteenth attempt to break
out of the mold Hollywood producers had set him in) folded for this silly
of a certain age, I remember Lorre popping up on TV many times during my
childhood. He appeared in several films geared to a juvenile audience and I saw
most of them when they were first released: Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under
the Sea, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Five Weeks in a Balloon, The Comedy
of Terrors and “The Black Cat” segment of Tales of Terror. I have vivid
memories of seeing late-period Lorre in The Raven at the Centre Theatre and The
Patsyat the Capitol Theatre in
Ottawa (both twenties-era movie palaces were torn down years ago). I recall
Lorre being interviewed on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation TV program
called Tabloid. This would have
beeninthe late fifties. Lorre was quizzed by the show’s handsome,
jock-like host Gil Christie. I can’t remember much except that Lorre
chain-smoked and was very fat. As a child, I found him to be quite ugly and
scary. I am puzzled by the strange and unsettling impact Lorre had on me as a
youngster whenever I saw him on the silver screen or on black & white
television, and how inexplicably sad I felt when I heard that he had died. I
was 12 when Lorre passed away in March 1964. He was only 59 but looked much
portrayal of Le Chiffre in the “Casino Royale”
1954 puts him in the cinematic history books as the very first James
Bond screen villain – a full eight years before Joseph Wiseman achieved
worldwide fame as Dr. Julius No. The late Barry Nelson (the first 007) recalled that Lorre as Le
Chiffre had trouble remembering his lines, and ad-libbed a lot. This propensity
for improvisation became an unshakable habit with Lorre in his later years,
often to the consternation of his fellow performers.
In death, Lorre finally lucks
out with this splendid biography. The
in its third printing) won a Rondo Award for Best Book of 2005. It was also
nominated for CineFest's international Willy Haas-Preis 2007 (which is given
every two years). “This was a real feather in my cap,” Youngkin enthuses. “I
think there were five or six titles nominated, two in English. It's given for a
contribution to German film heritage. Considering that only about 15% of the
bio focused on German film and only Der Verlorene (Lorre’s sole directing
credit) in depth, I was surprised and pleased to garner this recognition.” (Der Verlorene
is the tale of a murderous psychopath in war-torn Germany who is better able to
conceal his crimes in the chaos of battle and aerial bombardment.)
Cinema Retro caught up with
Youngkin at his hacienda in Arizona.
Retro: What was it about Lorre that made him such a unique presence on the
Berlin stage in the 1920s? Did Lorre’s persona influence Bertolt Brecht’s
writing style and the subjects he explored in his plays?
D. Youngkin: Lorre was unique in how he looked and in what he said (and how he
said it), all qualities he translated to the stage (and later, film).
Contemporaries described him as distinctive, off-beat, unforgettable and
magnetic, characteristics that subsumed his rather odd looks. One theatre
impresario even said he looked like a tadpole. Fortunately for Lorre, a new
force in the Berlin theatre was looking for just that: “strange faces, strange
types.”Bertolt Brecht didn’t want
matinee idol good looks; rather he was drawn to faces off the street.
Brecht plays in which Lorre appeared (or was scheduled to appear) were written
before the two men got together. However, after the playwright came to America
in 1941, he tailored as many as eight film stories to the actor’s capabilities,
as he saw them.
is very likely, however, that Lorre’s acting influenced Brecht’s theories on
the subject. When Brecht saw something he liked, he studied it. In other words,
theory followed practice. With Lorre, the clashing of characteristics gave the
playwright the “jumps and interruptions” he felt necessary to hinder normal
meaning and underline other possibilities for human behavior. The Brecht
business gets a bit thick. Suffice to say that the double-sidedness of Lorre’s
performances helped coalesce Brecht’s developing theories about a new style of
What facets of Lorre’s acting talent were forever concealed from the American
viewing public due to his lifelong typecasting?
First, I think you would have seen a much greater show of versatility in both
drama and comedy, aptitudes that Lorre felt Hollywood largely neglected.Also, it’s possible that his “split” style of
acting would have taken different forms, not just the naïve and sophisticated
equation, but more of what audiences saw in the stage play Fruehlings Erwachen
(Spring’s Awakening, 1929), where the actor seemed to be cut off from his own
feelings. This was spectacularly visualized in the scene where a headless Lorre
sits in a cemetery holding his own head under his arm.
Lorre in his unforgettable 1929 stage appearance in Spring Awakening.
Despite his frustrations at being typecast as a smiling villain in Hollywood,
Lorre turned down Brecht’s overtures to return with him to Berlin after the
Second World War to help the controversial playwright set up a theatre company.
Why did Lorre string Brecht along? Was Lorre ashamed of having been seduced by
the Hollywood lifestyle? Was his increasingly poor health a factor in his
decision not to work with Brecht in the late 1940s and 1950s?
Lorre certainly didn’t consciously “string Brecht along.” However much the
playwright’s film stories failed to fit Hollywood norms, Lorre tried to give
them a push. The problem is that the actor had little clout at the front
office.Turning his back on Hollywood
and returning to East Germany was another matter. The short answer to this
question is that Lorre was weak. Brecht was well aware of Lorre’s commitment
issues and cut him far more slack than he would have given anyone else, partly
because of shared history, also because he saw his friend as a great actor and
one that he needed to rebuild his theatre in Germany.
don’t know to what extent Lorre was ashamed of being seduced by Hollywood, but
he was painfully aware of it. And most certainly, the weight of failing Brecht
(and thereby himself) grew heavier with the passing years. Those are the short
answers to hard questions that don’t entirely take into account the many issues
at play here. Lorre left Warner Bros. in 1946 with the idea of taking charge of
his career.Unfortunately, his
self-management enterprise—Lorre, Inc.—was an overwhelming failure. He still
needed to prove to himself that he could rise from the Hollywood morass (what
Brecht described as a swamp). If he couldn’t take that first independent step
in America, then Europe might do.Brecht
had mapped out a plan for Lorre that included using his American movie career
to help subsidize his theater work at the Berliner Ensemble.
Lorre was mulling this over, he went to England to earn some badly needed
money, and then drifted on to Germany, where the idea of Der Verlorene (The
Lost One) fell into his lap. Always the fatalist, he followed up on the idea of
directing, starring in and co-authoring his own film. In a poem, titled “To the
Actor P.L.,” Brecht invited Lorre (poor or rich, sick or healthy) to join him
in East Berlin. Lorre, convinced he was charting his own course, didn’t answer
the call. Some of his friends also suggested that the actor was too addicted to
the Hollywood lifestyle and the easy access to drugs to seriously consider
exchanging whatever was left of his celebrity for the sparseness of the Communist
Soviet block. There is some truth to this.Lorre’s drug use was certainly on the upswing during the making of Der
Verlorene. The accumulative effects of chemical addiction and assorted other
health issues were beginning to catch up with him. By this time, he was not up
to the physical demands of the stage.
when you tally all the negatives, however, Lorre muddies the picture with a
letter to writer Elisabeth Hauptmann in which he, in a veiled way, expresses
his regrets (“I don’t want to be a nobody forever.”) and timidly asks if Brecht
might find a place for him. No doubt this somewhat pathetic attempt to turn the
clock back was conditioned by the failure of Der Verlorene, his drug use and
You have devoted many years of your life to writing the definitive biography of
an actor whose visible exhaustion in The Patsy and The Comedy of Terrors
somehow resonated with you in 1964. At first, were you struck more by Lorre’s
sadness and weariness in these final roles than by his acting ability?
From what I gather, Lorre pretty much walked through his role in The
Patsy.He actually seemed more disgusted
than exhausted, something that was borne out by his co-workers.It was his performance in The Comedy of
Terrors that deeply touched me. Peel away that comic veneer and you see a man
who was utterly worn out. So close to the end, when he was almost too tired to
go on acting, he fell back on the persona of Peter Lorre. That quiet sense of
wistful humor was there, even something of his own humanity (more comedic than
sentimental) and vulnerability. It was a rare look at the man unmasked.
How did Lorre pick up on the vibes Humphrey Bogart was sending out that their
close friendship might be over due to Lorre’s persistent drug problems and
close association with the Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht in the early
days of the Red Scare? Lorre remained a loyal friend to Bogart, even though he
wasn’t asked to join the Rat Pack. Was Lorre deeply hurt by Bogart’s aloofness?
I don’t believe Lorre and Bogart’s friendship was ever actually over. At least
none of their mutual friends gave me that idea. Lorre was extremely loyal to
Bogart, both personally and professionally, and even referred to him as his
closest friend in Hollywood. Nor do I have any reason to believe that Lorre’s
relationship with Bertolt Brecht played a role in cooling their friendship. In
fact, during his Warner Bros. years (1941-46), Lorre maintained an active
friendship with both men. Once the actor left the studio and struck off on his
own with Lorre Inc., he and Bogart no doubt saw a little less of one
another.It was not the kind of
friendship that needed diurnal updates, rather one that picked up where it had
1949, Lorre left the country for just over two and one-half years. After he
returned, he and Bogart worked together in John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953).
By that time, both men had children and relatively settled home lives. The fact
that Lorre wasn’t invited to become a member of the Rat Pack probably didn’t
bother him. He was always more of a loner than a joiner.Nor did he tend to fraternize with the
Romanoff crowd; e.g. Sinatra, Luft and Garland, etc. Also, you’ve got to keep
in mind that Bogart’s time with the Rat Pack was short-lived. The group got
going toward the very end of 1955 and Bogart died roughly one year later. Much
of that time he spent convalescing at home. In interviews that post-dated
Bogart’s death, Lorre described in some detail his visits with the ailing
actor. Given their lifestyles and career paths (Bogart’s up and Lorre’s down),
I think it natural that time and tide put some distance between the two men.
Nonetheless, the friendship survived.
Same again with Hitchcock… For whatever reason, did the Master of Suspense
deliberately choose not to direct Lorre in the two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock
Presents in which the actor was top-billed – “The Diplomatic Corpse” and “Man
from the South”? Did Hitch feel any animosity towards Lorre, or was he simply
too busy to direct these episodes with a player he’d used in his earlier films
(The Man Who Knew Too Much [1934 version] and Secret Agent)?
Hitchcock didn’t deliberately choose not to direct Lorre in two episodes of
Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He was busy filming Vertigo (1958) during the making
of “The Diplomatic Corpse” (12-8-57). And during filming of “Man from the
South” (3-13-60), he was working on Psycho (1960). Hitchcock had a great talent
for delegating. In fact, he actually directed only a small handful of the
television shows that bear his name. Executive producer Joan Harrison and
(actor/director) Paul Henreid jointly cast Lorre in “Corpse.” Associate
producer Norman Lloyd (still going strong at 94) cast Lorre (“the part just
crawled for him; there could be no one else in it”) in “South.” In both cases,
Hitchcock gave his approval.
Lorre follows in a long and sad tradition – the unique horror personality like
Poe and Lovecraft whose value is only truly recognized after his death and who
would have made a fortune had he lived longer… in Lorre’s case, due to his
posthumous ubiquitous cultural icon status in commercials and cartoons. Do you
When you begin to compile the various caricatures conceived since Lorre’s
death, the list is truly astonishing. I included only a sampling in The Lost
One.Since then I’ve been inundated with
further appropriations of his screen image. Toward the end, Lorre hid behind
the typecast, as if to say, if this is the Peter Lorre you want, well, okay. It
was expected of him and he didn’t want to disappoint. Would he approve of his
status as a cultural icon?No doubt. But
he would also have been painfully aware that it was his screen persona (and not
the person) that lived on, another reminder that Hollywood had used his tricks
but not his talent.
much as Lorre would have liked the idea of keeping company with Poe, he would
have balked at being called a “unique horror personality.” It was a label he
disliked, however much the public insisted he wear it.
You devote a lot of space to German playwright Bertolt Brecht.Was there a reason for this?
My idea was to get Lorre outside the box, or more accurately, the movie frame.
I’ve read celebrity biographies in which the subject’s name is mentioned in
almost every line, as if they lived in an historical vacuum. I chose to widen
those parameters, to place Lorre in various contexts… that of the adjustment of
refugee artists to American society, casting of émigré actors in World War II
propaganda films, and so on.I would
include Bertolt Brecht in this broader coverage. But let me back up a bit.
I was asked to participate in the Van Ness Films/Fox A&E Biography of Lorre
some 10 years ago, I soon learned that Brecht was a very low priority. Why
scant mention of the German dramatist? I was told no one had heard of him.Later, when the manuscript of the Lorre
biography was at the University of California Press (before I withdrew it),
there was a strong push to severely cut the Brecht background material. The
reason given was that most readers are familiar with the playwright, his
theater and acting styles.
wasn’t so sure; in fact, I was quite certain that the general appreciation of
Brecht was pretty much limited to his Threepenny Opera. Most readers, I felt
sure, hadn’t threaded their way through his theories about acting, or his
screenwriting efforts in Hollywood during the 1940s. This, of course,
highlights the contrast between commercial and academic presses. When the Lorre
manuscript was first sent out to the larger publishing houses, what I heard
was, “We’ve seen the movies… talk about the man, the women, the drugs. More
Bogart and less of this Bertolt.” The University Press of Kentucky gave me the
opportunity to write the book I wanted and to place emphases where, I hoped,
Lorre would have wished them.
fans have their own areas of interest, their own expectations. Take the Moto
movies.Fans of the series can’t get
enough. Lorre got way too much.I hoped
to challenge those expectations, to uncover the hidden Lorre, to open readers’
eyes to a much more complex and interesting figure than we see on screen.
Lorre’s friends made the point that we saw only the tip of the iceberg. What
interested me was that submerged mass below the surface.This of course included his little-known
relationship with Bertolt Brecht, whom playwright Marieluise Fleisser described
as “the genius, the peak, the potency, the strong flowing life, a sun, the pure
dynamite, the rebel, the irreverent one, the most cried at one, the almighty,
the personal lord and master, the creator.” Lorre’s take on Brecht was probably
a little less lofty, but ran along the same lines. In short, he idolized the
1929, when they first met, until Brecht’s death in 1956, theirs was a pivotal
self-respect and his self-image all turned on this friendship. Moreover, as an
actor, Lorre defined himself by Brecht’s standards; in fact, he said that the
only compliment about his acting that meant anything to him had come from
Brecht. In the biography, I talked about Lorre being caught between the
emblematic personalities of Brecht and Bogart – the one representing artistic
respectability (in Lorre’s eyes), the other Hollywood celebrity. Well, at this
point, Bogart is an iconic figure.We’ve
seen his movies and know the man. The other half of Lorre’s double life is much
darker, hence my effort to lay a broad foundation, and, I hope, an
understanding of the most important influence in the actor’s life. By the way,
both men, Bogart and Brecht, died within six months of one another, pulling
both floors, as it were, out from beneath the actor. Lorre was alone and, to a
large extent, lost.
the end, the author is left with the decision to place emphasis where the
reader wishes, again fulfilling expectations, whether it be Hitchcock, Bogart,
Moto, drugs or where the information best serves the subject. My bottom
line was to expand the reader’s understanding of Lorre, not as a personality
but as a process. The arc of Lorre’s life, both personal and professional,
rests heavily on his relationship with Brecht; hence my effort to develop a
solid background. Brecht may lack the color, the “bling” of Bogart, but he
is the key to unlocking the hidden Lorre, the man who suffered the artist to
stand in the shadows.
The versatile Lorre's talents extended to the realm of droll comedy. Among his screen comedies is The Patsy with Jerry Lewis.
I read somewhere that Lorre’s daughter Catherine fell on hard times and in fact
died quite recently.
First, I’ve heard that some sources cite the year of her death as 2006, which
is incorrect. For the record, she passed away on May 7, 1985. Cause of death:
sepsis and encephalomalacia, complications from diabetes. Cathy had a number of
strikes against her. Peter and Annemarie (Brenning)’s marriage was in trouble
as early as 1956. Finally, they separated in 1962, when Cathy was nine years
old. She was only 11 when her father died. Annemarie was an alcoholic and died
a few years later. What to do with Cathy? No one seemed to want her. Finally,
Celia Lovksy, Peter’s first wife, offered theater and film critic James Powers
(who was married to Kaaren Verne until her death in 1967) the upstairs of her
house on Crescent Heights if he would adopt Cathy. He did and Celia moved into
the basement. (Cathy thought of Celia [“Mumili”] as a grandmother. As such, she
functioned as a hub for the Lorre family, connecting all to the center, even
the actor’s second and third wives.)
for the family prevents me from going over to the dark side, as it were, but
suffice to say Cathy was a juvenile onset diabetic who took poor care of
herself. Her life was a troubled one. As she grew older, complications from her
diabetes took a greater toll until in her final year she was hospitalized at
Harbor General. At that point, she was suffering vision and circulation
problems. As I recall, she spent upwards of a year there and died shortly
after. Sadly, unbeknownst to family and friends, she sat in the morgue for
nearly one month before funeral arrangements were made.Cathy’s husband had died earlier in a freak
motorcycle accident. The only people at her funeral were Larry Lorre, Cathy’s
cousin; Peter Lorre’s attorney, Robert Shutan; his son Peter Shutan (named
after the actor); Cathy’s nurse and myself. She was buried at Inglewood
Cemetery on June 4, 1985.
What are the chances of an extras-laden Criterion release of the only film
Lorre ever directed – The Lost One (1951)?
Kinowelt Home Entertainment put out a two-disk DVD of Der Verlorene in 2007.
This German-language edition includes a documentary by Harun Farocki: “Peter Lorre
– Das Doppelte Gesicht (Peter Lorre – The Double Face, 1984);a documentary by Robert Fischer: Displaced
Person: Peter Lorre and His Film “Der Verlorene” (2007), including an interview
with German film historian Christoph Fuchs; an exclusive book, edited by Felix
Hofmann;a documentary from the
Filmbewertungsstelle Wiesbaden concerning the film’s rating, including excerpts
from Lorre’s own work script; biographical sketches on Peter Lorre, Karl John
(as “Hoesch”) and Gisela Trow (“the prostitute”); photo gallery; and original
this point, Criterion has no plans to issue an English-language version.
find out more about this superb biography and to order copies from Amazon, visit the official The Lost One: A
Life of Peter Lorre website at www.peterlorrebook.com