The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre
by Stephen D. Youngkin
Reviewed by Alan Rode
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Peter Lorre referred to himself and other actors as “facemakers.” No other actor made faces like the sad-eyed, mischievous Lorre who conveyed menace, comedy, suavity and cowardice in a single close-up. As chronicled in Stephen D. Youngkin’s epic biography, Lorre’s life was a series of different masks cloaking an exceedingly complex personality behind all of the various faces.
Born Lazlo Lowenstein in Rózsahegy, Hungary, Lorre scored a sensational hit playing a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Keeping several steps ahead of the Nazis, the actor immigrated to America and forged one of the most unusual careers in Hollywood history.
Bouncing around in a series of roles that ranged from Crime and Punishment (1934) to a sadist owning the Island of Doomed Men (1940) and a series of Mr. Moto Asian detective films at Fox, Lorre finally found his niche at Warner Brothers during the 1940s.
After creating a unique genre of character-actor stardom with Sydney Greenstreet in the classic The Maltese Falcon (1941), Lorre was cast opposite the massive British actor in ten Warner films over the next six years. It would be the most successful and happiest period of Lorre’s life. Lorre dubbed Greenstreet, “The Old Man,” and Lorre was “Puck.” The two performers were completely different actors and personalities, but perfectly melded as akin to rote opposites in a successful marriage.
After the Warner years, it was a slow decline into lesser roles, nascent television and AIP horror movie spoofs until Lorre’s untimely death in 1964 at the age of 59.
Author Stephen Youngkin spent a considerable portion of his life researching, writing and ruminating about Peter Lorre. Some of the 300 interviews listed in his book date back to 1973 and include every entertainment figure, family member, and human being who worked with or knew Peter Lorre. The Lost One is an intimidating, 600+ page tome, until one begins reading and is immediately hooked.
The colossal assemblage of research has been whipped into a compelling biographical narrative. Lorre was an alluring, sensitive man whose life was tinged with a palpable melancholy. He gravitated to a select circle of entertainment sophisticates; Bertolt Brecht, Bogart, Burl Ives, Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price—and was bemused in reconciling his celluloid celebrity with intellectual and cultural respectability. Even though he had few intimates, Lorre was a beloved and respected performer. The actor’s generosity, talent and wicked sense of humor inwardly vied with a chronic despondency that made him a conflicted, but irresistible soul.
The personal depression manifested itself in chemical dependency. Peter Lorre was afflicted with the curse of narcotic drug addiction for most of his adult life. The destructive habit ruined his health and cast a large shadow over his life. Along the way, there were three marriages and a late child, Catherine, born in 1953, when the actor was 47-years-old.
The actor’s health and career rapidly declined before his beloved daughter became a teenager. In the end, Lorre became a nostalgia buff about his own career as he released his loose grip on mortality while only in his fifties. The emerging pop culture of the 1960s became an alien existence that the once worldly, but fading Lorre simply couldn’t fathom.
Peter Lorre’s life in his various faces; actor, husband, father, intellectual, friend, pop culture icon and tragic figure is given extraordinary tribute in Stephen Youngkin’s superbly detailed biography.
Alan Rode is a founding member of the Film Noir Foundation, a film critic and a writer living in Los Angeles.
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