Peter Lorre: The Aggressive Mimicry of His Defining Roles

Great villains have the ability to attract and destroy. Like predators in the wild, these characters trick their prey  by posing as something familiar, harmless, or friendly. It’s a form of aggressive mimicry. These monsters of reality and fiction hunt without the world knowing it, a quality Peter Lorre brings to his performances, ensnaring the audience with unpredictable characters. The dangerous and unassuming  Lorre made the most bizarre and terrifying characters unbelievably magnetic.

Lorre’s career has been defined by several iconic roles: the first being in Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece, M. And while his face remains confined to the film’s conclusion, his presence in the film is undeniable. Mostly heard offscreen enchanting children with a wholesome whistle, Lorre remains in the shadows for much of the film’s runtime. The once banal act of whistling shifts the atmosphere. The killer approaches and dread takes over.

Unlike many of today’s thrillers, where victims are lured through vague curiosity (what was that noise?), Lorre’s Hans Beckert tempts his victims with kindness. In one of M‘s most iconic scenes, Beckert attracts a young victim by approaching her while whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and buying her a balloon. Of course, we know that she’s about to be killed, raising the tension. Lang implies her death by allowing the balloon to float away, leaving the other characters to ask what happened to the little girl holding it. Beckert’s friendly gestures, only a few moments later, represents the young girl’s murder. Beckert is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding malevolence behind a smile. 

Lorre and Lang pull a similar bait and switch on the audience. Peter Lorre stalks M, showcasing humanity’s duality and inability to repress its most despicable desires.  In M‘s final scene, a kangaroo court offers Beckert the opportunity to explain himself. Infusing the character with pathos, a motive that elicits sympathy from the viewer, Lorre shows his rare gift: he can change an audience’s perspective three hours into a film. 

Lorre’s bizarre appearance and unique acting abilities were precisely the attributes needed for his first English-speaking film, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Once again praying on children, Lorre, donning one skunked stripe in his hair and massive scar down his face, plays the kidnapper of a politician’s daughter. The actor hits the audience with three punches. The first, his friendly demeanor at the beginning, welcoming the politician and his family. The second, the malicious kidnapper who executes his plan with cold precision. And the third, the violent madman who watches his lover and partner die before him. That third beat ties the film together. As in M, we feel sympathy and horror as his humanity leads him to catharsis.

Hitchcock uses Lorre very carefully in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Again, regulated to the villain, Lorre appears throughout the film in a series of contradictory scenes, forcing the audience to question his character. Is he too friendly at the beginning? Too cold in the middle? These questions serve the finale, when Lorre gives in. He is human emotion run amok. 

Sympathy and empathy play a huge role in Lorre’s follow-up, Mad Love. Centered around a gifted doctor who’s unrequited love for an actress leads to him saving her husband’s life, Mad Love looks at cruel twists of fate that alter our character. Lorre’s Dr. Golgol goes mad with jealousy, while the actress’ husband, a pianist, falls to depression after a career-ending accident. One loses his mind, the other his hands.

We’re all changed by the people around us, an idea Mad Love takes quite literally.  Reversing his transformation from The Man Who Knew Too Much, Lorre’s Dr. Golgol goes from hero to villain over the course of Mad Love. Starting as a hopeless romantic and brilliant doctor who, now, saves children pro bono, Golgol’s tragic descent into madness showed Lorre’s ability to challenge not only his audience but himself.

Peter Lorre, first and foremost, played characters. He found quirks and subtleties that bred complicated people, stories, and scenes. Those ticks, however, became the lifeblood of the character. Lorre built up the emotional stakes of the character by making their bizarre behavior part of their person. Like Han Beckert, these characters cannot help themselves, and Lorre’s performances are all the more believable for it.

This post is part of the WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club.

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  1. It’s true that when we watch Peter Lorre, we are in the hands of a master.

  2. You know, I’ve never really thought about this before: “Lorre built up the emotional stakes of the character by making their bizarre behavior part of their person.” So true! They can’t help these behaviours, because the behaviours are part of who they are.

    I’ve also never seen the movie “M” (I know!) and your post has made me want to see it ASAP. So glad you chose Peter Lorre for this blogathon. 🙂

    • Le
    • November 12th, 2013

    Great post! I’m a huge Lorre fan and it’s always a pleasure to watch him. I have yet to watch Mad Love, by the way.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!

  3. I just re-watched THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and remembered just how innocent and eerie Lorre could be simultaneously. He popped up in so many great ’30s and ’40s films: love his brief part in Casablanca, and especially his work in The Maltese Falcon.

  1. November 9th, 2013

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