Peter Lorre: Iconic actor featured at Yellow Sign, Charles, BSO

Peter Lorre in a screenshot from the 1931 Fritz Lang classic M

He has often been called the greatest actor in cinematic history, though his name is lost on most modern viewers, until they see his sorrowful eyes or hear the whispery tone of his still distinctive voice.

Peter Lorre set the standard in true-to-life horror with his chilling portrayal of a serial killer in Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic M. He went on to depict an array of malevolent maniacs, clever characters, varlets, heroes and villains before turning his sinister charm onto its campy, comedic head. Along the way, Lorre encountered the anti-Semitism of Adolph Hitler, endured bouts of depression and drug abuse, and was nearly blacklisted during Hollywood’s Red scare; all while being grossly underpaid.

Studio portrait from the late 1930's.
Studio portrait from the late 1930’s.

Long a favorite of true movie-buffs, the diminutive giant gets the 5-Star treatment in a new retrospective lovingly titled Peter Lorre: The Facemaker. The series, which begins this Thursday at the Yellow Sign Theatre, will include five of Lorre’s films presented over the next six Thursday nights, skipping June 12 because of a previously scheduled event. Shelly Burke, a writer and actress at the Yellow Sign Theatre, will curate the Lorre retrospective. Admission to the entire Yellow Sign series is free.

Burke told the Baltimore Post-Examiner the title for this series was inspired by a disparaging comment Lorre once made about himself, saying he was not really an actor but simply a “face maker.” While his contemporaries strongly disagreed (Charles Chaplin maintained that Lorre was the greatest actor of his day), the late film critic Manny Farber noted Lorre’s forte was the, “double-take job – where the actor’s face changes rapidly from laughter, love or a security that he doesn’t really feel to a face more sincerely menacing, fearful or deadpan” (Stephen D. Youngkin The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005, p.309).

Burke said she has always admired Lorre’s work, but in a strange twist of fate, the menacing madman may have actually saved her life.

“Some years ago, I went through a terrible breakup and wanted to die. To take my mind off things, I went to a Hollywood Video store to get a movie. I have been a fan (of the horror/mystery genre) since I was a child, having been obsessed with Vincent Price. Usually, along with Vincent, comes Peter. I found M in the foreign section and said to myself, ‘Huh, Peter Lorre, I like that guy, why not’. I knew the name but never really appreciated him. I went home, watched M and was so entranced that I wanted to know everything about the man. I researched and fell in love for all the things he went through and made my problem seem so very trivial. He gave me the strength to live.”

M is certainly a mesmerizing masterpiece, but does Burke have a favorite Peter Lorre film?

Actress Shelly Burke's love for Peter Lorre  is more than skin deep.
Actress Shelly Burke’s love for all things Peter Lorre is more than skin deep. (Anthony C. Hayes)

“Picking my favorite Peter Lorre film is hard. As far as Peter playing the role of a villain, I would say that the original Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) – with him as Abbott – is a favorite; it’s just amazing. I love the story behind that film as well. It was his first English speaking role when he didn’t even know the language yet and did his lines phonetically, which I find so incredible that he pulled it off so well. Peter as Dr. Gogol in Mad Love lends so much to a wrought character in need that I identify with, and he did it in the same year (1935) he played the haunted Roskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Between the three, I think Mad Love is my favorite Lorre film.”

Both Crime and Punishment and Mad Love will be featured in Yellow Sign’s Lorre retrospective. Coincidentally, The Charles Theatre will be running M next week as part of that venue’s Revival Series.

The other films Burke will be presenting are The Maltese Falcon, The Verdict, and The Boogie Man Will Get You.

Fifty years after his death, Lorre remains largely recognizable through films like M and The Maltese Falcon, and because of his voice – which is second only to Edward G. Robinson as being the most mimicked sound from Hollywood’s golden age. Burke hopes this series will add some depth to the standard repertoire and will help people look beyond the familiar caricatures.

“This festival came to be because (Yellow Sign Founding Director) Craig Coletta needed another movie month and brought up the idea of doing a Peter Lorre series. Craig was thinking about something different, but I wanted to show people a side of a “creepy” man that no one had seen before. His comedic side, maybe a human side, so that when someone saw my tattoo they wouldn’t just say “yeessss maaassster” but rather identify him with a character he actually portrayed and appreciate him as the incredible actor he really was. Half of the films being shown are the rarest of the Lorre collection, and I feel each should be a part of the human cinematic collective of knowledge.”

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A cartoon caricature of Peter Lorre.
A caricature of Peter Lorre from the Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon Hollywood Steps Out.

The entire Facemaker series (with notes from IMDB) is as follows:

May 15: The Maltese Falcon (1941) Director – John Huston. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet (in his very first on screen performance), Elisha Cook, Jr. and Peter Lorre as the ground-breakingly effeminate Joel Cairo.

“A private detective takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar, and their quest for a priceless statuette.”

May 22: The Verdict (1946) Director – Don Siegel. Starring Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Joan Lorring.

“After an Innocent man is executed in a case he was responsible for, a Scotland Yard superintendent finds himself investigating the murder of his key witness.”

May 29: Mad Love (1935) Director – Karl Freund. Stars Peter Lorre, Frances Drake, Colin Clive.

“An insane surgeon’s obsession with an actress leads him to replace her wounded pianist’s hands with the hands of a knife murderer which still have the urge to throw knives.”

June 5: The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) Director – Lew Landers. Stars Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Max ‘Slapsie Maxie’ Rosenbloom and a young Larry Parks.

“A young divorcee tries to convert a historic house into a hotel despite its oddball inhabitants and dead bodies in the cellar.”

June 19: Crime and Punishment (1935) Director – Josef von Sternberg. Stars: Edward Arnold, Peter Lorre, Marian Marsh.

“A man is haunted by a murder he’s committed.” Based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

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Burke said she is really looking forward to curating the series, adding that a classic film isn’t such only because it’s “old” or black and white.

Two of cinema's greatest fiends - Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.
Two of Hollywood’s greatest fiends – Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.

“A classic film is recognized based on its actors, writers and directors; people who have created something that is so identifiable in the human spirit that, at any point in someone’s life, in any decade, that film can be viewed, appreciated and can give someone a willingness to continue. Classic film provides spirit, because it was a time when people really needed to work to create something they loved.”

Which aptly describes another famous film that featured Peter Lorre: Casablanca.

Burke did not choose to include Casablanca in the Yellow Sign Facemaker series, but not to worry. The film will get three screenings – June 12, 13 and 14 – with a full orchestral accompaniment as part of the BSO’s popular Movie and Music series.

Conductor Emil de Cou leads the BSO in performing Max Steiner’s famous soundtrack to Director Michael Curtiz’s 1941 masterpiece starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid. Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sidney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall and Dooley Wilson co-star, along with Peter Lorre as the sly, somehow endearing, cold-blooded killer, Ugarte.

Who else but Peter Lorre could dispatch two German couriers, then bring down the house with the line:

“You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.”

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Peter Lorre: The Facemaker runs Thursday evenings at 9pm thru June 19 (except for June 5) at The Yellow Sign Threatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Baltimore, MD. More information may be found by visiting The Facemaker Facebook page. Screenings of M take place May 17 (11:30am) May 19 (7pm) and May 22 (9pm) at The Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St., Baltimore. And the BSO will accompany three screenings of Casablanca June 12 & 13 (8pm) at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, and June 14 (8pm) at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda. Tickets for those shows may be obtained by visiting the BSO online.