The Man who knew too much (1934) - Peter Lorre / Leslie Banks
Day 25: Peter Lorre
Oh, Peter. Peter Peter PETER. I adore him beyond reason. It’s weird to think now that I first encountered - and loved - him in the Mr Moto films, in my teens (thank you british telly for so many hours of film matinées) as - although he’s fabulous - they are of varying quality and also very different to his most famous roles; understated, still, precise, subtle. Peter does this remarkably well, as in The Man Who Knew Too Much, or Der Verlorene; performances often overshadowed by his larger, more grotesque characters.
There is a voluble intensity to him, and an unpredictability that he can use for comedy (his ‘hairless Mexican’ in Secret Agent), tragedy (M) or Grand Guignol (the quite astonishing Dr Gogol in Mad Love.) There are always layers to his characters, and a sense not just of an inner life, but a conflict, and what’s most striking, a self-awareness; he is a man at the mercy of terrible impulses, and we see it in his eyes, in his face. There is really no-one quite like him in the whole of film, because who could be the intense Gogol and yet also the adorable Conseil (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) as well as the delicate, mendacious Joel Cairo (The Maltese Falcon)?
Graham Greene says it much better than me, but he loves the shuddering, tormented Peter the most, and I love ALL of Peter. He is a delight in every film, even in the smallest of roles, when he can be seen merrily stealing scenes behind the lead actors’ backs, even without speaking.
Favourite Role: Abbott in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) which is especially amazing considering it’s his first english-speaking role. Never has he been so understated, so casual, so amiable, so minute with his gestures, and yet he holds the screen completely. It’s also a cracking film, less highly rated for some reason than Hitch’s other 30s films (and indeed the remake).
Another good place to start: Hans Beckert in M (1931); still one of the most astonishing inhabitings of a role on film; fearless, intense, despairing, in a wonderful, innovative (you would never know Lang was cautious about sound), gripping film. Also, of his many supporting roles, I think his Dr Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is not just his best but his most endearing, and it is of course a gem of a film, with beautiful performances from the whole cast.
“Lorre later told American International Pictures set designer Daniel Haller that the crew asked itself how they were going to make this scene look genuine. Lorre had an idea. “There were several tracks,” he said. “As we laid out the scene, I walked above an over cross and along the railroad tracks. I was on the mark, with my back to the train, which was to switch tracks before reaching me. The camera was locked off. I could feel the train coming. It really put a believability in it.” It also instilled a real sense of fear in both the engineer and the actor, who afterward expressed their mutual discomfort.”