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June 1-June 12, 2004

Peter Lorre: A Sinister Centennial

One of the great character actors of Hollywood cinema, Hungarian-born Peter Lorre (born in June 1904 as Ladislav Loewenstein) left his family home at the age of 17 and traveled through Switzerland and Austria before settling in Germany, where he became a favorite of playwright Bertolt Brecht. Although he preferred working in comedy, Lorre made his film breakthrough portraying a child murderer in M (1931) and quickly became typecast as a screen villain. When Hitler ascended to power in 1933, Lorre, a Jew, fled first to Paris where he worked with G.W. Pabst, then to London, where he appeared in his first English-language film, Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Upon his arrival in Hollywood, Lorre was cast in roles calling for varying degrees of madness, such as the love-obsessed surgeon in Mad Love (1935) and the existentialist killer in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1935). Signed to a contract with Fox in 1936, Lorre asked for and received a chance to play a good guy for a change in the controversial Mr. Moto series. While under contract with Warner Brothers, Lorre played a hapless foil to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Passage to Marseille (1944). Director Jean Negulesco fought bitterly with the studio brass for permission to cast Lorre as the sympathetic leading man in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), in which he gave one of his finest and subtlest performances. In 1951, Lorre briefly returned to Germany, where he directed and starred in the postwar psychological drama Der Verlorene (The Lost One). Soon after, he returned to Hollywood to reteam with John Huston on Beat the Devil (1953), a burlesque of his own Maltese Falcon. Apart from a few minor sidekick roles, Lorre ended up working in horror films, most notably Roger Corman’s The Raven. This program provides a small sampling of the diverse talents of this gifted actor.

This program is co-presented with the Goethe-Institut Boston. Special thanks to the Pacific Film Archive, the Austrian Film Museum, Kinemathek Hamburg and Warner Brothers.

Homage to Peter Lorre by Betsy Sherman for WBUR


June 1 (Tuesday) 7 pm
June 2 (Wednesday) 9 pm

M (M—Eine Stadt sucht einen Moerder)

Directed by Fritz Lang
Germany, 1931, b/w, 118 min.
With Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Ellen Widmann
German with English subtitles

Based on news accounts of an actual murder case in Düsseldorf, Fritz Lang’s landmark early sound-era film was produced almost entirely in the studio. Reworking the expressionist techniques of the period, Lang creates a stylized realism to depict the growing agitation of a town in which a child murderer is on the loose. M captures the prevailing sense of despair and corruption of Germany in the early thirties in its portrayal of the pathetic killer (Brecht-trained actor Lorre in his film debut), who is hounded by an odd alliance of pursuers: the chief of police and the highly organized criminal underworld.

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June 1 (Tuesday) 9 pm
June 2 (Wednesday) 7 pm

The Lost Man (Der Verlorene)

Directed by Peter Lorre
West Germany, 1951, b/w, 99 min.
With Karl John, Peter Lorre, Renate Mannhardt
German with English subtitles

In Peter Lorre’s only film as a director, he adapted his own novel about a doctor whose feelings of guilt about his actions during the Third Reich only intensify as he tries to adapt to postwar Germany. Lorre’s direction was heavily influenced by the prewar expressionist cinema in which he had worked, most notably in Fritz Lang’s M. Characters are always captured in half-light or shadows, and emotional states are given strong physical presence. An impressive first film, The Lost Man was nevertheless a failure with a German public as yet largely unwilling to confront questions of individual and collective guilt. Subsequently, Lorre returned to the United States and to his Hollywood career.

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June 4 (Friday) 7 pm
June 8 (Tuesday) 9 pm

Casablanca

Directed by Michael Curtiz
US, 1942, b/w, 102 min.
With Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre

Rick’s Café in Casablanca is a center for war refugees awaiting visas for America. The world of the cynical callous nightclub owner suddenly turns upside down when his lost love, Ilsa, returns. In the end, Rick abandons his cynicism to help Ilsa escape the Nazis with her underground leader husband (Paul Henreid). The perfect cinematic blending of romance and intrigue, Casablanca is a studio melodrama par excellence, with one of most famous endings in cinema history. Although his appearance in the film is brief, Peter Lorre, as small time crook Ugarte, is superb.

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June 4 (Friday) 9 pm

Passage to Marseille

Directed by Michael Curtiz
US, 1944, b/w, 110 min.
With Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre
English with German subtitles

Director Michael Curtiz followed Casablanca with Passage to Marseille, the story of Mantrac (Humphrey Bogart), a French journalist during World War II who plans an elaborate escape from an unjust imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Adapted from the novella Men Without Country by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, the film synthesizes literature and reality, as Curtiz recounts the fictional tale of Mantrac’s escape and its frustrating repercussions. Curtiz addresses themes of French patriotism in a complicated series of flashbacks that provide insight into the personal struggles of the French citizens. Passage to Marseille reteams most of the Casablanca ensemble: Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Corrina Mura, Louis Mercier, Claude Rains and, of course, Peter Lorre.

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June 5 (Saturday) 7 pm
June 7 (Monday) 9:30 pm

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
UK, 1934, b/w, 75 min.
With Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre

A British couple on holiday in Switzerland becomes involved in a sinister plot when they witness a murder and their daughter Betty is kidnapped. Back in London, they are too scared to involve the police, and try to track down the perpetrators themselves. The Man Who Knew Too Much was the film that triggered Hitchcock's reputation as the master of suspense. Acclaimed around the world, the film established a new high in the thriller genre. Although Hitchcock was given only a limited budget, he used his technical mastery of the medium to camouflage these limitations. He shot the gripping Albert Hall sequence in the Lime Grove studio, and used a painting by the academician Fortunino Matania to represent most of the Albert Hall audience. Hitchcock makes brilliant use of Peter Lorre in the role of the smiling villain. Shorter, tauter, more nightmarish in black and white than Hitchcock’s own 1955 Technicolor remake with Doris Day and James Stewart, the 1934 version provides its shocks on a need-to-know basis.

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June 5 (Saturday) 9 pm

The Raven

Directed by Roger Corman
US, 1963, color, 86 min.
With Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff

After experiencing commercial success with the subtle satire Tales of Terror, director Roger Corman loosely based The Raven on Edgar Allan Poe’s spine-chilling poem. Following a dispute at a dinner party, Dr. Scarabus (Karloff), a magician known to abuse his power, has turned fellow trickster Bedlo (Lorre) into a raven. Bedlo enlists the aid of Dr. Craven (Price) to transform him back into a human and seek revenge on Scarabus. After his role as Bedlo, Lorre signed on to make eight more films with American International Pictures, but only appeared briefly in two before dying unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage. His fellow actors, including a young Jack Nicholson (appearing as Bedlo’s son), praised his innate sense for comedy and his ability to improvise on the set.

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June 6 (Sunday) 7 pm

Think Fast, Mr. Moto

Directed by Norman Foster
US, 1937, b/w, 70 min.
With Peter Lorre, Virginia Field, Thomas Beck

Think Fast, Mr. Moto was the first of eight 20th Century-Fox films based on the wily Japanese sleuth created from the stories of novelist John P. Marquand. Kentaro Moto (Peter Lorre), a master of disguise, proficient in judo and excellent with firearms, pretends to be a street peddler in order to follow the trail of a gang of international smugglers. The adventure takes Mr. Moto and the son of a legitimate gem dealer (Thomas Beck) from San Francisco’s Chinatown to Shanghai. No such voyage would be complete without intrigue, which arrives in the form of pre-noir femme fatale Gloria Danton (Virginia Field). Despite rising anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. during the years before Pearl Harbor, Lorre’s unique characterization is both sympathetic and heroic.

Thank You, Mr. Moto

Directed by Norman Foster
US, 1939, b/w, 69 min.
With Peter Lorre, Thomas Beck, Pauline Frederick

The success of the first Mr. Moto installment prompted Fox to authorize a larger budget for Thank You, Mr. Moto. This time Mr. Moto, hired by Madame Chung (Pauline Frederick), competes with a gang of ruthless thugs to recover the pieces of an ancient scroll that indicates the whereabouts of the treasure of Genghis Khan. In the course of this quest, Mr. Moto must protect both Madame Chung and the sacred scrolls from his rivals. Lorre’s scenes with Prince Chung (played by Philip Ahn) are some of his best. Although fueled by the success of the Charlie Chan films of the 1930s, the Moto series avoids many of the stereotypical pitfalls of its predecessor thanks to Lorre’s subtle and fascinating performances.

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June 8 (Tuesday) 7 pm

The Cross of Lorraine

Directed by Tay Garnett
US, 1943, b/w, 91 min.
With Gene Kelly, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Peter Lorre

Set in a brutal World War II concentration camp, Tay Garnett’s The Cross of Lorraine boasts an all-star cast, stunning cinematography, and a strong nationalist sentiment. The film follows two Frenchmen, the young lawyer Paul (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and Victor, a taxi driver (Gene Kelly in one of his most dramatic roles), who surrender to the Germans after the fall of France in 1940. The men are subsequently shipped to a concentration camp, where they are treated with unjust cruelty and recognize their immediate need to escape. They are able to flee, and then take on Nazi soldiers in a remarkable battle. Peter Lorre contributes to The Cross of Lorraine in an unlikely characterization: that of a despicable, sadistic Nazi soldier.

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June 9 (Wednesday) 7 pm

My Favorite Brunette

Directed by Elliot Nugent
US, 1947, b/w, 87 min.
With Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Peter Lorre

When a femme fatale mistakes a baby photographer for a private detective, hijinks ensue. Bob Hope stars as the photog who willingly agrees to help the damsel in distress (Lamour) in part to satisfy his own dreams of a more adventurous career. When he encounters a pair of bad guys (played by Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr.) intent on rubbing him out, he may have to rethink his plans. Hope and Lamour keeps things light, while Lorre and Chaney add a much-needed dose of the bizarre in this charming parody of 1940s film noir.

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June 9 (Wednesday) 9 pm

The Face Behind the Mask

Directed by Robert Florey
US, 1941, b/w, 69 min.
With Peter Lorre, Evelyn Keyes, Don Beddoe

Lorre stars as Janos Szabo, a recent Hungarian immigrant to New York City whose aspiration to live out the American Dream is quickly destroyed when he is burned in a hotel fire, leaving his face disfigured. He is only able to find work washing dishes and becomes frustrated and hurt by the discrimination he experiences as a result of his physical abnormalities. He befriends a criminal named Dinky (George E. Stone) and joins him and his gang as a petty burglar. Szabo meets and instantly falls in love with Helen (Evelyn Keyes), a blind woman who sees Szabo’s inner beauty and encourages him to leave the gang. Critic Don Stell praised Lorre’s command over this film, portraying the lead character’s depth by effectively showing both his inner and outer struggles.

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June 11 (Friday) 7 pm
June 13 (Sunday) 9 pm

The Maltese Falcon

Directed by John Huston
US, 1941, b/w, 101 min.
With Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre

In The Maltese Falcon, screenwriter-turned-director John Huston created a shadowy, unreal territory where nothing is as it seems. The rules of the game keep changing during a frantic search for the famed black bird. Rapid-fire dialogue, dimly lit sets, and gritty, flawed characters are just a handful of the film’s trademarks. In this third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel, Humphrey Bogart stars as Sam Spade, a private detective conflicted by the questionable morality demanded by his profession and the desire to bring justice to his clients. The film teams Peter Lorre as sniveling Joel Cairo and Sydney Greenstreet (in his first screen appearance after forty years as a Shakespearean actor) for the first time. The “Laurel and Hardy of crime” went on to star together in eight more films.

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June 11 (Friday) 9 pm
June 13 (Sunday) 7 pm

Beat the Devil

Directed by John Huston
US, 1953, b/w, 100 min.
With Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Peter Lorre

Peter Lorre describes Huston’s spoof of the classic international intrigue drama as “a deliciously sardonic comedy, meant for art houses.” Although the film did not enjoy remarkable box office success, it has evolved into a cult classic. The plot, with its absurd twists and turns, is the cornerstone of the comedy: a group of crooked travelers concoct a scheme to fraudulently purchase a plot of uranium-rich land in Africa, but complications arise when their ship explodes and the group is stranded on a desert island, held captive by Arabs, and then arrested. Lorre plays O’Hara, an Irishman with a suspicious German accent

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June 12 (Saturday) 7 pm

The Mask of Dimitrios

Directed by Jean Negulesco
US, 1944, b/w, 95 min.
With Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott

Based on the novel A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitrios combines crime drama and film noir with a European touch. After the body of a man determined to be long time criminal Dmitrios Makropolos (Zachary Scott) is discovered, Turkish Secret Police detective Colonel Haki (Kurt Katch) enlists Dutch crime novelist Cornelius Latimar Leyden (Peter Lorre) to investigate the murder. Leyden embarks on a quest that takes him across Europe, where he learns about the life of Makropolos through interviews with journalists and acquaintances, and memories of lovers and friends. After working with Lorre, director Negulesco described him as “the most talented man I have ever seen in my life.”

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June 12 (Saturday) 9 pm

Three Strangers

Directed by Jean Negulesco
US, 1946, b/w, 92 min.
With Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Based on John Huston’s short story “Three Men and a Girl,” the inspiration for Three Strangers evolved from the screenwriter’s personal experience with a Burmese statue he purchased from an antique shop in England. Huston conceived the story of three strangers purchasing a lottery ticket and signing it with the name of an icon to inspire good luck. The unlikely trio – the lonely housewife Crystal (Geraldine Fitzgerald), crooked lawyer Arbutny (Greenstreet), and small-time crook Johnny (Lorre) – meet on the eve of the Chinese New Year and together buy equal shares in a lottery ticket, dedicating it to Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of fortune and destiny. The prosperous hopes of the threesome quickly unfold into a series of ironic misfortunes. Although Three Strangers did not achieve notable box office success, critics took note of Lorre’s exquisite performance in a sympathetic role after portraying crooked sidekicks in both The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942).

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