In the early 1940s, Warner Brothers began to introduce its stars into the studio’s “Merrie Melodies” and “Looney Tunes” cartoons. For many children, their first exposure to the panoply of Warner players was as caricatures in the Tex Avery universe. Peter Lorre was made for such a crossover, with a phizog which leant itself to grotesque exaggeration. In Racketeer Rabbit (1946), Bugs Bunny does battle with a pale, saucer-eyed gangster called Hugo, modelled on Lorre. In The Birth of a Notion (1947), Lorre is transformed into Dr. Lorre, a saturnine and sinister scientist who stalks Daffy Duck. An undercurrent of disgust runs through both of these animated characterisations, an acknowledgement of Lorre’s alien status. Lorre’s portrayal of the stranger figure was one which the actor refined over the previous decade, and reached its apotheosis at the dawn of the 40s in a string of iconic roles.
Fritz Lang’s M (1931) is the foundational text in codifying the Peter Lorre stranger figure. Lorre’s child murderer Hans Beckert is the most plangent articulation of the outsider who is unable to make terms with reality, and finds an outlet for his anomie in the ultimate act of rupture. Beckert is a spectre conjured from the collective unconscious, an eidolon haunting the deepest fears of orthodoxy. He is the abrogation of stability cloaked in the outward plausibility of the bourgeois citizen. He resides outside the institutions of the family and the state; wallowing in a hedonic lassitude, feeding his immediate appetites in an attempt to forestall his overriding pathology. Beckert is first seen in shadow, and the audience’s initial view of his face is in the mirror. He is a figure of evasion and inversion. He is everywhere and nowhere; everybody and nobody. As one character states, “no one knows him, yet he is among us.”
Beckert’s actions fundamentally alter the relations of social exchange; the suspicion he engenders creates a para-institutional framework in which strength and retribution are reified. Yet paradoxically, the effort of catching Beckert serves a unifying function. Beckert cannot be integrated into any strata of the social order; he antagonizes the criminal class, and there is no shelter among the denizens of the demimonde. Beckert’s transgression exists beyond any agreed upon formulation of societal dialectic; the understanding that crime operates as an extension of business (Lang draws this parallel with some masterful intercutting between a confab of bank robbers and the gathered police chiefs; much of M’s power resides in its use of visual juxtaposition). Beckert operates on a different level; his crimes have no evident gain (one of the bank robbers fumes that Beckert is “not even a real crook!”), which lends them a further level of perversity. There is in Beckert’s crimes a rebuke to the values the society propounds and promulgates; it is a challenge which the society is unwilling to confront, and must therefore extirpate. In M, the stranger tests the boundaries of society’s tolerance. Lang asks: to what lengths is a society willing to go in upholding the illusions which sustain it?
Peter Lorre’s characterisation in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) draws consciously on motifs from M: There is the pocket watch whose recurring chimes call to mind Beckert’s whistling of “Hall of the Mountain King” as he stalks his prey, and the capture of innocence in the kidnapping of a child. Like Beckert, Lorre’s Abbott is coded as unnervingly alien; a stranger equally amongst the leisured classes of St. Moritz as the downtrodden of Wapping. Abbott skirts the periphery of any milieu he occupies, operating according to his own abstruse agenda. The occult — in the sense of that which is hidden — is palpable. The name Abbott is significant, as he is a kind of dark monk, working assiduously and surreptitiously towards his arcane creed. Abbott and his acolytes exhibit a contemptuous levity towards societal shibboleths like “fatherly feelings,” “the arm of English law” and the “sacred edifice” of the church. The central conflict is between the forces of stability and the will to dissolution. Abbott’s plot to assassinate a European diplomat seems to transcend geopolitical objectives; it appears to be in service of a more complex imperative. Unlike Beckert, Abbott welcomes his demise; it is the culmination of a schema to set the death drive in motion, to extend the dimensions of the rupture he has created. Abbott smiles as he dies.
Peter Lorre’s American debut set the tenor for his Hollywood career. In Mad Love (1935), much of the existential underpinnings of Lorre’s European work gave way to the explicitly grotesque. Lorre’s Dr. Gogol is a man of high achievement, yet this does not diminish his distance. The film’s depiction of Gogol brims with a deep-seated anxiety about the intentions of the cultural stranger. Gogol is otherworldly and sinister; with his “nasty foreign-sounding name,” he is a synthesis of old-world primitivism and rationalist advancement; a “poor peasant” who has “conquered science.” Like Abbott, Gogol pursues his own esoteric ends; he shuns publicity and does not operate for money; his clinic is an expressionistic terrain of disconcerting angles and heavy chiaroscuro, somewhere between Caligari and Frankenstein. Gogol is an extension of Dr. Frankenstein (which is ironic, given that Colin Clive is the subject of the experimentation here). The film posits that by transplanting the hands of a murderer onto a gifted pianist, Gogol has subverted a natural hierarchy; he has practiced a form of genetic “black magic” by grafting the inherent criminality of an inferior stock onto the pianist’s body. There is an echo of the eugenics movement which was gaining popularity in the U.S. during the 20s and 30s. By having his blood’s purity diluted, the pianist has become an unfit individual, the cultivated ideals he embodied have been tainted by Gogol’s intervention.
Peter Lorre was the perfect fit to play Roderick Raskolnikov in Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of Crime and Punishment (1935); no other actor of his era had an equal capacity to convey emotional turmoil physically. Lorre delivers a tautly febrile performance; he is clammy and agitated, an outward austerity seeking to conceal an inner tumult. With his flat affect and even metre, Lorre displays a striking realism next to the formality and histrionics which surround him. Sternberg and writer Joseph Anthony reconfigure Raskolnikov as a noir protagonist, ensnared in a trap of his own design. Raskolnikov is a character who places himself in the stranger’s position; he fashions himself as an Übermensch who transcends moral boundaries by virtue of his superior intellect; he disdains institutions peopled by small men who cannot conceive of his desire to bypass conscience and join the ranks of the extraordinary. But by crossing this moral threshold, Raskolnikov places himself on a perilous ledge. Even at his most hubristic, Lorre betrays the mania presaging Raskolnikov’s descent. Like Abbott, Raskolnikov is daring the world to eliminate him, playing a game of chicken with the mechanisms of censure, seeking to overlay theory onto reality. As with all of Peter Lorre’s strangers, Raskolnikov is tortured by the relentless call of a deleterious self-recognition.
Boris Ingster’s elaborately expressionistic noir Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) solidified the Peter Lorre stranger persona which would become a staple throughout the 40s. Lorre’s Stranger springs forth like a manifestation of doubt after reporter Michael Ward (John McGuire) witnesses a murder and participates in the trial which leads to the conviction of Elisha Cook Jr.’s all-American naïf. Seeing the Stranger triggers in Ward a descent into the depths of his complicity; the Stranger becomes the focus of Ward’s quest to eradicate the guilty impulses that dwell within him by finding an external malefactor. Lorre is lit with an almost supernatural glow; his “evil face” is bombarded with light amidst the shadows of the “gloomy dump” of a rooming house where Ward resides amongst solitary single men. The Stranger moves with reptilian precision, contorting his body into inhuman postures; nobody in the community has seen the Stranger, as if he is invisible to anyone but those afflicted with a gnawing uncertainty. The Stranger’s appearance activates Ward’s deepest fears of being cast out. When the Stranger is tracked down, he is revealed to be a forlorn figure who is running from his own antagonist: he is terrified of being “taken back” by “the people who lock you up.” Despite the Stranger’s implied monstrosity, Lorre lends this tortured man a strange kind of pathos. Peter Lorre brought to his strangers the psychological wounds carried by the exile.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.