Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Peter Lorre Month Quick Picks and Pans


Crime and Punishment Poster

Crime and Punishment (1935) Peter Lorre stars as Roderick Raskolnikov, an astute student of the criminal mind, in Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel. Roderick doesn’t quite live up to his promise after graduating college, falling upon hard times. In a moment of desperation, he murders the owner of a pawn shop. Shortly afterward, his life starts improving, but he finds himself hounded by a jovial police inspector (Edward Arnold), who engages in a patient game of cat and mouse. Lorre is excellent as the clever but arrogant Raskolnikov, who rationalizes he’s above the law. But beneath that smug façade, he’s plagued with profound regret that an innocent man was sentenced for his crime. 

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

The Mask of Dimitrios Poster

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) A body washes up on the beach in Istanbul, belonging to the notorious criminal mastermind Dimitrios Makropoulos, who eluded the authorities for 20 years. But the story is just beginning for author Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre) who investigates the web of intrigue surrounding Dimitrios’ shadowy and sordid past. Cornelius soon crosses paths with Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), a mysterious man who wants to pool resources with him. Most of the story is told in flashback from those who knew him best, revealing a charming albeit manipulative and deceitful character. Is Dimitrios truly dead, or is faking his death just another one of his schemes? Watch and see. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD   


Island of Doomed Men Poster

Island of Doomed Men (1940) Mark Sheldon (Robert Wilcos) goes deep undercover as convicted felon “John Smith” (You would think he’d choose something a little more original), to investigate the unsavory goings-on at Dead Man’s Island, owned by Stephen Danel (Peter Lorre). The remote isle is home to a forced labor camp, where parolees are given what they believe to be a second chance, only to be worked to death, digging for diamonds. Danel’s soft-spoken, genteel demeanor belies his sadistic nature and a compulsive need to control everyone and everything. His wife Lorraine (Rochelle Hudson) barely contains her contempt for her husband, who keeps her captive on the island (“So, Mr. Smith approves of my taste, huh? There’s only one thing that Mr. Smith doesn’t know. What I own, I keep. But he’ll learn. So will you.”). Lorre’s brilliant, nuanced performance makes this average potboiler something special.   

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Der Verlorene Poster

Der Verlorene (aka: The Lost One) (1951) Peter Lorre’s sole directorial effort is a grim movie about medical researcher Dr. Karl Rothe (Lorre), living under an assumed name after he murders his fiancée. His past comes back to haunt him when Hösch (Karl John) an old colleague, discovers his whereabouts, working in a refugee camp. The film paints a bleak portrait of postwar Germany, where scarcity prevails. It’s not the easiest movie to find, but it’s well worth a look.   

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Import) and YouTube (For now)

Black Angel Poster

Black Angel (1946) Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is convicted of murdering singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), but his wife Catherine (June Vincent) is convinced he’s innocent. Catherine teams up with Mavis’ estranged composer/songwriter husband, Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), posing as performers at a nightclub run by ex-con Marko (Peter Lorre). Lorre is at his oily best, as the shifty nightclub owner who just might have a link to the dead singer. This classic noir, filled with excellent performances and red herrings galore, keeps you guessing throughout.    

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Three Strangers Poster

Three Strangers (1946) Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald) a scheming woman who’s trying, by hook or crook, to reconcile with her estranged well-to-do husband (Alan Napier), hatches a plan to turn her life around. She makes a wish on Chinese New Year with two strangers, Johnny West (Peter Lorre), a ne’er do well who’s mixed up with some small-time criminals, and stuffy solicitor Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet), who’s embezzled funds from his firm. They pool their resources on a horse race ticket with a potentially large cash payout. Complications ensue. Screenwriters John Huston and Howard Koch keep a lot of plates spinning (There are more than enough twists and turns for three movies) as the main characters’ lives intersect after a chance encounter. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

The Boogie Man Will Get You Poster 

The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) Winnie Slade, a young woman (Jeff Donnell) purchases an historical home in the hopes of turning it into a hotel/tavern. Unfortunately for Winnie, the eccentric residents come along with the purchase price, and her annoying ex-husband Bill (Larry Parks) unexpectedly shows up. Boris Karloff plays absent-minded scientist Nathaniel Billings, tinkering with dream of making people fly. As his experiments fail, the bodies of door-to-door salesmen pile up. Peter Lorre plays the town’s mayor (who apparently wears many hats), Dr. Arthur Lorencz, who partners with Billings in his research. Judging by their interplay, it’s obvious Karloff and Lorre are having fun – if only the rest of the movie were half as enjoyable. The overly stagey movie is confined mainly to the house, and even at a scant 66 minutes, seems overlong.   

Rating: **½. Available on DVD (included in the Boris Karloff Collection and the Icons of Horror Collection)

Invisible Agent Poster

Invisible Agent (1942) This WW II-era quickie “suggested by H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man ” (I think Mr. Wells would have suggested against this one) focuses on Frank Raymond (Jon Hall), grandson of the scientist who invented a formula for invisibility. After Axis spies attempt to take the formula from him, he agrees to help the U.S. military, under one condition – the formula can only be used on himself. He parachutes into Germany, teaming up with fellow spy Maria Sorenson (Ilona Massey) to find out about a planned invasion. Peter Lorre plays the sadistic and devious Japanese (!) agent Baron Ikito. While it isn’t without its goofball charms, this cut-rate entry in the Invisible Man series suffers from xenophobia and casual racism, keeping this one from being a guilty pleasure. 

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD (included in The Invisible Man – The Legacy Collection) 


Tuesday, May 23, 2023


M Poster

(1931) Directed by Fritz Lang; Written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang; Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke, Theodor Loos, and Gustaf Gründgens; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: *****

Hans Beckert

“I have to roam the streets endlessly, always sensing that someone’s following me. It’s me! I’m shadowing myself! Silently… but I still hear it! Yes, sometimes I feel like I’m tracking myself down. I want to run – run away from myself! But I can’t! I can’t escape from myself! I must take the path that is driving me down, and run and run down endless streets! I want off! And with me run the ghosts of the mothers and children. They never go away. They’re always there! Always!” – Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) 

If first impressions are the most crucial, Peter Lorre’s debut in M (minus a couple of minor movie roles) set the tone for his entire film career. Because of that seminal early role and his distinctive (some might say “unconventional”) appearance, he was frequently cast as the antagonist in subsequent movies (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Mad Love, etc…). Being typecast as a horror actor became a boon and a curse to the Austro-Hungarian immigrant, who spent most of his professional life attempting to dispel certain notions about his offscreen persona.* It’s a bit of cruel irony, considering that Lang cast Lorre in the role of serial child killer Hans Beckert because he seemed so non-threatening and unassuming. 

* Fun Fact #1: In one interview, Lorre glibly responded to filmgoers’ perceptions of his off-screen persona: “I am afraid that I must disappoint you. I know what you expected of me, what you hoped of me. So many people have… You would like me to tell you that I sleep in a darkened room, inhabited, perhaps, by bats and evil spirits, lit with a red lamp, the evil eye. You would like me to say that I’m familiar with visitations from another world, that I spend my days and nights reading ancient tomes of old evils, that I am drenched in the lives of murderers and mental criminals. No. I am sorry. I am afraid that I am a very normal, happy, wholesome individual, with no complexes.” (Motion Picture and Silver Screen, February 1935)

Reading About the Murders

For his first sound picture (filmed 19 months after 1929’s The Woman in the Moon), Fritz Lang* collaborated with screenwriter (and wife) Thea von Harbou, fashioning a story that could have emerged from the newspaper headlines. They were inspired, in part by    the exploits of notorious mass murderers Peter Kürten (the “Vampire of Düsseldorf) and Fritz Haarmann (whose macabre story was depicted in 1973’s Tenderness of the Wolves). M ** touched a nerve when it was thrust upon an audience that was already familiar with the real-life atrocities of Kürten, Haarmann, and others.   

* Fun Fact #2: Lang, who had been one of German silent cinema’s foremost filmmakers, was reluctant to make the leap to talkies. The resulting film was 2/3 sound, interspersed with many silent passages. 

** Fun Fact #3: Three weeks before the film’s release, the title Mörder Unter Uns (aka, The  Murderer Among Us), was changed, simply, to the letter “M.” Although Lang claimed that he changed the name to appease Nazi censors, it was more likely due to marketability (since there were competing films being released with “Murder” in the titles). Also, as Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler pointed out in their Criterion commentary, the one-letter title evoked associations with the recently established “M-Division,” in Berlin’s police department, tasked with investigating murders.

Inspector Karl Lohmann

The film opens with a group of children in a Berlin neighborhood, gleefully playing a morbid game while a child killer roams the streets. The children form a circle, chanting about a murderous man in black, while systematically eliminating one of their playmates from the circle, thus condemning them to some imaginary horrible fate. The unsettling scene not only foreshadows the murders to come, but establishes a recurring theme – an individual being singled out by the group. After one of the children, Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), is killed, the city’s residents fall into a panic, their anxieties exacerbated by bumbling police with seemingly no leads. Law enforcement and their underworld counterparts methodically devise, in parallel, a means to catch the murderer. As their combined efforts close around their quarry, the only question remaining is whether the police or the criminals will get to him first.


The Criminals Spin Their Web

There is an almost imperceptibly fine line between the criminals and police. Both have the same general goal, to catch a killer. The police, led by the affable Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) endeavor to uphold order, however dysfunctional that may be. The criminals, fronted by stoic, authoritarian kingpin Schränker (Gustaf Gründgens) aiming to distance themselves from the killings, want to send the message that there’s a threshold even they won’t cross. While the police escalate their raids in a clumsy attempt to catch the killer, the criminal network carefully weaves its web, with its network of pickpockets, beggars and crime lords.

Hans Beckert Appears

We’re introduced to Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) as a silhouette against a “wanted” poster, as he lures Elsie to her doom (“What a pretty ball you have there.”). Short of stature and childlike in his demeanor, he wins the confidence of his unsuspecting victims with candy and balloons. Meanwhile, he taunts authorities with letters about his next move. Lorre somehow manages to be menacing and innocuous at the same time, perfectly conveying Beckert’s ambivalent nature (He looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly… or would he?). One of his character traits (which ultimately becomes his undoing) is whistling the strains of Edvard Grieg,’s classical piece, Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,”* as he stalks his next victim. When Beckert is eventually cornered by his pursuers, his impassioned plea for mercy** falls upon deaf ears.   

* Fun Fact #4: Unbeknownst to Lang, Lorre couldn’t whistle. Instead, the atonal, off-kilter whistling heard in the film was dubbed by Lang himself. 

** Not-So-Fun Fact: Lorre’s intense monologue scene was co-opted for the antisemitic 1940 Nazi propaganda film, “The Eternal Jew,” as a supposed “example” of typical pathological behavior.   

On Trial

Using real events as a model, Lang depicted human behavior at its darkest, encapsulating the ensuing hysteria of the populace, referred to as a psychosis of fear (angstpsychose). M places Berlin (or at least its studio-based simulacrum) under a microscope, as its inhabitants sink into a miasma of suspicion and paranoia. In one scene, where an elderly man innocently speaks to a young girl, a group of onlookers, suspecting he’s the killer, descend on him like a pack of wolves. When Beckert is finally caught, he stands trial before a kangaroo court run by criminals, with judge, jury and executioners rolled into one. We are confronted with some uneasy questions. Is anyone truly above or beneath the law? If the crime is sufficiently heinous, does the mob deserve to rule? Does our society have an obligation to condemn and obliterate, or rehabilitate those who commit antisocial acts? And above all, whom can we trust to make these judgments?

Hans Beckert on Trial

Lorre played the role of Hans Beckert so well, it almost made him a pariah of sorts on the streets of Berlin, with people associating him with his character. His brilliant performance of a man shackled by his impulses set the bar almost impossibly high for the young actor, setting the trajectory of his career. By making Beckert sympathetic, M doesn’t condone his actions – it acknowledges he is a human being, and his so-called “inhumane” acts are another, uncomfortable facet of humanity. It doesn’t supply easy answers, instead maintaining an atmosphere of unease throughout. As Beckert is on trial, so are we all.


Sources for this article: The Lost One – A Life of Peter Lorre, by Stephen D. Youngkin; 2012 Criterion DVD commentary by Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler; “Women Scream at the Sight of Him,” by Faith Service, Motion Picture and Silver Screen (February 1935); A Companion to German Cinema, “Screening the German Social Divide,” David James Prickett (2012)


Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The Face Behind the Mask

The Face Behind the Mask Poster

(1941) Directed by Robert Florey; Written by Allen Vincent and Paul Jarrico; Story by Arthur Levinson; Based on the radio play Interim, by Thomas Edward O'Connell; Starring: Peter Lorre, Evelyn Keyes, Don Beddoe, George E. Stone and James Seay; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ***


Helen and Janos

“Sorry for you? It has nothing to do with you. It’s me! Me, my face! If you could see my face, you would feel sorry for me! People who look at me, they see a mask, artificial. But the face behind the mask, it’s mutilated, hideous. A horrible nightmare out of which I can never awake.” – Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) 

Humans are, by and large, visually oriented beings. We base so much upon first impressions, (specifically how attractive or unattractive someone appears), that we tend to overlook the attributes that matter most. It seems we have a natural tendency to reward those who possess attractive physical traits, while rejecting those whose appearance doesn’t fall within a certain narrow range. The Face Behind the Mask explores one man’s personal hell as his world collapses. Shot by director Robert Florey* in only 12 days, the brisk 69-minute crime film is a flawed, yet ideal showcase for Peter Lorre’s formidable talents. 

* Fun Fact #1: Before James Whale and Boris Karloff were attached to the seminal 1931 film, Florey wrote the first draft of the Frankenstein script and directed tests of Bela Lugosi as the monster.

Janos Before the Accident

Lorre plays eager Hungarian immigrant Janos Szabo, who’s looking forward to a new life in the United States. As he approaches New York harbor,* Janos admires the Statue of Liberty with awe and reverence, as a symbol embodying the land of opportunity. He hopes to work hard and earn enough money so his fiancée can make the trek across the Atlantic to be with him. There are some amusing moments as he struggles with the intricacies of the English language, while attempting to find a place to stay. In one fateful instant, his dreams unravel when his face is horribly burned in a flophouse fire. Disfigured and penniless, his hopes evaporate as one door after another is slammed in his face. The first person to show him any compassion is, oddly enough, small-time criminal Dinky (George E. Stone), He convinces Janos to carry on, despite his physical appearance, encouraging him to pursue other avenues for earning money. Inexorably, Janos slides into a life of crime. Adept with his hands, he finds he has a knack for getting in and out of places undetected. 

* Fun Fact #2: The scene was a reenactment of sorts of his arrival in the U.S., in 1934, as an Austro-Hungarian immigrant. His initial difficulties with the language of his adopted country recall Lorre’s experience learning to speak English phonetically on the set of Hitchcock’s production of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).

Janos with His New Mask

We only catch a brief glimpse of Janos’ mangled face when his bandages are removed in the hospital. In subsequent scenes he appears mostly with his back to the camera (a concession to the censors). After a plastic surgeon informs Janos that reconstructive surgery is virtually impossible and prohibitively expensive, he settles for the next best thing, a lifelike mask* based on a photograph. The subtle makeup by Ernie Parks (employing white face and tape) is effective and unsettling. We can clearly see Lorre’s face, but it resembles a facsimile, creating an uncanny quality. Of course, the “mask” enables Lorre to display a full range of expressions (one of the film’s many liberties, considering the character’s facial musculature was damaged beyond repair).

* Fun Fact #3: The mask’s $400 price tag, as quoted in the film, would be equivalent to roughly $8,200 in 2023 dollars.  


Janos Threatens the Old Crime Boss

It’s a testament to Lorre’s acting chops that he adds depth and subtlety to a B-movie role that many other actors would sleepwalk through. Janos mercurial temperament ranges from sweet to menacing, and everything in between. Even at his most maniacal, however, he never fails to engender our sympathies. Lorre embodies the utter torment of a man consumed by self-loathing, forced to abandon his ideals to survive. He makes it clear to the audience that the criminal lifestyle doesn’t suit him. Reminiscent of The Man Who Laughs (1928), Janos meets Helen (Evelyn Keyes) a blind girlfriend who loves him just the way he is. She brings out his better attributes, prompting him to leave his thievery (along with his criminal associates) behind. But it’s a prison of his own making – one can’t escape the criminal underworld so easily.

Jeff and Thugs

Most of the other characters are one-note, especially the thugs in his gang, and Lt. O’Hara (Don Beddoe) an Irish cop with a heart of gold (sigh). Evelyn Keyes does the best she can with an underwritten role, basically the yin to Janos’ yang. Displaced crime boss Jeff Jeffries (James Seay) is like a coiled viper, ready to sink his fangs into anyone who gets too close. He reluctantly acquiesces to Janos’ leadership, but only temporarily. After he discovers an old card with O’Hara’s phone number, he thinks Janos is a police informant (Wouldn’t you know it? In a plot-convenient twist, O’Hara is the same cop on the case of the robberies).  

Helen and Janos

The Face Behind the Mask relies on a few too many time-worn clichés. When Janos’ face is initially revealed, a nurse screams hysterically (as a health professional, wouldn’t she be used to this sort of thing?). In another scene, at the exact moment he turns on a radio, there’s a plot-specific news bulletin about his group’s robbery spree. The film’s climax requires a healthy suspension of belief, as he somehow pulls the wool over his old gang’s eyes as the pilot of their getaway plane.* 

* Fun Fact #4: The remote Arizona desert locale is actually the Sand Dunes in Oxnard, California.

Janos Confronts His Old Gang

Not quite film noir, nor a horror film, The Face Behind the Mask challenges the old aphorism, “Looks aren’t everything.” We are quick to condemn those who fall outside an arbitrary norm, and not so quick to empathize with the plight of others. While the movie is rife with creaky plot elements and clichéd characters, Lorre’s committed performance provides enough depth and pathos to make up for any deficits. It’s a mediocre film with a superb performance at its core, making this a must-see for Peter Lorre aficionados. 

Source for this article: Arrow Blu-ray commentary by Alan K. Rode.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

The Futurethon is Now! – Wrap-up


Futurethon Banner - Star Trek

All good things must come to an end, and so it goes with the Futurethon. We’ve had a tremendous turnout, and it’s been a pleasure reading everyone’s posts (And yes, I’m still going through them as I write this). A hearty thanks to all the wonderful bloggers who helped make this three-day-plus event such a resounding success. And last but never least, thanks to my amazing blogging partner in crime, Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews, for all of her hard work.


Watch for another blogathon announcement later this year. Trust me, you won’t want to miss it! But we’re not stopping there. Although 2023 isn’t even half over yet, we’re already planning a blogathon (or two!) for next year. Stay tuned.

Space Truckers

Be sure to visit the recaps from days One, Two and Three: 

Day 1 

Day 2 

Day 3 

… And now, on with the final Futurethon submissions: 

Barbarella Poster

Kayla from Whimsically Classic visits the 41st century with Barbarella (1969). 


Mad Max: Fury Road Poster

Cat from Thoughts All Sorts is back behind the wheel to look at Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). 

Equilibrium Poster

Eric from Diary of a Movie Maniac presents his balanced review of Equilibrium (2002). 

A Boy and His Dog Poster

… And here’s one more from Eric, as he spends some quality time with A Boy and His Dog (1975).  


The Apple Poster

Daffny from A Vintage Nerd takes a bite out of bonkers future-themed musical, The Apple (1980).