At the time of writing, it’s nearly 60 years since the death of one of cinema’s most deliciously sinister presences. Peter Lorre was born in 1904, of Jewish Austro-Hungarian descent, and attracted international attention in 1931 with his terrifying but weirdly sympathetic portrayal of a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, the mother of all serial-killer movies. Lorre used to tell the story that after he had left Germany following the Nazi rise to power, he received a telegram from Joseph Goebbels, praising his performance in M and asking him to return. To which Lorre wrote back, “There is no room in Germany for two murderers like we are, Hitler and I.”
In London, for Alfred Hitchcock, he was a charming baddie (learning his English dialogue phonetically) in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) before swapping over to the side of the good guys to play an exuberant spy with moustache and earring in Secret Agent. In Hollywood his accent and slightly bug-eyed look landed him signature roles as a mad scientist (Mad Love), a Japanese detective (the Mr Moto film series), and, most memorably, as Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon. And, of course, he was a vital part of one of the greatest supporting casts ever assembled, in Casablanca.
After the war, his movie career seemed to go off the boil (though he was a welcome presence in Disney’s marvellous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) but he did plenty of television. He was the screen’s first ever Bond villain, Le Chiffre, in CBS’s Casino Royale (1954), and played opposite Steve McQueen in the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, Man From the South, adapted from a Roald Dahl story.
Despite health problems, in the 1960s he cemented his place in The Great Horror Actors pantheon by perfectly entering into the spirit of Roger Corman’s superb series of low-budget pictures inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. He offered Vincent Price a glass of sherry in Tales of Terror, played the title role in The Raven (a wizard turned by magic into a talking bird), and starred in The Comedy of Terrors with Price, Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, and a prominently billed Rhubarb the Cat.
They had faces then, the great horror movie stars; they weren’t like the anonymous, interchangeable masked bogeymen of the slasher movie era. The key to Lorre, as with the other horror stars, was that he was simultaneously creepy and appealing. His wickedness, like that of his colleagues, was inseparable from such an abundance of charisma and panache and good humour, such a passion for dialogue and culture, you just know they’d be so much more fun to hang out with than the boring heroes.
Are there any actors working today who can still pull off that trick, complete with the exotic accent? There’s Udo Kier, equally at home in European arthouse movies and Z-grade horror, and a member of Lars Von Trier’s repertory company; he was at his most sinister in Breaking the Waves, and his most charming in Melancholia.
Swedish-born Peter Stormare is adept at playing evil, though in his best bad guy role (in Fargo) he was the opposite of charming and didn’t have much dialogue. Frenchman Vincent Cassel turned on the charm as an antagonist in the Ocean’s Eleven sequels, but has played more memorable villains in his own language. Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons adopted German accents to play villains in the Die Hard films, but they couldn’t be more English. Kenneth Branagh has played Nazis more than once.
But who is the natural successor to Peter Lorre? I propose Austrian-born Christoph Waltz, who nailed that combination of cultured, witty evil we all know and love as SD Standartenführer Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, following it up with more conventional bad guys in The Green Hornet and The Three Musketeers (2011). He even has the perfect amount of accent – not so much that it’s incomprehensible or distracting, but just enough to remind you he’s not from around here. Let’s hope there are some equally memorable villains in his future CV, to seal the deal.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in March 2014. It has been lightly edited.
ETA in 2022: Though Christoph Waltz may have had the potential to become a new Lorre, I don’t think he has ever lived up to his English-speaking debut as Landa in Inglourious Basterds. He was one of the most enjoyable elements in the (very patchy) Django Unchained (2012), and suitably hissworthy as horrible husbands in Water for Elephants (2011), Carnage (2011) and Big Eyes (2014), but – most disappointingly – failed to pull anything new out of the hat for his performance as the ultimate supervillain – James Bond’s archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Spectre (2015) and No Time to Die (2021). He wasn’t bad, exactly – just a bit predictable.