Peter Lorre

Young Couples Only (1955, Richard Irving)

Young Couples Only is really good. Especially when you consider how Bill Williams is so weak in the lead and how director Irving never does anything special. He never does anything bad, he just doesn’t do anything special. He certainly doesn’t keep Williams in line. It’s probably a very good thing Williams’s real-life wife Barbara Hale plays his TV wife here. She can carry the scenes for him. And the other scenes usually have Peter Lorre, who does a phenomenal job implying all sorts of depth to his quirky character.

Hale and Williams live in a very nice apartment building. Furnished for–adjusted for inflation–about $600 a month. The only rules are the residents have to be couples, they have to be young, they have to be fit. Williams is an illustrator who isn’t particularly insightful; there’s a brief subplot about Hale not getting his humor (but other men do) but since it turns out Hale is right about everything in the world, maybe Williams doesn’t know what he’s doing.

See, Hale thinks there’s something funny about Lorre, who’s playing the janitor. He gives Hale and the other wives in the building the creeps, even though he’s never really done anything. Other than be Peter Lorre. Williams dismisses Hale–her exasperation at his inability to get past dismissing her because, well, she’s a woman is phenomenal–while she gets more and more suspicious. Especially after their dog disappears.

There are a series of reveals in the second half, each better than the last. Not sure if Lawrence Kimble’s teleplay had the plot twist smarts or Richard Matheson’s short story, but they come off beautifully. Once Williams is in crisis mode, he’s a lot better. Until then, he’s just either having Hale carry his proverbial water for him or Lorre carry it. Young Couples Only sort of plays like a sitcom, with broad, affable performances from Hale and then Williams, only it turns out the show’s just getting warmed up and Hale’s along with the changing tone…and Williams isn’t.

But it still works out beautifully. Thanks to Lorre, thanks to Hale, thanks to the perfectly competent, unambitious technical execution. Young Couples Only is good.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Irving; teleplay by Lawrence Kimble, based on a story by Richard Matheson; “Studio 57” presented by Joel Aldrich; director of photography, Herbert Kirkpatrick; edited by Edward W. Williams; aired by the DuMont Television Network.

Starring Barbara Hale (Ruth), Bill Williams (Rick), Peter Lorre (Mr. Grover), Danni Sue Nolan (Marge), Robert Quarry (Phil), and Paul Bryar (Officer Johnson).


The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)

Even though almost every moment of The Maltese Falcon is spent with Humphrey Bogart’s protagonist, director Huston keeps the audience at arms’ length. Most of the film’s more exciting sounding set pieces occur off-screen, but so does Bogart’s thinking. The audience gets to see him manipulating, often without context.

His most honest scenes are with the women in his life–secretary Lee Patrick, damsel in distress Mary Astor, ill-chosen love interest Gladys George. Of course, Huston’s script doesn’t even make it clear (right off) Bogart’s going to be honest in those scenes. Huston reveals it a few minutes later, which is important as Falcon is an intentionally convoluted mystery but only on the surface. It’s more an epical character study of Bogart, something Huston doesn’t feel the need to reveal until the last seven or eight minutes.

Huston’s approach leads to a briskly moving film with a bunch of fantastic scenes. Bogart (and the viewer) see the result of the villains’ machinations, but Bogart saves all the conclusions. He doesn’t share, not with Patrick, not with Astor, not with the viewer. Huston’s exceptionally controlled with the narrative structure. It’s brilliant; he’s able to set up a fantastic conclusion for the mystery, but also for the character study, all because of that structure.

And the acting. Bogart’s phenomenal, so’s Astor, so are Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr. Greenstreet almost gets as good of material as Bogart.

Wonderfully playful score from Adolph Deutsch.

It’s a magnificent film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Huston; screenplay by Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Thomas Richards; music by Adolph Deutsch; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Samuel Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O’Shaughnessy), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman), Ward Bond (Detective Tom Polhaus), Barton MacLane (Lt. of Detectives Dundy), Lee Patrick (Effie Perine), Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilmer Cook), Gladys George (Iva Archer) and Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer).


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Quicksand (1950, Irving Pichel)

Quicksand is a film noir with room for cream and about five sugars. The genre often has a morality element to it, but this entry goes way too far with it. Or it might just be how the film treats lead Mickey Rooney.

Most film noir male protagonists are overconfident simpletons taken in by devious women; Rooney is a complete moron, however. And his confidence is all obvious bravado. He isn't just not smart, he never shows any reason for anyone–himself included–to think he is smart.

The script even gives femme fatale Jeanne Cagney, presumably cast due to her height (very few cast members are taller than Rooney), lines about Rooney being a malleable simp. There isn't much tension when she's telling him she's going to take him for a ride and he's just too dumb to figure it out.

Rooney has a likable quality, even in Quicksand, and maybe if director Pichel were better able to use the location shooting–he's visibly desperate for a sound stage–or the script gave Rooney narration throughout instead of just during summary scenes, the film might go better.

As for the supporting cast… poor Peter Lorre looks embarrassed, like he's waiting for someone to hand him a check after each scene. Then there's Cagney; her enthusiasm doesn't translate to a good performance. In one of the stupider roles, Barbara Bates can't make the good girl hung up on Rooney believable. He's just too much of a tool.

Quicksand misfires on all levels, but inoffensively.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Irving Pichel; written by Robert Smith; director of photography, Lionel Lindon; edited by Walter Thompson; music by Louis Gruenberg; production designer, Boris Leven; produced by Mort Briskin; released by United Artists.

Starring Mickey Rooney (Dan), Jeanne Cagney (Vera), Barbara Bates (Helen), Peter Lorre (Nick), Taylor Holmes (Harvey), Art Smith (Mackey), Wally Cassell (Chuck), Richard Lane (Lt. Nelson), Patsy O’Connor (Millie), John Gallaudet (Moriarity) and Minerva Urecal (Landlady).


Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)

Every time I watch Casablanca–and I think it’s been a while since the last time, over ten years ago, when I saw it at Radio City–I marvel at the pacing. The film runs an hour and forty minutes and it doesn’t even seem like any time has passed until Bergman is in Bogart’s apartment. I think that scene brings in the temporal aspect not because of the scene’s weight, but because Paul Henreid’s had an off-screen activity. We see everything in Casablanca–with the exception of the pre-opening incident (the murder of the German couriers)–and once we aren’t seeing everything, it becomes clear the film’s a narrative with an eventual ending. The beauty of the film is how the script sets it up to never imply a conclusion–certainly not one so quickly (as Bogart says to Bergman, he didn’t expect her so soon)–as the present action takes place over two and a half days.

The film’s opening, with the narrated introduction, followed by the daily life in Casablanca, gradually introducing Bogart, exquisitely conditions the viewer. For most of the running time, the film portrays Bogart as a cynic, hardly a heroic protagonist (he’s not even as consistently funny as Claude Rains). Watching Bogart bicker with Dooley Wilson over his drinking or lash out at Bergman, it’s a raw human desperation not often seen in films of this period. Curtiz’s frequent, patient close-ups–most often of Bergman thinking–contribute to the film’s sensitivity.

The viewer doesn’t even have all the necessary information until forty-five minutes into the film–and even then there’s the question of whether Bergman’s history with Paul Henreid is essential–after Bogart and Wilson’s bickering, after the flashback to Paris. The flashback must only take five minutes, but it always seems to take so much longer. It really does resonate, since up until that point, we’ve only seen Bogart on the one night.

The script does such an amazing job setting up the characters and their potential for empathy (especially with Sydney Greenstreet), with Nazi Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre the only irredeemable characters. And even then, Lorre’s questionable. There’s a great ambiguity to the film in how it deals with its characters and their morality. Only Henreid and Wilson–as well as the supporting cast in Bogart’s nightclub–are scrupulous. The film doesn’t even make an issue of Bogart growing into a noble mold–there’s no implication he’s going to continue doing the right thing.

The other thing I always think about is the film’s ability to juggle being well-written and narratively solid with being constantly entertaining. Curtiz frequently brings a comedic timing to the action–for instance, with Bogart pulling the pistol on Rains at the end. The film establishes, right away, a dire setting (my wife, watching for the first time, gasped as the French police shot the fleeing man without his papers in the first scene). Everyone’s desperate, everyone’s unhappy, everyone’s in a lot of trouble… but there’s so much humor. Bogart and Lorre’s opening conversation lightens the mood, but never breaks the setting.

Rains is responsible for a lot of the levity. His police prefect is just perfect. Every scene he’s in produces a smile at the least.

Both Bogart and Bergman are fantastic, with Bogart’s performance setting a mold for all reluctant heroes to follow (I noticed a music cue John Williams borrowed in Empire Strikes Back, with Han Solo being a direct descendant of Rick Blaine). Bergman’s got a harder job–though, is this film the first where Bogart had to cry–since Curtiz loves giving her those pensive close-ups.

Wilson’s great, as is Henreid. Henreid’s actually got the hardest job, since he’s got to convince the viewer he’s this Utopian do-gooder, whose rhetoric and ideals are infectious. And he does.

I can’t think of a single complaint (I want more Wilson, but I understand he’s got to go into background as Henreid becomes more relevant to the narrative). I just miss seeing it on a seventy foot screen.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Curtiz; screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Owen Marks; music by Max Steiner; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Renault), Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser), Sydney Greenstreet (Signor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Ugarte), S.Z. Sakall (Carl), Madeleine LeBeau (Yvonne), Dooley Wilson (Sam), Joy Page (Annina Brandel), John Qualen (Berger), Leonid Kinskey (Sascha) and Curt Bois (Pickpocket).


Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra)

Arsenic and Old Lace has to be one of the finest–if not the finest–film adaptations of a stage production. Nothing about the film, save the knowledge it’s from a play, suggests its theatrical origins… not the one night present action, not the one set. It’s an ideal motion picture comedy, down to what has to be Frank Capra’s most inventive direction. Capra’s confined to that one set for the majority of the film and he keeps things very interesting. He reveals the house gradually, not even exploring the full size of the main room–where around seventy percent of the story takes place–until well into the third act of the film.

The film’s full of fantastic performances, but the story’s split between Cary Grant and Raymond Massey. Grant disappears for a while and Massey takes over, but filling a completely different role than Grant. The film sort of goes without a protagonist for a while in Grant’s absence (Massey isn’t really an antagonist at this point) and the story accelerates into a different area without him. When he returns, he doesn’t inhabit the film in the same way. For the first half, watching Arsenic and Old Lace is watching Grant. Sure, lots of good stuff is going on around him, but his performance is captivating. It’s unlike anything else (Grant hated the performance) and it’s wonderful. Maybe because it so perfectly matches the viewer’s expectation of a reasonable person’s response to the film’s fantastic situation. The romance between Grant and Priscilla Lane–which has a lot of texture independent of the main action’s two plots (the aunts and their gentlemen and Massey’s return)–is wonderful too. Lane and Grant play great off each other; it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles.

Massey has the film’s most difficult role, since it’s so incredible. I wonder how much Arsenic and Old Lace did for Boris Karloff’s name recognition, as Massey has to personify the idea of Karloff (and the unmentioned Frankenstein) from his first moment on film. But Massey has to go further–he has to be both menacing, dangerous and silly. The viewer has to be scared of Massey and what he might do, but also has to be able to laugh at him. By the time he’s ready to go after Grant, the viewer’s already had a chance to laugh at him a little, but Massey brings it all around to present real danger.

Peter Lorre has a similar position. He has to be funny–Lorre’s performance is one of film’s great comedic performances–but also endearing and a little disturbing. He’s still Massey’s partner in crime, even if he’s incredibly likable. There isn’t a weak performance in the film or even one less than stellar, but Lorre still stands out.

The rest of the supporting cast–Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as the two aunts are great–is all exceptional. Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those flawlessly casted films.

My wife had never seen the film before, which made the viewing even more entertaining. It’s least like the rest of Capra’s films of the period, but that dissimilarity somehow makes it more exciting to see from him. It’s as close to experimental as Capra ever got with his style. It might even be his most impressive work as a director; he’s essential to the film, which has such a strong script, it’s easy to think he could have gotten lost somewhere.

I’m hard pressed to identify my favorite part of the film. I love the sequences with Lane and Grant in the graveyard, but Grant’s long stretch of discovering what’s going on–where he’s the whole show–is fantastic too. But then there’s Lorre….

There’s just too many great things about Arsenic and Old Lace to narrow it down.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Josephine Hull (Aunt Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Aunt Martha Brewster), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), Peter Lorre (Dr. Herman Einstein), Priscilla Lane (Elaine Harper), John Alexander (Theodore Brewster), Jack Carson (Officer Patrick O’Hara), John Ridgely (Officer Saunders), Edward McNamara (Police Sgt. Brophy), James Gleason (Lt. Rooney), Grant Mitchell (Reverend Harper), Edward Everett Horton (Mr. Witherspoon), Vaughan Glaser (Judge Cullman), Chester Clute (Dr. Gilchrist), Edward McWade (Mr. Gibbs), Charles Lane (Reporter at Marriage License Office) and Garry Owen (Taxi Cab Driver).


M (1931, Fritz Lang)

I don’t think I’d ever realized M‘s technical importance. Lang creates quite a few filmmaking standards here, still in use today. Non-specific to genre, M features some brilliant off-screen dialogue work. It’s the earliest example (I’ve ever seen) of hearing a scene’s action while looking at something else. There’s also Lang’s approach to the sound. Lang uses the silence for the emphasis, shocking the viewer with loud noises every once in a while. There are, I’m sure, a few other ones, but those are most obvious.

Except for the genre specific norms. Watching M, one can see a lot of genre norms–the modern criminal investigation narrative, going back years, owes it all to me. There’s the suspect disappearing behind a moving car shot, but there’s also the detective who uncovers the long-hidden clue and has his eureka moment. Watching M is, at these moments, stunning. It’s seeing Lang create these familiar filmic mechanisms.

That use of sound, something I only mentioned in passing, is all the more amazing because of its place in film history. Talkies were very new when Lang made M and his masterful use of sound in film is something Hollywood wouldn’t begin to match for another ten years, until Welles and Citizen Kane.

But M isn’t just staggering because of its significance as a historical artifact. Lang and wife Thea von Harbou’s script is fantastic. The film’s without a central protagonist, just a handful of primary characters. There’s the police inspector, played by Otto Wernicke, and the criminal mastermind, played by Gustaf Gründgens, and then, of course, there’s Peter Lorre as the child murderer. Lorre appears early on, but isn’t really a big character until the second half.

The split of M is interesting. The film has a somewhat modern gimmick–the criminals go after the criminal the cops can’t catch. One could just see it as Ashton Kutcher’s breakout, “tough” role. Except the gimmick isn’t even a part of the film for the first hour. Instead, Lang concentrates on establishing the mood of a city in constant fear. He uses crane shots to both bring the city’s inhabitants together and to highlight their isolation. M is very much about the urban experience. But then he moves on to a lengthy review of the police’s attempts at solving the crime, followed, near the halfway mark, by the underworld getting involved.

The hunt for Lorre is split as well–there’s a lengthy break from it, as Wernicke questions one of Lorre’s pursuers.

Much of the film, in that first half, is exposition. But Lang opens the film with a measured sequence of a woman realizing her daughter is missing. This opening makes the second part, the lengthy exposition, involve and affect the viewer–it otherwise would not. The introduction to the underworld characters brings the human element back in and their decision to hunt Lorre keeps it in the rest of the film.

Only at the end, after M gives Lorre the chance to shine in a revolting role, do Lang and von Harbou stumble, bringing back the didacticism from their earlier efforts. But it’s too late for it to hurt M.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fritz Lang; written by Lang and Thea von Harbou; director of photography, Fritz Arno Wagner; edited by Paul Falkenberg; produced by Seymour Nebenzal; released by Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH.

Starring Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Ellen Widmann (Frau Beckmann), Inge Landgut (Elsie Beckmann), Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann), Theodor Loos (Inspector Groeber), Gustaf Gründgens (Schränker), Friedrich Gnaß (Franz, the burglar), Fritz Odemar (The cheater), Paul Kemp (Pickpocket with six watches), Theo Lingen (Bauernfänger), Rudolf Blümner (Beckert’s defender), Georg John (Blind panhandler), Franz Stein (Minister), Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur (Police chief), Gerhard Bienert (Criminal secretary), Karl Platen (Damowitz, night watchman), Rosa Valetti (Elisabeth Winkler, Beckert’s landlady) and Hertha von Walther (Prostitute).


Strange Cargo (1940, Frank Borzage)

A lot of Strange Cargo is really good. Borzage isn’t the most dynamic director, but every time he has a startlingly mediocre shot, he follows it with a good one in the next few minutes. The film’s got lengthy first act–thirty minutes–and then moves from confined location to confined location. The first act is the prison, the second moves through jungle and sailboat at sea, with the third mostly contained in a room. Borzage does the best–and the film’s at its best–during the jungle sequences, when it feels like a big Hollywood vehicle for Gable and Crawford, only with a wacky subplot juxtaposed.

The wacky subplot is Ian Hunter’s Christ figure, helping out this group of prison escapees. Why they’re so important–not Gable and Crawford, who I can understand, they’re big stars, I mean the supporting cast (Paul Lukas being the best known)–is never explained. As plot holes go, it’s not the biggest in Strange Cargo (or the smallest–for example, when Gable escapes, he hightails it out of the line. He’s missing in the count and Hunter shows up in his place… suggesting they two know each other, which would have been interesting–they do not, unfortunately), but a lot’s forgivable, since Strange Cargo, while definitely strange, is also a big Hollywood vehicle.

Gable and Crawford have great chemistry with their characters–he’s the con who won’t serve his relatively short remaining sentence quietly because he’s not going to be locked up and she’s the woman who’s ended up, through a long string of bad choices, in the High Seas, singing and dancing at a bar–and, during their jungle scenes, it feels right. Later, when they reveal their inevitable deep emotions for each other, their performances keep it going. The script’s not bad and is quite good in some places, but it’s not exactly discreet in its symbolism.

Some of the supporting cast–particularly Lukas and Peter Lorre–is good. Hunter is okay, nothing more. Albert Dekker and John Arledge are not good. Still, they’re not terrible.

Unfortunately, the second act builds toward the film being better and then the third act, practically a stage production, falters. The end, with the neon symbolism, is also problematic. But Gable and Crawford bring it through.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Borzage; screenplay by Lawrence Hazard, based on a novel by Richard Sale; director of photography, Robert H. Planck; edited by Robert Kern; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Borzage and Joseph L. Mankiewicz; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Joan Crawford (Julie), Clark Gable (André Verne), Ian Hunter (Cambreau), Peter Lorre (Pig), Paul Lukas (Hessler), Albert Dekker (Moll), J. Edward Bromberg (Flaubert), Eduardo Ciannelli (Telez), John Arledge (Dufond), Frederick Worlock (Grideau, the Prison Head), Bernard Nedell (Marfeu) and Victor Varconi (Fisherman).


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