My first introduction to Peter Lorre was during a Film Studies course at university. Amongst a long list of films for 'recommended viewing' (I.E. Obligatory) was M, a 1931 German crime thriller, directed by Fritz Lang. M was Lang's first sound film, and told the story of a serial killer abducting young girls.
For the first half of the film you never see the murderer, but when he finally did appear on screen, I couldn't help but feel unsettled. It was the face of Peter Lorre: chubby face, bulging eyes, an expression of innocence. He was shy, child-like, and pitiable. I was forced to feel sympathy for him - and then disgust at myself. He may be timid, but he is also a murderer, luring young girls to their doom with sweets, balloons, and toys. Lorre's subtle expressions and movements made his character very creepy and sinister.
Peter Lorre was born in Austro-Hungry in 1904, but moved with his family to Vienna in 1913 to escape the Second Balkan War. Unfortunately, little did they know that The First World War was going to begin one year later. At the age of ten, Lorre served on the Eastern Front between 1914-15, before being put in charge of a prison camp due to heart trouble.
Lorre began acting on stage at 17 and moved to Berlin in the late 1920s, where he was discovered by actor Fritz Lang, who cast him as the serial killer in M. When the Nazis came into power, however, Lorre moved once again, first to Paris, and then to London. His performance as the child murderer impressed director Alfred Hitchcock, who decided to cast Lorre as an assassin in Secret Agent (1936), which firmly established the actor as 'the villain'.
Lorre eventually moved to Hollywood, where he remained for the rest of his life. It was here that he performed alongside stars such as Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca.
Fifty years after his death, The BFI Southbank is dedicating a season of film screenings to the typecast villain, who was capable of so much more. Running until the 7th October, tickets cost between £6 - £11.50.