Tuesday, December 15

Character Actors: Lorre & Greenstreet

They made a whopping 10 films together and that ought to qualify them as a screen team.  Two of those films are world-famous and in the spirit of all good character actors, they gave their films... well, some character.  Both were certified oddballs which made them most recognizable to the public.  When one became aware of their presences in a movie, one knew what to expect.  We could always count on Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet to deliver the goods.

They were quite different from one another... their backgrounds have little in common.  Physically they couldn't have been more opposite except to say that both were creepy.  Lorre was a wormy little fellow.  He had big eyes and a bit of a lisp and there was something slippery about him.  His slow, methodical demeanor did not betray the feeling that he could spring at you at any moment.  Migawd, I just realized with some of that I could be describing a frog.  He was clearly not trustworthy.  He always seemed foreign... I would assume to everyone.  Whatever you are, he's something else and if you're not always sure what he is, you know it's unsettling.  His villains often had the need to explain themselves and you quietly observed how unreasonable and disjointed he was.  You sensed that if you turned away for only a second, when you turned back to look at him, he would be brandishing a knife.  I adored him as a character actor because he just bloody creeped me out.

If Sydney Greenstreet could be here today to stare at you like he did, broodingly quiet, one might say... what?  But in his day, one didn't dare say a word.  His face would get all puffed up... like a heart attack was imminent or he could be quiet and contained but the effect was the same.  One trembled, maybe soiled the undergarments.  He was a gargantuan man with itty bitty black eyes that pierced your soul.  Most of his characters asked questions for which he already knew the answers.  Others in the scene looked around for a speedy exit.  One felt a bit of safety knowing one could probably outrun him but then, like Lorre, there was that knife or gun inside his suit jacket.  His characters could get so angry and he frightened me when I was a kid.

Warner Bros hired them both and then happily sat back and watched them add so much to their films.  In an industry whose mantra is let's do it again, they teamed them over and over.  Sometimes they were enemies and when they partnered, it was always apparent who was in charge.  One could count on Greenstreet's characters having a haughty demeanor that alerted one that he came from privilege.  He looked down on everyone.  Even if his characters would eventually be taken down, they never lost their imperiousness.

Lorre's characters were rarely in charge.  They usually didn't see the big picture, nor were they team players, usually didn't have the smarts.  His characters were basically whiny cowards who caved as much as they pulled knives.  I once confused Peter Lorre with Truman Capote... I suppose it was the diminutive stature and effeminacy (Lorre a bit, Capote full-loaded) and of course those voices.  Lorre was often Greenstreet's right-hand man.  One gave the orders, the other took them.  They had deceit and menace in common.  They were the Laurel and Hardy of drama and a perfect fit for crime movies and film noir.

Their best film was their first together, 1941s The Maltese Falcon.  It was Lorre's 39th film and Greenstreet's first.  First-time director John Huston turned the film into first-class noir.  It concerns several shady characters out to do just about anything they can to obtain a jewel-encrusted bird statuette and it stars Humphrey Bogart as a detective who wants to know why.  Lorre went all gay as a curlytop psycho who is fussy, fussy, fussy and has perfumed business cards.  Greenstreet's character was called Fat Man who came with a hideous laugh and a sinister aura and has a young boy thug (expertly realized by another creepy character actor, Elisha Cook Jr) with whom he appears to be very close.

At one other's throats in The Maltese Falcon

Their best scene together was surely one in which Lorre incredulously watches Greenstreet using a knife to carve away at the black bird and angrily bellows out you imbecile, you bloated idiot, you stupid fathead.  It wasn't every film he got away with that.

Peter Lorre was born in 1904 Hungary.  He was the eldest of three sons of a Jewish Army reserve father.  His mother died when he was young and he was grateful that his earliest school years were in Austria because he did not get along with his new stepmother.  Peter rejoined the family when they all moved to Vienna.  But at 17 he ran away from home and worked as a bank clerk while beginning acting with an improvisational theater.  He credited the group with teaching him everything he'd ever need to know as a stage actor.

He began getting stage work all over Austria with forays into Germany and Switzerland.  He would gravitate to film work in Europe but flew under the radar until director Fritz Lang hired him to play a child killer in M (1931).  I didn't see this film until sometime in the 70s. I must say I found it to be one of the most hypnotic performances I have ever seen.

He left Germany in 1933 to avoid Hitler, first going to Paris and then to London where Alfred Hitchcock hired him for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).   He played an assassin who kidnaps a child.  He married character actress Celia Lovsky in 1934 and the following year they came to the States.  He immediately went into Crime and Punishment in the lead role.  He worked steadily all through the 30s, particularly in the title role in the Mr Moto series of films about a Japanese detective.  Then came The Maltese Falcon.

Greenstreet was born in 1879 England, one of eight children of a leather merchant.  At age 18 he left for Ceylon with high hopes of becoming a tea merchant but drought quickly changed his mind.  Back in England he managed a brewery which didn't much hold his interest so he began acting lessons.  His first play dealt with Sherlock Holmes and shortly he was in one play after another, both in England and on Broadway, often appearing in Shakespeare works.  In 1918 he married and the union would last until his death.
Huston discovered the 62-year old, 300-pound actor and signed him for Falcon.  It seems astonishing that any rather prominent actor begins a movie career at that age but he not only did so but there's not a film he made, with or without Lorre, that one is not mesmerized by his hulking presence.

The two are likely as memorable as they are due to their participation in Casablanca (1942).  Hasn't the entire world seen that one?  Greenstreet played a devious nightclub owner who competed with Rick's Cafe and Lorre was a murderous black market thug.  Both were exceptional, although so was the entire cast.  Their briefest roles, also in 1942, were as restaurant patrons in the Bette Davis-Olivia de Havilland film, In This Our Life. The following year they both joined Background to Danger, a George Raft war film that didn't fare so well.  In 1944 Greenstreet played a Nazi-sympathizing French colonel and Lorre a pickpocket as they joined Bogart again for Passage to Marseilles, an attempt to duplicate the success of Casablanca, but the confusing mess fell woefully short.

The same year came The Mask of Dimitrios, a good film noir with Greenstreet top-billed.  It was a shining example of what he and Lorre could do when a director gave them a wide berth.  Lorre portrayed a mystery writer who becomes consumed to learn about the life of a criminal whose body has washed up on the shore.  He sets out across Europe to find out more about the man and along the way is joined by a shady man (Greenstreet) who doesn't believe the man is dead.  Zachary Scott (as the title character) and Faye Emerson (who often appeared in WB noirs) add much allure.

The Conspirators (1944), about a Dutch resistance group during the war (Lorre and Greenstreet were both good as part of the group) suffered because Paul Henreid was a blah leading man and Hedy Lamarr shows her acting skills ran hot and cold (cold here).  The boys, along with many other WB players, spoofed their images in cameo roles in Hollywood Canteen (1944). 

Three Strangers (1946) concerned a trio of oddballs who share a sweepstakes ticket.  Lorre had a rare (very rare) romantic role.  Greenstreet, trying to cover up a crime he committed, was rather shameless in his overacting although I still found him utterly watchable.  The same year they appeared in their final film together, The Verdict, in which Greenstreet, as a discredited Scotland Yard superintendent and Lorre as an oddball artist, team up to investigate the vicious murder of a neighbor.

Other memorable Greenstreet appearances were as murderer Bogart's suspicious doctor in Conflict (1945), as writer Barbara Stanwyck's tough publisher in the 1945 comedy, Christmas in Connecticut, as a difficult advertising client in The Hucksters (1947), a cunning count in The Woman in White (1948), as a mysterious police captain in The  Velvet Touch (1948) and an unsavory sheriff harassing Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road (1949).

Greenstreet would make just 25 films, all of them in the 40s.  He died in 1954 at age 74 in Hollywood of complications from diabetes and Bright's Disease.

Lorre's first entry into the horror film genre was also his last film under his WB contract, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946).  Casbah (1948) melded together two genres, crime and musical, and Lorre was featured as a detective determined to root out thieves.

He reteamed with Bogart for the last time in the most unfortunate, Beat the Devil (1953).  Despite a cast that included Gina Lollobrigida and Jennifer Jones, I find this tale of swindlers in Europe to be one of the worst movies ever made.  His visibility increased after appearing in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with James Mason and Kirk Douglas.  Lorre's role as a naturalist's worry-wart servant was pitch perfect.  He was amusing
as a Russian agent in the Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse-starrer, Silk Stockings (1957).  He could be found among the all-star casts of Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Big Circus (1959), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962).

In the 50s and continuing throughout the rest of his life, Lorre did a great deal of television.  Toward the end he also made a few horror films.  Both are examples of a fading career.  Lorre had suffered from gallbladder problems for years and took morphine to relieve the pain and then became addicted to the drug.  In his later years he gained over 100 pounds which brought on serious career problems. 

Peter Lorre died in Los Angeles in 1964 of a stroke at age 59.

Casablanca is surely the best film Lorre and Greenstreet made together but it didn't showcase them as well as two others, The Maltese Falcon and The Mask of Demetrius.  Watch them for the first time or catch them again to see two old pros weave their magic.

Next posting:
Movie review

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