With the possible exception of Edward G. Robinson, no actor has so often been the target of impressionists as the inimitable, Hungarian-born Peter Lorre. Leaving his family home at the age of 17, Lorre sought out work as an actor, toiling as a bank clerk during down periods. He went the starving-artist route in Switzerland and Austria before settling in Germany, where he became a favorite of playwright Bertolt Brecht. For most of his first seven years as a professional actor, Lorre employed his familiar repertoire of wide eyes, toothy grin, and nasal voice to invoke laughs rather than shudders. In fact, he was appearing in a stage comedy at the same time that he was filming his breakthrough picture M (1931), in which he was cast as a sniveling child murderer. When Hitler ascended to power in 1933, Lorre fled to Paris, and then to London, where he appeared in his first English-language film, Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Although the monolingual Lorre had to learn his lines phonetically for Hitchcock, he picked up English fairly rapidly, and, by 1935, was well equipped both vocally and psychologically to take on Hollywood. On the strength of M, Lorre was initially cast in roles calling for varying degrees of madness, such as the love-obsessed surgeon in Mad Love (1935) and the existentialist killer in Crime and Punishment (1935).
Signed to a 20th Century Fox contract in 1936, Lorre asked for and received a chance to play a good guy for a change. He starred in eight installments of the Mr. Moto series, playing an ever-polite (albeit well versed in karate) Japanese detective. When the series folded in 1939, Lorre freelanced in villainous roles at several studios. While under contract to Warner Bros., Lorre played effeminate thief Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941), launching an unofficial series of Warner films in which Lorre was teamed with his Falcon co-star Sidney Greenstreet. During this period, Lorre's co-workers either adored or reviled him for his wicked sense of humor and bizarre on-set behavior. As far as director Jean Negulesco was concerned, Lorre was the finest actor in Hollywood; Negulesco fought bitterly with the studio brass for permission to cast Lorre as the sympathetic leading man in The Mask of Dimitrios (1946), in which the diminutive actor gave one of his finest and subtlest performances. In 1951, Lorre briefly returned to Germany, where he directed and starred in the intriguing (if not wholly successful) postwar psychological drama The Lost One. The '50s were a particularly busy time for Lorre; he performed frequently on such live television anthologies as Climax; guested on comedy and variety shows; and continued to appear in character parts in films. He remained a popular commodity into the '60s, especially after co-starring with the likes of Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone in a series of tongue-in-cheek Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for filmmaker Roger Corman. Lorre's last film, completed just a few months before his fatal heart attack in 1964, was Jerry Lewis' The Patsy, in which, ironically, the dourly demonic Lorre played a director of comedy films.