It has been a damn fine year for fans of everyone's favorite morphine addict ... Peter Lorre. What's that!? Peter Lorre was addicted to morphine!? Yes. For decades!? Yes. Even during all his turns as a white guy pretending to be Asian!? Yes.
Well, it's like I was saying, its been a fine year for Peter Lorre fans especially those like myself who knew nothing of his drug addiction. This information comes from just one of many exciting Peter Lorre related releases of this past year, Stephen Youngkin's comprehensive biography of Mr. Moto himself, titled The Lost One (it actually came out at the tail end of 2005). The book sheds new light on fascinating and scandalous incidents in the life of Lorre the likes of which would've made Kenneth Anger soil his pants. From Lorre's agonizingly long bout with morphine (he was under the influence of the narcotic for the overwhelming majority of the films he appeared in, including his two most famous - Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon), to his close friendship with defiant left wing bohemian Bertolt Brecht, as well as anecdotes of his unbearable halitosis which plagued him throughout the nineteen thirties until 20th Century Fox paid to have his teeth fixed, the book is chalk full of goodness. The biography is in fact so full of said juiciness, it begs to be turned into a trash film ala Mommie Dearest (1981) perhaps by the likes of a John Waters. Who could possibly play a convincing Lorre? Michael J. Anderson has my vote.
Along with the book, four of the eight pictures in which Peter played the master Japanese sleuth Mr. Moto were finally given legitimate DVD release (a pair of Charlie Chan boxsets were also put out by Fox in the past few months). The films prove how a movie can be incredibly racist and yet remain very enjoyable - how this is achieved I still have no idea. The "yellowface" pictures of the nineteen thirties and forties, particularly the reoccurring series of Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan, and Mr. Wong (with Boris Karloff), were predecessors in mood and style to the film noir genre that would become such a sensation for film scholars decades later. The violence, the darkness, and that sinister fog all appeared first in these culturally fucked up films in which white people starred as Asian characters (and yet actual Asian actors would often appear as their children!). It's quite a treat to watch Peter Lorre in what have essentially been, understandably, taboo pictures for several years now. Capping off the DVD Lorre releases this year was the Boris Karloff Icon of Horror Collection which featured a previously unreleased-to-home-video pic called The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) with the dream line-up of Karloff, Lorre, and boxer turned actor turned tragic Bukowski-esque boarding house tenant 'Slapsie Maxie' Rosenbloom. I haven't actually seen the movie yet but one IMDB user describes it as "Patriotic Horror Nonsense," so from that we can only assume ... it is amazing.
Turner Classic Movies, a television channel that if you don't have access to in your area you should either move somewhere that does or simply kill yourself, showed several hard to find Lorre pictures this past year and at least one that has never been released on VHS or DVD. Firstly, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) has the easiest sell for a night of film viewing imaginable. Peter Lorre ... versus a disembodied hand. Nuff said ... definitely not enough seen. Who couldn't watch such a scenario on a loop for the rest of their life? The picture was released on VHS only once back in the early nineties despite its obvious DVD appeal.
Secondly, The Face Behind the Mask (1941) is a classic example of the actor at his hyperventilating best (Youngkin's book reveals his absolute contempt for its trivial "horror" subject matter), in which he oscillates between the extremes of sweet n' cute to fullbore insane. I don't think i'm giving anything away by explaining that the movie features Lorre having his face burned off in a fire ala Merrill Womach. He does not take up a career as a gospel singer however.
Thirdly, and best of all, was TCM's two showings of You'll Find Out (1940). Despite the insipidly dull title (and despite the comment of the Leonard Maltin guide and its many copycats) the film is an eighty minute black and white orgasm for fans of anything haunted house related. The plot consists of once massively popular bandleader Kay Kyser and his novelty orchestra (like Spike Jones and his City Slickers except nowhere near as funny) having motor trouble with their tour van and having to take refuge in a spooky house on a rainy night. Turns out the home is inhabited by a Boris Karloff butler, a chain-smoking Lorre, and Bela Lugosi sporting a swami's hat. Further elaboration would seemingly be unnecessary as this sounds pretty fantastic as is, but wait, there's more. The film features what was at that time a new invention: The Sonovox. This device is first used by Bela Lugosi, secretly haunting the house from the depths of the basement. The Sonovox used a similar theory to that of the tool used by smokers who lose their voice and must talk through the use of amplifying the vibration of their throat. The Sonovox produces a nearly satanic sound when used by Lugosi producing the film's creepiest moments. Once all is said and done, and our heroes win out in the end, Kyser's orchestra uses the Sonovox to create some swingingly eerie effects in the film's closing big band number. In the 40's this effect was used most famously in a series of radio commercials for Lifebuoy brand soaps. The Sonovoxed voice in their ads would terrifyingly announce "BEEE-OHHHH!" As in, "Say friends, do you know someone who suffers from ... BEEE-OHHHH!" This campaign was so well known at the time that it was made fun of in both Bob Clampett cartoons and the routines of the aforementioned Spike Jones group.
2006 - a good year for Peter Lorre fans.