Peter Lorre


June 26, 1904 - March 23, 1964

When I'm at the movies, I sometimes feel, at least at certain moments, a kind of timelessness. A divorce from time, a release from it, an easy way to lose track of it. Like an insomniac in a place where the sun never sets.

Last week when Andrew Sarris, revered American film critic, died I had the flu and fever clung to my skin. I woke from a nap and saw someone had placed one of Sarris's books near my pillow. About Sarris's passion for movies much has been said. It was a time, we were of a time all but devoured by film, the unobtainable imagined mystery; we were the loiterers who dwelt in hundreds of cities outside movie theaters, in coffee shops, taxis, even bed, radiating ideas about a scene, a performance, the light, the shadow, the line of a director's thought from one movie to another. I experienced that rapture like many others but it is long since that time when movies were central to my identity.

However beauty waits with gravity and that night when it was impossible to sleep I watched Fritz Lang's movie M.

M stars Peter Lorre, the great Austrian actor born in what today is called Slovakia. His face drove some of us wild, so thematic, so familiar and so strange. To glimpse his face brought to mind crowds at carnivals, forgotten ruins, figures under streetlights. The silken tones of his voice could frighten but also break your heart with its sadness. In M, Lorre plays a child molester, naturally vilified by the town he terrorizes. When he is caught and speaks, it is like Danton weeping at the guillotine. I used to know the speech by heart like a prayer, a hungry lost prayer that tears us apart, again and again.

Here is part of that speech.

I can't help what I do! I can't help it, I can't...what do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? ... But I... I can't help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment! ... It's there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It's me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it's impossible. I can't escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run... endless streets. I want to escape, to get away! And I'm pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers and of those children... they never leave me. They are always there... always, always, always!, except when I do it, when I... Then I can't remember anything. And afterwards I see those posters and read what I've done, and read, and read... did I do that? But I can't remember anything about it! But who will believe me? Who knows what it's like to be me? How I'm forced to act... how I must, must... don't want to, must! Don't want to, but must! And then a voice screams! I can't bear to hear it! I can't go on! I can't... I can't...

If you have not seen the movie or read Andrew Sarris, wait no longer.

—Annie Powell