Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Peter Lorre in "M" (1931)

Scene from M
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Peter Lorre
Film: M (1931)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Actor Category (1931):
- Lionel Barrymore  (A Free Soul) *Winner
- Jackie Cooper (Skippy)
- Richard Dix (Cimarron)
- Fredric March (The Royal Family of Broadway)
- Adolphe Menjou (The Front Page)

When I first conceived of The Runner-Ups as a regular column, Peter Lorre was always on the tip of my tongue. It is probably a popular opinion held by most fans of the Golden Age of Hollywood that if an actor has any redeeming legacy, they had an Oscar nomination at some point. After all, John Wayne had three, and even the short career of James Dean had two to his credit. As much as The Oscars likely receive flack in modern times, there's something prestigious about judging classic cinema by this standard. It is why The Oscars hold any importance today. People want to win the award that once went to Katharine Hepburn or Gone With the Wind. They believe it symbolizes something greater. So to see an iconic actor without a nomination almost seems criminal.

That is where Lorre comes in. If you are unfamiliar with him, you probably recognize his face - or even just his voice. The Austria-Hungarian-born actor has a distinct high pitched yet seductive voice that is likely often mistaken for horror characters due to it being a tad sinister. However, he was usually in far more compelling films than Frankenstein knock-offs. He was in dramas like Crime and Punishment as well as the ongoing Mr. Moto series. He was a legitimate actor, and one who fit into the corner of the screen so well that you often didn't notice him. He is one of the quintessential character actors who could back up the supporting role with charisma and nuance. 

In fact, you've likely seen him before - even if your only exposure to classic cinema is through Best Picture nominations and winners. On his credentials is a mix of films that include Around the World in Eighty Days, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca. The latter two are arguably among the most influential noir films ever released. They owe a lot of credit to Lorre. Think of The Maltese Falcon without Lorre's Joel Cairo intimidating Humphrey Bogart over the titular object. There's something to his cadence and his rhythm that in lesser hands would be cornball. Instead, there's an assurance that escapes novelty. Like Steve Buscemi decades later, he was physically singular - and that went a long way towards getting him a great career and a legacy that's unfortunately sometimes buried underneath the parodies.

It would be easy to pick any of his more high profile films for The Runner-Ups, but it does feel opportune to discuss one of his earliest films. This was in 1931, and back before he migrated to America. I am talking about director Fritz Lang's M, which pits Lorre as Hans Beckert: a man accused of being a child murderer. It does help that Lang's career is itself a fascinating one, even going back to the highly influential sci-fi epic Metropolis before MBetter than most directors, Lang was capable of mixing melancholic images with phenomenal direction that, thanks to his early days in silent films, allowed scenes to play out quietly while letting the visuals display key points. This is very clear in M, especially when Hans is seen abducting children. The murder is never seen, but the camera insinuates it through small nuances such as a balloon flying away. Lang was so good that he also was requested by Josef Goebbels to do propaganda movies for The Nazis. He later fled the country and many years later made the Nazi-killing drama Man Hunt, likely as his own fantastical attack on the group. Comparatively, Lorre would be working with Hitchcock three years later on The Man Who Knew Too Little (the original).

But there is something immediate and kinetic about M that reflected Lorre's gifts at an early stage of his career. With only three films under his belt, M was the breakout film that saw him basically serve as a pariah that in modern film would make him typecast as the creepy pervert. With a parallel story in which an organization wishes to capture him, the story is a traditional cat and mouse story. The only thing is that the cat is arguably one of the most sympathetic child murderers put to film. He is brandished by society with an "M" and forced to flee, hiding in the shadows, to avoid capture. Lang's direction allows for many sequences to be done without any dialogue and Lorre hiding somewhere within the frame. It's a mystery unto itself, and one that makes us worried for his capture.

This generally captures the magnificence of Lang's direction as well as part of Lorre's charm. Considering that talkies were still relatively new, it's impressive how Lang balanced the budding styles. We still have traces of Lorre embodying Hans with nothing more than a stare and a quick pace. The way that he is shot, hiding from uncertain doom is especially effective. Considering how well he is known for his vocal cadence, it's surprising that this is one of his best films for a different reason. It's a physical performance that requires him to be both an outlaw and yet break down into one of the most surprisingly effective monologues in the third act where he pleas for other criminals to let him have some dignity.

Despite having a great career afterwards, there's little that compares to this scene from M for Lorre. It is a well written scene in which he attempts to justify his actions by suggesting that he has to murder, whereas everyone else can learn actual traits. Much like Haxan over a decade prior, it is one of the few bold early depictions of taboos that suggests that mental illness is a factor and that maybe they deserve some treatment. Considering that M was filmed in 1931, it makes the film all the more impressive. Maybe it's a little icky from a subject matter, but it hits all of the bars for an amazing performance, as well as one that could easily jump start a career. Lorre's more popular work may share a certain dourness, but it rarely got as dark as it did here.

You don't forget M once you've seen it. You'll have a desire to see more from Lorre and Lang. It likely makes sense why he was relegated to Hollywood film noir once he made a name for himself. He was good at playing the corrupt figures who were possibly too confident for their own good. He had the face that made the audience buy into it. However, he likely fell into the trap that most character actors of the day did. He was good, but he was not prominent enough to get credit. Yes, he had a major role in Casablanca, but he's secondary to quite a few faces. With limited exceptions, that's a curse to being an actor with charisma but not the box office draw. It is likely why he kept popping up in cameos for most of his careers. He was well known, but not good enough for The Academy. The fact that he was in two Best Picture winners a decade apart also makes the matters more confusing.

It is always hard for an actor to get any credit, and it makes total sense why The Academy ignored M. For starters, the subject matter was too dark and the four-year-old organization didn't have much of a reputation beyond voting for its own group. Foreign films would take awhile to make it into the acting nomination circles. Even then, there's no denying that if The Oscars were what they are today, Lorre might have stood more of a chance. After all, Stanley Tucci received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Lovely Bones for almost the same role conceptually (though far less interesting). The fact is that one could easily go down the line of other more noteworthy roles now and wonder why he didn't make the cut at any point. On IMDb, he has "2 wins & 1 nomination" to his credit, and none were American awards based. Even the fact that he doesn't (and likely never will due to precedent) have an Honorary Oscar is a disappointment. 

Still, his work is the stuff of wonders and I wouldn't like the history of cinema without him. In a time where we're bickering over Leonardo DiCaprio not winning an Oscar, I felt the need to honor those whose iconic and impressive careers were even absent of nominations. While this is the first of what I hope will be a rich and exciting exploration of cinema, I have already technically covered two people. Lorre was the main focus and a figure I probably will revisit again at some point. However, Fritz Lang is arguably just as disappointing an absence due to his amazing direction and camera work on a regular basis. I don't know which film I will choose for him, but I know that there's hundreds of Runner-Ups to choose from. The only question is why one I will choose next. 

I promise to you that they're not all going to be from Classic Hollywood. I am planning on including more contemporary voices as well. My one hope is to cover recent talents that are at least "established" as artists and thus have a backbone in regards to why they were not considered. Still, this column is going to be a work in progress as I figure out the rules and regulations. Still, I think that it's important to recognize the diverse talent pool and realize that there's more out there in cinema than what's been nominated. 

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