Like the Laurel and Hardy of crime, the unlikely but popular duo of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre made an unofficial series of Warner Bros. films during the 1940s, often wartime thrillers in which they schemed with or against each other. As with the fat guy/ thin guy comedy teams of their time, Lorre and Greenstreet seemed to delight audiences in their contrast. Today they continue to fascinate cinephiles with their unique, often deliciously over-the-top character work.
Greenstreet specialized in well-dressed gentlemen who threatened in whispers. His obesity a representation of privilege and indulgence, Greenstreet was often referred to disparagingly as The Fat Man in his films. But more to the point he was The Man—capital "T," capital "M"—an embodiment of the bloated establishment. Greenstreet's characters—like Marvel Comics' villainous Kingpin, a creation inspired by the actor—captured a smug, colonialist attitude that was so very un-American and thus ripe for attack from such hard-nosed toughs as Humphrey Bogart and George Raft. Lorre, on the other hand, was The Foreigner: devious, slippery, bug-eyed, with a lisping Hungarian accent that stood in for French, Egyptian, Russian, Japanese—whatever outsider dialect the studio needed. Diminutive and effeminate, Lorre's persona played on WWII paranoia in America. His odd characters were inevitably weaker than the macho patriots in the lead, but they were still potentially dangerous in their deceitfulness. Despite differences in appearance and background, what Greenstreet and Lorre had in common was an ability to perfectly portray a certain kind of sweaty desperation that was never put to better use than in their first and perhaps best collaboration, The Maltese Falcon.
Born in Austria-Hungary, Lorre already had behind him a long pedigree of creepy character roles—as well as the B-movie Mr. Moto series—when he was cast as fey Joel Cairo in John Huston's adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett detective thriller. In Vienna and Berlin, Lorre had a more impressive history: as a stage performer and star of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening. But on film Lorre never overcame his seminal turn as the disturbing, but pathetically human, child murderer in Fritz Lang's classic M. Later a favorite in Alfred Hitchcock's stable (The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Secret Agent), Lorre was wooed by none other than Adolph Hitler—who appreciated the actor's depiction of murderers—to return to Germany in 1936 and take part in the burgeoning film industry there. Lorre wrote back: "Thank you, but I think Germany has room for only one mass murderer of my ability and yours." Apparently, the Führer never forgave the slight. During the war, when a Nazi saboteur was captured by the FBI, Lorre's name was third on his list of 100 people to be exterminated.
For Greenstreet, on the other hand, Falcon was his film debut—at the age of 62, no less. Like Lorre, Greenstreet was schooled on the stage, initially in England and later on Broadway and in touring productions of Shakespeare, often with the Lunts. He enjoyed a healthy career of Sir Toby Belches, Baptistas, and Falstaffs, and probably would have finished out his career this way had he not been spotted by Falcon's director Huston in a production of Robert E. Sherwood's There Shall Be No Night. Like Lorre's turn in M, Greenstreet's performance as Casper Gutman in Falcon made such an impression on audiences that he rarely got a chance, in his brief career, to play anything far afield, despite insisting that light farce was his true love.
In Falcon, Greenstreet's voice is like melted butter as he throws away such classic lines as "I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk." Greenstreet fills the screen with his imposing girth, and though his face collapses weakly into his soft neck, his eyes are as hawkish and piercing as the black bird he seeks. Lorre, meanwhile, was never more flowery than in this film, with his hair curled and oiled and his delivery, as the perfumed Cairo, by turns amusingly clipped and shrilly panicked. In the penultimate scene, Greenstreet hacks at the fake falcon with a tiny penknife, the perspiration dripping from his sad little boy's face as the tiny Lorre attacks him, eyes blazing: "You—you imbecile! You bloated idiot! You stupid fathead, you!" It's a grotesque but delightful scene: Greenstreet and Lorre like anthropomorphisms of the deadly sins avarice and anger.
The film, of course, was a huge hit. And once Lorre and Greenstreet showed up as similar characters a year later in another classic, Casablanca—Greenstreet as Rick's envious colleague Signor Ferrari and Lorre as the murderous black-marketeer Ugarte—their fates were sealed.
Before Greenstreet's death in 1949, the duo appeared in no fewer than nine films together. They include the rather dull spy thriller Background to Danger (1943), made bearable only by Lorre's bizarre mantra as Russian spy Zaloshoff, "I want vodka!"; Hollywood Canteen (1944), playing themselves among the Warner cavalcade of stars, and threatening a too-eager soldier who keeps stepping on an Andrew Sister's toes; Passage to Marseille (1944), a re-teaming with Bogart, which starred Greenstreet as a Nazi-sympathizing French major and Lorre as a good-hearted pickpocket, as well as The Conspirators (1944), Three Strangers (1946), and The Verdict (1946).
Perhaps their finest pairing outside of Falcon, however, was in the 1944 mystery The Mask of Dimitrios, with Lorre strangely enough in the lead, as a novelist investigating the death of an infamous criminal, and Greenstreet as a shady man who stands to gain from proving the crook is still alive. At the end of the film, as the wounded Greenstreet is taken away by authorities for his crimes, Lorre pleads: "I know he is guilty, but he is my friend." It's an oddly touching scene and a proper epitaph to one of the strangest duos to ever hit the silver screen.