By Karen Burroughs Hannsberry
From Peter Lorre’s breakout performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1930) to his appearances in films of the horror genre in the 1960s, his very name has evoked a vision of danger, anxiety, and fear.
Lorre’s role in Quicksand (1950) does nothing to disabuse this image.
This 79-minute feature centers on auto mechanic Dan Brady (Mickey Rooney), whose eye for the ladies nearly becomes his undoing. After he sets his sights on Vera Novak (Jeanne Cagney – James’s big sister), the “gorgeous creature” who works at the local diner, Dan finds that he’s lacking the funds to take her out on the town. And his decision to take 20 bucks from the till at his job is exactly the wrong thing to do – it kicks off a domino effect that puts Dan in Dutch with a jewelry store owner, his boss, the cops, and a penny arcade proprietor by the name of Nick Dramoshag (Peter Lorre).
Planning to use his pilfered cash to take Vera to see a dance band – Red Nichols and his Five Pennies (an actual band, by the way) – at the Santa Monica Pier, Dan is disappointed to learn that the club is closed on the night of the date. He lets Vera choose their alternative date spot, which turns out to be the nearby Joyland arcade, and that’s where we first meet Lorre’s Nick; we’re introduced to him when he chases out a couple of young boys running through the establishment: “I’ll save you all the trouble of growing up!” he threatens.
We soon learn that Vera used to work at the arcade – and that she was obviously more to Nick than just the gal who makes change for the customers. We’re given two clues that lead to this conclusion: (1) the brief but familiar shoulder caress Nick gives Vera, and (2) Nick’s fury when he catches Dan and Vera necking inside the photo booth. But Dan and Vera’s abrupt exit from the arcade isn’t the last time we’ll see Nick, who is a crucial cog in the machine that drives Dan’s downward spiral. When Nick stumbles upon information that implicates Dan in a stick-up, he doesn’t hesitate to employ the use of blackmail: “You better come and see me or else. Or else something is going to happen. To you. To you, Danny boy,” Nick tells him with matter-of-fact menace. “I’m a businessman. I think I can do business with you very nice. . . . You get me a new car and I don’t know nothing. Just nothing.”
Nick is not your garden-variety, one-dimensional character. First off, he’s simply not the most likable fella in the world (perhaps due in part, and unfairly, to his appearance) – the only time we see him smile is when he’s got Dan over a barrel. Other than this, he displays a petulant, get-off-my-lawn kind of personality that makes you wonder how he wound up running an establishment that’s meant for fun. But he also invokes a bit of sympathy, too; when he’s bedeviled by the scamps in the arcade and later, when Dan literally pushes him around, we can imagine Nick as a boy, being picked on by the neighborhood bully. We also feel pity for him because his yearning for Vera is so transparent and she treats him with such contempt. And yet another aspect of Nick’s personality emerges when he realizes that Dan was involved in the robbery and confronts him with a self-assurance buoyed by snark and disdain. Although we certainly agonize with Dan throughout the film as he makes one misguided decision after another, we can’t help but cheer for Nick when he gets the upper hand. He seems to get such a kick out of his extortion scheme – and we don’t blame him a bit. It’s rather a treat to see.
Including Quicksand, Peter Lorre appeared in no fewer than seven films noirs, including the one that’s often considered to be the first of the noir era, The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), and his best-known, The Maltese Falcon (1941). He played a wide range of divergent characters in these films, from a murderer to a detective writer, all with personas that contrasted starkly with Nick’s, except one: Mr. Marko in Black Angel (1946), released four years before Quicksand. In that feature, Lorre played the owner of a swanky nightclub; like Nick, the chain-smoking Mr. Marko possessed a wry sense of humor and had an unmistakable attraction to blondes. He was also intelligent and wily – and didn’t like being underestimated (“What do you take me for, a sucker?” Mr. Marko asks in one scene. It’s akin to Nick’s declaration to Dan in Quicksand, when he tells him, “I don’t like being pushed around” – right before he pulls a switchblade knife on him.) Mr. Marko was more refined and doubtlessly more successful than Nick, but he’s the kind of guy that Nick might’ve been if he’d been able to catch a break.
Quicksand was Lorre’s last entry in the noir canon, but the film very nearly didn’t get made – or, at the very least, was almost a very different film. It was slated to be the first of a three-picture collaboration between Lorre and Mickey Rooney, who co-financed the production. In February 1949, Rooney tried to pull out of the project; his manager, Sam Stiefel – who was also the film’s producer – insisted that Rooney fulfill his contract but, ultimately, Quicksand was the only film under the Lorre-Rooney agreement that would be made. Before filming got underway, articles in The Hollywood Reporter stated that Fritz Lang was being considered to direct the film, and that negotiations were underway with MGM for the loan of Rooney’s ex-wife Ava Gardner to co-star. Ultimately, the role Gardner was being considered for was played by Jeanne Cagney and the picture was helmed by Harvard-educated, actor-turned-director Irving Pichel, who had previously directed the 1947 noir, They Won’t Believe Me, starring Robert Young, Susan Hayward, and Jane Greer.
Although Lorre only appeared in a handful of scenes in Quicksand, his performance was singled out by several critics, including the reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, who labeled him “duly sinister”; The Hollywood Reporter’s critic, who wrote that he was “up to his usual sinister tricks”; and Dar Smith of the Hollywood Citizen-News, who said that “Peter Lorre, Taylor Holmes and Art Smith have meaty roles and they romp through them, chomping all the way.” Similarly, Lorre’s co-star Jeanne Cagney, had nothing but praise for the actor, telling Lorre biographer Stephen Youngkin that whatever the actor tackled, “he did with all his might. Even though the picture was not a top-drawer film, he still approached it as if it were the “A” picture of all “A” pictures. The thing that really tickled me about Peter was the marvelous sense of humor and really dingy gaiety. I did not expect it. . . . He seemed very much younger when you met him, very much jollier, and quick on the uptake.”
No matter the budget of the film, or the size of Lorre’s role, he was nothing if not memorable, as he well demonstrated in Quicksand.
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Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of two books on film noir, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. She is also the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages film noir newsletter, founded in 2004. She can be found on Twitter at @thedarkpages.