When I was a child, I waited all week to watch Mission: Impossible on television on Sunday night.
If I behaved, and finished my homework, my reward was to watch this clever group of spies solve complex mysteries. At the center was an actor who reinvented himself each week with a new disguise to outsmart security threats. Years later, I still remember how clever Martin Landau could be.
This prolific actor, who steadily worked for more than 60 years in movies, theater and television, made reinvention a way of art. Never did we accuse Landau of “playing himself”. Nor did we actually know who he was behind the roles he played. This actor’s actor never stopped redefining his work.
Here’s a look at the best of Landau to honor his death on July 18.
North by Northwest (1959)
Film scholars love to imagine what Landau was thinking when he created the role of Leonard, a most committed right hand to villain James Mason.
Was the character simply devoted to his boss? Or did he carry illusions of romance that guided each clandestine step? The layers in Landau’s portrayal give moviegoers a lot to discuss and enjoy.
Just look into his eyes. They pierce through the surface. Or listen to his voice. The subtle shadings prompt multiple interpretations. This is not a conventional take on a criminal groupie. Leonard is a complex man who isn’t sure how to support his boss or, perhaps, why that support matters so much.
Just the fact we can find Landau in this epic says a lot about his talent.
And while Rufio may not be the showiest role he played, it represents how Landau made a living making one-dimensional roles look and sound interesting. Yes, he plays a standard order character from the Roman epics that Hollywood savored in the 1960s. And he stands around a lot and utters some rather banal dialogue.
But unlike actors who can lost in crowds, Landau’s presence is so riveting that we follow his every move. And in a movie overwhelmed by the off-screen romance of stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, he offers something to remember.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
It was, as if, he came back from the dead.
After years of television work, Landau recaptured our fascination with his superlative Abe Karatz in this well-intentioned biography from Francis Ford Coppola. It’s a dream of a role and a gem of a portrayal that deservedly brought Landau an Oscar nomination.
Karatz is a key player in this tale of pursuing automotive glory. He is rough, driven, frightening. He wants to care but can’t find the words, longs to support but won’t find the time. The performance gives the film a foundation of authenticity to make the hero’s outrageous dreams all the more tragic.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Writer and director Woody Allen could not find an actor who understood the role of Judah in this complicated tale of love, romance and murder. Until he found Martin Landau.
Suddenly everything the creator hoped for the role came true as Landau seized the character’s idiosyncrasies to develop a fascinating look at a man who considers philandering a daily routine.
Landau makes us shiver as we consider what he thinks and wonder if he will follow through on his intentions. Yes, he walks away with the film. And he should have walked away with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Ed Wood (1994)
Just when it looked like Landau would never win an Oscar he met Bela Lugosi.
Playing any real-life character is a challenge for an actor who must balance what people expect with what the script demands. And when the character is an actor, with countless film credits, the challenge can be daunting.
But Landau nails it.
He brings all of his discipline from his studies at the Actor’s Studio to create an outrageous look at a misunderstood actor who hid behind the image he projected. The performance is raw, real and riveting. And, finally, Landau became an Oscar winner.
No matter the size of the role, or depth of the story, Landau reminded us of the authenticity of his craft. He repeatedly stripped off a character’s mask to connect with the inside. And then he rebuilt the character around how own strengths.
The result was pure magic, movie after movie.
Rest in peace, Martin Landau.
North by Northwest: Martin Landau at his best
by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
As we honor the work of Martin Landau, we revisit this classic thriller from director Alfred Hitchcock. Although the actor’s role may be small, we remember every move he makes and nuance he suggests.
The film, starring Cary Grant, celebrates the consequences of mistaken identity.
Playing chase can be fun but, as Grant’s Roger Thornhill learns, cat and mouse can get old if, in every turn, you are always “it”.
That’s what happens when he is mistakenly identified as a secret agent in this appetizing adventure from director Alfred Hitchcock. This cinema concoction finds every way to have fun even when the chase turns serious and the hero is less than amused.
And making today even more challenging for Thornhill are the sinister surprises originating in the complex mind of a man who only knows to serve the employer he idolizes. And, in the hands of Martin Landau, this character of Leonard becomes a fascinating study of the steep emotional commitment some employees choose to make to please an employer. Or to get that employer’s attention.
And all this makes life challenging for Thornhill, an advertising man on Madison Avenue whose idea of adventure is happy hour at his favorite watering hole. But the bad guys believe, incorrectly, that he is a secret agent they are supposed to knock off. So they start to chase Thornhill to a mansion on Long Island, the United Nations in New York City, aboard a train to Chicago and, finally, to the Black Hills of South Dakota. In the movies, showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time is never a good thing, especially in a film directed by the grand master of thrills. And Thornhill simply can’t escape an adventure he never asked for.
North by Northwest serves its delicious delights in a fantasy world that only this master chef could create. No one but Hitchcock would dare to place his hero in an art gallery where those in pursuit have no intention of letting him go free, or landing him, in the finale, on the face of Mount Rushmore in recently polished dress shoes. In every scene, Hitchcock creates the least likely setting for this unlikely target to try to escape. And all the ways Thornhill outsmarts the bad guys gives us something to talk about.
This is what makes Hitchcock the master of movie manipulation. We know, in the audience, just how Thornhill could resolve each situation he faces and we see, before anyone in the film, when something is about to happen. But Hitchcock is too savvy to let us get our way. The moviemaker loves to push us to the edge by playing with what he knows we know as he puts the characters through one challenging moment after another.
The crop dusting sequence is the piece de resistance of this movie meal. Only Hitchcock would put his hero in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere. Slowly we begin to notice, in the distance, the sounds of crop dusting aircraft. As the engine noises grow louder, we realize, before Thornhill, that he will soon be the target of devious flying. If only we could tell him to get out of the field as Hitchcock forces his hero to reach beyond his complacency to get himself out of this maze.
Few of us can imagine hiding in a train, escaping from a hospital or sneaking into a criminal’s house. By departing from Thornhill’s reality with such relish, Hitchcock refuses to let him or us return to a mundane world.
And, thanks to the work of Martin Landau, even the supporting players shine in this chess game on screen.