Martin Landau died a week ago at the age of 89. He was a versatile actor who connected less often than he should have with the perfect part, but, when he did, there was none better. In the late Sixties, he was a TV fixture on "Mission: Impossible", playing the most watchable character Rollin Hand, a master of disguise who could pass himself off as almost anyone. It was a fun role for Landau, and created for him (the name of the part in early scripts was "Martin Land") and his particular talents: half the time, to make it even more enjoyable, they had him play the guy he was meant to be impersonating, too. Needless to say, as part of its general abuse of the source material, Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible franchise dispensed with the Hand character, and in turn Landau always despised the big-screen version for turning a game of wit and ingenuity into just another CGI explosions caper.
He was forty at the height of his TV fame, and was as close to leading-man looks as he was going to get. As a youngster, the face had been too lean, the lips too full, the eyebrows oddly obtrusive: it was an arresting and quirky combination compared to, say, the bland perfection of Cruise. But in middle age he'd settled into it, and might have expected his share of romances and dramas through the Seventies. Instead, he had to wait until Francis Ford Coppola's 1988 comedy Tucker: The Man and his Dream, starring Jeff Bridges as the man, Tucker's putative "car of tomorrow" as his dream, and Landau as the older Wall Street financier willing to make the dream a reality. Coppola had originally planned the film as a dark musical and persuaded Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write the score. They wrote one song, which Betty and Adolph sang me part of many years ago. Then Coppola's studio went bankrupt, and his pal George Lucas persuaded him to drop the musical concept. Tucker became a more ordinary film, distinguished by Martin Landau's best turn in years.
He followed it with Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which Woody Allen mixes comedy and drama more plausibly than he's done before or since. Landau plays one of those older Jewish guys who would have been the shrink or an in-law or an agent in a typical Allen picture. Instead, he's an ophthalmologist who calmly turns to murder in order that Allen can explore the Dostoyevskian question of whether a man who has done such things can simply resume a placid everyday life. Crimes and Misdemeanors reaches a different conclusion from Crime and Punishment on that score, and Allen gets away with it because Landau's performance is both so effortlessly normal and profound.
Five years later came the film that made him beloved: Ed Wood, Tim Burton's big-budget Nineties biopic about the no-budget Fifties director of Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Wood had already been the subject of a diverting documentary, Look Back in Angora (he had a fetish for this particular knitwear, at least as it clung to big-breasted babes), but Burton, while also clinging heavily to the angora, saw Wood as an idiot savant at the movies, sort of Forrest Gump Goes to Hollywood. Maybe it was a subliminal Forrest/Wood thing; perhaps he'd have done the same with Beerbohm Tree. Anyway, as always with Burton, it's beautifully shot, this time in monochrome, and the gals look good in or out of their sweaters. But as usual we have the Johnny Depp problem. Even before the irritatingly mannered turns of The Lone Ranger and Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp was a rum cove: a man with all the qualities of a movie star except the ability to bear the weight of the picture. So the films rise and fall on whether there's anyone around to fill the Depp-sized hole at their heart: Either a week or two before or after Ed Wood, he released Don Juan de Marco, where the anyone around was a very blobby Marlon Brando. In Ed Wood, he was more fortunate: he had Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. Preparing for the film, Landau watched a couple of dozen old creature features and came away with a deep respect for the man, and tremendous sympathy for his predicaments, typecast as a monster and unable to dial back the Transylvanian accent sufficiently to get any other work. Grateful for his own comeback role in Tucker, Landau determined to give Lugosi the comeback he'd never had in life - and it worked: he won an Oscar - for playing another actor.
He was always Rollin Hand, the man with a bottomless toolbox of eerily convincing identities. "Marty, you have a circus going on inside you," Hitchcock marveled. Landau spent five years as a cartoonist for the New York Daily News, but he wanted to be on stage and the closest he got at the paper was illustrating Billy Rose's "Pitching Horseshoes" column. So he quit and, when he applied to Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio, he was one of only two out of 500 applicants to be accepted that season (the other was Steve McQueen). He made his Broadway debut in Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night with Edward G Robinson. Alfred Hitchcock saw it, and offered Landau a small role as one of James Mason's henchmen in North by Northwest (1959).
Longtime readers know I'm enormously fond of the sexual crackle in the scenes between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. But that between Landau and Mason is almost as good. The young actor told Hitchcock he'd like to play Leonard as homosexual - mainly because in the Chayefsky piece he'd been a burly, beery macho guy. Hitch wasn't much for Method actors, but the notion tickled him, and it made sense: Why is Leonard so vicious toward Eva Marie Saint's character? Because he wants to take her place in James Mason's affections. How does he know she's working for the Feds? "Call it my woman's intuition," he says. "Why, Leonard," responds an amused Mason, "I do believe you're jealous." Moments later their relationship finds physical expression, albeit violently.
In North by Northwest, James Mason's Vandamm does not want for minions, and almost all of them survive to the climax on Mount Rushmore. But Leonard is the one you remember - ever present, usually just behind Vandamm, invariably staring at him, often wearing a matching suit. That last was Hitchcock's idea - that Leonard should have smarter suits than Cary Grant's character. Don't ask me why: It's just one of those small details the director liked to throw in to prevent your assumptions about characters getting too predictable. So he sent the actor to see Grant's tailor, Quintino of Beverly Hills. A couple of weeks later, Landau arrives to shoot his payphone moment at LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, and gets there in the middle of Cary Grant's scene. So he stands in the middle of a crowd of Chicagoans who are watching all the comings and goings. He's hardly been there a few minutes when there's a tap on the shoulder, and he turns to find Grant's English valet behind him. "Only two people in the world make a suit like that," the guy says, unaware that Landau's in the film. "One's in Beverly Hills, the other's in Hong Kong. Mr Grant wants to know where you got yours."
In the midst of his scene with Eva Marie Saint, Cary Grant had somehow contrived to spot the only fellow in the crowd in a better suit than his. If Martin Landau was never a Hollywood leading man, he was nevertheless the guy you always noticed. Rest in peace.
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