Martin Landau, George Romero both left their mark on American cinema
Posted July 20
The first time I sat up and took notice of Martin Landau was in 1959, when Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” was released. It was just Landau’s second movie and it would become one of Hitchcock’s biggest hits.
I was 11 years old but already a Hitchcock fan, as were my parents, and I loved the film — from the opening shot of Hitch missing a city bus in his customary cameo, to the riveting climax atop Mount Rushmore. And I went to see it a couple more times before it left my local neighborhood theater.
But as I watched the film, there was something about Landau that captured my attention. Whenever he was on the screen as the oily Leonard, a trusted, lethal henchman to the film’s more sophisticated chief villain, Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
He’s especially effective toward the end when the film’s hero, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), is spying on them through a window and Vandamm is approached by Leonard with a gun in his hand. The reactions of all three characters in this moment are quite telling — but it’s Leonard’s cool, unruffled demeanor that is particularly striking.
Ultimately, Leonard finds himself struggling on the slippery Rushmore rocks with Thornhill over a piece of stolen microfilm hidden in a small sculpture. It’s not hard to guess who will come out on top.
But more than 30 years later, in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Landau played another character with murder in his heart, only this time he got away with it — and earned an Oscar nomination.
All of this came rushing to mind when I learned of Landau’s death at the age of 89 last Saturday.
Landau was a talented character actor and played a variety of personalities — the kind of versatility that we see all too seldom in this day and age of star vehicles that don’t seem to care much about second- or third-string actors. But back in the day, those players were often a film’s scene-stealers.
Landau had a unique look, and, especially when he was young, he always seemed to have an air of menace about him.
As Roland Hand, for example — the agent of many faces and accents that he played during the first three seasons of the original “Mission: Impossible” TV series — Landau demonstrated his wide-ranging prowess. One of his co-stars in that series was his wife at the time, Barbara Bain, and shortly afterward, they were the stars of a short-lived sci-fi series, “Space: 1999.”
Along the way, Landau continued to perform in a variety of TV guest shots and Hollywood films, often in villainous roles — but then, in 1988, a supporting role in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” earned the 49-year-old Landau his first Oscar nomination.
His gentle, heartfelt turn as a financier with a criminal past he’s trying to put behind him led to similarly sympathetic roles, and as he grew older, Landau became Hollywood’s go-to actor for sweet and sad old-guy characters.
As mentioned, his second Oscar nomination came for “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and then a third gave him a statuette for playing Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” Landau thoroughly deserved the honor for his pitch-perfect performance as the “Dracula” actor in the drug-addicted twilight of his life, when Lugosi was working in deluded filmmaker Wood’s dreck, yet still giving it his all.
Last weekend, we also lost filmmaker George Romero, who died at age 77 and was best known for his horror movies, chiefly the classic 1968 black-and-white “Night of the Living Dead,” which introduced and set the pace for every zombie movie that followed.
Yes, Romero is the guy to blame for the myriad zombie movies we’ve seen over the past 50 years.
In September 1978, the first year of the Utah/U.S. Film Festival — which would evolve a few years later into the Sundance Film Festival — Romero’s modern-day vampire movie “Martin” was in the independent competition.
But it was the next year that I met him, when he was on the competition jury — and, true to his reputation, Romero was intelligent, humorous and accessible, not at all what you might expect from someone specializing in gory horror.
In January 1981, Romero participated in a festival panel on independent film financing, and although the event was still a struggling newbie, he praised it as an important showcase for the work of independents.
“This is such a shot in the arm for the filmmaker,” he said.
In January 1982, his latest picture at the time, “Knightriders,” was screened out of competition. After a string of gory horror movies (“Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead,” “Martin”), “Knightriders” was an eccentric character drama about a Renaissance troupe that performs jousts on motorcycles and which provided an early starring role for Ed Harris.
It was Romero’s first attempt to step out of the genre that made him famous, and he told me he’d like to do more.
“I just like genre films,” Romero said. “I go to all the horrors, but I go to a lot of other genre types, too. I wish they were still making jungle pictures.”
Still, he pretty much stuck to horror for the rest of his career.
In October 1982, I met with Romero and Stephen King to talk about “Creepshow,” an anthology picture that King wrote and Romero directed, describing it as a “nongory fright flick” (despite its R rating).
As the interview was concluding, Romero remembered I was from Utah and offered a parting joke: “How about this for a horror story? Someone kills Donny Osmond, but his teeth live on. …”
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.