In all of his performances, Martin Landau effortlessly conveyed the interior life of his characters.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, he plays Leonard, a heavy who assists Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) in his nefarious acts against Roger Thornhill. (Carey Grant) Despite having a limited amount of screen time, Landau imbues his character with a constant sense of fabricated toughness. He sees himself as an extension of Vandamm’s will, so he attempts to look imposing but instead often ends up looking disarming and subtlely feminine. Landau’s choices make Hitchcock’s adventurous yarn of spies and mistaken identity even richer in its thematic depth.
During a pivotal scene from Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours, his character Judah Rosenthal, tells a story to Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) of a murderer who has not been punished in the aftermath of the deed. In reality, Rosenthal committed the crime and is weaving the yarn as a form of cathartic confession. The moment has an intimacy of a spellbinding soliloquy as Landau shifts from genuine astonishment at his predicament to hardened rationality about people living with themselves despite the sins they have committed. Landau’s performance of compelling internal strife earned him an Oscar Nomination.
And in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Landau delivered his finest work as the ageing horror actor Bela Lugosi. Landu’s performance was bold because it showcased the coarse and unsavoury aspects of the character as well as the qualities that made him appealing as a screen presence. Moreover, it adhered to Orson Welles’ conception of acting. Welles contended that great performances depend on the act of revealing: namely the ability of the actor to display parts of themselves that align with the character they are playing.
There is a strong sense that Landau understood Lugosi and his personal frustration with the movie business came through the character in a compelling manner. As he once said, “I felt I knew Lugosi. Like him, I had worked for good directors and terrible directors.” The performance was more than mere imitation but instead a deep-seated exercise in empathy and conjoined emotional states.
RIP Martin Landau