Jump to: navigation, search

National Post (25/Jun/1999) - 'I'll only tell you if I don't like what you're doing'



'I'll only tell you if I don't like what you're doing'

Martin Landau, who starred in Hitchcock's North By Northwest, admired the director's working style

There aren't a lot of people still around who worked with legendary director Alfred Hitchcock in his prime. But Martin Landau is one of them. This year, which marks Hitchcock's centennial — he was born on Aug. 13, 1899, in England — brings another red-letter day, the 40th anniversary of Landau's film debut in Hitchcock's classic North By Northwest (1959).

That film's most memorable scene involves a chase across the faces of Mt. Rushmore, with two spies (Landau and James Mason) trying to kill the fleeing hero (Cary Grant).

The scene was Hitchcock's attempt to make up for a misjudgment in a 1942 film, the actor says.

"I had a conversation with him about a film he made years before, called Saboteur," Landau recalls. "In that movie he used the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, and he said he made a big mistake because he had Norman Lloyd, who was the bad guy, hanging off the torch. Lloyd's sleeve tears, and he falls to his death. Robert Cummings, who I believe was the leading man in that film, was not in jeopardy.

"Hitchcock said it was a foolhardy mistake," he says, "because the audience actually wanted the bad guy to die. So Hitchcock wanted to remedy that with another national monument, another national shrine, for his setting."

In 1958, when the movie was filmed, Landau was still years away from Mission Impossible, the 1960s television series that made him famous, and even further from Oscar-nominated roles in Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). It would be 36 years before he was voted best supporting actor for his performance as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994).

The 30-year-old Brooklyn native was still focused on building a stage career when Hitchcock spotted him in a play called Middle of the Night and cast him as Leonard, the sinister sidekick to Mason's master spy, Vandamm.

"At the time, when I read the script, I thought it was a terrific script," he recalls. "I must say that my character was a bit nebulous. There wasn't very much there."

The role might have been a simple thug, but Landau added unexpected nuances, justifying Hitchcock's faith in an actor with no film experience whatever.

"I tried to create something interesting and dangerous and bright," he says. "From my point of view, Leonard was the smartest guy in the picture. He notices something nobody else notices — that there's no bullet hole or blood when Cary gets shot in the cafeteria at Mt. Rushmore. He's on top of things, and yet with great economy — he doesn't waste a move or a gesture or do anything extraneous.

"I just felt there was stuff there, even though in terms of dialogue it wasn't a massive part," he says. "But I felt the time I was on the screen could be used well, to further the picture, really, and create more jeopardy and danger."

Landau also gave Leonard an unstated attraction to his boss.

"I played him as being homosexual, ever so subtly, which a lot of people thought was rather risky in the '50s," he says, "but I saw no reason just to be a henchman. I felt that the triangle, his jealousy of Eva Marie Saint and James Mason, was a more interesting take."

Despite his reputation as a tyrant over actors and crew alike, Hitchcock gave Landau the latitude to experiment with his character. Deftly imitating the director's famous British drawl, the actor offers a look at Hitchcock's working style.

"He basically had — people don't know this — but he had enormous respect for actors," Landau adds. "He was a provocateur. Some of the things they said about him, that he treated actors like cattle, that wasn't so.

"And he gave you a lot of room to create your character," he says. "You pretty much knew physically where you were, because when I was first hired he took me around the office and showed me the storyboards. I saw the entire movie, shot by shot from beginning to end, because he did storyboard the entire film."

In fact, Landau says, if anything he felt nervous because Hitchcock gave him so little direction.

"You know, sometimes he'd whisper something to Cary or Eva Marie or James, and I felt left out," he says. "I'd ask, 'What do you want to tell me?'

"And he'd say, 'I'll only tell you if I don't like what you're doing."'

Despite the film's lengthy climax atop Mt. Rushmore, Landau says that the crew actually spent only a few days at the South Dakota landmark.

"We didn't shoot any of the actual climbing scenes there," he says. "We didn't even shoot inside the cafeteria, though we ate in the cafeteria. The cafeteria was built back at MGM to exact scale.

"The stuff we shot were the scene in the parking lot with Eva Marie running out, with the faces in the background and some other scenes," he says. "We were only there a couple of days."

After the movie opened, park officials protested the so-called "desecration of the monument." Landau rejected this claim at the time, and still does.

"There wasn't any desecration," he says with a snort. "It was about our 'alphabet soup' — the CIA or FBI, Leo Carroll's group — he even calls it 'the alphabet soup' in the movie. We never really know exactly who are fighting these foreign agents.

"Mt. Rushmore serves as the essence of our country," he says. "The country endures. The good guys win. The spies — whoever they are, obviously international terrorists — the mountain does them in. The mountain's spirit prevails. I don't think there's anything wrong with using that as a background."

In fact, since then the film has helped to boost tourism at the monument, just as King Kong helped to create worldwide awareness of the Empire State Building.

Like many of Hitchcock's films, the elaborate suspense builds to a climax which is over practically before it begins.

"The entire ending of the film takes place in only 40 seconds," Landau says with a laugh. "One moment I'm stepping on Cary Grant's hand to make him fall and then, in less than a minute, I get shot, James Mason is caught, Cary is saved, Eva Marie is saved and they're on their honeymoon, the last shot being of the train going into the tunnel — which is somewhat phallic!"

North By Northwest is in the process of receiving a full restoration from Turner Entertainment, working from the original Vistavision camera negatives. The restored version, featuring a newly revitalized soundtrack as well, will be released to theatres first and then shown on cable television.

It's appropriately red-carpet treatment for a film whose reputation has grown steadily over the years, to the pleasure and amusement of its cast.

"Every time I ran into Cary Grant," Landau recalls, "he said, 'You know, Martin, we did something right. When I go to colleges on a lecture tour, the picture they want to talk about most is North By Northwest. Of all the films I've done — and I've done scads of them — this is the one they want to talk about ... I don't know what the hell it was, but we did something right.' "