The Top Five Films of Martin Landau (1928-2017)
He played “the man of thousand faces” but his own cadaverous cheekbones and smoldering eyes made a lasting mark on large and small screens around the world. His voice was like a wolverine blues singer. When he smiled, his entire skull became delight, and his frown could land with a thud that quieted a room.
The world of film and television lost Martin Landau on Saturday. His death ends a career that spans seven decades, encompassing an astonishing range of genre and media, and which includes some of the most enduring names and brands in the industry: Hitchcock, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man, Tim Burton, Woody Allen, The X-Files, The Twilight Zone, just to brush the surface. He left our plane for the Great Star Trailer in the Sky with two film projects in progress and with the Hollywood branch of The Actors Studio scrambling to find someone nearly as worthy to be their next leader. His is a resume of overwhelming success and accomplishment.
For a consummate bullshitter like myself, Landau’s Rollin Hand from Mission: Impossible is something of a patron saint. Landau’s performances are characterized by cascading layers of nuance and subtext which are kept white hot by their connection to story and character. There is an indelible sense of his characters thrumming with some hidden dark energy that belies the deeply wrought lines on his face. You want everyone to do everything they can to make him happy, and dear god please don’t let him get angry.
With the passing of Martin Landau, we lose another link to that time when the apexes of theater, television, and film were all in a line. The only way to properly applaud the life of such a distinguished elder statesman is to revisit the work in which it burned most brightly. Here are Martin Landau’s top five films according to the Flickchart global rankings.
Global ranking: 4441
Wins 43% of its matchups
3093 users have ranked it 36,384 times
4 have it at #1
54 have it in their top 20
In 9, Landau played the meek and mysterious “2”, a curious mad-scientist-type poppet whose apparent age had darkened none of his creative energy and potential. He was the Scientist’s second legacy of creation, and into him the Scientist fed the parts of him he knew to be most crucial in the rebuilding of the new world.
This role leveraged Landau’s prodigiously powerful and articulate voice acting talents, honed during a four episode run on Spider-Man. The gravel and overtones of his performance deepen his character’s toy-like appearance, and when 2 becomes the film’s MacGuffin, we are deeply invested in his safe return.
Global ranking: 3964
Wins 44% of its matchups
1494 users have ranked it 22,434 times
0 have it at #1
28 have it in their top 20
Mr. Rzykruski is young Victor’s indeterminately European science teacher, a maniacal ogre with none of the usual school-day charm. But in this Burtonist dystopia, these are all of the qualities necessary to catalyze inspiration and greatness in a student with just the right kind of brain.
The character was clearly inspired by several of Vincent Price’s archetypes, but Landau neither impersonates nor shies away from the core character attributes that make him so crucial to Victor’s story. Rzykruski must be neither a complete monster nor a Mr. Keating. He must be just bold enough to motivate the fact that “normal” is sometimes just something that other people are. Landau’s performance is hilarious and powerful in equal measure.
3. The X-Files
Global ranking: 3092
Wins 32% of its matchups
16,707 users have ranked it 124,880 times
8 have it at #1
178 have it in their top 20
Mulder had his precious Deep Throat taken away from him in the first season, but now on the big screen he has another wizened informant on matters dark and conspiratorial. Landau plays Dr. Kurtzweil as a hunted man, paranoid about the powers that he knows could be (and eventually will be) levied against him.
His role is that overused genre-fiction trope, the Second Act Infodumper, a part that in other hands could be forgiven for being forgettable. But Landau delivers, hard, on the need for his character to motivate the plot’s urgency and the planetary hugeness of the stakes. He doesn’t “act” the part; he lets the lines do the work that they need to do. But his terror coats his every whispered syllable. His haunted eyes do not blink.
2. Ed Wood
Global ranking: 655
Wins 47% of its matchups
23,921 users have ranked it 257,607 times
67 have it at #1
1437 have it in their top 20
This may not be the top film in this list, but Landau’s Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood undoubtedly tops any list of the actor’s performances. In a role that earned him an Academy Award, Landau crafts a loving yet bitterly honest portrayal of a great man brought low by life, who is desperate for a friend. Landau radiates Lugosi’s apocalyptic dignity, against which Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood bounces and gyrates, generating a visual and emotional interplay that is both humorous and tender.
The casting of Martin Landau in this role was one of those pitch-perfect decisions that make film seem like a place where real, actual magic can happen. We all know Bela Lugosi; his image and public persona are part of the bedrock of twentieth century popular culture. And then for this god of celluloid to suddenly taken on depth and substance, and then to start teaching us things about this great man we thought we knew, it makes us feel like Ed Wood: starstruck and giddy.
It goes without saying that this is beyond an impersonation. This is a kind of reboot of the man himself. Landau’s Lugosi is now canon, and we are better off for it.
Global ranking: 274
Wins 55% of its matchups
2796 users have ranked it 49,111 times
14 have it at #1
130 have it in their top 20
And finally we have Landau in his largest and arguably his most expressively complex role, in a strange “dialectic” of a film that could only come from Woody Allen. The story of Judah Rosenthal plays out as a dark and tragic counterpoint to the comedy of Allen’s Clifford Stern. The two main characters barely interact, and on the surface their stories do not seem to pertain to one another. But what the film does, with the help of astute and inward-looking performances from its stars, is to examine the human condition through two different lenses, asking essentially the same questions just with different attitudes.
What Landau brings to his role is the sense of quiet, powerful dignity that has driven all of his great performances. Here it functions to highlight the character’s essential frailty, confusion, and ultimate redemption. While one could imagine other actors doing interesting things with the part (Gabriel Byrne, or perhaps Robert Loggia), one cannot imagine a role for which Martin Landau’s unique combination of intensity, technique, and (again) dignity would be more perfectly suited.
In another of Woody Allen’s genius casting decisions, he gave the world the perfect Martin Landau shakedown cruise, a fully fleshed-out and flawed human being, with everything to lose and everything to gain, and we have the privilege to watch him struggle with it.