Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Martin Landau and George Romero: Two Movie Monuments We’ve Lost

In one fell swoop we’ve  lost George Romero and Martin Landau. Romero, of course, was the filmmaker who gave us the original zombie apocalypse, starting with the essential 1968 cheapie, The Night of the Living Dead. That flick, in lurid black and white, came out in an era when our minds were on political assassinations (Kennedy, Kennedy, King), blood in the streets of our cities (Watts, Newark, Detroit), and an incomprehensible war overseas. Some of us were ready for nonstop horror on the screen, and The Night of the Living Dead delivered like gangbusters. The fact—coincidental though it might have been—that the film’s black hero is disastrously misunderstood by the forces of law and order was a powerful reminder of all that was (and still is) wrong with our nation.

Though Romero’s zombie films (like Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead) gradually became more expensive and elaborate, he never lost his taste for horror that slips covertly into social commentary. This set him apart from his many imitators, and from the current TV smash, The Walking Dead. As a former Roger Corman person, I salute him. On the IMDB I just located a memorable Romero quote:  “I'm like my zombies. I won't stay dead!” As film fans, we can only hope.

George Romero won fame by filling the screen with movie antagonists who aren’t ill-intended; they’re just hungry. And Martin Landau’s unusual features always gave him what I considered a lean and hungry look. But no one would mistake him for a zombie: in both bad-guy and good-guy roles he was much too smart (and too ALIVE) to ever be mistaken for a member of Romero’s undead posse. Growing up, I loved watching him play a master of disguises on TV’s Mission: Impossible. But what has really stayed with me is his evil sidekick role in Hitchcock’s 1959 classic, North by Northwest. (He’s the one who stomps on Cary Grant’s fingers as our hero is dangling from Mt. Rushmore.) And, of course, there’s his Oscar-winning performance as screen legend Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. Anyone who watches his acceptance speech on YouTube will come away with a sense of his passion for this role he so vividly brought to life.

Following Landau’s death, journalists have been coming forward with his words of wisdom about the craft of acting. Here’s what he told Rebecca Keegan in 2012: “No one shows their feelings except bad actors No one tries to cry. You try not to cry. No one tries to laugh. You try not to laugh. In a well-written script, dialogue is what a character is willing to say to another character. The 90 percent he isn’t [saying] is what I do for a living.”

I’m thinking of Romero and Landau as “monuments” because in the aftermath of my European travels I finally watched George Clooney’s 2014 film, The Monuments Men. It’s based on a true episode from the waning days of World War II, in which a gaggle of American and European art experts sneak behind enemy lines to rescue priceless masterpieces that the Nazis have looted from museums and churches, whether to keep or to destroy. Two of the greatest are from Belgium: Jan Van Eyck’s 15th century altarpiece, known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, and Michelangelo’s gorgeous 16th century Madonna and Child. A movie about saving great art is always going to grab me, but Clooney’s approach to the story seems uncomfortably close to The Dirty Dozen: unlikely military guys enjoy banter and hijinks, but finally get the job done.  

The so-called Madonna of Bruges was the only Michelangelo work to leave Italy in the sculptor's lifetime. No zombies here!

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