I spend far too much of my day reading about silly movie projects – this absurd remake, that insulting franchise extension. Sometimes I forget how good film can be – how good it has been. A couple days ago, I sat down to watch Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" – a picture I'd seen several times before but never in its newly restored and remastered DVD form – and came away wishing, surely fruitlessly, that 2009 could deliver a thriller that even approached the twisty coolness of this 1959 masterpiece.
Even at the time of its original release, "Northwest" was ahead if its time, as co-star Martin Landau made clear in an interview with MTV News coinciding with the film's 50th anniversary. The actor played Leonard, a henchman assisting with his boss' criminal enterprise and attempting to eliminate a perceived threat from Madison Avenue exec Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant).
"I chose to play him as a gay character," Landau said. "It was very courageous in the '50s. Gay characters were always caricatures, flamboyant characters, rarely was one depicted truthfully. But I read the script and felt it needed it. Hitchcock liked it and he let me do my thing."
At the time, Landau was only in his late 20s and working alongside one of the biggest movie stars and one of the greatest directors in Hollywood. "I should have been in awe and shock, but I wasn't," he said. "I give them credit for their acceptance of me, which allowed me to set out to do what I wanted to do."
What they all did was make a freaking awesome movie. Plot summarization is a fool's errand. The story is one of espionage, organized crime, mistaken identity, love and witty one-liners. Just go get the DVD and see for yourself.
So many years later, both Hitchcock and Grant have become almost mythical figures, men whose cinematic legacy is far more commonly known than who they were as people. In this sense, Landau can provide rare insight into these creative forces.
"Cary Grant was quite frugal as a person — he didn't like to spend a nickel – but as an actor he was very generous actor and very welcoming," Landau said. "I was a kid from a totally different tradition – Actors Studio, Lee Strasberg, Marlon Brando – but I was welcomed as a peer."
Landau also told an amazing story about having tea with Hitchcock on set and asking the director why he gave him such a big career break. Imitating Hitchcock's British accent, Landau said, "He told me, 'Martin, you have a circus going on inside you! Obviously if you can play that part in the theater, you can do this little trinket!' "