North by Northwest

North by Northwest

“Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.”

If you’re looking for the best classic-era action film, this is it. North by Northwest, directed by master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo) and starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, may not be Hitchcock’s most thought-provoking film, but it’s certainly among his most entertaining. The action and suspense are top-notch—definitely not overdone like action movies today. Cary Grant delivers his trademark vintage-cool charm, and the script is full of iconic lines that make modern action flicks look painfully uncultured. This movie holds up very well today, even in the modern landscape of slow-motion quick-cut action sequences, and is universally loved by viewers—it’s one of the few movies to achieve a 100% rating on movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.

The plot follows ad man Roger Thornhill, a fairly typical advertising executive until some high-profile criminals mistake him for secret agent George Kaplan. He quickly finds himself set up for crimes he didn’t commit and being pursued by both the criminals and the police. While on the run, he also tries to get to the bottom of who George Kaplan is and why the criminals think it’s him. There are plenty of twists along the way. Eventually, the FBI gets involved and things get much bigger than Thornhill ever imagined.

Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.

There may be better classic movies than North by Northwest, and there may be movies with better action sequences, but you will not find a movie that’s better at both. This movie doesn’t just strike a balance; it truly excels at both. Iconic scenes in a cornfield and atop Mt. Rushmore are among the most famous action sequences in history—even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ve probably seen something out of one of these scenes.

Confrontation at an art auction in North by Northwest
This scene wins the award for most tension at an art auction.

Though the danger is imminent throughout most of the movie, there’s a real sense of adventure and even fun throughout the film. In true Hitchcock fashion, there’s enough humor and charm to keep the viewer engaged between action sequences, and Cary Grant delivers both desperation and wittiness with equal flair. Even the villain has some memorable and, yes, entertaining lines, so I almost wanted to root for him. The main characters are all well-written and have the depth, charm, and eloquence that truly deserves the title “classic.”

North by Northwest is a great classic action film, and I believe there’s something here for everyone. It’s got excitement, mystery, romance, humor, and vintage charm. As I said, it’s not necessarily the most thought-provoking, but there won’t be many people who can’t find something to like here. This is one I would recommend to anyone, and it’s probably a movie that everyone should see at some point in their life.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 2:16
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Year: 1959
Genres: action, mystery
Rating: NR

Martin Landau in North by Northwest
Fun fact: this guy looks just like my college roommate.

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