POSTED March 14 2012

Is North by Northwest the First Modern Action Film?

Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and Lincoln's nostril

North by Northwest may not be Alfred Hitchcock’s best film,  it is something better. The mistaken-identity thriller starring the well-tailored Cary Grant and enigmatic beauty Eva Marie Saint as the woman of mystery is one of those movies — like CasablancaRear WindowThe Magnificent Seven,  The Man Who Would Be King and the early James Bond films — that are cinematic best friends. You’re always happy to see them and you see something new every time you visit.

I’m thinking N by NW because on Thursday March 16 I’ll be introducing TCM host Ben Mankiewicz at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater at 7:30 where, in a special Road to Hollywood program, Mankiewicz will interview Eva Marie Saint before the screening of an archival print of the movie.

Is N by NW the first modern action film? This Cold War travelogue that zips from Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel to the United Nations to Chicago’s Union Station to an Iowa cornfield to Mt. Rushmore, provided the template for James Bond movies.

Legend has it that James Bond creator Ian Fleming was so smitten with the film and Grant’s performance as the imperturbable, nattily-dressed figure at its center that it inspired his conception of James Bond. What is definitely true is that Fleming wanted Grant to star as Bond. Grant declined.

According to screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the original working title for the film was  “In a Northerly Direction.” An MGM story editor with a Shakespearean bent suggested “North by Northwest,” after the line in Hamlet:  “I am but mad north-northwest: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

Any films prior to North by Northwest that you would nominate as the first modern action movie? Which are your movie best friends,  go-to films that you’re always happy to see?


  1. Joe says:

    In a word, it’s companionable. That’s how I’ve always described “NxNW.” Also, I’m never less than impressed that the film never seems to age. In terms of its “look” (both the production design and the appearance of its stars), it might have been filmed … last year. Yes, it is the definitive “modern” movie, Carrie.

  2. Horse Badorties says:

    I think an earlier Hitchcock film like Sabateur(?) may be the template for N by NW, especially the scene on the Statue of Liberty..the stitches coming out of the jacket..I heard that Hitch wanted to recreate that kind of scene in color. He did and then some. Also there was film called The Glass Wall, 9I think..1950 or used the UN as backdrop in some scenes..

  3. wwolfe says:

    Yes, I agree it is the template. If you showed a double-bill of NXNW and “Knight and Day,” the audience could easily accept that both had been made in the past half-decade. Off the top of my head, movies I’m always happy to see would include this one, In Harm’s Way, That Thing You Do!, and whichever six movies I think of right after I click “Post Comment.”

  4. HENRI says:

    “Films as best friends” — what a lovely concept. The first two that come to (my) mind are Joseph Manckiewicz’s “All About Eve” and Marcel Carné’s “Children of Paradise”… Need to see them at least three times a year

  5. Horse Badorties says: best film friends would have to be Double Indemnity, Midnight Run, All the President’s Men. Psycho..Five Thousand Fingers of Dr. T, The Big Carnival, Serpico..weird list.

  6. Harold says:

    NORTH BY NORTHWEST doesn’t date in any way that matters. But I would argue that if it is the first action film, its progeny have diluted the gene pool with dumbed down scripts, pyrotechnics, and special effects that divert us from the story rather than enhance it. And you rarely have the flawed heroes and humanized villains you get in Hitchcck.

  7. Al says:

    NxNW is the culmination of Hitchcock’s double-chase theme that started with The 39 Steps and was refined and tweaked throughout Hitch’s career. The concept of the hero being simultaneously pusued by authorities while pursuing the real criminals has become an action movie cliché today. But I think it’s wonderful that you recognize Hitchcock’s trailblazing.

    Also, just a nit, but the cornfield was in Indiana.

    • Carrie Rickey says:

      I sit corrected, Irv. I defaulted to corn = Iowa instead of remembering that Indiana is adjacent to Illinois.

  8. Horse Badorties says:

    How about some credit to John Buchan and Ernest Lehman..Before there was the movie, there was the book..the script..

  9. Carrie Rickey says:

    Lehman, also the author of the book Sweet Smell of Success, was an impish writer and he gets credit for the structuring the film as a nonstop adventure.

  10. Danny says:

    I’d imagine the most modern action film probably came from the war movies of the 40s and filtered through film noir. North by Northwest straddles the line of classical Hollywood era and the New Hollywood, as it delves into character, politics, and romance but isn’t afraid of gray areas. It’s remarkably a throwback and ahead of its time in a lot of ways.

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  15. Dennis Doros says:

    Well, I hate to call anything first and here’s why. North by Northwest was heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s own THE LADY VANISHES which has many of the same adventure qualities and very modern lines. (My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother). You can also say his 39 Steps and the original The Man Who Knew Too Much were also similar in vein. And if I was so bold as to find the original adventure films, I’d go back to the French serials of Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang’s SPIDERS.

    And just to note, the first Ian Fleming book is CASINO ROYALE in 1952 and many of Fleming’s best Bond novels were before North by Northwest. Sorry about that.

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