Alfred Hitchcock is credited with coining the term “MacGuffin,” but not the thing itself, which has been around since people started telling stories to each other. In spy movies and thrillers, a MacGuffin is the object that sets the plot of the movie in motion; it’s usually a something people desire that the hero and his nemeses pursue, and that pursuit provides the film’s plot. The specific nature and form of the MacGuffin is usually unimportant to the overall plot. In plot terms, but not theological ones, the apple in Genesis is a MacGuffin.
Neither of the two most famous examples of a MacGuffin in film history appear in a Hitchcock film however, even though he used the device quite frequently in his many movies (he directed more than 50 films from the 1920s through the ’70s).
In 1962, his fellow film director François Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock. The interviews were recorded and transcribed into a book, “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” published in 1967. The subject came up and Hitchcock told a story:
You may be wondering where the term [MacGuffin] originated. It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
(I think that in his tale, the word “MacGuffin” is his MacGuffin.)
One wonders where Hitchcock had ever heard this story or if he merely invented it, since “two strangers meet on a train” could serve as a Movie Guide description for several of his plots. Hitchcock loved floating plot ideas and ideas of plots inside plots in interviews and he pursued several dozen of them into film immortality. One has always stayed with me and I think I read it in the “Hitchcock/Truffaut” interview.
As I recall the scene he described, his lead character, played Cary Grant or James Stewart (of course) would meet with a man who runs a factory, an automated car assembly line. In a single-camera shot, the two men would walk along the line, discussing whatever it is that Grant or Stewart is searching for, and alongside them for the whole chat would be a car as it is assembled from frame to finished vehicle. The audience is supposed to barely notice the car or that the two men have been talking alongside only one car as it has acquired an engine, a roof, doors, mirrors. At the end of the line, Cary Grant happens to open the driver’s door and a body falls out. We’ve seen the same car all the way through, from when there was no place to hide a body all the way to completion, and … I think Hitchcock dismissed it in the interview with Truffaut as being an awful lot of work with too distracting a payoff.
In “Pulp Fiction,” what is inside Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase? We never find out. Perhaps it is a “royale with cheese.” Everything in that movie has to do with getting, delivering, or protecting that case. We never see what was so important about it. What is Charles Foster Kane’s “Rosebud” in “Citizen Kane”? In one movie, the question is answered and in the other it is not, and one could argue that neither movie would be fundamentally different if this statement was reversed. (If we did not know what “Rosebud” is or if we saw what is in the briefcase.)
Remember how “Star Wars” starts to unfold, what it is “about”: R2-D2 must be delivered intact to Obi-Wan Kenobi because there is a message from Princess Leia to him hidden inside the robot. And then, in that great two-word sentence, “Complications ensue.”
A MacGuffin is the reason—or, really, excuse—for all the characters to be in the movie (even if one of the characters is a MacGuffin him or herself) and for all of or most of the action in the plot, but the object, the MacGuffin, is not what the movie is about. The “holy grail” in all of those tales of “knights of old” is literally not the “Holy Grail.”
In “The Maltese Falcon,” Mary Astor’s character Brigid O’Shaughnessy asks Sam Spade if he would (be doing what he is about to do) if (money had possibly been acquired). How’s that for avoiding a spoiler? (The clip plays, even though it is grayboxed-out.)
The falcon, a jewel-encrusted treasure of centuries past, or not, is the innocent bystander for the entire movie. It sure looks valuable, looks like it is worth multiple lives, double- and triple-cheating, the sacrifice of love both real and pretend. As Det. Polhaus says as he lifts it, in the second-to-last line, it sure is, “Heavy. What is it?” Sam Spade replies, and this is no spoiler even though it is the final line, “The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”
In any movie, if there is a box or a room that has remained locked or hidden in plain sight, the movie really is about the drive to unlock it or the search for a key and what a character is willing to endure to acquire that key. The door does not need to be opened or need to be not opened. The story is in the journey, and whatever it is you think the key is unlocking, it isn’t. In the broadest sense, a story itself is something of a MacGuffin.
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This is an edited of a column from 2014.
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