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Much Ado About MacGuffin: David Bax On Suspect Plot Devices
David Bax , February 9th, 2010 10:26

Warning: Contains spoilers, melting faces and Tom Cruise

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Alfred Hitchcock understood how to make a good movie in a way that’s almost distressing. He was able to take an art form and deconstruct it until it was closer to a science. And like any scientist, he had theories and he had names for them. Perhaps the most famous and lasting name he gave to a filmmaking element is the MacGuffin. The MacGuffin is the object in the film that makes the story possible, even though its actual importance to the parts of the movie we care about can vary to the point of sometimes being non-existent. Sometimes, like with the letters of transit in Casablanca, we almost forget it exists. In other cases, like with the 1964 Chevy Malibu in Repo Man, it starts glowing and then ascends into the heavens. If you’re still confused, the list below should make it apparent how important, though often inconsequential, the MacGuffin is to this art of film.

Citizen Kane

Rosebud

Perhaps the most famous MacGuffin ever, the question of who or what is Rosebud ignites the journey through the life of Charles Foster Kane. But by the time we actually see it, among a pile of a million other things that may as well have been Rosebud, Citizen Kane has already cemented its place as the greatest film of all time.

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon

Do you remember why the Maltese Falcon itself is so important? It’s okay, I often forget myself. John Huston’s film, released in 1941, the same year as Citizen Kane (the year of the MacGuffin!), is one of the quintessential noir films and, like others of the genre, the plot is the thing. Briskly plotted twists, turns and double crosses are the reason we can’t look away from these films and none of those would transpire in this film if everyone weren’t after some ugly bird statuette.

Notorious

Uranium

It would be unconscionable to leave Hitchcock off this list and the uranium in Notorious is one of the most perfect MacGuffins because it really means nothing whatsoever to the plot. We just want to see Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman fall in love and be dashing and sexy beyond reason while spying on Nazis. And spies need a reason to spy. So why not uranium?

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The Holy Grail

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was, of course, a television show comprised of sketches. Narrative through-lines weren’t strictly necessary to complete them. So when it came time to make their first movie, they needed a MacGuffin to string one scene to the next. Now, all movie MacGuffins are metaphorical Holy Grails anyway, so why not cut a corner and just use the real one? If they hadn’t, I might not have the well-rounded and sympathetic understanding of the French that I have today.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

The Ark of the Covenant

All the Indiana Jones films are exercises in MacGuffinism but the first one is the best and (literally) brightest of the bunch. In Notorious, the Nazis set their sights low by chasing mere uranium. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, they seek to harness divine power itself and they pay for it, dearly and awesomely. In this movie, the MacGuffin fights back!

True Romance

A Suitcase Full Of Cocaine

We’ve got more than a dozen amazing characters doled out between Detroit and Los Angeles. What could possibly tie them together? A suitcase full of cocaine is the perfect glue for this frenetic and jumpy crime caper/ road movie/ romance, the film that would bring Quentin Tarantino his biggest payday so far and pave the way to introduce the world to the next movie, and MacGuffin, on the list.

Pulp Fiction

The Glowing Briefcase

The MacGuffin in Pulp Fiction is, like most elements of Tarantino’s movies, respectfully borrowed from another film, in this case the glowing iron box in Kiss Me Deadly. Only a filmmaker as electric and as ballsy as Quentin Tarantino could make you yearn to know what’s in the briefcase, not tell you and have you respect him even more for it. Not to mention the fact that he just introduced a weirdly sci-fi element into his gritty crime drama and you didn’t even blink.

Lord Of The Rings

The Ring

To tell a story over the course of almost 12 hours (with the extended editions) that takes place entirely within a fantasy world and features goblins, elves and wizards, you’re going to need a pretty damn strong MacGuffin to hook enough of an audience to become some of the highest-grossing films of all time. Who would have guessed you’d get all that from a single ring. But from the moment Frodo slipped it on his finger and we all felt its terrifying and alluring power, we were ready to follow it to Mordor too.

Mission: Impossible III

The Rabbit's Foot

If Monty Python and the Holy Grail was just an excuse to string together a series of gut-busting sketches, Mission: Impossible III is just an excuse to follow one exhilarating action set-piece with another and then another. And then another. Like the Maltese Falcon, I don’t really remember what the Rabbit’s Foot even is. But since it led to that sequence on the bridge, I consider myself a very lucky moviegoer.

Avatar

Unobtainium

The sought-after mineral that sets Avatar’s plot in motion is so clumsily named that it might as well be called MacGuffin. But we don’t need to know what it is, what it does or why it’s worth so much. We just need a way into mind-blowing 3D, a fully realized alien planet and one badass knife-wielding robot. Not to mention an introduction to a long future of motion-capture MacGuffins to come.

You can keep up to date with David's thoughts on film by visiting his Battleship Pretension blog and podcast here

FangsFirst
Feb 15, 2010 8:21am

Wrong wrong wrong.
The Ark and the One Ring are not MacGuffins. Tell me, replace them with uranium or a suitcase full of jewels. Does the whole movie still work?
Absolutely not. The Nazis would not be turned into a pulpy mess from diamonds! Frodo would not find himself tried and tested by a plastic spider ring or a doughnut! (Okay...maybe the doughnut...but I think that would be over pretty quick, and a different kind of test).

If you can't exchange it for another item, it *can't* be a MacGuffin.

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D.N.
Feb 15, 2010 8:45am

I'm fairly certain that, to qualify as a MacGuffin, the object has to have no relevance outside the fact that it's what's being pursued. What the object is and why the characters want it is irrelevant. The briefcase in "Pulp Fiction" is a MacGuffin - we don't know what is in it, we don't know what the people who want it plan to do with it, and it's not important. The Ark of the Covenant in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is not a MacGuffin, despite the fact that George Lucas has referred to it as such (he's also referred to Artoo Detoo as a MacGuffin in "Star Wars," which isn't quite right either). Unfortunately, the term "MacGuffin" has become shorthand for anything that characters in a movie chase each other for.

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rafuoner
Feb 15, 2010 9:41am

héhé... unobtanium itself is the invented name of a material that do not exists :
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unobtainium
The word unobtainium is a portmanteau derived from unobtainable + -ium (the suffix for a number of metal elements). Another largely synonymous term is wishalloy.

A "real" McGuffin ;-)

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i strode down the hillside in disbelief.
Feb 15, 2010 10:39am

Dearest David, unfortunately I think this incident will go down as one of the most embarrassing moments of your life. You clearly don't know what a MacGuffin is, and have gone ahead and written a lengthy article that hammers this fact home again and again.

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Bill
Feb 15, 2010 12:39pm

I, like some of the other commentators here, am fairly certain you don't know what a MacGuffin is. This is a terrible article.

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Bing
Feb 15, 2010 1:12pm

Hang on, who says a macguffin has to be exchangeable? Did you dig up Hitchcock and check? One reason the macguffin is such an enticing idea is that it's a nebulous one (so people can argue about it on websites!). I would say that it needn't be exchangeable, it just has to be something that is overshadowed by the rest of the film (usually a film where plot per se is less important that style, dialogue, theory, feeling, suspense, whatever) to the extent that you forget about it or can describe the whole film in detail and with passion without mentioning it.
Also, for this article to be one of the most embarrassing moments of anyone's life, they'd really have to have not done enough embarrassing stuff.

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Con
Feb 15, 2010 6:07pm

Can't have a list of MacGuffins without mentioning the $40,000 from Psycho. One of the most perfect examples on the subject, an object with the means of getting the character to a goal, but is then completely discarded and barely if not never mentioned again. If it wasn't for the money marion would never have found her way to the Motel.

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Sam
Feb 15, 2010 6:21pm

The Ark in Raiders is not a macguffin. If anything, the fertility idol is the real macguffin because it starts the movie, Indy finds it and we learn who he is but the idol is lost to Belloq and forgotten. The idol itself is really unimportant.

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Isaac Brooks
Feb 15, 2010 6:27pm

Reminds me of 'high anxiety'. When Mel Brooks asks checks into his hotel room, which he specifically requested to be on a low floor, he's told that 'someone named Macguffin called and asked that you be moved to the 17th floor'.
I've always understood Macguffins as not necessarily being irrelelvant, but merely being what sets the plot forward. In genre movies the plot is far less important than the set pieces, which leads to the archetypical Macguffin being utterly unimportant. Hitchcock loved these Macguffins, from the money in 'Psycho' and the Uranium in 'Notorious', to the microfilm in 'North by Northwest', the murder plot in 'Vertigo' and, possibly the dumbest of all, the encoded song in 'the Lady Vanishes'.
Great article. It's great to see excuses for plot (the perfect definition for Macguffin, I think) in modern films which clearly just want to get to the scenes where they blow things up or shoot people.

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thimma
Feb 15, 2010 6:32pm

the suitcase in 'Ronin'

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Cameron
Feb 15, 2010 7:29pm

In reply to thimma:

Ronin................good call. This Article is clearly botched.

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Louis
Feb 15, 2010 7:32pm

By the strict definition proposed by some commentators the Smaug's treasure in The Hobbit would qualify as a MacGuffin, but the Ring from LOTR would not, which seems like a superficial differentiation. And it is. Here is the man himself verbatim on the subject: "[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin.' It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers."

and further: It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" And the other answers, "Oh that's a McGuffin." The first one asks, "What's a McGuffin?" "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 McGuffin!" So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

If he was so ambiguous on the definition, who are we to claim we know? If there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands, then the McGuffin is doing its job.

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Phil
Feb 15, 2010 7:46pm

The Dude's Rug in The Big Lebowski.

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Big Jonny
Feb 15, 2010 9:04pm

@FangsFirst and so many of you,

The Ark and the One Ring ARE MacGuffins. Deal.

What's the big fear of the One Ring? That Sauron will get it and raise an army to enslave man (and elves and Dwarves and hobbitses). Guess what? HE DOES THIS ANYWAY! All the ring does is send Frodo out of the comfort of The Shire. It's starts his journey, which shows him the ugly side of people and himself. It shows him what happens when 1 person has too much power, esp when he sees what it did to Gollum.

The Ark is a better MacGuffin than the idol. The Idol doesn't send Indy to Nepal to face old demons (and girlfriends), it doesn't send him to Egypt, the Ark does. The Idol story just gives you the background on Belloch and Indy's rivalry, so when you see him in the cafe, you know Indy is in over his head. The Ark is also a quest for knowledge, knowledge that Indy knows man is not ready for and perhaps, never should have.

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Apathygrrl
Feb 16, 2010 12:41am

@Big Jonny
"The Ark and the One Ring ARE MacGuffins. Deal. What's the big fear of the One Ring? That Sauron will get it and raise an army to enslave man. Guess what? HE DOES THIS ANYWAY!"

The One Ring is not a McGuffin. The One Ring is a character. It has thoughts, it whispers, it influences and corrupts people. Gandalf said it himself, "It *wants* to be found." The One Ring is not a McGuffin - it's a character; specifically, an antagonist. Yes, objects can be characters.

You are incorrect about the big fear of the One Ring. Yes, Sauron raises an army, but that's not the big fear. The One Ring will allow Sauron to take corporeal form again. You see, he's pretty much trapped inside his tower, unable to do much except spy on people and bark orders. You saw the devistation he created at the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring, during the flashback of the great war. While he wears the ring, he's nigh indestructable (until someone cuts his finger off). Sauron in person, that's the big fear. Kinda like Voldemort in that way.

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TDI
Feb 17, 2010 12:11am

Actually, If people would relax, we could pretend we're just talking about movies. Everyone breathe? no? I'll wait (IIIIINNNN, OOOOOUUUUUT. AHHHHHH) Ok, now I would like to propose that characters can be MacGuffins as well. How else to you explain Mila Kunis in The Book of Eli? or the daughter in Commando. Basically, if someone gets kidnapped by the villain, there entire existence in the movie is to get the main character to chase the bad guy. Now everyone breathe again, and continue the discussion.

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Andrew Bumstead
Apr 4, 2012 1:23am

they never actually revealed what the rabbit's foot was in MI:3 -- I think that was J.J. Abram's wink wink to the audience to show how you can still have a plot when the audience doesn't even know what the macguffin is!

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Werner
Jun 12, 2012 3:49pm

New one: the star map in Prometheus. Also, obscure trivia/cinema homage: Scott takes a moment in the cave where the map is found to show an image of two hands, then a drawing of several animal heads in profile. Yup. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The hands and heads are the iconic images from Chauvet Cave.

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