Much Ado About MacGuffin: David Bax On Suspect Plot Devices
, February 9th, 2010 10:26
Warning: Contains spoilers, melting faces and Tom Cruise
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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