‘MacGuffin’ is a term in movie jargon, which was coined by English screenwriter Angus MacPhail. However, it was legendary filmmaker Sir Alfred Hitchcock who made the word popular in world cinema during the 1930s. The idea behind this concept was that the characters in a film often fall short of motivation. It makes the film mundane and to ameliorate that a filmmaker needs to create conflicts. However, if the characters are motivated for an object or person and are in constant discovery of the same, it becomes obvious that the audiences would be interested to know later actions and strategies of characters. That particular object or person in a movie is called MacGuffin. MacGuffin is basically a plot device that keeps the story of a film ticking.
The importance of MacGuffin in a film is not the object or character itself. MacGuffin is all about the effect it has on other characters. Generally, MacGuffins are objects or character. However, there can also be other forms of MacGuffins. There can be emotional desires like victory, glory, and love or even psychological character attributes.
Here is the list of some non-Alfred Hitchcock films that used MacGuffin as a plot device –
1. The Maltese Falcon – Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon by John Huston is the earliest and comprehensive usage of movie MacGuffin in the plot. In the film, Falcon happens to be the object that everyone desires. Henceforth, it affects the actions of each character in the screenplay. When Gutman and Cario find the Falcon but latterly learn that it is not the original one, they don’t give up. They continue their search for the original Falcon. It is only the perpetual struggle of the characters to search for the falcon which gets the plot going on and engages audiences throughout the film. Falcon becomes the only plot aspect that keeps the characters of the film motivated, and thereby becomes a movie MacGuffin.
2. Citizen Kane – Rosebud
Kane is a very rich, aristocrat, and a powerful personality. It becomes quite evident in the opening scene when the frames captured introduce us to his opulent mansion and exuded wealth. However, when he is about to die, the last word he speaks is Rosebud. Rosebud is the name of sledge which he used in his childhood. Latterly, his life changes after a rich man adopts him, but somehow it is Rosebud that he never forgets. It symbolizes his childhood, his moments of innocence and the (only) good times of his life. It is an emotional plot device that Kane yearns for throughout his life. Rosebud is unleashed only in the ending scene of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.
3. Casablanca – The Letters of Transit
It’s generally the romance and chemistry between an iconic couple of world cinema, Rick & Isla, that entices most of the audiences in Michael Curtiz’s ‘Casablanca’. However, it is the letters of transit that hold most important for the motivation of Rick. Rick loves Isla eternally and it is Isla’s safety that is his main concern throughout the film. In the end, Rick makes Isla board the plane only after he secures the letters of transit. This ensures that she flees Nazi-occupied Morocco. The letters are achieved by murdering two German couriers, thereby affecting the action of protagonists and generating conflicts. So, the letters of transit are movie MacGuffin which keep the story ticking.
4. Shoeshine – The Horses
‘Shoeshine’ by Vittorio De Sica is the story of two friends who eke out their living by doing shoeshine. However, both of them are very ambitious and want to own horses and become rich by using them in races. The film is all about the conflict between them and how they get into crime because of their greed. However, it’s the horses that motivate them, affect their actions and subsequently get them into jail, where the rest of the film progresses. The horses are used as a symbol of their greed, which lead to their life events. Horses have nothing to do with the screenplay and they don’t even appear later in the film, and so they are movie’s MacGuffin.
5. Bicycle Thieves – The Bicycle
In De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’, the protagonist is in search of a job. When he finds one, he needs to have a bicycle to grab the opportunity. He buys one and only to lose it due to the bicycle thievery at work. Conspicuously despondent about the loss, he starts searching his bicycle and his son accompanies him too. Although, the film isn’t about the search of bicycle, but more about discovery of moral values and life lessons during that search, however, bicycle becomes the movie’s MacGuffin, which keeps the protagonist motivated for the rest of the plot. It becomes the plot device that keeps the story going.
6. Star Wars – R2-D2 & The Death Star Plans
George Lucas had used two movie MacGuffins in Star Wars. The Death Star Plans becomes the propulsion of the plot and set Luke and company to pursue the adventure of Galactic Battle that leads to self-discovery. However, without the holograms stored in R2-D2’s memory bank, the rebellion wouldn’t be able to bring down the evil planet that destroys spaceball. From that perspective, it is only R2-D2 that everyone in the plot seeks for and that’s what makes R2-D2 a movie MacGuffin too. There is an eternal debate about which MacGuffin is more important, however, the answer lies in the fact that the story would get no shape without any of them.
7. Pulp Fiction – The Briefcase
Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ is the perfect example of a MacGuffin that is so mysterious that we as an audience do not even know what exactly it is or if it stands any importance. However, it is the briefcase that drives the motivation of characters associated with it. This is the MacGuffin that has led to many theories about it. Fans believe that the briefcase symbolizes the stolen diamonds from The Reservoir Dogs, Rudolf’s nose or even something as abstract as Marsellus Wallace’s soul. However, Tarantino has admitted that there is no idea behind keeping the briefcase but to use it as MacGuffin and baffle the audience through its cryptic and intriguing essence.
8. Saving Private Ryan – Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg demonstrates the use of character as MacGuffin. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ depicts the mission of a group of soldiers that has to conduct a search operation to save a lost soldier called Private Ryan. Private Ryan played by Matt Damon doesn’t have much of screen-time and there are no attributes whatsoever to his character. However, the character happens to be the only reason behind the idea of the film. It doesn’t only drive the motivation of the characters but also becomes the impetus idea and the only narrative tool used in the script. The film goes on to depict the events and conflicts the group of soldier goes through in order to save the Private Ryan.
9. Lord of The Rings – The One Ring
This is the most important movie MacGuffin ever used in the history of cinema because it is the sole element in the film that drives everything- right from the story, events and characters’ motivation. Moreover, it is also the element that becomes responsible for the character transformations of the main character and the subsequent events that take place in the later part of the screenplay. The Ring demonstrates the art of introducing a MacGuffin in the film that is not only motivation to the characters but has powers to control the key incidents in the screenplay. It makes people invisible and drives Gollum to the depth of addiction, but even if it is not enough evidence of it being the most important element of the plot, every character is incessantly yearning to get it.
10. Following – Voyeurism [Character Attribute]
In Christopher Nolan’s ‘Following’, the main character is a struggling writer and seeks solace in voyeurism when he runs out of the story. He follows people and observes them to weave stories out of them. It is solely out of voyeurism he does that. This character attribute of him makes him chase a habitual criminal. The very acquaintance with the man controls the later events in the film and in the end the protagonist discovers that the man he was following was actually following him for ulterior reasons. In this nonlinearly told story, only one character attribute of the main character plays the role of a MacGuffin that controls everything right from the motivation to incidents in the screenplay.
11. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – The Pair of Shotguns
In this heist movie directed by Guy Ritchie, it happens to be the pair of shotguns that drives the characters and progresses the story. Due to $500,000 debt, main characters are compelled to execute a risky heist which involves stealing many things along with two shotguns. The character that compels them is only interested in the two guns worth $2 Million. However, one of the guys is crazy and impulsively sells them at a very low cost. The sold guns now control the later events in the film. This is the perfect example of a MacGuffin the main characters are totally oblivious to the value of it. So, it doesn’t even become their motivation. It plays a vital role in the plot of the film.
World cinema has used this important plot device to tell intriguing stories. There are some other examples like the diamonds in ‘Snatch’, the car in the ‘Repo Man’, the $2 Million in ‘No Country for the Old Man’, and Will Hunting from the film ‘Good Will Hunting’.
It was Alfred Hitchcock who had mastered the art of using MacGuffin and you can observe it in his many masterpieces. Head on to the list of best films by Alfred Hitchcock to know more about the master and his films.