What’s A McGuffin?

Syllabification: Mc·Guf·fin

An object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot.

The best way the idea of a McGuffin was ever described to me was by one of my film professors when I was in college. He said ‘A McGuffin is the Holy Grail, from a story point of view it doesn’t matter what the grail is or what it represents or even if Arthur and his men ever find it, the only purpose the grail serves is to give the knights of the roundtable a quest. The story is about the quest, not the grail.’ From a story telling perspective McGuffins have existed long before the term McGuffin ever came to be (it is most often attributed to Hitchcock from the 1930’s) but the McGuffin didn’t really come into its own until movies. Why? Because McGuffins represent a quest, a mystery and the kind of streamlined plot that makes for great movies and the beautiful thing is they can be anything because what they are doesn’t matter, at least not to the audience. Here, this is how Hitchcock described it:

Still confused? Well look at my top ten ‘McGuffin’ movies and you’ll see what I mean:

10. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) “The Bike”

The sled that represented the innocence of youth and the eventual death of that innocence, a ransom to save the life of a thought to be kidnapped girl, the ring that could destroy the world, a buried treasure, a priceless statue, uranium, the holy grail and…. a very cool red bike. Yup, it fits right in there, doesn’t it? For those of you unfamiliar with the Tim Burton’s perfectly silly cult classic, Pee Wee Herman’s bike is stolen and he heads off on a cross country quest to find it. Along the way he falls in love, makes friends and even finds accidental fame…oh, and yes he eventually finds his bike. Like Hitchcock says, the McGuffin is something the characters care a great deal about and audiences don’t care about at all, you know, like a red bike (check out the scene that unveils Pee Wee’s bike below).

9. It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) “$350,000”

Four cars see another car get in a horrible accident. They go to help but it is too late. As the driver dies he shares with them the details of where he hid the money from his last score. When the occupants of the four vehicles can’t agree to share an absolutely hysterical race ensues to see who can get to the money first. They have tried to remake this movie (most recently with the un-watchably bad Rat Race) but I’m not sure it can be done. This cast is so perfect and perfectly hysterical that it seems wrong to try on some karmic level, which fits since that, in many ways, bad karma is at the heart of the lesson of this movie.

Here’s a clip of the late, great Sid Caesar trying to explain how the money should be split up.

8. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001 – 2003) “The Ring”

On a core level a McGuffin movie is a quest movie and what bigger quest franchise has there ever been that LOR. The Ring is such a spectacular device that it can fuel three movies. Can you imagine three movies propelled by Pee Wee’s red bike or the $350,000? Of course not. But the one ring that controls them all, well that can almost fuel Hobbit movies too.

“One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them. One ring to bind them…”

7. Notorious (1946) “Uranium”

Nearly every Hitchcock movie has a McGuffin, just a lot of times it doesn’t count because the McGuffin is a person and by his own definition a true McGuffin must be a thing . So George Kaplan in North by Northwest or Madeline in Vertigo or The Cat in To Catch a Thief can’t make the list. The military secrets from 39 Steps would count, as would the formula from Torn Curtain, but Notorious is really the winner here. Cary Grant recruits Ingrid Bergman to reconnect with an old flame in order to find uranium that has been stolen that could be used to build a nuclear bomb. Mission Impossible II, as well as a lot of other movies and TV shows, have stolen this plot nearly beat for beat over the years, but no one has done it as well as Hitchcock. Of course, when you pair Carey Grant and Ingrid Bergman on screen how hard could it be to make that movie awesome? Don’t believe me? Watch this 2:40 tracking shot of them saying goodbye to each other and you’ll see what I mean.

6. Citizen Kane (1941) “Rosebud”

THE filmmakers movies. The Babe Ruth of film. Citizen Kane has spent 80 plus years being hailed as one of the greatest achievements in cinema history and the truth is it deserves every accolade it receives. And just as Citizen Kane might be the greatest movie ever made Rosebud might be the greatest McGuffin ever used. It starts as simply a word, the last thing a dying man says, but that word propels us through a lifetime, allows us to see that we are watching a man who is at once the hero and the villain of his own life and even though we get to finally learn what ‘Rosebud’ is, the story teller doesn’t. In the world of the film Rosebud forever remains a mystery. Here’s how the mystery begins…

5. The Big Lebowski (1998) “The Ransom”

If I hadn’t put the answer would you have remembered what thing drives the entire plot of The Big Lebowski? Would you have guessed the rug the “really tied the room together” or Bunny, the missing trophy wife who is just in Vegas? Nope, it all starts because of the ransom which is what makes the ransom such a great McGuffin, it is so unimportant that you can barely remember it after. The ransom is the plot device, but the movie is about the Dude and the his travels through LA as he abides. If you’ve seen the movie you don’t need this warning but even in the 8 second clip below there is a an F-bomb or two.

4. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) “The Gold”

Eli Wallach knows the name of the cemetery, Clint Eastwood knows which grave and Lee Van Cleef knows enough to know he wants the gold all for himself. One of the great westerns of all time uses the classic McGuffin framing of having the quest for a thing allow us to travel through the entirety of a world. In this case the world is an Italian’s view of the United States during the Civil War. Does it resemble that in any way? Nope, but it is still a great movie and it has one of the greatest endings of all time, here’s the final shootout just to prove it.

3. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) “The Grail”

Like I said at the outset, the grail may be the ultimate McGuffin and because of that any “grail” movie could make this list. The DaVinci Code, Excalibur, Camelot, if Arthur and the quest for the grail are in it, it’s a McGuffin movie. But let’s be honest, none of those hold a stick to Python’s Holy Grail.  As for the movie, what’s left to say about it? If it isn’t at the top of the all time “laugh per minute” movie list it has to be awfully near the top and it almost without question tops the “I can hop in at any time and for any amount of time and be laughing” list, I mean, how often have you been flipping around on a Saturday and just watched the fight with the black night (’tis but a flesh wound’) or Arthur being taunted by the French (‘I fart in your general direction’) or Lancelot storming the castle (‘sorry, sorry’) or the rabbit protecting the entrance to the cave (‘oh, I told you but you wouldn’t listen, would ya’) or the crossing the bridge (‘a European swallow or an African swallow’) or Lancelot saving Gallahad from the  peril of the castle of the virgins (‘no, it’s too perilous’) or…well, I think we all get the point (and I didn’t even get to the Knights who say ni, oh well, I’ll just attach that clip).

2. The Maltese Falcon (1941) “The Maltese Falcon”

Sam Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Detective Dundy, Joel Cairo, Kasper Gutman, the names scream film noir. Of course ‘noir’ means something more to me than it might to younger people. Older movies that I love, including most of the movies on this list, fall into a few different categories for me. There are the movies that I tell younger people to watch and believe they will love them as much as I do (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Monty Python and the Holy Grail), movies that I recommend that I’m not sure if someone used to modern film pacing and sensibilities will enjoy (It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Citizen Kane) and movies that I don’t bring up because I don’t want to know how modern eyes will see the movie, I love them the way they are. Film Noir and frankly much of Hitchcock’s catalog fit into that category. If you are under 30 and you haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon or Notorious see them if you want, just don’t tell me about it. I know it is slower than what you are used to and the plotting is different, but I love it. Anyway, as a McGuffin the priceless statue may be perfect. Everyone is chasing it, everyone is willing to kill for it, everything revolves around it in a great and complicated and morally bankrupt way. Or, to put it another way, it is the stuff that dreams are made of.

1. Pulp Fiction (1994) “Whatever Is In The Glowing Briefcase”

Tarantino actually borrowed (or stole, if you don’t like him) the suitcase from a little 1955 flick called Kiss Me Deadly with tough as nails detective Mike Hammer (actual pulp fiction fans and fans of noir will know that name). What’s in the case that Marsellus Wallace has Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield retrieve? Who knows. Whatever it is it shines and takes people’s breath away at the mere sight of it. Who can forget John Travolta opening the case and basking in its glow as a cigarette dangles from his lips. Who can forget Tim Roth becoming immediately speechless when he opens the case in the diner and his Honey Bunny, the always interesting Amanda Plummer, asking him ‘what is it?’. It is something, something beautiful, something worth dying for and killing for, but what it is doesn’t really matter. That is why it is #1, not because Pulp Fiction is my favorite of these ten movies (yes, it happens to be, but that’s beside the point), but because the suitcase is the ultimate McGuffin, it’s just a thing. What they are chasing, what they are willing to kill for, doesn’t matter, what matters is that they want to chase it and they are willing to kill for it. And that is a McGuffin, because, after all there are no lions in the Scottish highlands. 

But hey, what do I know? I’m fat.

2 thoughts on “What’s A McGuffin?

  • March 20, 2014 at 11:59 pm

    In the history of film, has there ever been an instance where a McMuffin served as a McGuffin?

  • March 21, 2014 at 12:01 am

    And what about the "thing in the trunk" in Repo Man? If that wasn't the inspiration for the glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction, I don't know what was.

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