Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon – The brilliance of the MacGuffin


Yeah, yeah, we all love Alfred Hitchcock and the world is full of movie lovers bending over backwards trying to over-analyze Vertigo (1958), give Norman Bates a heart or prove that North by Northwest (1959) is a romantic comedy. There is not a whole lot left to talk about, dissect or explore in Hitchcock’s filmography. But I love a blogathon. And I love Hitchcock. So here’s my article about some of his MacGuffins. Because why not?

Described by Hitchcock himself as ‘the thing that the spies are after, but the audience don’t care’, a MacGuffin is an object, real or abstract, and essentially a plot device, that sets the true plot of the film in motion. It’s something that the characters are after, and that ultimately leads them to the situation that is the plot. So, in other words, a MacGuffin is only important to the character s and discardable to the audience. Psycho (1960), for example, contains Hitchcock’s most easily identifiable MacGuffin: the 40,000 dollars. In the film’s opening scene, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) talk about Sam’s increasing debts; that afternoon, she steals her boss’ money, goes on the run, is stopped by a state patrol trooper, then dumps her car at the dealership, and then checks into the Bates Motel… and there we have Psycho. The money is now irrelevant and the story changes perspective entirely. It’s such a clear shift, so well made, that there is no mistaking it. Vertigo, on the other, the most studied of all of his films, is not that simple. One of the many things that keeps being brought up regarding Vertigo is the MacGuffin. Film historians and indeed bloggers alike have argued that Scottie (James Stewart)’s vertigo itself is the MacGuffin. Others say that it’s plot itself (film students!). Others, the majority in fact, and The Garden includes itself in that bunch, say that Carlotta Valdes is the MacGuffin: Scottie is hired by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who he thinks has been possessed by ‘someone dead’. That someone is Carlotta Valdes, who turns out to be Madeleine’s great-grandmother. She visits the places where she can feel Carlotta’s presence, namely the cemetery and the museum, followed by Scottie, and this, in turn, leads to the infamous Golden Gate Bridge moment, the catalyst event for everything that follows it. If we accept that the cause of concern for Gavin is Madeleine’s disposition, and that he wants Scottie to, in his own words, find out ‘where she goes and what she does’ and if we accept that where she goes and what she does and indeed the reason she feels like this has to do with Carlotta, then Carlotta can only be the MacGuffin. Although there is also a case to be made for Madeleine herself being the MacGuffin, and indeed for both of them to be a red herring. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole on this one – a Classic Hollywood blog discussing Vertigo, imagine that… – but there’s a reason why it’s endlessly discussable and indeed Sight & Sound’s ‘greatest film of all time’ (sorry, Orson).

The MacGuffin in The Birds (1963) on the other hand, is somewhere in between Vertigo and Psycho, in the indecipherability scale. But only one thing really makes sense: the romance between Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor). It’s the thing that appears to be the main focus in the first twenty minutes or so, and it’s the thing that ultimately brings Melanie (and doom) to Bodega Bay. It’s been argued that the very reason why the birds attack is the MacGuffin, but not only is this unlikely, but also what this does instead is provide a question that ultimately needs to remain unanswered while keeping the audience guessing as opposed to having them dismiss it halfway through, in the way that the MacGuffin does. Needless to say, this is essentially the theme of the film (Man vs. Nature) in the form of a mystery; a sort of message, if you will.

Rear Window (1954)‘s MacGuffin is an interesting one. For a long time, critics and fans have debated over what it is, and some of them have claimed that there isn’t one, a clear one anyway, considering the straight-forwardness of the plot: a wheelchair bound Jeff (James Stewart) watches his neighbors from his own apartment and eventually realizes one of them, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is up to something. The MacGuffin is a curious one, but it is there: ‘what’s buried in the backyard?’ is considered to be Rear Window’s ultimate MacGuffin, because even though one could say the very suspicion that something has happened to Mrs Thorwald could be the MacGuffin, the plot only moves forward – and outside of the apartment – when Jeff realizes the flowerbed looks different than it did a few days prior. After this, Lisa (Grace Kelly) and Stella (Thelma Ritter) go outside to uncover the mystery, which leads them to Thorwald’s apartment… The question in the MacGuffin remains semi-answered and by that point, we’ve reached the the main point and the climax.

The more straight-forward Hitchcock MacGuffins – government secrets/the microfilm in North by Northwest, the uranium in Notorious (1946), the military secrets in The 39 Steps (1935), etc – follow the classic interpretation of a MacGuffin more closely, in the way that so many non-Hitchcockian contemporary films did – the letters of transit in Casablanca (1942), the statuette in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and the meaning of Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941) being just some of them, whereas the more complex ones – the coded message in The Lady Vanishes (1939), the cause of Harry’s death in The Trouble with Harry (1955), etc – offer a different take on it, one that is quintessential Alfred Hitchcock and that only he could pull off. The endless debates over the MacGuffins in his films, more than anyone else’s, are proof of this. Even more interesting is the fact that the very idea of a MacGuffin mirrors the voyeurism element of many Hitchcock films: we watch the characters as they try and get out of whatever situation the MacGuffin has brought them to. One could say that that’s the very essence of movie-watching, but the unimportance we, the audience, put on the MacGuffin, this thing that matters to these characters, just to then watch and indeed revel in how they get out of it, is wonderfully wicked in itself. The irony, of course, is that a MacGuffin is ultimately important. It’s a plot device which goes from being important, to unimportant when other issues arise, and then back to important, when it turns out that the characters wouldn’t have achieved what they did had it not been for the MacGuffin, and ultimately that there would have been no movie without it. All hail the MacGuffin!

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12 thoughts on “Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon – The brilliance of the MacGuffin

  1. Pingback: The Third Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon Arrives – Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

  2. Your post is so great! Actually, I’d recommend it to anyone who needs to understand what is a MacGuffin.
    I agree with you that Carlotta is the MacGuffin in Vertigo. It’s the hypothesis that makes more sense.
    Thanks for the kind comment! Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

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