Recently I viewed an old “Dick Cavett Show” with Alfred Hitchcock. The legendary director explained that the FBI once put him under surveillance because he used uranium as a plot device in Notorious. Ironically, when some other countries objected to uranium’s place in the film for political reasons, Hitchcock was fine with changing it to “secret plans” or some other alternative for those foreign markets. Uranium itself was not important to Hitchcock who famously called it a “MacGuffin.” Hitch told the story of two hunters in the Scottish Highlands. One hunter asks the other what device he has. The second one replies “It’s a MacGuffin, a trap for lions.” Puzzled, the first hunter says “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The second hunter thinks it over, looks at his device again, and replies, “Then that’s not a MacGuffin.” In other words, it doesn’t matter. For the sake of the movie, all that counts is that the characters want it, or, as Hitchcock also said, “It’s what the characters care about but the audience doesn’t.”
Many movies don’t have MacGuffins. For example, Raiders of the Lost Ark explains the worth of the Ark of the Covenant so well, that, whether you are religious or not, the Ark matters. Even Hitchcock did not always use them. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, we all desperately want Dr. McKenna (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife (Doris Day) to get their son back. But when a movie uses a MacGuffin skillfully, it can draw you in so well that you give little thought to the object, or goal, that’s driving those on screen. Sometimes the MacGuffin might not make sense or isn’t even explained at all. I’m offering some of my favorites. Since it would be all too easy to give many examples from Hitchcock alone, I’m limiting the list to one per director:
Bringing Up Baby (dir. Howard Hawks) -- Intercostal Clavicle
No one could play annoyed or exasperated quite like Cary Grant. Paleontologist David (Grant) endures multiple setbacks and humiliations while desperately searching for “the intercostal clavicle,” the last bone needed to complete his dinosaur reconstruction. Of course Grant’s frustration is our enjoyment, as he banters with Susan (Katharine Hepburn) while going from one outlandish situation to the next. A flop in its time, many film buffs now consider Bringing Up Baby the archetype for the screwball comedy. By the way, there’s no real dinosaur bone called the “the intercostal clavicle.” David himself finally understands the futility of his search when his whole dinosaur model comes crumbling down. It doesn’t matter anymore because he has Susan. He’s happy, and so are we.
Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz) – Letters of Transit
Almost no one can leave Casablanca, but Ugarte (Peter Lorre) explains that he has two letters of transit that “cannot be rescinded or questioned.” Captain Renault (Claude Raines) wants them. Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) desperately wants them. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) wants them so much she’s willing to pull a gun on Rick (Humphrey Bogart), her former lover. Wait a minute. Why can’t the letters of transit be rescinded or questioned? Why would anyone, even the Nazis, feel compelled to honor the letters? There’s no good answer to these questions. In fact, no such kind of “letters of transit” ever existed in World War II era Casablanca, or anywhere in that region. The screenwriters freely admitted that they invented the letters as a plot device. It worked. We get swept up in the romance, intrigue, and wit so that, long before Ilsa leaves with Victor and long before Rick and Renault start their beautiful friendship, we stopped caring about the letters.
Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock) -- $40,000 in cash
We all remember the shower murder scene, but we need to think a little to remember why the doomed Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) checked into the Bates Motel. She embezzled $40,000 from her employer’s client and was on the run to meet her boyfriend. For the first act of the movie the money consumes Marion. She worries about her boss finding out and about a cop catching her. Mentally exhausted, she is leaning towards returning the money by the time she arrives at the motel. It turns out none of that mattered. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) never even knew the money existed. As Norman prepares to sink Marion and her car in the swamp, Hitchcock lets the camera linger on the trunk, where the money was hidden. It’s Hitch’s sly commentary on how what can seem important ends up meaningless.
For Your Eyes Only (dir. John Glen) -- ATAC (Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator)
Many Bond movies feature MacGuffins, but this one made the least sense. The ATAC is described as a device that “uses an ultra-low frequency coded transmitter to order [British] submarines to launch ballistic missiles.” It goes missing when the ship holding it is sunk. The Brits want the ATAC, but so do the Russians. Cue the Bond chases, fights, gadgets and girls. For Your Eyes Only is rightfully considered one of the better Bond films, a return to the basics after the outlandishness of Moonraker. In the climax, Bond (Roger Moore) destroys the ATAC to prevent it from falling into the Russians’ hands. Why couldn’t the Brits just change their submarine launch codes? It would save everyone much trouble, but also wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
Stand By Me (dir. Rob Reiner) – the dead body
I remember Stand by Me as a moving coming of age story of four twelve-year-old boys. What I often forget is that the boys are going to find a dead body. The body is of another boy who went missing a few days before. Who was the boy and how did he die? That’s never explained, because it’s not the point of the story. The point is the journey itself and what the boys learn about themselves and about each other. It’s about how they grow up. Like all great MacGuffins, the body simply gets the characters, and the audience, where they need to be.
Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan) -- $640 million in bearer bonds
Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia) cannot hide her disappointment when she discovers that the men who killed her colleagues, including her boss, are merely going after money: “After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you're nothing but a common thief.” Audiences did not share Holly’s feelings. The movie has fun with our preconceptions, even having the villains pretend to be terrorists to buy time. They make outrageous demands to free political prisoners, which has nothing to do with their real goal. Really though, Die Hard is a thrilling cat-and-mouse game between John McClane (Bruce Willis) and the bad guys. If Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his men were after some amazing new technology instead, it wouldn’t make any difference.
Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino) – the briefcase
What’s in the briefcase? We know it glows, and that it has a hypnotic effect on those that see it. We know that Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) kill several people to get the briefcase, and that Jules risks his life to keep it. But not only did Tarantino not reveal the briefcase’s contents in the movie, he also refused to do so in interviews. He said that he likes how audiences have come to their own varying conclusions. In the end though, it never mattered what’s in the briefcase, only the actions that it triggered and what it revealed about the characters. By keeping it a mystery, rather than having it be money, jewels, or other treasures, Tarantino illustrates how what a McGuffin is means so much less than how it works.
The Spanish Prisoner (dir. David Mamet) – the “process”
Like Tarantino, David Mamet has fun with his MacGuffin. Joe Ross (Campbell Soctt) has invented a “process” that will make his company millions. No one says what this process is or how it works. But as with the briefcase, the characters will go to great lengths to possess it. With Mamet, those lengths involve multiple con jobs and shifting allegiances. It’s the twists, turns, and mind games that grab our attention, so that the “process” itself is immaterial.
The Big Lebowski (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen) – the kidnapping
Believe it or not, The Big Lebowski was widely considered a disappointment after the critical and commercial success of Fargo, the Coen brothers’ previous film. As with Bringing Up Baby, it took time for The Big Lebowski to become a classic. I have been to the Lebowski store in Manhattan, a Lebowski festival at the Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse, and even a Lebowski-themed wedding. People just love “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges), Walter (John Goodman), Maude (Julianne Moore), and “the Jesus” (John Turturro) almost as much as they love quoting the film. But how many people remember or care that “the Dude” is sent to retrieve a millionaire’s kidnapped wife? “The Dude” and Walter bungle every attempt to deliver the ransom money. Maude speculates that the kidnapping was faked and set up by the wife herself. The kidnapping is never really resolved, but who cares? The Big Lebowski has become the ultimate “hangout movie,” which Tarantino defined as a film you watch over and over again just to spend time with the characters.
Superbad (dir. Greg Mottola) – Seth and Evan losing their virginity
Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are trying to have sex before they go to college. But that quickly grows less important as they and their friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), better known as McLovin, have a crazy night trying to buy alcohol and stay out of jail. The film becomes a hilarious take-off on the regular party movie as the situations grow increasingly wild. It also makes the most out of the charm and awkwardness of its stars. By the end, it’s clear that Seth and Evan are most concerned not about hooking up, but about whether their friendship will survive going to different colleges. Of course they still want sex and will probably get it (eventually), but they had to do some growing up first.
April 1, 2013
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