Top 10 MacGuffins

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Originally popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, the term “MacGuffin” refers to the object in a movie that drives the action. In most cases, what the MacGuffin actually is irrelevant. It exists solely to get the characters moving and drive the plot forward. The only real requirement is that it must be something people are willing to cheat, lie, steal, kill, or be killed for. As long as it sounds plausible, it’ll work. Still, despite the very loose qualifications for a MacGuffin, great films have used some pretty memorable ones. Here are the Top Ten Movie MacGuffins in the history of cinea:

10. The Diamonds – Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs

No matter your opinion of Quentin Tarantino, there’s no arguing his knowledge of movies. For his first film, he boiled down thousands of crime flicks into the ultimate heist movie, although one where the heist is never shown. Less concerned with the mechanics of how the crime occurred, the film is much more interested in how the characters relate to each other, and what they’re willing to do to each other when things go south. At the center of that unseen robbery and all its horrible, horrible consequences is a bag of diamonds. Rarely seen and barely mentioned, the diamonds are the impetus for all the swearing, fighting, shooting, killing, torturing, and backstabbing. Things get so horrific that audiences can be forgiven if they forgot that the bag of diamonds are what brought the color-coded madmen together in the first place. And in the end, every one of them (except for Mr. Pink) ends up dead for the MacGuffin.

9. The Ransom – The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebwoski

What makes the Coen Brothers great is how they can follow the rules of a genre picture to the letter while still making something completely original and unexpected. Take The Big Lebowski, their 1998 stoner noir detective film. The plot, such as it is, follows the efforts of ex hippie Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski as he attempts to replace his cherished rug and in the process gets dragged into a good old fashioned L.A. mystery. Well, almost. It’s got all the trappings of a classic noir- the cynical detective, head-spinning twists and turns, a group of dangerous thugs, and a beautiful woman in peril. But none of it ever seems all that serious. Even it’s MacGuffin turns out to be a joke. In the film, Lebowski is hired by another Lebowski to deliver a suitcase full of money as ransom for his abducted trophy wife. Once this enters the picture (and abruptly gets lost) it drives Lebowski and his psychotic friend Walter to solve the crime, and hopefully see a big payout. But this is a Coen Brothers film and in the end, the ransom was fake, no one really got kidnapped, and besides Lebowski’s poor friend Donnie, everything ends up just about exactly the same as it began.

8. The Maltese Falcon – The Maltese Falcon

Maltese Falcon

The stuff that dreams are made of. In the noir classic The Maltese Falcon, everybody wants to get their grimy hands on the titular black bird. Although we get some back story about the statue’s illustrious past and the gold and gems hidden beneath its simple coating, it’s mostly just window dressing to make us believe that these people would dedicate their lives to finding the thing, and be willing to fill each other full of lead to get it. For Casper Gutman, his creepy assistant Cairo, and the girl Brigid, it’s the end all and be all of their existence and the treasure they’ve covered the world searching for. For Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, who’s caught in the middle of everything and ends up with the thing, it’s something to keep him alive along enough to collect some kind of payout. The Maltese Falcon is full of action and suspense, but what makes it unforgettable is the thick undercurrent of greed that propels every character, even the hero. Greed for a little black bird and the riches it can bring.

7. The Bike – Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

Pee Wees Big Adventure

MacGuffins are usually something so important or valuable that they drive men and women to dramatic levels of greed and violence. No matter how vaguely they’re described, it’s always clear that anyone in their right mind would kill to get them. Other times, they’re just a really cool bike. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, the 1985 flick that brought Pee Wee Herman to mainstream audiences, is all about his search for his awesome bike. When it is stolen early in the film, Pee Wee begins a cross country journey to find his treasured two wheeler. Along the way he befriends an ex-con, a waitress with a dream, and even a ghostly trucker called Large Marge. He finds love, friendship, fame, and eventually his bike. But by that point, it doesn’t even matter. Herman started out as a boy (although a really old creepy one) looking for his bike, but he ends up a hero, a friend, a lover, but most importantly of all, a man. Now that’s one hell of a MacGuffin. And it’s a pretty cool bike.

6. The Death Star Plans – Star Wars

DeathStar

There are two schools of thought when it comes to MacGuffins. The first says that what the MacGuffin is doesn’t matter. As long as it stirs up the plot and sets things in motion, good enough. The second school argues that for a MacGuffin to be truly effective, it needs to be something of critical importance, not just to the characters, but to the audience as well. The Death Star plans in Star Wars are prime examples of the second philosophy. They are the impetus for the plot and set Luke and company on their adventure of galactic battle, self-discovery, and feathered hair, but they are more than just some generic plans. Without the hologram stored in R2D2’s memory banks, the rebellion wouldn’t be able to bring down the evil planet destroying spaceball. Still, does it really matter how they blow up the thing? For all their usefulness, the plans are still just a thing to get the story going. And that makes them a MacGuffin.

5. The $2 Million – No Country for Old Men

No country for old men

Two things kick off the intricate cat and mouse game in No Country for Old Men. The first is a satchel with 2 million bucks in it that loser Llewlyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) stumbles upon at a drug deal gone wrong. The second is his decision to go back and bring some water to the only man left standing after the fight. That may be what sets the bad guys on his trail, but it’s the $2 million MacGuffin that keeps them coming. Suddenly rich and just smart enough to realize how much trouble he’s in, Moss flees with the money even though he knows that whoever left it won’t give it up that easily. Unfortunately for him, the men who lost the cash hire Anton Chigurh, the most psychotic man to ever get a bad haircut. The money drives Moss to more and more desperate acts, just as it drives Chigurh to kill and creep his way closer and closer. In the end, the movie becomes about how far ahead of Chigurh Moss can stay and the real prize isn’t the money, it’s the chance to breathe another day. Classic Coen Brothers and classic MacGuffin.

4. The Military Secrets – The 39 Steps

39-steps

You can’t have a list of MacGuffins without at least one example from the master, Alfred Hitchcock. Almost all of his films have a MacGuffin of some sort at their core, and few filmmakers were as skilled as Hitchcock in creating thrills and drama out of the chase for a largely unknown property. In his classic The 39 Steps, everything revolves around a mysterious set of “military secrets.” No one knows what they are, and Hitchcock never goes to any great length to explain them until the very end. By the time the audience does find out what they are, it almost doesn’t matter. All that is important is they’re secret and a shadowy cabal of foreign spies will do anything to get them, including terrorizing a poor, innocent Canadian who stumbles into their web of intrigue. One of the first and best examples of a MacGuffin, the military secrets in The 39 Steps create a lot of drama, and in the end mean almost nothing.

3. The Ring – Lord of the Rings

the ring

For all its power, mystery, and danger, The One Ring in Lord of the Rings is really just a big, high stakes MacGuffin . Unlike most MacGuffins, it doesn’t drive a bunch of lowlifes to chase each other around dark alleyways looking for a quick buck, it actually is the only thing which can save the whole world. Still, scale isn’t important in the MacGuffin game. Everybody wants the Ring, everything happens when it appears, and every danger little Frodo and friends face is directly related to the fact that he’s got the Ring on a string around his neck. Sounds like a MacGuffin to me. There’s also the fact that there isn’t much evidence that the Ring is so powerful or dangerous, besides the fact the characters tell us there is. A lot. Sure, it makes people invisible and drives Gollum to the depths of addiction, but that doesn’t seem like enough to rule the world. The Ring is just a thing that everyone wants. And that’s a MacGuffin, through and through.

2. The Glowing Briefcase – Kiss Me Deadly

kiss me deadly

The glowing briefcase in the 1955 noir film Kiss Me Deadly is such a classic MacGuffin that Quentin Tarantino borrowed it (or stole it, depending on your opinion of him as a filmmaker) for the Macguffin in his Pulp Fiction. In that movie, the glowing briefcase is something beautiful, famous, and valuable. In Kiss Me Deadly, it’s just as valuable, but a lot more deadly. In the film, tough-as-nails detective Mike Hammer happens upon an escaped mental patient in the middle of the desert. Then things start to get weird. After more twists than a rollercoaster, it becomes clear that everyone is after a glowing briefcase. Since this is 1955, the case contains something hot to the touch, atomic, and incredibly dangerous. Hammer (and the audience) are never quite clear what is in the case, but they know that an army of thugs are after it, and they don’t mind killing to get it. And in perfect MacGuffin tradition, the person who does finally get it dies in a fiery explosion. No wonder Marcellus Wallace was so pissed that those hamburger loving kids stole the thing.

1. Rosebud – Citizen Kane

rosebud

In Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, an unseen newsreel reporter sifts through the wreckage of a man’s life, searching for the meaning behind his last words. The man is wealthy newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, and the word is simply “rosebud.” The film is a wonderful example of how a MacGuffin works. The word “rosebud” is the impetus for the reporter’s search and the reason he’s been assigned the story, but besides a few mentions here and there, it quickly fades to the background as the men and women who knew Kane share their personal stories of how he loved, worked with, and ultimately hurt and betrayed the people closest to him. In the end, the secret of rosebud remains unknown to the reporter, although in the very last scene the audience sees that it was the name of his childhood sled. Critics and movie fans have debated for years what that final scene is about, but the reporter realizes that it doesn’t matter. No one thing or word defines a man, it’s how he treated the people around him that did. “Rosebud” is a classic MacGuffin; intriguing, mysterious, and ultimately meaningless.


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22 Comments

  1. This article is ridiculous. Four of these things—numbers 1, 3, 6, and 7—are not MacGuffins. In order to be a MacGuffin, the object in question must be non-functional and thus entirely interchangeable. That’s the whole point. What makes it a MacGuffin is that precisely what it is doesn’t actually matter to the plot. As the estimable TV Tropes explains, a MacGuffin “actually serves no further purpose. It won’t pop up again later, it won’t explain the ending, it won’t actually do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. In some cases, it won’t even be shown. It is usually a mysterious package/artifact/superweapon that everyone in the story is chasing.

    “To determine if a thing is a MacGuffin, check to see if it is interchangeable. For example, in a caper story the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope diamond, it makes no difference which. The rest of the story (i.e. it being stolen) would be exactly the same. It doesn’t matter which it is, it is only necessary for the characters to want it.”

    “Rosebud,” the One Ring, the Death Star plans, and Pee Wee’s bike all fail this test.

    “Rosebud” isn’t (as far as anyone knows for most of the film) a thing at all; it’s a mystery that drives one portion of the plot. Not a MacGuffin.

    A major element of the One Ring is that it has agency; it does things (and “wants to be found”) during the story. That makes it entirely NON-interchangeable, and therefore not a MacGuffin.

    The Death Star plans would be a MacGuffin if Episode IV had ended thirty minutes earlier. But once Luke and company escape to Yavin, the Rebels use those plans to formulate an attack strategy; at that point no one is interested in getting the plans anymore, and it’s functional. As a result, it’s not a MacGuffin.

    And Pee Wee’s bike is only being sought by one person in the movie; it is very clearly not an item “that everyone in the story is chasing.” Then, a late sequence involves Pee Wee riding the bike—and making use of its peculiar innovations—to escape studio security. That makes it extremely non-interchangeable. Not A MacGuffin.

    It’s also worth mentioning that two of the remaining six entries on the list above are simple piles of cash. Those do drive their respective plots, and they are interchangeable—but (duh) it’s the nature of money to be interchangeable. That’s the point. Plain old currency is certainly not what Hitchcock had in mind when he came up with the word.

    (TV Tropes warns: “Do not confuse with Plot Device. Please, don’t.” You did.)

    So here we have a list of “Top 10 MacGuffins,” and only four of them are real MacGuffins. How absurd.

      • I think you need to re-read that TVT page you linked to. It states, correctly, that the Ring is not a MacGuffin but an Artifact of Doom. MacGuffins are inanimate. The Ring is a character.

        For the same reason, the Death Star plans are a legitimate contender for MacGuffin status, and R2 isn’t, insofar as he’s sentient; he certainly appears to be. Then, as I said, one can make a perfectly reasonable case that the plans are a MacGuffin until they reach Yavin. Then no one is chasing them anymore. The search/fight for them is no longer driving the plot (even at the very climax of the movie), and that’s the fundamental requirement for a MacGuffin.

        It’s hardly shocking that George Lucas got this wrong. He’s George Lucas.

    • Geoff Shakespeare on

      Hey Rieux,

      Sorry you didn’t enjoy the article, but since when is TV Tropes the final authority on what a macguffin is? My definition, and the one given by Hitchcock, who popularized the term, isn’t quite so rigid. You say money isn’t what Hitchcock had in mind when he came up with the term. Since you seem to know him so well- and have the ability to talk to the dead- perhaps you could get him to comment below and put the matter to rest once and for all? If he comes down on your side there’s a steak dinner in it for you!

      • since when is TV Tropes the final authority on what a macguffin is?

        Well, they tend to pay attention to such concepts; you evidently have not.

        You say money isn’t what Hitchcock had in mind when he came up with the term. Since you seem to know him so well- and have the ability to talk to the dead- perhaps you could get him to comment below and put the matter to rest once and for all?

        Oh, right. It’s so unfortunate that no one ever records things that dead people said when they were alive; in order to know anything about them, one must “have the ability to talk to the dead.” Mm-hmm.

        I guess this must not exist, then:

        In TV interviews, Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the object around which the plot revolves, but, as to what that object specifically is, he declared, “the audience don’t care”.

        You want Hitchcock, you got Hitchcock. Interchangeability. From the horse’s mouth, six of your ten things aren’t MacGuffins.

    • Rieux, you are 100% correct.

      Some people will never get it, even when you spoon-feed it to them.

      C’est la vie.

    • Sigh.

      What makes a MacGuffin is an item’s function in a story. “Rosebud” as a plot point in Citizen Kane is simply the object of a mystery that one character, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), is attempting to solve. Thompson is not looking for a sled, chasing after a sled, trying to acquire a sled. Instead, he is trying to answer the question “What did Kane’s final word, ‘Rosebud,’ mean?”

      And he never even finds out. He never learns—no character in the movie, except Kane himself, ever knows—that Rosebud is a sled.

      That makes that sled the opposite of a MacGuffin: it’s an object that no character in the movie ever seeks, though it is imbued with enormous meaning, meaning absolutely specific to it itself, for the single character who even knows it exists.

      Not all plot points, or plot points involving objects, are MacGuffins. The word actually means something, even if GS is seriously confused about what that is. This article is just clueless nonsense.

  2. Mr. Pink actually does die at the end of Reservoir Dogs. In the end, as Orange and White are laying on the floor, you can here faint shouting and then gunshots right before the cops storm the warehouse. We are then to assume that he has been taken down. The final ending then points out another classic element to the film: everyone dies. Just like Hamlet, nothing but a pile of corpses.

  3. Rosebud indeed was a MacGuffin (if I understand the concept correctly). To me Rosebud represented innonence and happiness. Rosebud could have been anything, it is what it represented that is important. Rosebud represented the only time in his life that Cain was innocent and the only time in his life that he was truly happy. What Rosebud was was unimportant and in that sense it is a MacGuffin. It is what it represented that was important.

    • if I understand the concept correctly….

      You don’t.

      No one in the entire film tries to acquire the sled. No one but Kane (note spelling—do you think the movie is called “Citizen Cain”?) even cares about the sled. Thompson is just trying to answer a question. If that’s a MacGuffin, every mystery ever put onto film is a MacGuffin.

      This is the kind of dilution-into-meaninglessness that this article implies. It’s ridiculous.

  4. i think you left out a big one…. THE MONEY IN THE MOVIE: IT’S A MAD,MAD,MAD,MAD,MAD,MAD, MAD,MAD WORLD!! that was almost 3 hours of all these people rushing to get money!!! theres backstabing, action, and a gas station gets flatened JUST TO GET IT!!

  5. Interesting article,
    Some other movies that could have been included are Pulp Fiction and Ronin for their mysterious briefcases, the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III, and the mineral in Avatar. I think the movie Snatch has one. On the commentary soundtrack to the 2004 DVD release of Star Wars, writer and director George Lucas describes R2-D2 as “the main driving force of the movie … what you say in the movie business is the MacGuffin … the object of everybody’s search.”

    • The Empire was after R2 because he carried the plans to the Death Star, which, if you’ll notice, was example #6 on this list.
      Also, Pulp Fiction’s briefcase was mentioned in #2.

  6. What the letters of transit in Casablanca? Or the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark? For that matter, I guess all the Indy movies revolve around a MacGuffin of sorts, particularly the Last Crusade. It revolves around THE MacGuffin- the Holy Grail itself.

  7. Hitchcock to Truffaut, 1966: “It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’, and the other answers ‘Oh, that’s a McGuffin’. The first one asks ‘What’s a McGuffin?’. ‘Well’, the other man says, ‘It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands’. The first man says ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands’, and the other one answers ‘Well, then that’s no McGuffin!’. So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.”

    I don’t know why you wouldn’t just rely on the definition given by the guy who invented the damn thing.

    Match each film listed above to this verbatim quote from the Master and see what’s what.

  8. What about the aliens in the trunk of the Chevy Malibu in Repo Man? It’s like a double MacGuffin. You could change the aliens to military secrets or you could change the car to, say, an ice chest.

  9. Carl Copeland on

    Kiss Me Deadly is not an example of a MacGuffin. If it is central to the plot, yet both the audience and characters care about it then it is NOT a Macguffin, which the box in Kiss Me Deadly clearly is. The film is a commentary on Cold War/Nuclear paranoia so it is therefore central. Plus the ending is a central aspect to the plot. The best example of a Macguffin is in Psycho, the $40,000, it drives many of the characters in the plot, but the audience don’t really care and by the end of the narrative, it is really insignificant.

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