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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.