We all love a good story, right? But how often do we watch a movie and we come across things that are irrelevant to the outcome of the story? It could be an object, a person or a place that really has no impact on the actual story-line.
That is what the Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock called the “MacGuffin”. How he described it in interviews was, “a MacGuffin is the object around which the plot revolves, but as to what that object specifically is, the audience don’t care”.
Another way he told the story was something like this:
Two men were riding on a train in Scotland. One turned to the other and said, “What’s in that black box on the luggage rack?”
“A MacGuffin,” the other replied.
“What does it do?”
“It catches lions on the Scottish highlands.”
“But there are no lions on the Scottish highlands,” the man protested.
“Oh? Then that’s no MacGuffin.”
The greatest definition to describe a MacGuffin is – nothing. Yes, that’s right – nothing! Seinfeld later emulated this genius point of making nothing into something in his comedy TV program, but the Master of Suspense was the original creator of the MacGuffin.
Hitchcock started this as early as 1929, there was a white glove found at the crime scene in his movie Blackmail. Yet this white glove had no significance to any part of the movie. It was -nothing. There was the film 39 Steps made in 1935, where we know Mr Memory memorized it – but the WHAT that he was memorizing was totally irrelevant. It was – nothing. Notorious in 1951 continued with a MagGuffin where they found a radioactive substance in wine bottles, but really – who cares and who really remembers that part of the movie. It was – nothing. My favorite MacGuffin was in The Trouble with Harry in 1955, most will admit when you see this film, you forget one item that could be an absolute imperative in the movie. We are so focused on WHO killed Harry, we forget about WHAT his cause of death might be! He used the MacGuffin to completely shift our focus on other things.
All in all, Hitchcock used the MacGuffin in more than 22 of his films, and continued this concept into his TV series, Hitchcock Presents.
I often wonder why he did this. However, it wasn’t until Seinfeld came along where I perhaps related and there was a light bulb moment. It is a show about ‘nothing’, and we all experience ‘nothing’ every day.
Think about it? We get up, we go to work, we hang with friends, and we accomplish goals. We cook, we clean we do the shopping and all the other chores in life we need to do. They are relevant in the BIG picture, but by themselves they are really not relevant at all. What happens in between things and what might be something to you, may be ‘nothing’ to someone else.
Our days are filled with MacGuffin.
Really, who cares what we had for breakfast, lunch or dinner? This is only relevant if you get food poisoning or you are dating a chef – even that‘s a stretch. Does it matter if we get a tram, train or drive to work? Yes, we need to get to work in order to make the rest of things in life happen. But it’s a bit of a ‘nothing’ thing really, isn’t it?
The MacGuffin must happen in life for all of us as it does in the movies, otherwise the big picture would not come together for any of us.
Today is the anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s death. He has been gone from us for 35 years. Yet, his MacGuffin is still with us all each and every day.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s honor – let’s continue our MacGuffins to make our own great pictures!