Hitchcock, explaining the term “MacGuffin,” called it “nothing at all.”
The basic idea is this: there is a motivating factor at play in certain kinds of films (for example thrillers, spy films) that seems to drive the characters’ actions but is in reality just a front, and of no importance to the plot proper. It doesn’t really matter. Under the rule of the MacGuffin, all the manufactured urgency of thrilling films is a ruse, paper-thin. Here is the story Hitch used to explain it:
…a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.” The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “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 MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
This does not seem convincing to me.
MacGuffins are frequently objects. Over the course of the film these objects come to be imbued with totemic value. We know, and the characters know, that the MacGuffin is set apart from the ordinary scheme of things by virtue of some fact or series of facts that inhere in it. Something exists which makes the MacGuffin a different class of thing.
Kiss Me Deadly is a film about a box. What’s in the box? We don’t know. When the box is opened, the world is destroyed. The world is destroyed and the film ends. A strange light is shown to come out of the box, lighting a character’s face from below. All that is in the box, therefore, all that we can see, is a stream of light: the film’s medium, the pen that writes its images.
Kiss Me Deadly, therefore, is a film about the search for a box.
It’s part of Hitchcock’s contention that a different set of desires drives the audience and the characters. The characters, the people in the film, are driven by the MacGuffin, by desire for this thing. On the other hand—and this is Hitchcock speaking—the audience doesn’t care about the MacGuffin.
The audience doesn’t care about the pearls, jewelry, bomb, or blonde. This raises the question: what, then, does the audience care about?
Perhaps we can posit that each film is two. One film for the characters. One film for you.
Taken at all seriously, the idea of the MacGuffin demands this kind of split screen. It is the aim of every spy film to generate a certain affective economy, an emotional similitude between the people on screen and the people watching the screen. When Alec Leamas is shot dead scaling the Berlin Wall, this is a tragedy. When a gun or file goes missing, something is threatened to happen; objects, those I can see and those I don’t, nominally drive this emotional scenery.
The MacGuffin disrupts this narrative scheme. Suddenly, I am told, my feelings aren’t what they seemed. I don’t, when I cry, respond to the fake tragedy on screen; it’s something else, tricking me.
Inside the film, another film.
M is a film about a child killer. In it, the criminals and the police band together to hunt for a killer, this depraved monster who, in his systematic and entirely successful killing spree, spreads terror through the city, keeps parents awake at night, subtly rewires the city. Who is the MacGuffin here? Peter Lorre!
In their quest for him, this “thing,” the city comes apart at the seams. Hard-set ontologies are disrupted. Hunter and hunted come together in a shared space of desire: a cellar. He’s caught, but it’s Lorre who wins. Yes, Peter Lorre wins. The beggars, criminals, and blind men of Weimar Germany get their MacGuffin—and what does this get them? Nothing.
What gives the MacGuffin its aura, its claim to difference? This must remain uncertain. The desire to pierce the heart, to attain the secret, of this shining thing is always thwarted; the kind of thirst that’s never quenched.
The film sets up a world: delicate, well-balanced, and full of care. Then the MacGuffin upends it.
If not to the MacGuffin, then to what, in a film, do we respond? To the color of a shirt. Water poured into a glass. Ice cubes in whiskey. To a pattern on the stairs.
These ‘things’ are real to me, more real than real, although they are not things.
The horizon of a film, since it doesn’t exist, can never be reached.
Following other people’s wants, watching someone else’s quest—wanting, the whole time, a totally different thing—we are pulled through the film.
Desire is sequenced like this.
Ali Raz’s work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Occulum, and elsewhere. Human Tetris, her work in collaboration with Vi Khi Nao, comes out from 11:11 Press later this year. She lives in Los Angeles.