The ‘MacGuffin’ is a plot device that serves as the raison d’être of subsequent events in a film or a work of fiction. Screenwriter Angus MacPhail came up with the term which was later adopted by Alfred Hitchcock. Even though the use of the ‘MacGuffin’ existed before its nomenclature, like the Holy Grail in Arthurian Legends, it was re-introduced to the public consciousness by Hitchcock and MacPhail in the 1930s.
In a 1939 lecture at Columbia University in New York City, Hitchcock explained the function of the ‘MacGuffin’ in simple terms: “It might be a Scottish name, taken from 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.”
The MacGuffin is an element which orders the structure of the narrative and motivates the characters to indulge in their activities on screen. Its presence ensures the Aristotelian continuity in narrative action and provides a causal link between corresponding events. However, the significance of the ‘MacGuffin’ is played down by Hitchcock. He insists that it is, ‘something that the characters worry about but the audience does not’.
One of the obvious examples of the ‘MacGuffin’ at work in Hitchcock’s films is the plan for an advanced airplane engine in his film The 39 Steps but when studied carefully, its importance seems to diminish. The lives of the characters always take precedence. In an interview with French auteur, François Truffaut, in 1962, Hitchcock claims that the microfilm hidden inside a small statue in his film North by Northwest was his greatest MacGuffin, “the emptiest, most non-existent… the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all”.
Alfred Hitchcock’s acute understanding of the intentions of cinema shows us that each and every element in his films was well thought out and carefully planned. Even though critics have accused his films that revolve around the ‘MacGuffin’ of having “nothing to say”, Hitchcock’s awareness of it all leads us to believe that the nothingness was precisely what constituted his artistic statement.