During a discussion about one of his films, Alfred Hitchcock used the term “MacGuffin” to describe one of his techniques. He explained it succinctly as, “the device, the gimmick, if you will…In crook stories it is almost always the necklace, and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” A MacGuffin can be an object, a person, a place, or an event. In most cases, it is something that the film’s primary characters are looking for. However, the exact nature of a MacGuffin is not supposed to be overly important to the audience. In reality, the MacGuffin has hardly any substance beyond its purpose on screen, it is irrelevant in relation to the action or drama that we enjoy. However, despite MacGuffins not actually being anything meaningful, I would argue that some of them have played a major part in the success of many of our favorite movies. I would even go so far to say that many of them are responsible for making some great movies work so well. Below are my picks for the ten most influential MacGuffins in film, along with an explanation of how each has transcended our expectations of what a MacGuffin can accomplish.
10. The Maltese Falcon
Film: The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon (1941) is a classic example of a MacGuffin, both in terms of methodology and timing. While Hitchcock would first use the term MacGuffin to describe the plot device in his 1935 film, The 39 Steps, The Maltese Falcon would become one of the best early examples of the concept. The Maltese Falcon is based on a 1929 novel of the same name, and the 1941 film was actually the third adaptation. The reason for so many adaptations in such a short amount of time was that the detective type of storyline was incredibly popular at the time. The film would become a staple of the noir style, and would influence countless others. Behind it all was the object that the film and novel were named after, a jewel-encrusted statue of a bird. That bird became the model MacGuffin for future noirs to follow, and classic noirs sure love their MacGuffins.
9. The Briefcase
Film: Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino is a student of film. All of his movies borrow heavily from those cinematic creations that have come before. He borrows great ideas from the past and mixes them together to create something new and exciting. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino plays homage to the mighty MacGuffin by creating The Briefcase. It is something that the characters are after, but he never shows us what is inside. It is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek nod to Hitchcock, where the character’s goals don’t really matter. We see their faces when they look inside, we see the mysterious glow. The audience really wants to see what is in there, but Tarantino denies us that luxury. He is playing with us by using the legacy of the MacGuffin.
8. Letters of Transit
Like many of the other famous MacGuffins on this list, the Letters of Transit don’t actually exist in real life. But what if they did? The Letters of Transit supposedly provide safe passage through Nazi-controlled territory. From the perspective of those who are stranded in Casablanca, it can be seen how this would be of keen interest. The papers offer a freedom and security that could be worth a significant risk. The Letters of Transit are also a classic example of a MacGuffin. The script applies a value to them, and it is this value that drives the character’s motivations and creates the drama. The fact that they are the centerpiece of one of the most revered and respected dramas ever made is what lands them on this list.
7. Rabbit’s Foot
Film: Mission Impossible 3
So the Rabbits Foot may not be the most famous MacGuffin on this list. It may not have a substantial legacy, it only is featured in one film, its purpose is actually entirely unknown, and when you think about it, all the Mission: Impossible films revolve around some type of MacGuffin. However, The Rabbits foot allowed the creation of the Mission: Impossible franchise as we know it today – I would argue the most consistent and exciting in all of cinema. How does it do this? By making other things matter more. Mission: Impossible succeeds as a franchise due to a focus on incredible stunts, dangerous set pieces, and lots of motion. Leaving The Rabbits Foot as ambiguous allows M:I 3 to focus on all of those more entertaining aspects. We don’t need a complicated set-up a’la the original Mission: Impossible film. We don’t need to waste screentime in order to create a backstory to develop a sense of urgency like in M:I 2. Instead, the Rabbits Foot lets the film jump directly into the action (and drama), and the sequels have followed suit.