Alfred Hitchcock Explains the Plot Device He Called the ‘MacGuffin’

Alfred Hitch­cock liked to call it the “MacGuf­fin” — the mys­te­ri­ous object in a spy thriller that sets the whole chain of events into motion.

But despite the sup­posed cen­tral­i­ty of the MacGuf­fin, a Hitch­cock movie is always about some­thing else. In The 39 Steps, for exam­ple, the MacGuf­fin turns out to be the cov­et­ed plans for an advanced air­plane engine, stored in the mind of a vaude­ville per­former named “Mr. Mem­o­ry.” But real­ly the film is about a wrong­ful­ly accused man’s des­per­ate strug­gle to solve a mys­tery so he can clear his name and live to see anoth­er day.

The MacGuf­fin is always par­tic­u­lar — often to the point of absur­di­ty — while the hero’s moti­va­tion is uni­ver­sal. Some of the char­ac­ters may care about the MacGuf­fin, but the audi­ence cer­tain­ly does not. In his 1962 inter­view with François Truf­faut, Hitch­cock explains:

The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuf­fin is noth­ing. I’m con­vinced of this, but I find it very dif­fi­cult to prove it to oth­ers. My best MacGuf­fin, and by that I mean the emp­ti­est, the most nonex­is­tent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by North­west. The pic­ture is about espi­onage, and the only ques­tion that’s raised in the sto­ry is to find out what the spies are after. Well, dur­ing the scene at the Chica­go air­port, the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence man explains the whole sit­u­a­tion to Cary Grant, and Grant, refer­ring to the James Mason char­ac­ter, asks, “What does he do?”  The coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and exporter.” “But what does he sell?” “Oh, just gov­ern­ment secrets!” is the answer. Here, you see, the MacGuf­fin has been boiled down to its purest expres­sion: noth­ing at all!

The term “MacGuf­fin” was coined by a screen­writer Hitch­cock worked with named Angus MacPhail, accord­ing to Don­ald Spo­to in The Art of Alfred Hitch­cock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pic­tures. But the prin­ci­ple goes back at least as far as Rud­yard Kipling, as Hitch­cock explains in this whim­si­cal lit­tle film by Isaac Nie­mand with audio from Hitch­cock­’s June 8, 1972 appear­ance on the Dick Cavett Show. Per­haps the most impor­tant thing to remem­ber about the MacGuf­fin is that it con­tains the word “guff,” which means a load of non­sense. “There’s a lot to look for in Hitch­cock­’s films,” writes Spo­to, “but watch out for the MacGuf­fin. It will lead you nowhere.”

NOTE: The 39 Steps and oth­er Hitch­cock thrillers can be found in our col­lec­tion of 16 Free Hitch­cock Movies Online, not to men­tion our big col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

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Relat­ed con­tent:

Alfred Hitch­cock on the Film­mak­er’s Essen­tial Tool: ‘The Kuleshov Effect’

Hitchcock’s Sev­en-Minute Edit­ing Mas­ter Class

37 Hitch­cock Cameos over 50 Years: All in One Video

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