A key reason for the enduring appeal of the work of Alfred Hitchcock is undeniably due to his films sharing a common identity. Hitchcock’s “screen signature can be identified as soon as the picture begins” (Truffaut 18). Certainly, a fundamental argument for his identifiable signature is the recurring themes and motifs which he employed throughout his career. There are two possible approaches to examining such themes. The first would be to attempt to uncover some obscure, hitherto untapped motif, and engage in wild speculation and psychological conjecture on its significance. However, at this point there is literally no aspect of Hitchcock’s films that has not been subjected to the minutest academic scrutiny. Barring perhaps an analysis on the man’s dietary habits (“Cooking with Hitch – Recipes for the Full-Figured Auteur”), it would be impossible to discover a fresh theme in his work. The second approach is to embrace these recurrent themes by virtue of their very conspicuousness. The more a motif is reused, the stronger the case for it being representative of the man’s oeuvre. Therefore, this discourse will seek to examine one of Hitchcock’s most recognizable motifs, employed with brazen regularity: The MacGuffin.
Although the MacGuffin is a plot device used by a myriad of filmmakers, from John Houston to Steven Spielberg, working within many diverse genres, it is a concept that has become synonymous with the work of Hitchcock. Indeed, it is impossible to hear the term without immediately associating it with the man. To define it in the simplest terms, the MacGuffin is a plot device used to advance the narrative. It kick-starts the protagonists’ journey, and places them in situations which create the essential elements of suspense, followed by ultimate resolution. It may be a person or an object, or it may exist only as an idea. For the diegetic protagonists and their antagonists, it is the thing of paramount importance. However, for the audience it holds little or no significance beyond creating these scenarios of intrigue and peril. The MacGuffin is the reason for the journey, not the destination. In Hitchcock’s theatre of suspense, it is the journey, the telling of the story, which is of utmost importance; the destination is of concern only insofar as to provide narrative closure. Its significance diminishes concurrently with the increasing drama produced by the threat to the protagonist. “The dramatic rule is that concern for his survival must become so intense that, as the action moves forward, the MacGuffin will… be forgotten” (Truffaut 138). The MacGuffin is the ultimate prize that drives the hero, but not the audience.
Fig. 1 – Mrs. Thorwald’s ring
In The 39 Steps (1935) the MacGuffin is not a tangible thing, but an idea. It is the formula for an aircraft engine carried by Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson). However, in Strangers on a Train (1951) it is a physical object. That is, Guy’s (Farley Granger) cigarette lighter that Bruno (Robert Walker) uses for blackmail and implicate him in the murder of Guy’s wife. The desired commodity for L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) in Rear Window (1954) is a piece of physical proof that will disprove Thorwald’s testimony of innocence, and instead implicate him in the murder of his wife. Ironically, this desperately sought after object reveals itself to be his wife’s wedding ring, which Lisa (Grace Kelly) secrets from his apartment in plain sight by concealing it on her ring finger. The ring performs three functions; primarily, it is the reason for Lisa entering Thorwald’s apartment and putting herself in peril, thus building tension. It is also the catalyst that motivates Lisa into assuming an active role, thereby contributing to Jefferies changing his perception of her capabilities. Furthermore, it acts as a visual metaphor for their relationship and conflicting ambitions. Knowing that Jefferies is anxiously watching her, Lisa elaborately draws attention to the ring (Fig. 1), which she herself has placed on her finger. She is effectively telling Jefferies that, should he continue to ignore her demands for commitment, she will force him into action. She is demonstrating her agency, resilience and refusal to be denied what she desires.
For the audience it holds little or no significance beyond creating scenarios of intrigue and peril.
The MacGuffin’s usefulness as a narrative device is perhaps best demonstrated by the bottle of wine in Notorious (1946). Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is coerced by Devlin (Cary Grant), a US Government agent, into using her feminine wiles to elicit information on a cabal of Nazi refugees. Despite the significant threat of exposure as a duplicitous spy, Alicia helps Devlin search for clues to the Nazis’ mysterious scheme and manages to procure her husband’s key to the one area of the house kept off limits – the wine cellar. She keeps watch as he searches the cellar, and discovers the bottle of wine that had earlier provoked such anxiety in her husband (Fig. 2). This MacGuffin is subsequently revealed to contain enriched uranium. Cutaway shots between Devlin searching the cellar, and the wine waiter examining his depleting reserves (Fig. 3), builds a sense of urgency and suspense, and clarifies the threat of Devlin being discovered by Sebastian. In an attempt to deflect suspicion away from their true purpose, Devlin forces Alicia into an amorous embrace. He has previously rebuffed any feelings of affection for Alicia, maintaining the position that she is a mere commodity to be used for the good of his country. This cruel rejection has left her with conflicted emotions, and contributed to the reluctant vigour with which she plays the role of seductress. The wine bottle is the catalyst that puts the two protagonists in the situation that necessitates the embrace, and provides the audience with resolution to this elaborate game of emotional back-and-forth. For the viewer, it is not the object itself that carries importance, but the resolution and closure that the object signifies.
In North by Northwest (1959), the MacGuffin is combined with another well-worn trope of Hitchcock’s canon – that of the wrongly-accused man. Both of these plot devices are embodied within the duality of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant again) and the fictional George Kaplan. A misconstrued hand gesture on Thornhill’s part in the first act sets in motion a chain of events which ultimately results in his egotistical persona being broken down and rebuilt into a redeemed, benevolent individual. From the point where Vandamm’s (James Mason) henchmen abduct him at gunpoint (Fig. 4), a chain of events are put in motion that destroys Thornhill’s position of power and success. The ensuing search for the fictitious Kaplan is the source of his quest. It is Thornhill’s journey, and the consequential life-threatening jeopardy, that is of importance for the audience. “The ‘falsely accused man’ films typically take the form of what Andrew Britton has termed the “double chase” plot structure: the hero, pursued by the police, pursues the real villain(s)” (Wood 241). This form of plot allows for an elevated level of suspense, given the double threat posed to the hero of capture or murder at the hands of both the figures of authority and the protagonists. North by Northwest uses this dual threat to great effect, and Hitchcock’s quest to find the “sense of the precariousness of all human order has never been more beautifully expressed” (Wood 134). As Thornhill is pursued by Vandamm’s henchmen, arrest becomes an attractive proposition and he actively makes himself a target for police attention. “The first movement is devoted to a systematic stripping away of all the protective armor of modern city man on which Thornhill relies for his safety” (Wood 134). The reveal that Kaplan is a construct of the CIA is of no consequence to the viewer, but nevertheless, a second act MacGuffin of smuggled microfilm is introduced. Central to the theme of the wrongly-accused man is the fear of one’s status and position in society being destroyed in an instant, through no fault of one’s own.
Fig. 4 – Roger Thornhill is mistaken for George Kaplan
Wood points out that although the protagonist is placed in peril as a result of a crime that they did not commit, they are not flawless characters, and usually guilty of a lesser immorality (241). The concept of swapping murders to evade suspicion and provide an alibi employed in Strangers on a Train produces a compelling variant on the theme. Despite not possessing the moral turpitude of the sociopathic Bruno, Guy is still guilty of the desire to commit murder. Therefore, his iniquity has justly threatened his position of social and political advancement. At the beginning of his journey, Thornhill is frivolous and egotistical, as evidenced by his selfish deception of a fellow taxi passenger. However, the third act epiphany he experiences after falling in love with double agent Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), his character becomes defined by a sense of altruism. The Professor’s appeal to Thornhill’s social conscience is rejected outright, and it is only the suggestion that Eve may be placed in mortal danger through his interference that ultimately spurs him into humanitarian action. The denouement sees the maturation, growth and ultimate redemption of his character, as he is shown to be capable of selfless acts of courage. Notwithstanding his two previous failed marriages, his is selfishness is absolved through his acceptance of Eve as his life partner. Walker points out the Catholic overtones of cathartic redemption present in the narrative structure of the wrongly-accused man:
After the confession, a character must then face an ordeal, as if penance must be done before redemption can be achieved in the secular form of a happy ending. In other words, confession is not just therapeutic, but also potentially redemptive, and the flawed or blocked confessions in Hitchcock’s work are to a greater or lesser extent harmful to the continuing happiness of his characters (Walker 202).
Although the MacGuffin is a motif synonymous with the work of Hitchcock, it has become the definitive plot device used to elevate suspense for countless filmmakers. Its significance lies in the power to propel the plot, not in its diegetic importance. For the modern audience, the wrongly-accused man theme retains the power to play on the individual’s anxieties on the fragility of status within society, and an inability to control their own destiny. The devastating, life-altering potentiality of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time is a common nightmare, and it is a credit to Hitchcock’s foresight that he saw fit to repeatedly return to this theme.
Silet, Charles L. P. “Through a Woman’s Eyes: Sexuality and Memory in the 39 Steps.” A Hitchcock Reader. Ed. Deutelbaum, Marshall and Poague, Leland. 2nd ed. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. 114-25. Print.
Truffaut, François. Hitchcock/Truffaut. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1983. Print.
Walker, Michael. Hitchcock’s Motifs. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005. Print.
Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. London: Faber & Faber, 1989. Print.
Rear Window. Dir. Hitchcock, Alfred. Paramount, 1954.
Strangers on a Train. Dir. Hitchcock, Alfred. Warner Bros., 1951.
North by Northwest. Dir. Hitchcock, Alfred. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1959.
Notorious. Dir. Hitchcock, Alfred. RKO Radio Pictures, 1946.