The handcuffed briefcase trope

It used to be, that procedural / government agency / macguffin type shows would have a suit, whose sole purpose was to (for reasons of plot) Cary around an obvious bullet proof briefcase, handcuffed to his wrist.

  1. Is this a dead trope? Does anyone see this out in the wild of fiction nowadays?
  2. When did this trope start? What show started it / codified it?
  3. Is there any real world basis / experience for this trope?
  4. Has technology / Internet hurt this trope?

I just watched the third episode of Sherlock, in which a USB flash drive containing sensitive documents figures into the plot. I suppose a courier would prefer to transport an inconspicuous drive. Come to think of it, they’d probably prefer to transport a bulletproof briefcase done up to look like a normal briefcase, even if it’s a bit bulkier.

I think this trope is often inspired by the “nuclear football,” the briefcase full of launch codes that is always carried by a guy near the President. It is often attached to the aide’s wrist, though I don’t know if they actually use handcuffs.

It’s a good way to get your hand cut off.

It was standard procedure for some couriers, usually people carrying valuables. The purpose was to prevent people from snatching a case full of jewels or cash and running away with it.

It wasn’t commonly used for secret documents, but when the British set up Operation Mincemeat in World War II (created a fake officer with fake secret documents and allowing the body to be found by the Germans), the briefcase was handcuffed to the corpse’s wrist. Obviously, this helped keep the documents with the body, and they figured the Germans wouldn’t know that couriers didn’t use it, or that they would think that “William Martin” had chosen to do it on his own.

The case became famous after the war (though “Martin’s” real identity was only revealed in 1996), so I’m sure spy fiction started including it as a trope.

I suspect the purpose was as much to prevent the case from being inadvertently left behind as it was to keep it from being snatched. Even couriers can get distracted.

It was used in Fred Zinneman’s film of Day of the Jackal in 1972, but used by the anti-Gaullist organization OAS. “You see that,” says one French official as they watch a film of the OAS courier, whose mini-briefcase is chained to his wrist, “You’d have to cut his hand off to get it.” I think that was the point – you couldn’t get the briefcase as part of a snatch-and-grab, or through some sort of distraction ploy.
I’m certain this wasn’t its first appearance in fiction, because I’d seen it before, but i can’t recall where.

Possibly, but the chances of someone being able to cut your hand off while walking through a public transportation area such as an airport or train station without intervention from the police or bystanders seems rather small.

I think a handcuffed briefcase was also used to transport fissionable material at one point during the Manhattan Project.

If you were going to carry instruments capable of cutting through bone in order to sever the courier’s arm, wouldn’t it be just as easy to carry a set of bolt cutters to cut through the chain or through the handle of the briefcase? And much less messy?

It worked for the Blues Brothers.

Where did they get the body???

In the late-'80s the company I worked for needed to get Top Secret documents to the other side of the country a couple of times. The data librarian and I packaged it according to procedures (ending in a wrapped cardboard box) and took it as carry-on. No handcuffs; just two cleared personnel and a box.

When Worlds Collide ?

From a dead guy.

From a suicidal homeless Welshman.

As to whether or not it’s a dead trope, the most recent use I recall is from late 2005. In the Teen Titans animated series episode “Homecoming-Part II”, the villain Madame Rouge is shown constricting a courier and his escort into unconsciousness, then unlocking the handcuffs attaching the courier’s briefcase to his wrist.

There’s a great book on Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre. Goes into all the gory details and how the deception almost failed on several occasions. Truly a great work of spycraft.

I have a copy of the 1950s book The Man Who Never Was (a sort of non-fiction novel- lots of photos) and have wondered how the non-fiction book compares. Something I remember was that they even included dry cleaning receipts and evidence he was having an extramarital affair in with his papers.

OTOH, the book says they chose somebody who died of pneumonia in order to replicate drowning and that they used the body of a serviceman, both errors, so it’s probably rife with other errors.

I would assume that further details about the operations (including the name of the corpse) had come out in the interim. The Man Who Never Was (the book) was a factual account of the operation, but some elements were not mentioned for security reasons.