The Most Memorable Movie MacGuffins

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, the word “macguffin” was popularized by the late Alfred Hitchcock, and refers to a specific, inanimate object within a movie that exists solely to advance the story. As an example, Hitch himself liked to point out his own film "Notorious.’ (note: since all the following examples I cite are pretty well-known bits of film lore, I’m going to feel free to dispense with spoiler boxes.)

In “Notorious” : a cartel of South American based nazis are smuggling uranium in wine bottles. Why are they doing this? Where did they get the uranium? and to whom are they smuggling it? Hitch gleefully admitted that there are no rational answers to these questions. But the screenplay dictated that Ingrid Bergman’s character must infiltrate the nazi cartel in order to find out what they were up to. (and eventually become endangered, so that she can ultimately be rescued by Cary Grant.) Therefore, the nazi’s had to be up to something! They couldn’t just be sitting around playing cards and having gala parties. Smuggling uranium in wine bottles seemed as good a reason as any!

The sled Rosebud in “Citizen Kane” is another famous example. There is no reason given within the film why Kane should cherish the memory of this sled so much. But Kane has to cry out for something from his youth, something he would have had to give up as he became an adult. (and crying out “mommy” on his deathbed might have been a bit too obvious, and probably wouldn’t have inspired any in-depth investigation into his past.) The sled, in itself, doesn’t matter much. It’s importance within the story however is monumental.

And then there’s “Belle Du Jour.” In one famous scene, a “john” shows up at the brothel with a small wooden box. The box contains an object he has a fetish for and wants to use with one of the hookers. He shows it to one “professional” hooker, who shudders and flat out refuses to use it. Catherine Deneuve’s housewife hooker (who’s supposedly slumming for cheap thrills) IS willing to use it, even though it does make her nervous. After her tryst, Deneuve seems to have actually enjoyed it. We never know what actually was in that box, just that it was something so extreme that the jaded “pro” hooker wouldn’t touch it, but Deneuve would. It shows just how deep her erotic desires actually run.

So, the uranium-in-the-wine-bottles, the Rosebud sled, and the mysterious fetish-object-in-a-box are probably the three most famous “macgufffins” in film history. It seems that there has been a derth of interesting macguffins in movies over the last few years. I’m just trying to think of some others.

(BTW, as a side note, the unknown object in the box in “Belle Du Jour” is supposedly the inspiration for Marsellus’ mysterious briefcase in “Pulp Fiction.”)

I honestly thought the ‘plane without a surface’ in the short film Solid Geometry was going to be a macguffin, but as it turned out, they showed it - I think it would have been better if they hadn’t.

The Maltese Falcon is an obvious one, and even more so, it never makes an apperence during the movie, except maybe during the opening credits.

It’s a shame it has to be inanimate; I’d have suggested Mrs Columbo.

The briefcase in Pulp Fiction and the er uh, briefcase in Ronin.

I seem to recall a few movies about a ring.

The stolen money in Psycho.

The “W” in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Red October in The Hunt for Red October

The intercostaclavical in Bringing Up Baby

The pure virus sample in 12 Monkeys

The dead aliens in Repo Man

Others from Hitchcock:
The song in The Lady Vanishes
The secret plans in The 39 Steps

Actually, the briefcase from Ronin is inside the briefcase from Pulp Fiction which, in turn, is inside the briefcase from Kiss Me Deadly. They’re all stashed inside the trunk of the Chevy Malibu from Repo Man.

The money isn’t a mcguffin…

It is first seen when the business man flops it down on the desk when he buys a house for his daughters wedding present, she spends a lot of inner mind babble about how it will help her boyfriend pay off his debts and marry her, then she goes into the bathroom of the used car lot to take out the money she needs to buy hte car, then she hides it in a folded newspaper. Last shot seen of it is the heavy thunk of the newspaper hitting the inside of the suitcase in the hotel room as Norman is cleaning up all signs that she was there. The main thing that always strikes me is how Norman really needed the money, and he could have used it and didnt even know he was throwing it away.

Of course the money was the reason everybody was chasing her down in the first place. If it hadnt been a woman in love stealing the cash to bail out her lover, the whole movie wouldnt have happened…but the money is definitely not a mcguffin, it had a purpose before she stole it that was perfectly logical…a drunken texan buying a house for his daughters wedding present=)

The letters of transit from Casablanca are a classic McGuffin.

Jumping around a few genres and movie eras, here.

The Genesis device in Star Treks 3 and 4.

The Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sanctuary, in Logan’s Run.

The entire Cube.

Soylent Green.

The spelling bee medal in The Bad Seed.

Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz.

The missing money Potter stole in It’s A Wonderful Life.

Kris Kringle’s cane in Miracle On 34th Street.

The Red Ryder BB gun in A Christmas Story.

and ultimately, marriage in Gone With The Wind.

To distiguish a Macguffin from a non-Macguffin, you have to look at the function of the object in the story. If it is undefined, or can easily be changed to some other desirable object without significantly altering the story, it’s a true MacGuffin. If changing the object would change the story signficantly, or if the plot is driven by the object being specifically what it is, then the object isn’t a MacGuffin.

More simply, if it matters that X is X, it’s not a MacGuffin, but if X is unknown, or can be changed into Y or Z or Q and you still have the same story, it’s a MacGuffin.

Thus, the uranium in Notorious is a MacGuffin. Change the uranium to plans for a revolutionary jet engine, samples of high ranking Nazi cells for cloning, stolen artwork, or a set of mystical armor, and you still have exactly the same movie. Likewise, The Maltese Falcon, the suitcases in Pulp Fiction and Ronin, and the trunk in Repo Man.

On the other hand, I don’t think the following qualify, as they are integral to the plot of the movie:

Red October in The Hunt for Red October: This isn’t the same movie if the Red October isn’t a submarine, and specifically a stealth submarine.

The pure virus sample in 12 Monkeys: The virus sample is integral to everything that goes on in the movie.

The Red Ryder BB gun in A Christmas Story: Too much of the plot revolves around this being this one specific item. If you’d said the leg lamp, I’d agree with you there.

The rest of Askia’s list I agree with.


It matters in that it may have been the only thing he loved that didn’t hurt him. (I guessed what Rosebud was about 2/3 of the way through the movie, but only because I lived a very solitary childhood and still have many of my toys.) It is still a true MacGuffin though.

Excellent post.

I haven’t seen all those movies, but I’ve seen most of them. None of the things you mention from the movies I’ve seen are McGuffins.

The most commonly cited MacGuffin in North by Northwest - microfilm containing top secret information secreted in a statuette - was Hitchcock’s favourite, since he had, after long years of practice, not to mention the fact that he had already shot virtually the same film in his British period, The Thirty Nine Steps, in his own words ‘boiled down [the MacGuffin] to its purest expression: nothing at all’.

Interestingly, Hitch’s screenwriter Ernest Lehman was on record as saying that the MacGuffin was the hero’s mistaken George Kaplan identity.

So perhaps a film with two MacGuffins.

Cisco. A key component of the classic MacGuffin – the Maltese Falcon, Rosebud, the letters of transit – that Art Vandelay forgot to mention, is that the object moves the plot along because people are devoting a huge chunk of their energy, time and obsessions chasing after it, (or inverting the formula, trying to escape or destroy it, as in the Ring trilogy) often risking their well-being or status quo in the process.

Look back over my choices and see if any of my picks fail this added definition.

My favorite MacGuffins are the glowing package in* Kiss Me Deadly* (obviously a favorite of Tarantino’s too) and the papers in the safe in Gilda. The latter not because it’s especially clever or anything, just that the papers are so thoroughly and perfectly nothing but a MacGuffin that they are, to my mind, the most absolutely perfect example of a MacGuffin in movies.

The Ark of the Covenant in *Raiders *is another good one, because for such an insignificant element of the plot they chose such a significant object. But of course it could have been any relic considered holy by almost any religion and the movie wouldn’t have changed an iota except in incidental details.

Cisco. Actually, looking back over my own choices, I’ll recant Kris Kringle’s cane. Thinking it over, it’s not a MacGuffin, just an extremely well used prop.

The couple’s daughter in Don’t Look Now. In fact, just about everything in Don’t Look Now.