The McGuffin was a key technique of Alfred Hitchcock's films, but what exactly was it? Look at his famous films and see how it works.
Alfred Hitchcock is the undisputed master of suspense, yet what makes a Hitchcock film so special? What is the Hitch in a Hitchcock film? What is it that puts that creepy feeling on the back of your neck? Would you believe nothing? Hitchcock built some of his most suspenseful films around what he called "˜The McGuffin' which was, in effect, nothing.
Over the years, the McGuffin has come to have a description formalized as: "˜ A device or plot element that catches the viewer's attention or drives the plot. It is generally something that every character is concerned with.' The McGuffin is essentially something that the entire story is built around and yet has no real relevance. Take the 1946 film Notorious, the story of an American agent who sends a woman to spy on her former lover (who happens to be a Nazi) as it is suspected they are plotting something sinister.
What the Nazis have discovered is the power of uranium. Looking at the film closer, the McGuffin is uranium which itself is only a peg on which you can hang the real story of two men who love a woman and the lengths that each of them will go to to prove their love. In fact, the uranium element was a last minute throw in by Hitchcock, he had originally envisioned the Nazis being involved in diamonds (which they would use in munitions building). The switch from diamonds to uranium is a clear indication that it wasn't important exactly what the McGuffin was, as long as it served its purpose. The McGuffin itself was not important to Hitchcock, he only was concerned that "˜it be, or appear to be, of vital importance to the characters' (Hitchcock/Truffaut 1983). In Notorious the idea of the uranium is important to the characters but it is, but the actual uranium it's self holds no importance. This is a slight distinction but an important one. With the McGuffin (uranium) clearly in focus, we can see that one of the great spy films of all time is actually less about the intrigue of spies and more about the machinations of love.
As Hitchcock progressed through the years, his use of the McGuffin grew to a more refined and yet elaborate sense. In North by Northwest (1959) Hitchcock blatantly places the McGuffin in front of the viewer and yet he himself acknowledges that what you see is "˜his emptiest, most nonexistent McGuffin'. The plot of the film concerns espionage and a man's (Cary Grant) mistaken identity as a spy. Halfway through the film, Grant is at an airport and finally has the opportunity to question a Central Intelligence Agent about what is happening to him:
Grant: "˜What does he (the lead villain) do?'
Agent: "˜ Let's just say he's an importer and exporter.'
Grant: "˜But what does he sell?'
Agent: "˜Oh, just government secrets.'
The entire backstory and plot propulsion is there boiled down to four lines which, when read aside from the picture seem to make no sense but, when placed within the proper framework and given strong characters to support it, works as the perfect McGuffin. North by Northwest at its essence is a "˜chase' movie, the reasons behind the chase are (by Hitchcock's own words) not important. What is important is that the characters believe in what they are doing so intensely that they carry us into that world with them.
Hitchcock's use of the McGuffin shows how important story is to a movie. It sounds like a statement of the obvious, but all to often movies are produced with an idea only (with just the McGuffin) while skimping on the framework around it. Hitchcock's intense integration of the McGuffin into the plot came to beautiful perfection in 1960.
Psycho, Hitchcock's classic 1960 film, presents one of the ultimate uses of the McGuffin. Here for the entire first half of the film we are lead to believe that the movie is essentially a story of a stolen $40,000. This story line is so tightly and perfectly constructed that it completely envelops our involvement in the film and yet, in the end, few people remember the money even existed as the McGuffin is really only needed to move us into the Bates Hotel.
Hitchcock had been working long enough in movies to know that the audience often tried to jump ahead of the story, to figure out who was going to do what next. It is with this knowledge that he took the McGuffin in Psycho and stretched it for as long as he could. He purposely drew every bit that he could out of the robbery so that the killing and the subsequent movement into the third act of the film would carry even more impact. It is a testament to his filmmaking genius that he was able to use this device (the McGuffin) to keep the audience spinning in a certain direction while the real action was getting ready to come in from the side. A true McGuffin will get you where you need to go but never overshadow what is ultimately there.
In a career that ran for over fifty years and covered silent and sound films, magazines, television and more, Alfred Hitchcock cemented his place as the Cinematic King of Suspense. Yet it is interesting to note that his films were built on the basis of "˜nothing'. The McGuffin, for all that is written and said about it, really is a minor piece of the overall Hitchcock picture. It is simply the small device of a big man to elicit and present major tension and thrills from his audience.