Mc Guffin

McGuffin (aka: MacGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a PlotEnablingDevice, i.e., a device or plot element in a movie that is deliberately placed to catch the viewer's attention and/or drive the logic of the plot, but which actually serves no further purpose - it won't pop up again later, it won't explain the ending, it won't actually do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. More specifically, it is usually a mysterious package or superweapon or something that everyone in the story is chasing.

Possibly coined by AlfredHitchcock (see below). The perfect example is the "government secrets" that motivate the action in NorthByNorthwest (1959). Another typical McGuffin is the Maltese Falcon. It gets the characters together, pits them against each other, but turns out to be worthless.

Also see here:

In his 1966 interview with director-film critic, Francois Truffaut, AlfredHitchcock said:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train.

One man says "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?"

And the other answers, "O that's a McGuffin."

The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?"

"Well" the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands."

The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers "Well then that's no McGuffin!"

So you see a McGuffin is nothing at all.


The origin of the above story can be driven back a couple of decades.

In the early to mid 1940s the present contributer was a pupil at the Northeast London Emergency Secondary School for Boys (at the Palmiters or Parmiters School site in Approach Road, Bow). We had a teacher named Walter (Wally) Treisman, a Jew with a great sense of humour, who taught French and German. On one occasion, which would probably have been in 1942 or 1943, he chose to tell his class a story about two men in a train. One of them had a box, which he repeatedly rapped the lid of, and then listened for the sound of movement. When he apparently heard it, he just settled back and waited, until the next time.

His companion watched and listened with increasing curiosity, and eventually asked what was in the box. He was told, "It's a maguffin [McGuffin?]. My aunt in Edinburgh has a plague of elephants in her garden."

The conversation is spun out for a little while, during which it emerges that maguffins are good for getting rid of elephants. Eventually the enquirer asks, "Not real elephants [in your aunt's garden] surely?" and is assured, "No not real elephants, but you see, this isn't a real maguffin."

Ken Brewer, Australia.


The WilliamGibson page does a good job of describing how the McGuffin works:

All of Gibson's stories can be boiled down to:

Read Slajov Zizek's "Looking Awry" for some intelligent perusal of the McGuffin.

McGuffin or MacGuffin?

The word used by AlfredHitchcock to refer to the object of desire that sets off a mystery story can be found spelled as MacGuffin?, McGuffin and maguffin.

The first recorded usage of this word is in a typescript of AlfredHitchcock's lecture at the Columbia University on 30, March 1939. In the text (likely his notes rather than a transcript) the word is spelled MacGuffin. Also, MacGuffin is the reportedly the original spelling in the two men on a train story. However, the more common spelling now is McGuffin, though it is possible that maguffin may become more popular as the word becomes more generic and links to its origin are lost.

A classic McGuffin has several attributes:

  1. it is inherently valuable
  2. it is portable
  3. it is usable or salable by anyone who has possession

My traditional example is the transit papers in Casablanca.

No, no, no... you are completely wrong here, particularly on the last point. Its usableness is not relevant to the story. What makes it a McGuffin and not some non-McGuffin prop is that in the end, it doesn't matter; it's just an excuse to drive the plot (everyone's trying to get it, keep others from getting it, get as far away from it as possible, etc.) As for its value, it generally has certain people THINKING it's valuable, but doesn't actually need to be valuable. I'll agree with you on the portable part though.

I've also seen such things described as PlotCoupons? (ie (collect the coupons|bring the coupons to a certain place) and send away to the author for a happy ending). As opposed to a PlotVoucher?, valid for one escape from a sticky situation (like anything Q gives to Bond).

Some discussion and attempts to find some movie McGuffins?

What about TheOneRing? from LordOfTheRingsPartOne? The trouble I have is that it does serve a purpose (at least it makes people invisible, and presumably gives them other great powers), but in the grand scheme of things it still just drives the plot. The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark? In Magnolia, when at the end of the movie (SPOILER!!) the Frogs come down (END SPOILER). Is that a MacGuffin?? I mean it's never really mentioned afterwards, people don't talk about them, but it changes everyones perspective, Wakes and Wises people up a bit. Is this a stretch? The briefcase in "Ronin" that RobertDeNiro?'s character and his teammates are trying to get What about r2-d2 in star wars 4? George Lucas said he was a macguffin, but he does kind of resolve a few things along the way doesn't he? What about "The Process" in the Spanish Prisoner?
McGuffins? in Practice!; Real Life Examples

I am a university professor and for my undergraduate courses I make extensive use of McGuffins?. I read Hitchcock/Truffaut many years ago and I adapted the idea from my understanding of Hitchcock's definition. My view of the McGuffin (as a lecture prop) is simply this: it must be an object that holds the student's attention and keeps him or her focused on the movement of the lecture material. It need not be related to the lecture plot in any way, although it is OK if it is. In some cases I reveal the nature of the McGuffin at the end of the lecture (or during a subsequent lecture), but sometimes not. So, for example, I might come to lecture wearing a fly-fishing vest, and I might occasionally unzip a pocket and take out a note or object, either revealing the contents to the students or not. My hope is that students remain perplexed and keep watching me (rather than reading the newspaper). For me, it doesn't necessarily have to move the plot, only hold attention. A lecture on environmental externalities, for example, might require that I bring a flask of unidentified brown water and leave it sitting on the lectern while I lecture. I might never really reveal that the flask contains yesterday's watered down coffee. I'm just interested in having a focal point to keep the students engaged. It seems that I am using the concept in a new but related way - moving it away from its original cinematic use while preserving some of the original intent in a practical application.

This sounds like an interesting technique to keep the students attention which doesn't take much preparation and/or concentration to apply. But I'd think that it focusses the attention on the wrong thing - which would be OK if the thing were related to the topic at hand, forming memories or helping forming connections of the relation later on. But if this is just a trick to get the attention the effect on learning might be less. On the other hand a concentrated und curious athmosphere may have positive secondary effects like build a positive group learning experience which will e.g. activate the real interest of the students. -- ImNotaTeacher?

In undergraduate teaching, typical McGuffins? can be found in Cases Study Assignments, for example an IT software design assignment may describe the problems of an oil company etc, and the student is required to find a solution in software. Usually it doesn't matter at all if the case study is about oil, cars, ties, or whatever - the important thing is that the student knows how to design a software system whilst the oil/cars/tie production is a McGuffin: Necessary to drive the plot but otherwise unimportant.

Hearsay McGuffins?; please correct and integrate!

Also used by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction in the form of the suitcase with the mysterious glowing contents. Are you thinking of Repo Man? I guess not - Repo Man had a car boot (translation: trunk) with mysterious glowing contents.

To my mind, the Pulp Fiction scene in which Jules and Vincent retrieves a briefcase containing a mysterious glowing substance/object, is actually a homage to the 1955 noir classic by Robert Aldrich, Kiss Me Deadly, starring Ralph Meeker, and its use of a briefcase with glowing contents as a McGuffin. In Kiss Me Deadly, the briefcase seems to hold the same or similar purpose as the MalteseFalcon? or the glowing substance in the car trunk in Repo Man: none. It's some destructive/catalytic/symbolically-potent substance which no one should be handling (ostensibly some radioactive material) and which, in and of itself, is of no use to the people seeking it, is portable, and is never shown, described or explained. These attributes are the essence of a McGuffin, as I understand it.

-- R.M. Szpigiel, San Francisco
A McGuffin sounds like a Lottery Ticket to me. --- CategoryMovie CategoryOffTopic Maybe worth moving to BookShelved, if permission is gained from LaurentBossavit.

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