Definitive List of Hitchcock McGuffins

“The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others.” –Alfred Hitchcock - Film director Alfred Hitchcock coined the term 'MacGuffin' when discussing the suspense techniques in his films. Below we are compiling a definitive list of MacGuffins from Hitchcock films. We invite your submissions.

Definition: The definition of MacGuffin can be boiled down to one thing -- nothing. Hitchcock over the years described the MacGuffin as a plot device, or gimmick, on which to hang the tension in a film, ‘the key element of any suspense story” (Gottlieb). Because Hitchcock lured the audience to such a high degree of sympathy for the characters through cinematic means, the reason behind their plight became irrelevant for the viewer. Something bad is happening to them and it doesn’t matter what. The only reason for the MacGuffin is to serve as a pivotal reason for the suspense to occur.

The MacGuffin is like a wild card which can be inserted to stand for anything. It could be something as vague as the "government secrets" in North by Northwest (1959), or the long detailed weapons plans of Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps (1935). Or, it could be something simple like the dog blocking the stairway in Strangers on a Train (1951). Nobody cares about the dog. It's only there for one reason - suspense. It could have just as easily been a person, an alarm, a talking parrot, or a MacGuffin!

The Definitive MacGuffin List: (email submissions to

Blackmail (1929) – woman's gloves found at crime scene

The 39 Steps (1935) – Mr. Memory memorized it, the plans for an airplane engine.

Young and Innocent (1937) – overcoat belt (Condon-Sangster 1999)

The Lady Vanishes (1938): the coded message contained in a piece of music (Tim Durks 2010) memorized by Miss Froy

Rebecca (1940): the character of the first Mrs. De Winter - Rebecca (Tim Durks 2010)

Foreign Correspondent (1940) – Clause 27 from a peace treaty (Condon-Sangster 1999)

Saboteur (1942) – the sleeve holding Fry in place while hanging

Shadow of a Doubt (1942) - 1. the newspaper 2. the ring

Spellbound (1945) – 1. note slipped under door for Ingrid Bergman, 2. the lines haunting Gregory Peck from ski slope

Notorious (1946): the radioactive material (uranium ore) found in vintage wine bottles (Tim Durks 2010)

Rope (1948) – 1. The rope used to strangle 2. The wrong hat picked up by James Stewart

Strangers on a Train (1951) – 1. dog blocking stairway in Bruno’s home, 2. The lighter implicating Farley Granger

Dial M For Murder (1954) – the spare key to the apartment

I Confess (1953) – information wanted by police (Condon-Sangster 1999)

Rear Window (1954): the suspected 'murder' committed by apartment tenant Lars Thorwald (Tim Durks 2010)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – 1. the cymbals crashing at the moment of assassination, 2. the song ‘Que Sera, Sera’ sung by Doris Day

The Trouble With Harry (1856) – Harry’s cause of death

One More Mile to Go (TV episode 1957) - the car tail light that wouldn't work properly

Vertigo (1958) – Scottie's vertigo, the necklace

North By Northwest (1959) – 1. government secrets on microfilm 2. False identity George Caplan

Psycho (1960) – 1. the $40,000 cash in an envelope (Condon-Sangster 1999) 2. Arbogast’s phone booth call

The Birds (1963) – reason the birds attacked (Condon-Sangster 1999)

Marnie (1964) – the color red

Torn Curtain (1966) – 1. the book 2. the symbol Pi 3. Gamma 5 secrets

Family Plot (1976) – diamonds

Written: December 2010, Updated July 2011

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Message in a booth: Arbogast's last words

The Definitive List of Hitchcock MacGuffins

Creating a Hitchcockian Opening

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The Cameo: Appearing in Your Own Film

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Written by Jeffrey Michael Bays, an award-winning radio producer most widely known for 'Not From Space' on XM Satellite Radio. He is also filmmaker and film scholar with a Master of Arts in Cinema from La Trobe University. Jeffrey has written for Peter Marshall's Director's Chair, and is currently writing a book for Micheal Wiese Publishing. As an avid fan of Alfred Hitchcock, Jeffrey directed the Australian suspense film Offing David and is currently in development of two new films.


Book Sources:

Truffaut, Francois. "Hitchcock" Revised Edition. New York. 1985.
Gottlieb, Sydney. "Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews" Los Angeles. 1997.
Condon, Paul and Sangster, Jim. "The Complete Hitchcock" Virgin Publishing. 1999.