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
Borgus.com - 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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
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 (1864) – 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
Continue to other articles:
How to Turn Your Boring Movie into a Hitchcock Thriller
Humor: Hitchcock's Secret Weapon
Message in a booth: Arbogast's last words
The Definitive List of Hitchcock MacGuffins
Creating a Hitchcockian Opening
Sound: Hitchcock's Third Dimension
The Cameo: Appearing in Your Own Film
[Back to Main]
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.
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.