The term ‘MacGuffin’ was coined by Hitchcock’s Scottish friend, screenwriter Angus MacPhail, forsomething that sets the film’s plot revolving around it. It’s really just an excuse and a diversion. In awhimsical anecdote told by Hitchcock, he compared the MacGuffin to a mythical ‘apparatus for trappinglions in the Scottish Highlands’. In other words, it could be anything – or nothing – at all. In Notorious, it’sjust a lot of fizz: uranium-ore hidden in [wine] bottles. In North by Northwest, it’s ‘governmentsecrets’, whatever they may be. (Hitchcock considered that this was his ‘best’ MacGuffin, because virtuallynon-existent.) Actually North by Northwest turns out to be one vast MacGuffin, being full of ‘nothings’ likethe ‘O’ in Roger O. Thornhill’s name, or the empty prairie, or the non-existent agent named Kaplan. In
effect, the function of a MacGuffin is like the ‘meaning’ of a poem – which T.S. Eliot compared to the bonethrown by a burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind while the poem goes about its own, deeperbusiness. Hitchcock’s most prescient MacGuffin is inTorn Curtain, whose ‘Gamma Five’ project,concerning an anti-missile missile, anticipated by more than a decade President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’project.
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