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1 - The Incidental Macguffin: Equivalence and Substitution

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2024

Gary McCarron
Affiliation:
Simon Fraser University, British Columbia
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Summary

What seems beautiful to me, what I should most like to do, would be a book about nothing, a book without any exterior tie, but sustained by the internal force of its style […] a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if that is possible. The most beautiful works are those with the least matter.

– Gustave Flaubert

The MacGuffin: The talismanic object that provides the pretext for every thriller, leading to battles between the heroes and villains who struggle to find and possess it.

– Thomas Leitch

The spies must be after something.

– Alfred Hitchcock

Introduction

I begin with one of Alfred Hitchcock's most incidental concepts: the thing, notion, or motive that he referred to as the film's MacGuffin. To spend any time at all on the subject of the MacGuffin may seem an odd decision given that Hitchcock said that when properly realized in the film's narrative the MacGuffin is an inconsequential cinematic element, a nonentity even. But as there are times when rejecting authoritative pronouncements can result in modest dividends, I want to demonstrate that looking at the MacGuffin more closely than is the case in most Hitchcock scholarship will help to reveal the way that Hitchcock prioritized affect over material essences even as it enables a deeper appreciation of the architecture of many of his films. The MacGuffin also raises some interesting philosophical issues to which I turn near the end of the chapter. The perfect MacGuffin may indeed be nothing, as Hitchcock suggested, but it is a substantial kind of nothing.

When the matter of the MacGuffin arose in interviews, or when he discussed the MacGuffin in pieces he wrote for publication, Hitchcock's usual strategy was to offer comments tinged with bemused indifference. However, a careful look at this material shows that Hitchcock was equally inclined to speak about the MacGuffin with a certain fondness, and, despite asserting its relative unimportance on many occasions, he also conceded his concern with prioritizing his search for the appropriate MacGuffin, the one that would be helpful in setting his story on its way.

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Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2023

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