3x3: MacGuffins worth remembering

In this week’s movie podcast, starting at the 47:30 mark, we discuss MacGuffin’s worth remembering. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s the concept of something the good guys and the bad guys are chasing, but that the audience doesn’t necessarily care about. I’ve taken off the table the easy choices, which include the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the plans to the Death Star in Star Wars, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, and the alien’s corpse in the trunk of the '57 Chevy Malibu is Repo Man.

Kelly Wand
3. The Maltese Falcon in Maltese Falcon
2. Kevin Costner in No Way Out

  1. Natalie Wood in The Searchers

3. The President and tape in Escape from New York
2. The Everlasting Gob Stopper in Willie Wonka

  1. The recall code in Dr. Strangelove

Tom Chick
3. The cure for baldness in Duplicity
2. The gun in Running Scared

  1. The box in Kiss Me Deadly

Post your own, but don’t just dump a list and leave! Be sure to tell us why your MacGuffins are worth remembering.


Good call on Kiss Me Deadly, Tom. Best Macguffin Evar.

  1. Letters of transit in Casablanca - they are given to a man who doesn’t want them by a man who hates him and the letters convert Bogart from an uninterested party into one who ends up fighting the Nazis

  2. The rock and roll competition in Six String Samurai - the destination and the purpose matters less than the journey there. A violent, rocking, telling of The Wizard of Oz, a Buddy Holly look alike evades cannibalistic housewives, mad bowlers, and Death himself in his quest to be the king of rock.

  3. The $350,000 in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World - I like great cinema, and while this is not it, it is one of the first that brings together an all-star cast to just let loose and have a good time. From Sid Caesar to Spencer Tracy, from Milton Berle to Phil Silvers, it doesn’t matter what they are chasing or why, just get the cast together, let them have fun, and it will rub off on the audience as well. Bonus points for not including Smashmouth at the movie’s conclusion.

  1. The stolen money in Psycho.

Halfway through the movie, when Janet Leigh is lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom shower only to be found by a shrieking Anthony Hopkins, who even remembers why she was there? Every time I rewatch Psycho I’m surprised by how long the setup for Leigh’s character is, from waking up in a bra with her lover to stealing the money to buying the car to finding the motel, all that motivation and care taken with the character only to shockingly, brutally kill her seemingly out of the blue. I can’t imagine how awesome that would have been to have seen first-run in 1960.

  1. The car in Dude, Where’s My Car?

Self-explanatory, really, but it gets extra points for a great reveal of the Macguffin at the end.

  1. The “Process” in The Spanish Prisoner.

My favourite part of The Spanish Prisoner is how you can actually hear the cast capitalize “the Process” all the way through.


The part in High Anxiety where Mel Brooks finds out his hotel room has been moved to a higher floor by a “Mr. MacGuffin”.

Up there with White Castle in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

The groom in The Hangover (I can’t even remember his name!)

Doesn’t a MacGuffin have to be some sort of object? White Castle is the Mount Doom of Harold and Kumar. I’ll also argue that while Repo and Pulp Fiction contains blatant MavGuffins, The Ark of the Covenant doesn’t qualify - it can’t just bbe replaced by something else entirely (at least that soemthing else would need a lot of setup to explain what happens when it’s opened where even an atheist like myself gets the awesome faceburning power of Gods ghosts).

That’s a great pick.

  1. "The “Governments Secrets” in North by Northwst - this was my first Hitchcock pick. I actually like madkevins better now, but it’s still a classic McGuffin since it’s specific enough to realistically be something bad guys would hunt you for, but unspecific enough to not bog down the story with explanations… which is where many MacGuffin-driven movies fail and introduces plotholes.

  2. The million pounds in Shallow Grave. I don’t think they ever get to use a dime of it…

  3. The Holy Grail in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. While I don’t think The Holy Grail in The Last Crusade qualifies (for the same reason as Raiders) I think it does here. They could have been after Arthurs sword or any other mythical MacGuffin, but they’re after the actual Holy Grail… which doesn’t do much, really.

I don’t know that it’s inherent in the definition of a macguffin that it be totally replaceable and arbitrary. The important thing is that people are highly motivated to acquire it. I think the Ark qualifies, though it may lack the purity of some of Hitchcock’s more absurd/abstract macguffins.

The idea is that you could replace the Macguffin with something else without changing the movie. Harold & Kumar could have easily had fixated on Taco Bell instead of White Castle, and the movie is the same. It doesn’t have to be a physical object, it could be a mathematical formula (like the Process), or something weird and glowy and possibly mystical like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

The Ark is kind of a grey case, in that there really was (supposedly) a historical Ark of the Covenant, but the purpose of the Ark in Raiders has nothing to do with the real Ark. In Raiders, it’s basically a big magic box. You could replace it with any other “real” or fictional item of great mystic face-melting power - the Shroud Of Turin, the One True Cross, etc. - and have the same movie.

Oooh, this is a great one, Lionel. And a perfect example that I didn’t even think of, because Casablanca is so much about characters that you forget it even has a MacGuffin!

As for you people who haven’t listened to the podcast going on about the Ark not being a MacGuffin, you’re all crazy. There is no basis for somehow figuring it’s an exception to the rule. If the box in Kiss Me Deadly is a MacGuffin – and clearly it is – then so is the Ark of the Covenant. Sheesh.


Except I would argue the box in Kiss Me Deadly isn’t a Macguffin either.

Great. Well then, there goes the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and the alien in Repo Man. The MacGuffin council will not be pleased.


No, no, the briefcase and alien still count.

Put it this way: How does Kiss Me Deadly end? Now, thinking of that ending, how could you switch it with another object to have the same ending? You can’t. Hence, not a Macguffin.

How does Repo Man end? Now, thinking about that ending, how could you switch it with another object to have the same ending? You can’t. Hence, you have just ruled out Repo Man.

Anyway, take it up with the MacGuffin council. I’ve never seen the Ark of the Covenant and Kiss Me Deadly box disqualified because of how the movies end. Artifacts of Unimaginable Power can be just as dime-a-dozen as microfilms, mysterious briefcases, and transit papers. That a MacGuffin can’t melt your face or make your car fly is an awfully arbitrary qualifier.


I’m not disqualifying the Ark or the alien bodies, because those are both fantasies. The purpose they serve in both Raiders and Repo Men are as magical devices, so they can be replaced with something else that the movie says is magical without changing the movie, so they count as MacGuffins.

But Kiss Me Deadly is slightly different. SPOILERS AHOY!

See, the box in Kiss Me Deadly is actually full of an unstable nuclear element. The ending is supposed to be* that Lily opens the box and literally destroys the world, something that would resonate particularly strongly with the Cold War audiences of 1955. I would argue that if you change that item to something else, you would change that core of paranoia inherent in the movie, so the box is more of a Chekov’s Gun than a MacGuffin.

  • I say “supposed to be” because there’s been a lot of editing done to the end of Kiss Me Deadly that makes it less clear as to what actually happens. (Sort of like the original end of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, which was overruled by the studios.) The original ending makes it more clear that by opening the box, Lily accidentally triggered an apocalypse.

Now you’ve got me thinking about Ice-nine.


Well, Tom being a big Star Wars geek clearly subscribes to Lucas’ MacGuffin theory where I like Hitchcokcks much purer theory.

Sure the Ark can be replaced with another Magic Box of Great Power, but by making it the specific Ark of the Covenant there’s a bunch of stuff we already know about it. By making it some other magic box, there’s a bunch of stuff Spielberg would have to explain to us and its power would have to be set up beforehand because a Deux ex Machina usually royally sucks - by having it being the actual power of God in his facemelting awesomeness we can just go “well, hey, it’s God!”

And we’ve already discussed why I don’t listen to your podcast - perhaps if you didn’t get the minute mark wrong from time to time and didn’t spoil movies I haven’t seen, then.

I’m pretty sure madkevin actually has the original and changed endings of Kiss Me Deadly mixed up.

As Bahim has pointed out, you’re confusing a strange edit with the original ending. I don’t know anything about “a lot of editing” done to the ending, since it’s a simple matter of about thirty seconds of footage that either is or isn’t present. In the original ending, we clearly see the hero and heroine have escaped the house. In a later cut, the house is shown exploding before we see that they got out.

It’s funny what a difference it makes, though. Both endings are really abrupt, but one of them is suddenly and inexplicably nihilistic. They’re a great example of what a difference thirty seconds of seemingly inconsequential footage – two people wading in the surf – can make.

Anyway, I still don’t get why you want to re-define the definition of MacGuffin according to some tortured criteria you’re clearly making up as you go along. :)


I might indeed be confusing the two endings. I know I saw the longer one first, so maybe they added the original to a DVD release? Anyway.

As it happens, nitpicking about MacGuffins is my favorite type of pointless internet argument. But the real question is: Why hasn’t anybody done a movie version of Cat’s Cradle yet?