By Judy Berman
As you sit on the edge of your movie seat, you might be feeling smug because you know what’s coming up next. The director, however, has a few plot devices up his sleeve that you hadn’t counted on.
Some deliberately toy with us by using MacGuffins, red herrings and music to control our thoughts.
MacGuffins drive the story. It might be the theft of documents, or the discovery of a secret, or it could be as simple as a little tune (director Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes). This plot device was popularized by Hitchcock, and earlier used in classic films such as The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane.
“The only thing that matters is they must seem of vital importance,” Hitchcock said. As the action intensifies, the MacGuffin “will pretty much be forgotten.”
A red herring is a false clue intended to throw you off track so you do not suspect the real villain, or it leads you to a false conclusion.
As a fan of Agatha Christie mystery novels, my unscientific method to determine who the bad guy was: “who do I least suspect?” That worked perfectly until I read And Then There Were None. In the 2010 movie, Shutter Island, director Martin Scorsese opened with a red herring when Leonardo DiCaprio travels to the island in search of a missing inmate from an insane asylum.
Music can manipulate us as well. No doubt the menacing theme from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie, Jaws: “dun-dun! dun’dun! dun’dun, dun-dun, dun-dun” had you wishing for a bigger boat.
It also can lull you into a false sense of security, such as Hitchcock used in Psycho by a change in music:
In Psycho, Janet Leigh is on the run with $40,000 she stole from her boss. (The theft is the MacGuffin.)
Leigh is driving in a downpour. Irritating music plays while the wipers work furiously to clear the windshield. When she spots what she thinks is a safe haven for the night, the jarring music stops and she pulls into the Bates Motel.
In the motel, as Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh exchange views, it seems as if she’s decided to return the money. Hitchcock said the viewer is thinking, “this young man is influencing her to change her mind.”
“You turn the viewer in one direction and then in another; you keep him as far as possible from what’s actually going to happen,” Hitchcock said. (This is the red herring.)
In The Maltese Falcon (1941), it’s a game of who do you trust. Private detective, Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, was in that situation as the body count mounted and the double-crosses accelerated. Desperate men are searching for a jewel-encrusted black statuette. Then, they discover the statuette is not the one believed to be given to Spanish King Charles V in the 1500s.
When asked what the black statuette is, Bogart concludes that it is “the stuff that dreams are made of.”
Some MacGuffins are ordinary. Throughout Citizen Kane (1941), the question is what drove newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane? Money? Women? Power? Apparently, it was none of those. As he lay dying, Kane’s last words were: “Rosebud.” “The Top Ten Movie MacGuffins” says “the revelation that this MacGuffin was a symbol of Kane’s lost childhood still packs a wallop.”
What films would you add to the MacGuffin list? What would you include in a list of red herring movies?
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Video movie trailer: Psycho
What is a MacGuffin?
The Top Ten Movie MacGuffins
Photo: Psycho – movie set at Universal Studios Hollywood, taken Dec. 2008 by Superchilum
Photo: Martin Scorsese at premiere of the film Shutter Island. Taken Feb. 13, 2010. Author: Siebbi
Photo: Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon
Photo: Orson Welles in Citizen Kane