MacGuffins and Red Herrings

The Bates Motel

The Bates Motel

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.

Martin Scorsese, director of "Shutter Island"

Martin Scorsese, director of “Shutter Island”

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.)

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Space in "The Maltese Falcon"

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon”

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.”

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in "Citizen Kane"

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane”

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?

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider,, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original

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

A Rude Awakening (Part 1)

By Judy Berman

My first apartment. I now understand why parents have sleepless nights.

It seems like an excellent choice, even though the home, which is converted into apartments, reminds me of the house on the hill behind the Bates Motel in “Psycho.” Rent is affordable. I can walk to work and save bus fare.

My third-floor walk-up, one-room apartment is quiet. That changes when a tenant moves in across the hall.

Roger is almost a myth. Let’s just say that Dracula makes more daytime appearances than he does. I rarely see Roger, and when I do, it is usually just his back as he is about to enter his apartment.

One incredibly hot June night, my apartment is like a sauna. So I leave my door open to let in what little breeze lingers in the hallway.

I am reading when I hear someone coming up the stairs. It’s Roger and a woman is with him. Roger is a quiet man who has never spoken a word to me. He’d brought a woman home with him once before. Nothing unusual, I think. Still, I close my door for privacy.

Within 15 minutes, I hear the muffled sounds of an argument across the hall. Then, there is a knock on my door.

From the window in my door, I see the woman who Roger brought home. She looks upset.

She asks if she can use my phone to call the cops because Roger kicked her out and won’t let her get all her belongings.

Her cool demeanor changes after she makes the call. The woman races across the landing and kicks a crack in Roger’s door.

I just stand there in shock, clutching my poodle. Paris is no guard dog. He’s quaking almost as much as I am.

While I’m still trying to regain my composure, my downstairs neighbor steps out into the hallway. Eva heard the commotion, and wondered what’s going on.

Minutes later, a heavy-set cop comes up our stairwell two steps at a time. After talking to the woman, he gives me a fleeting, reassuring smile. Then, he strolls over and pounds on Roger’s door.

“You’re puffing up my ulcer, Roger,” the officer bellows.

That’s all the convincing Roger needs. As he cautiously opens his door, I join Eva downstairs in her apartment. A grandmotherly type, in her late-50s or early-60s, she makes tea to calm our nerves.

“I swear I’ve never seen anything like that,” Eva says, “and I’ve lived here for five years.”

As we try to draw comfort from one another, we see someone climbing the fire escape next to Eva’s window. This is particularly unsettling because the fire escape ends outside my apartment.

Short hair. Masculine jowl.

“Hey, fella,” I yell. “Where do you think you’re going?”

The intruder ignores me and continues to climb the fire escape. The second time I yell, the “fella” turns, snarls and informs me in extremely profane language that she is a lady and not a fella.

I’d disagree on the “lady” part, but I’m not about to argue.

When I look closer, I realize it was the woman who’d been in Roger’s apartment. Apparently. when the cop took her away to end the squabble, he just dropped her off at the corner. She returns. looking to get a piece of Roger, but thinks better of it when she realizes she’s been spotted. The woman scurries back down the fire escape and runs off.

I’m hot. I race downstairs. I’m not even sure why. If I ran into the “fella,” well, I’m not sure I would be here to tell this story.

Roger is outside. sitting on the bottom step. He sits there, dejectedly, holding his head in his hands.

“You ought to be more selective about the type of person you bring home,” I say indignantly.

Poor, bleary-eyed Roger looks at me, as if through a haze, and watches as I storm off.

Two months later, Roger is linked to still another police visit. But. this time, Roger might be forgiven. He isn’t even home when it begins.

That’s all the wake-up call I need to find somewhere else to live. The rent may be affordable, but my peace of mind is worth a lot more.


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider,, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Photo: Queen Anne-style home seen in the movie “Psycho” and the video clip “Thriller” – author: Laëtitia Zysberg. Date April 22, 2012

Photo: This is a photo of Ray Simpson of the Village People (not of the officer who responded to the incident at my first apartment). Taken at Asbury Park, N.J., on June 3, 2006, by Jackie of Monmouth County ,N.J.

Photo: This photo, taken January 2008, is of a Delran, N.J., police car – not the one that responded to the incident at my first apartment.

“You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat.”

By Judy Berman

Danger lurks on a moonlit beach as a girl romps in the water.

The teen ventures in while another partygoer lies drunk on the beach. Moments later, she screams when she’s attacked in the water. An unseen force drags her under, and she is gone. Later, her remains wash ashore.

The villain: a great white shark. Sharks have had a lot of bad PR ever since “Jaws” first hit the movie theaters in 1975.

Note to spring-breakers, tourists and snowbirds: You’re more likely to be struck by lightning in Florida than become shark bait while surfing or swimming.

Some statistics to consider:

  • Florida was known as “Lightning Capital of the World.” NASA has recently given that distinction to Rwanda, Africa. “With more deaths and injuries than all other states combined, Florida ranks as the #1 target for public safety and lightning awareness campaigns,” states website.
  • “Florida led the nation again last year with 11 of 29 shark attacks. None were fatal. Worldwide, there were 75 shark attacks; 12 of them were fatal, the most since 1993,” according to TCPalm’s web site on Feb. 25th.

Still, I’m not reassured. There have been three shark attacks in Florida this month – one at Playalinda Beach on March 4th and two at New Smyrna Beach on March 14th. All three teen surf riders were injured, but are OK after the sharks’ bites.

The only shark adventure I’m after would be on celluloid or digitally. In this case, “Bruce,” the name given to the mechanical shark in “Jaws,” is the only kind I’d care to meet up with.

We don’t see “Bruce” for most of the movie. That’s because they had trouble getting the mechanical beast to function as it should. If I were to compare this movie to an Alfred Hitchcock film, it would be “Psycho.”

We know something bad is about to happen to Janet Leigh in the shower scene. We can see some sort of menace beyond the shower curtain and know she can’t hear us scream that she’s in danger.

It’s much the same in “Jaws,” when the theme music plays … “dun-dun! dun-dun! “dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun.” Something awful is about to happen, and we’re powerless to warn those in the water.

We’re scared wondering when it will strike again.

This film has captured our family like few others have. We’ve had Jaws-themed birthday cakes, Jaws movie marathons and Shark Week extravaganzas. This, at the request of our youngest daughter, Jenn, who’s had a lifelong love affair with sharks.

It began with this movie. Director Steven Spielberg nailed this when he deviated from the novel, and added the right touch of terror and humor.

The scene that captures that best is when Amity Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) got an up-close look at “Bruce.” He’s on a boat with fisherman, Sam Quint (played by Robert Shaw), who is determined to kill the shark, and oceanographer Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss).

As Brody backs away from the shark and into the boat, he tells Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

At one point, Scheider tells Dreyfuss: “I used to hate the water.” Dreyfuss: “I can’t imagine why.”

Even though I live near the ocean, I rarely venture near the frothy waves. In my mind, I hear … dun-dun! dun-dun! That’s all I need. I quickly dive back onto my blanket and grab a book – anything but “Jaws.”


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider,, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

* Main photo of shark silhouette in the Maldives, taken Oct. 29, 2003 by TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

* Family photo of Jenn’s Jaws’ themed birthday cake in 2011 which was designed by her sister, Danielle. Yup, Ernie’s gonna need a bigger boat.

* video clip of Amity Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) backing away and telling fisherman, Sam Quint (Robert Shaw): “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat,” from “Jaws”

* Jaws’ theme song:

** MSNBC story about a shark attack:

** updated MSNBC story about shark attacks:

“Downtown” and December

by Judy Berman  

There’s a jukebox in my head. When a certain tune plays on that virtual soundtrack, it takes me back.

Some songs are like worm-holes. They take you to a time and place you don’t want to return to. I won’t mention them for fear that they will be like an endless tape-loop in your brain. Oh, what the heck. “It’s a Small World After All.” I’ve seen grown-ups run from the room screaming in anguish, knowing that they will be mindlessly humming that tune all day because it’s now imbedded in their head.

Others may stir up memories that deposit you gently in a nostalgic setting and lift you out of a bluesy-funk. For me, December and Petula Clark’s “Downtown” will be forever intertwined. Both link to my first apartment when I moved away from home. The tune was upbeat. It made me feel less lonely and very hopeful about my new digs.

Envision this: I moved from the country into an apartment in Syracuse, N.Y. At night the old, run-down house looked like the one behind the Bates Motel in the movie “Psycho.”  Uninviting, foreboding. I would have to share the bathroom with some stranger – some unknown tenant who would live across the hall from my third-floor, walk-up apartment.

Why was it, again, that I was making this move? That question, among others, raced through my mind that December evening as I trudged up the stairs carrying my belongings.

At a small table, in my sparsely decorated one-room apartment, I watched sadly as my Dad backed up his Volkswagen. Snowflakes fell more furiously as he drove off. It was about two weeks before Christmas, and my parents would be moving to another state in less than two months.

A tiny snow globe on the table was my only holiday decoration.

I was 21 and eager to be on my own. But I was torn between celebrating my newfound independence and leaving the security of my parents’ home. It’s the flight that most of us feel we have to take to really be considered grown up.

The thought of partying the nights away sounded exciting. But I also was savvy enough to know I’d pay for that as I sleep-walked, bleary-eyed around the office the following day.

Yeah, that sure would get old real fast.

As I sat there, considering the abrupt change in my life, a song on the radio intruded into my thoughts.

“Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city, linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty,” Petula Clark sang.

“Downtown, where all the lights are bright. Downtown, waiting for you tonight. Downtown, you’re gonna be all right now.”

I dismissed the nagging thought that I might be spending Christmas alone and began to sing along. Downtown was less than a mile from my apartment. Time to view the brightly decorated Christmas trees.  I cheered up as I began to weigh the endless possibilities and adventures that lay in wait.

Now, when I hear that tune, a wave of nostalgia floods over me. While it dredges up some sad times, it also reminds me that opportunity beckons. All I need to do is open the door, remember the wonder of discovering something new and embrace the change.

What song sparks a special time of year for you?

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider,, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

(Click the link below to hear Petula Clark’s “Downtown”)