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

  1. I just watched Shutter Island, and of course spent the movie trying to second guess what was going to happen or what the true story was as it unfolded. I’m normally pretty good at guessing the plot twists. But I wasn’t right about Shutter Island.

    1. I also was deceived in “Shutter Island.” I watched it after I read Dennis Lehane’s book. Then I also read Lehane’s “Mystic River” with Sean Penn. Excellent. Martin Scorsese did a terrific job with “Shutter Island.” Creepy and mesmerizing.

  2. Citizen Kane is a brilliant example. Off hand I can only think of ‘The Usual Suspects’, the ending was quite a surprise.

    1. I loved “The Usual Suspects.” Yes, Madhu, I didn’t get it until just about the ending. Then, it was ‘hand plant to the forehead.’

      Two other films did the same: “Charade” and “Sixth Sense.” My hubby got the ending of the latter way before the ending. Once it was revealed, I wanted to see it again … that same weekend … to see the movie thru new eyes. 🙂

  3. The opening scenes of the movie version of SHUTTER ISLAND are powerfully deceptive. It’s one of the things I love about many of Lehane’s books, sucking us in and making us scared and worried for the characters. Thanks for the link to the Top 10 movie McGuffins, too.
    I’m going to try again and sign up to be notified each time you post. I’ve done it twice now, but for some reason I’m not getting the emails. I don’t want to miss out!

    1. The intriguing thing, for me, about “Shutter Island” is one of my students loaned it to me. I kept telling him ‘naw, this isn’t the kind of book I’d want to read.’ Finally, I did … and, WOW, it was wonderful. That led me to Dennis Lehane’s other book, “Mystic River.” Also very powerful.

      Marilyn, I’m sorry you’re having problems getting notified about my postings and thank you for your persistence.

  4. Psycho is one of my all-time favorite horror moves. I’ve been watching it whenever I see it come on tv since the 60’s
    Thank you for your recent visits and comments, Judy…always appreciated! x

    1. There is so much to admire about Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” I can see why you’ve been fascinated with it, Deb.

      You do know that I love your art, your illustrations. So it’s always a treat to stop in at your place. 🙂

      1. I know you do, Judy, and I appreciate that. 🙂
        I can still find Psycho on the TCM channel from time to time. I wouldn’t mind watching it again for about the 200th time… 🙂

        note from earthrider to Deb: My favorite Hitchcock films are Rear Window and North by Northwest. Great suspense and fun. I have watched those two too many times to count. 🙂

  5. Thanks for sharing these timeless movies. Movies that makes you want for more. Movies that keeps you at the edge in suspense. Shutter Island was a very thrilling movie.

    1. I agree, “Shutter Island” was one where I was on the edge of my seat many times. Great tension. Solid performances and script. Thank you for your comments, Island Traveler. I’m glad you enjoy these movies.

  6. One of my favorite movies is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It’s about a seasoned con man training a younger guy who’s trying to move in on his action. When they turn against each other, the audience assumes one will emerge victorious, but right at the end, they both get burned and the real con man turns out to be the one we’d least suspect.

    1. Now, you have piqued my interest, Charles. I haven’t seen “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” I’ll have to check this out. I love the movies where it’s cross, double-cross, and even triple-cross.

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