According to Hitchcock, the MacGuffin was a phrase devised from Kipling that was used to cover any plot curiosity or unexplainable necessity; the unattainable object that must be attained, or the mysterious device that must be discovered. The MacGuffin was that of meaningless intrigue, as when men die for the sake of a tune in The Lady Vanishes - a tune whose relevance and importance is of no knowledge to them, and exists merely as an excuse for a greater picture.
A greater picture indeed. In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock’s MacGuffin is presented early on, much to the ignorance of the casual viewer, who will no doubt pass over its significance without so much as a thought. Then, the MacGuffin transforms into another key element of the story. By the end of the film, we get the basic idea of what is going on, but the purpose for its existence in the first place is never fully explained - nor does it need to be.
Hitchcock’s own cynicism towards his “MacGuffins” is clearly evident in most interviews where he suffers through explaining their definitions yet once more. But author Eric Rhode explains, “It would be as foolish to take Hitchcock’s cynicism on its face value as it would be to accept François Truffaut’s view that Hitchcock elaborates a philosophy of the absurd of it. Genuine anxieties and genuine intuitions do emerge in his filming.”
These anxieties appear in full during the course of The 39 Steps, Hitchcock’s early British masterpiece from 1935. Perhaps one of the first examples of the “buddy comedy” genre to later be fulfilled by Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987, John Hughes) and Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest), The 39 Steps is a simple story that is technically flawed and yet structurally perfect. Arguably Hitchcock’s most popular film of the 1930s (closely rivaled by The Lady Vanishes ), The 39 Steps is a reason to return to his older films and marvel at their utter simplicity and wonder. For a film released in 1935, filmed with a low budget and a somewhat low-key cast, The 39 Steps is still relatively well-paced and interesting, and should wet the appetite of most mystery lovers - especially those who think the classics aren’t “any good.” If you are interested in “weaning” yourself onto older motion pictures, this is a good start, and still one of the finest films you will ever encounter on your quest.
In this case, Hitchcock’s MacGuffin is inadvertently stumbled across by a Canadian man on vacation in England. His name is Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat), and his presence is never given a backdrop. A lesser director might employ the unnecessary fifteen-minute opening that sets up the character, his flaws, his quirks, his reasons for visiting England. Instead, Hitchcock does something just short of brilliant by introducing the character to us from the very start, halfway through his journey, and by doing so therefore lets us judge him on our own standards, without having forced opinions crammed down our throats.
Unjustly accused of murder after being told of the “thirty-nine steps” by a female spy who is assassinated inside his apartment, Hannay flees into the British landscape, taking along a beautiful hostage named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who is eager to escape, but soon falls for the Canadian and believes his self-proclaimed innocence to be the truth.
What is the MacGuffin of the story? In short, we never really know. To spoil the ending would ruin the entire film, but in a nutshell, Hannay himself becomes the MacGuffin, as he is the victim being pursued by men who are not aware of who he is, or what he knows. Hannay is the story’s connecting thread to all of the following events, and the end presents us with two separate MacGuffins, in a sense: Hannay and the realization of why he has been chased up unto this point. Hitchcock does not use his typical MacGuffins here - the characters, and what they know, and why they know what they know, and why their pursuers want to know what they know, is the theme - or the MacGuffin, depending on how you want to interpret it.
Quentin Tarantino used the MacGuffin ploy in Pulp Fiction fifty-nine years later - what was in the briefcase? No one knew, and it was not important - the idea of the briefcase was all that mattered, and its presence was what compelled the characters to try and achieve it. We learned to realize that by revealing nothing, Tarantino was actually thereby offering our minds room to think for a change. To reveal the MacGuffin would ruin the entire theory - some of us might find it to be a worthy object and I am sure that many of us would consider it to be a waste of time. Instead, we react to the haze of light that shoots out of the briefcase whenever it is opened, and our curiosity grows as we see each and every character that encounters the case stare in awe at its presumably marvelous contents.
Hitchcock could be credited for starting this entire trend of less-is-more cinema. He perfected the sense of mystery in Psycho (1960), which completely startled audiences across the world, setting up two oft-mixed genres of serial killers and split personalities. (It also spawned three inferior sequels, two of which were passable but all of which failed to realize that the subtlety of Psycho is what propelled it, not the exploitation present in its offspring.)
In The 39 Steps, the MacGuffin is more clear than usual, but the relevance of the MacGuffin itself to those who need it is what we are never sure of - and that is why the mystery is never truly explained, and is miles ahead of many other films that try, and fail, to imitate its success.