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Here’s what a MacGuffin is, and 15 killer examples that made movies memorable

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Whether it’s Maltese Falcons, Tesseracts, or Crystal Skulls, Hollywood just can’t quit MacGuffins — and for good reason.

First popularized by master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, “MacGuffin” is the term used to describe a basic plot element that drives a film’s story forward. It often takes the form of an object, event, or character that’s being pursued — usually by opposing sets of characters — but it can also be more abstract, like a sense of love or power.

In the 2016 film The Nice Guys, for example, the protagonists find themselves caught up in an investigation of a missing person that puts them on the trail of an amateur pornographic movie that just happens to contain evidence of a far-reaching conspiracy.

Not all MacGuffins are as … unique … as the one in The Nice Guys, but they can still manage to be memorable. Here are 15 of cinema’s greatest MacGuffins that not only served their stories, but made the movie better for being in it.

The Military Secrets — The 39 Steps

The Military Secrets — The 39 Steps
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No list of great movie MacGuffins is complete without at least one element from a Hitchcock film, and it was this 1935 thriller that reportedly gave the famed director cause to coin the term. The film follows a London man who becomes caught up with a spy ring attempting to steal military secrets from the government. The “secrets” they’re trying to steal are exactly that throughout much of the film, and Hitchcock simply asks the audience to simply accept that they’re important and follow along in the adventure. The military secrets are an object that simply functions to move the story along — and perhaps the perfect example of a MacGuffin.

Colonel Kurtz  Apocalypse Now

Colonel Kurtz — Apocalypse Now
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Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film set during the Vietnam War put a U.S. Army officer played by Martin Sheen on the trail of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a rogue U.S. Army Special Forces officer who’s gone insane and established himself as a demigod in the jungles of Cambodia. Although Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Kurtz earned considerable acclaim, he actually spends very little time on the screen — often serving as the unseen element propelling Sheen’s character and the film’s supporting cast forward in their journey into the wilds of the war-ravaged region.

The rug — The Big Lebowski

The rug — The Big Lebowski
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A case of mistaken identity gets Jeff Bridges’ iconic slacker The Dude mixed up in a crazy scheme involving kidnapping, porn, a sex offender named “Jesus,” and a bunch of nihilists who believe in absolutely nothing in this 1998 comedy. What initially gets The Dude out of his bungalow, though, is a rug that “really tied the room together” — or rather, compensation for the aforementioned rug after it’s peed on by someone who mistakes The Dude for a different guy with the same surname. The Dude’s quest to be paid back for the ruined rug is just as weird as it sounds, and gave audiences one of filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen’s most bizarrely wonderful movies.

Letters of Transit — Casablanca

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The famous 1942 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman is known for its iconic romance set against the backdrop of World War II, but it wasn’t a love story that brought its colorful cast of characters to the French nightclub run by American expatriate Rick Blaine (Bogart). The object that reunited Rick with his former lover and put them on the wrong side of assorted criminals, freedom fighters, refugees, and Nazis was a set of documents that allowed free travel from Nazi-occupied territories to neutral regions. Yes, it was those “letters of transit” that indirectly gave us some of Hollywood’s most quoted lines of dialogue – and one of its greatest scenes.

Rosebud — Citizen Kane

Rosebud — Citizen Kane
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The movie widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made also featured one of the most famous MacGuffins in cinema, and the entire premise of the film is built around pursuit of it. Director, co-writer, and star Orson Welles framed the story of one man’s ambition and pursuit of power around a journalist’s quest to discover the meaning of the final word he uttered: “Rosebud.” The answer to that mystery proved that the objects of characters’ quests aren’t always what you expect them to be.

The Necronomicon — The Evil Dead franchise

The Necronomicon
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The unspeakable evil unleashed by “The Book of the Dead” tormented franchise hero Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) across three live-action movies, one spinoff, multiple comic book series and video games, and, most recently, a well-received television series, making it one of the more prolific MacGuffins out there. Bound in human flesh and inked in blood, the Necronomicon has even taken an active role in several installments of the franchise, flying around and biting or otherwise tormenting those who search for it. As far as MacGuffins go, it’s one of the scarier ones — that’s for sure.

Doug — The Hangover (and The Hangover Part III)

the hangover
Warner Bros. Pictures

You have to feel bad for Doug Billings. Actor Justin Bartha’s character serves as the MacGuffin in both the first film and the third installment of the raunchy comedy series, after having mysteriously disappeared or been kidnapped in the first act of each film. The remainder of each movie is devoted to his friends’ quest to get him home safely, and they endure all manner of ridiculous — and often painful — encounters along the way in order to get to him.

The One Ring — The Lord of the Rings trilogy

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The epic trek across Middle-earth by four small hobbits with tremendous hearts is made in service to the magical ring at the center of J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga. That an object so small and seemingly inconsequential when it was introduced in The Hobbit could later inspire such an adventure and so much change in the characters that encounter it is reason enough for it to be ranked among the great movie MacGuffins, but its final fate — to be disposed of after such a tumultuous journey — only confirms its status.

The big “W” — It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

t's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
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A chance encounter with an ex-convict sends a group of eccentric characters on a race across California in this 1963 comedy. The object they’re pursuing? A buried treasure hidden under ” a big ‘W'” in Santa Rosita State Park near the Mexican border. The film is famous for its all-star ensemble, which includes many of the era’s most prominent comedians, but it was the quest to find the big “W” that pitted their characters against each other in this wild, wacky film that’s widely regarded as one of cinema’s all-time greatest comedies.

The Maltese Falcon — The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon
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One of the most iconic MacGuffins of all time, this statue of a falcon becomes the object of desire for multiple characters in this 1941 film noir based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name. Caught up in the various criminals’ pursuit of the statue is Humphrey Bogart’s private investigator Sam Spade. The fervor surrounding the Maltese Falcon gives his character cause to describe it as “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Now that is the mark of a great MacGuffin.

The Holy Grail — Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, etc.

The Holy Grail
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A popular choice for films in search of a MacGuffin, the legendary Holy Grail has served as a focal point in the narratives of numerous films over the years. The Grail was used to great effect in Steven Spielberg’s 1989 sequel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with a young Indiana Jones and his father caught up in a search for the cup from Arthurian legends, and it was put to even greater comedic effect in the Monty Python comedy troupe’s 1975 film that poked fun at those same legends. The Grail was also the object of a quest in the 2006 adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, among a great many other films. Basically, The Holy Grail has become the go-to MacGuffin in Hollywood, and with projects like the aforementioned three celebrated movies all making use of it, it’s hard to argue with the results.

The briefcase — Pulp Fiction

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The common thread that runs through Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated, 1994 web of crime stories is a mysterious briefcase that changes hands several times throughout the nonlinear narrative, usually when one owner falls victim to the next. Exactly what’s in the briefcase is never revealed, but like all great MacGuffins, its contents aren’t all that important to the story. What is important is the journey it takes through the lives of the film’s eccentric characters.

The Ark of the Covenant — Raiders of the Lost Ark

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The search for the legendary Ark of the Covenant pits adventuring archeologist Indiana Jones against a team of Nazis hoping to use its power to make Adolf Hitler’s army invincible in Steven Spielberg’s 1981 film that spawned a franchise and turned a faded fedora and a bullwhip into the coolest costume around. One of the most iconic MacGuffins in Hollywood history, the Ark was front and center in the film’s memorably gruesome climax, then relegated to a final resting place appropriate for all great movie MacGuffins.

Private Ryan — Saving Private Ryan

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Steven Spielberg’s award-winning, 1998 war drama was a critical and commercial success, and followed a squad of soldiers tasked with locating a paratrooper named James Ryan (played by The Martian star Matt Damon) who’s being sent home after his three brothers were all killed in the war. The group’s pursuit of Ryan is fraught with sacrifice, and the object of their mission becomes an almost mythical figure during their journey across enemy-occupied territory. When they finally do locate Ryan, they find that their mission is far from over.

The plans for the Death Star — Star Wars 

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The schematics for the planet-destroying weapon known as the Death Star traveled all the way from a captured princess to a young farmer and his droid. From there, the top-secret plans ended up on a journey that would bring them from one far-flung planet to another, with two opposing armies battling to possess them. Despite fueling a universe-spanning war and bringing together some of sci-fi cinema’s greatest heroes (and villains), we hardly see the plans to the Death Star.

Updated June 6 with five additional movie MacGuffins.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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