Mac•guff•in: In cinema vernacular, an object of great importance that serves as the primary motivator for the protagonists, and their antagonists.
It’s actually not a made-up word! Originally, it was coined by the venerable Alfred Hitchcock: “In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is almost always the papers.” These days, it can be damn near anything. Here’s nine of the very best movie MacGuffins, arranged in no particular order (since we all knew the Maltese Falcon was the best one anyway, right?).
1. The Ark of the Covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)
No wonder the Nazis were after the Ark of the Covenant: It can melt people’s faces off! As far as plot devices go, a “radio transmitter to God” is a pretty good one.
2. The Necronomicon (Army of Darkness, 1992)
A book of unspeakable unholy power, it’s Ash’s only ticket out of ye olde times and back to his days as a low-grade retail salesman at S. Mart (shop smart, that’s S. Mart). If only he could remember that damn incantation correctly.
3. Project Genesis (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982)
An energy weapon that, when fired at a planet, reorganizes matter in order to terraform the surface. Naturally, the genetically-altered super-dictator Khan (responsible for something called the “Eugenics Wars of the 1990s” in the Star Trek universe) has other designs for it.
4. Rosebud (Citizen Kane, 1941)
The revelation that Charles Foster Kane’s cherished Rosebud is, in fact, a (SPOILER ALERT) sled may be the greatest cinematic reveal of all time, in what may be the greatest movie of all time.
5. The suitcase (Pulp Fiction, 1994)
Just what the hell is in Marcellus Wallace’s case? We never do find out, but it’s the root cause of every single gunshot, blood splatter, expletive and moment of hamburger-pontificating in this flick.
6. Green Destiny (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000)
There’s nothing supernatural about Li Mu Bai’s sword, per se. It’s the symbol of his desire to give up the warrior’s life, which is why he spends most of Crouching Tiger trying to get it back.
7. The Holy Grail (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975)
This ultimate piece of Arthurian legend has been used as the object of desire in too many different mediums to count. But for my money, there’s only one movie with the self-seriousness and gravitas to truly be worthy of depicting the most holy Sangrail.
8. The One Ring (Lord of the Rings trilogy, 2001-2003)
In most movies, the way the MacGuffin will twist and consume its hunter is more metaphoric than anything else. In Lord of the Rings’ case, however, it’s quite literal.
9. The Maltese Falcon (The Maltese Falcon, 1941)
If Hitchcock coined the word MacGuffin, Bogart’s impeccable turn as a private detective hunting the legendary Maltese Falcon made the term unforgettable.