Have you seen the MacGuffin Man?

A woman travelling alone checks in to a motel room. She writes in a notebook, sighs, gets up and walks to the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. Shedding her silk robe she steps under the shower, lathers her body with soap, enjoying the sensation of hot water on her skin.

With her back to the door she does not see it open and a dark figure approach the shower curtain.

Norman Bates' house

Norman Bates’ house

This is the build up to one of the most famous scenes in film history from cinema’s Master of Suspense, Alfred Joseph Hitchcock.  It is an impressive achievement to have so many recognisable characteristics, techniques and clichés attached to one surname but Hitch appears to have nailed it.

I am currently involved in Hitchcock re:presented, eleven new Hitchcock-inspired short plays produced by Off the Fence Theatre Company and to be performed at Curve as part of their Hitchcock season. Many submissions referenced cameos, MacGuffins and there had invariably been a murder (to now misquote a Scottish TV detective).

Hitchcock’s films and his personal life are regularly picked over by academics, film critics and psychologists and his trademark tricks of the celluloid are cemented in our psyches. But how did they come about? What do they mean? I have the answers from Hitch himself via a series of interviews conducted in 1962 between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut (see the fascinating Hitchcock by Truffaut, The Definitive Study, 1984, Paladin Grafton Books).

Starting with Hitchcock’s cameo appearances in all his fifty three major films: examples of an ego to match his build or thwarted ambitions of being an actor? It was neither – the practice began in The Lodger (1926), his first ‘Hitchcock’ movie:

AH: “It was strictly utilitarian, we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag. But by now it’s a rather troublesome gag, and I’m very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.”

MacGuffin bait

MacGuffin bait

Fair enough. And a MacGuffin, where did that come from? Hitch gives a typically cryptic explanation of its origins:

AH:  “It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’

And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.’

The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’

‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.’

And the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’

So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”

Rear Window, (1954), regarded as one of his best films and inspiration for a wide spectrum of cultural output including CSI: NY and The Simpsons. But who inspired Hitchcock? The screenplay by John Michael Hayes was based on a 1942 short story It Had to Be Murder by Cornell Woolrich but as director, Hitchcock drew upon two infamous British villains for additional creative touches.

Who's that through the Rear Window?

Who’s that through the Rear Window?

AH: “The killing presented something of a problem so I used two stories from the British Press. One was the Patrick Mahon case and the other was the case of Dr Crippen. In the Mahon case the man killed a girl in a bungalow on the seafront of southern England. He cut up the body and threw it, piece by piece, out of a train window.”

I will leave it there for those about to dunk their Digestives, but you get the idea.

I’ve not even mentioned blondes, voyeurs, the ‘wrong man’ syndrome, eroticism – further items on a long list under the heading ‘Hitchcock’. But why not see how writers of 2013 approach these themes? Come along to Curve on 28 September and 5 October and you’ll see what the word Hitchcock means now, nearly 90 years since the Master of Suspense directed The Lodger.

Now, don’t have nightmares…

Tickets for Hitchcock re:presented may be purchased online here

Images by Wiki Commons

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