"She killed Miles. Oh, and I've got some
exhibits: the boys' guns, one of Cairo's, a thousand dollar bill I was supposed to be
bribed with. And this black statuette here that all the fuss was about."
-- Private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart),
wrapping up the case of The Maltese Falcon (1941).
It's the priceless, elusive object of the noir
hero's quest -- and often the noir villain's as well. Perhaps it's the
incriminating "smoking gun" clue that's gonna blow the whole case wide open.
Or maybe it's a treasure so valuable that some people would kill for it. It
may take the form of guilty secrets, providing the catalyst for blackmail or
extortion. Then again, maybe it's just a MacGuffin, the term Alfred Hitchcock coined
to describe the ficticious fool's gold that really doesn't mean much of anything, but is
employed as an excuse to push the plot along -- like the unsolvable mystery of
"Rosebud" in Citizen Kane.
||"It's the stuff that
dreams are made of," says Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) of the coveted Black Bird.
It's also the MacGuffin that drives the plot of John Huston's The Maltese
Falcon (1941). In the end, its value proves elusive, not unlike the gold that
vanishes into the wind in Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
|Pandora's Box: Unable to
contain her curiosity any longer, Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) opens the atomic treasure
chest that so many have paid for with their lives -- and unleashes nuclear havoc upon the
world -- in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Quentin Tarantino did
something similar with the mysterious glowing briefcase sought by John Travolta and Samuel
L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994).
||The menacing shadow of
Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) haunts a boy and his little sister in Charles
Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955). The corrupt clergyman knows that
they know where a great deal of money has been stashed, and he'll do anything (including
marrying their mother) to find out. In fact, it's right there in the foreground,
snuggling in the covers: inside the rag doll. (Click photo for a better view.)
|Alfred Hitchcock to Francois
Truffaut, regarding Notorious (1946): "When I started working with Ben Hecht on the
screenplay for Notorious, we were looking for a MacGuffin, and as always, we proceeded by
trial and error, going off in several directions that turned out to be too complex.... So
we dropped the whole idea in favor of a MacGuffin that was simpler, but concrete and
visual: a sample of uranium concealed in a wine bottle." From Hitchcock/Truffaut,
the classic book of interviews between the two great directors. (Wanna buy it
||One of the few objects that
hasn't been digitally added to The Dark Room, this folder holds the insurance policy that
agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) needs to have signed by the husband of Phyllis
Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944).
In other words, it gives him an excuse to stop by the Dietrichson's
"Spanish-style" home in Los Feliz to see the lady of the house...
back into the dark room