10 Marvellous Movie MacGuffins

The Maltese Falcon in The Maltese Falcon


As the directorial debut of writer-director John Huston, the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon earned three Academy Award nominations and instantly became an essential ‘MacGuffin movie.’ The adaptation of the novel of the same name, by Dashiell Hammett, uses the mysterious titular object as the ultimate temptation – weaving a dark tale of ambition, greed and murder. The basest instincts of the characters that are scrambling to get their hands on it are slowly but surely drawn out, with unpleasant consequences.

The film opens with the explanatory text:

“In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels – but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day – “

The audience is instantly drawn into the mythos of this object – it has a rich history, and could provide unimaginable wealth to the person that possesses it. The stage is set for Humphrey Bogart, as San Francisco private detective Sam Spade, to be equally drawn into the quest to find the valuable artefact, along with several unscrupulous and dangerous characters.

But this is the central, brilliant conceit of the plot. While, as an object, The Maltese Falcon is presented as being everything – a vital aspect of the story, so important that the whole film is named after it – it is, at the same time, nothing. In the final analysis, the nature of the Maltese Falcon is entirely inconsequential. It is simply the metaphorical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – it could easily be substituted for something else, and the tale would retain all its power and punch. This is the essence of the Hitchcockian version of a MacGuffin.