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The McGuffin

The paradigm of the McGuffin is in The Maltese Falcon, perhaps the most garrulous movie in the history of cinema

Enrique Vila-Matas

Someone sent me a tweet, in Spanish, mentioning his "esmarfon." In the face of the unknown I crossed my fingers, as did the early kings of Rome. At first I thought that an esmarfon might be a McGuffin. But it turned out be a smartphone, a cellphone with more computer capacity than that of an ordinary cellphone.

Do you, dear reader, know what a McGuffin is? Not everyone does. My friend John Williams Wilkinson was the first to explain it to me, thus: Two men are in a train compartment. One asks: "Can you tell me what is in that suitcase on the rack over your head?" And the other answers: "Oh, that's a McGuffin." The first wants to know what a McGuffin is, and the other explains: "A McGuffin is a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," says the first. And the other answers, "Well, then, that's no McGuffin."

The paradigm of the McGuffin is in The Maltese Falcon, perhaps the most garrulous movie in the history of cinema. The plot of John Huston's film is built around the energetic and talkative search for the gold figurine of a falcon, which was the tribute the Knights of Malta paid to the Spanish king in return for their island. But at the end, the coveted falcon, for which so many words have been uttered and bullets fired, is a worthless imitation made of lead, a mere element of suspense that has kept the story going.

We meet McGuffins on every street corner of life. In Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, for example, there is a portentous suitcase, whose contents we never see. And what about the mysterious package in the Coen brothers' Barton Fink? Or the little box that someone shows to Catherine Deneuve in the brothel in Buñuel's Belle de Jour, the contents of which we never come to know? And is not the Civil War the package, the suitcase, the deadly little box in the career of more than one Spanish writer?

We meet McGuffins on every street corner of life. In Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, for example, there is a portentous suitcase

Hitchcock was the first to use the term McGuffin. They appear in many of his films. In Psycho, for example, Janet Leigh's initial journey turns out to be fairly irrelevant to the story, but it does perform the function of keeping us in a state of permanent suspense. In the same line are numerous episodes of The Simpsons, where the prelude has little to do with what happens later.

"The McGuffin? In a story about jewel thieves it's usually a necklace; in a spy story, the documents," said Hitchcock. And this reminds me that in The Aspern Parers, by Henry James, the documents of the dead writer - which we guess that the young investigator will never find - are a perfect McGuffin.

The first McGuffin of my life, I think, I detected in Pietro Germi's Un maledetto imbroglio, adapted from a novel by Carlo Emilio Gadda. In it, inspector Ingravallo, pumped up on espresso coffees and lost in the labyrinth of his intricate investigation, speaks now and then on the phone with his long-suffering wife, whom we never see. Was Ingravallo married to a McGuffin?

I have to leave now for a moment because I have a lunch date with the McGuffins. They have told me that, just before dessert, they will reveal to me "the enigma of the universe" - that secret which Falter (a Nabokov personality) knew and would never reveal to anyone, ever since he whispered it into the ear of his psychiatrist, and it cost the man his life. The McGuffins, a perfect couple, have promised to tell me the secret without causing me any mental disturbance. And they do trust that I will never tell anyone. I have already told them that on my side there is no problem. After all, three people can always keep a secret if two of them are dead.

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