The 39 Steps
"The 39 Steps" (1935) was famed director Alfred Hitchcock's 14th film and is considered by many to be the first of the masterworks that would indelibly mark cinematic storytelling. In this spy thriller, Robert Hannay (Robert Donat) attempts to thwart a plot to smuggle British state secrets to enemy forces. The only thing is, he doesn't know the identities of the enemies or the secrets they're trying to gain. Along the way, the witty and handsome bachelor finds himself handcuffed to the prickly and pretty Pamela (Madeleine Carroll).
The state secrets that are at stake are this film's "MacGuffin"—Hitckcock's name for an object that drives a story's plot but is ultimately less significant than the events the search for it generates. In other words, the MacGuffin is an excuse for the characters to have a story. Some viewers argue that the "real" story of "The 39 Steps" is the multi-faceted concept of marriage. Indeed, Hannay encounters various examples of marital life, including the dour Scottish man and his unhappy, much-younger wife; the Professor, whose mate pretends not to notice his murderous nature; and the gradual transformation of his relationship with the woman to whom he is handcuffed—figuratively as well as literally—for much of the film.
Hitchcock wasn't the first to use a plot device in this way, nor was he the last. Other famous film MacGuffins include the statue in "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), the ark of the Covenant in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), and the Allspark in "Transformers" (2007). In literature, the Holy Grail of the post-Arthurian legends and even Odysseus' longed-for home may be considered MacGuffins of a sort, giving rise to a multitude of entertaining circumstances for their main characters as the point is less in the attainment than in the seeking.
Paul KetzleNarratologist and writer Paul Ketzle discusses science and storytelling and the film “The 39 Steps.”
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