by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, September 20, 2010


So I decided to pop Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious into the DVD player the other night, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. I wanted to show it to my wife, for a number of reasons: a) it's Alfred Hitchcock, b) you can never go wrong with Hitchcock, and c) it's so hard to find a quality love story these days worth re-visiting.

That's right: This elegant 1946 masterpiece from the "Master of Suspense" is a romance masquerading as an espionage thriller, about a spy (Bergman) recruited by a CIA agent (Grant) to "reaquaint" herself with an old flame in league with Nazi operatives. The trouble is, the Bergman character has fallen in love with the Grant character, and vice versa - although both are too proud to admit their feelings for each other.

What she does, she does out of love, because he's asked her to; he finds it difficult to love a person so willing to fall into bed with another man. (It's her reputation as a bit of a floozy that gives Notorious its title.) The movie gains considerable intensity as Bergman arouses the suspicions of her ex-lover (Claude Rains) while Grant watches, anguished, from the sidelines.

The movie's centerpiece suspense sequence, set at a party inside Rains' Rio de Janeiro estate, starts with an elaborate crane shot that swoops down a long staircase and zeroes in on a stolen key clutched in Bergman's nervously-twisting hand. She and Grant use this key to sneak into the wine cellar, to investigate a cache of mysterious champagne bottles. They break one by accident, and discover uranium hidden inside it; Rains, it turns out, is helping the Nazis smuggle the substance out of the country to build atomic bombs.

As I watched this, a peculiar word kept repeating itself in my brain, over and over again, and I couldn't shake it: MacGuffin. MacGuffin. MacGuffin.

I know - it sounds like something you'd order from the breakfast menu at McDonald's. But guess again. Coined by Hitchcock during the 1930s, a "MacGuffin" is defined by Merriam Webster as "an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance." In other words, it's the doodad that everyone in the story is chasing after, although it hardly matters what it actually is. It's what the characters actually do to get their hands on it - the sacrifices they make - that's really the point.

You'll know it as the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, or the One Ring in The Lord Of The Rings. In Notorious, it's uranium hidden in champagne bottles. Cary Grant sends Ingrid Bergman into harm's way to find it, at the cost of their own blossoming romance. Once it's discovered, though, the uranium is barely mentioned again (naturally, the MacGuffin should be enticing enough for us to understand why the characters want it, but not so elaborate that we focus all our attention on it). The point here is not what the uranium is used for, or what happens with it, but whether Grant will get over himself long enough to step up and rescue the woman he loves. And get over it he does, in a particularly rousing and powerful closing sequence.

So. Another project. As a refresher course, I thought I'd revisit some of those movies with MacGuffins You May Have Missed. The format will go something like this. A little intro, and then:


The Movie: Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

The MacGuffin: Uranium hidden in champagne bottles.

Why It's Important: Can be used to build atomic bombs. A spy (Ingrid Bergman) and her CIA contact (Cary Grant) discover this substance in the wine cellar of the Nazi sympathizer (and former lover) she's sent to seduce.

Why It's Not: Bergman risks her life to discover her ex-lover's secret dealings, while agent Grant (her current love) watches from the sidelines. Will Grant finally risk his heart to rescue the woman he loves?

How It Holds Up: Beautifully. Hitchcock wrings some terrific suspense out of a romantic plot that might have otherwise played as pure soap opera.


This will be a continuing series that will tackle anything from a single title to several at a time, depending on the mood. We'll cover trilogies and one-offs, blockbusters and lesser-known titles. And we'll definitely be returning to Hitchcock again. Until next time...


  1. So....I've never seen this movie!! You've got me very interested...good job!! =)

  2. One of my favorites. I also think Mission Impossible 2 is a blatant rip-off of this movie. Some scenes are almost word-for-word. This movie was much better. Thanks again Darin for an entertaining read. I had forgotten all about MacGuffins and it was a good reminder. LOVE YOUR BLOG!

  3. We watched it......we liked it......a good classic!! =)

  4. Classic, indeed. Notice how Cary Grant, who's usually so charming and charismatic in every role, is uncharacteristically stand-offish and reserved for much of the film (he’s a bit of a jerk, actually). But when (SPOILER) he finally gets it together and marches into that mansion to rescue Ingrid Bergman from impending doom, Grant owns the movie. That’s Alfred Hitchcock utilizing his lead actor’s star power to awesome effect.