Rosebud in 'Citizen Kane'
"Rosebud," the dying word of newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), has been called the greatest MacGuffin of all time. The word drives the plot of Welles' 1941 masterpiece—a journalist spends the entire film searching in vain for its meaning—and in the end, the movie audience alone learns that Rosebud is just the brand name of a sled Kane played with as a boy. It represents an old man's memory of his innocent youth.
The One-Armed Man in 'The Fugitive'
After his wife is murdered in their home, Dr. Richard Kimble—played by Harrison Ford in 1993's big-screen adaptation of "The Fugitive"—insists she was killed by a one-armed intruder. Nobody buys that story and Kimble lands in prison. But, as in the 1960s TV series starring David Janssen, he escapes and takes off on a tireless search for the one-armed MacGuffin.
The Ark of the Covenant in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'
The Ark is a chest said to contain the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. It's also the MacGuffin that drives that action in Steven Spielberg's 1981 update of the film serials of the 1930s and '40s. The Nazis need to find the Ark because they believe it will make their army invincible; Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) needs to keep it out of the Nazis' hands. Indy triumphs in the end (natch) and U.S. intelligence officials store the Ark where it'll be safe. We think.
The Statue in 'The Maltese Falcon'
The coveted falcon statuette, said to be made of solid gold and worth a fortune, never actually appears in the 1941 film noir classic. The one you see here is a fake. Still, it triggers plenty of trickery and double-crossing as Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and his sidekick Joel Castro (Peter Lorre) tangle with private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his femme fatale client (Mary Astor), all searching for that elusive bird—"the stuff that dreams are made of."
The Ransom in 'The Big Lebowski'
Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is hired by a rich guy with the same surname to deliver $1 million to kidnappers who've abducted his wife. But the Dude and his friend Walter (John Goodman) give the kidnappers a suitcase filled with dirty laundry instead. They store the ransom money—the MacGuffin in this 1998 crime comedy—in the trunk of the Dude's car. Which gets stolen. Good thing the entire kidnapping turns out to be fake.
Keyser Söze in 'The Usual Suspects'
Söze is the most feared crime lord of his time, and 1995's "The Usual Suspects" is largely about police investigators' efforts to find him. For hours, they grill a disabled con man named Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), who details everything he knows about the ruthless Söze. Verbal is finally released on bail. Then, just as he limps away down the street, special agent Dave Kujan (Chaz Palminteri) realizes that the man he has been interrogating is in fact Söze. Too late—the MacGuffin has gotten away.
The Letters of Transit in 'Casablanca'
The stolen letters of transit are the only way to get out of Casablanca. American saloon keeper Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) has them, and Czech resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) need them. Just one catch: Rick is madly in love with Ilsa. But at the end of 1941's "Casablanca," he puts aside his feelings and nobly hands over the MacGuffin—those letters—accepting as his consolation prize "a beautiful friendship" with Claude Rains.
Colonel Kurtz in 'Apocalypse Now'
Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is an Army colonel in 1967 Vietnam who's gone rogue and commands his own army of mountain people inside Cambodia. He's also the scariest MacGuffin you'll come across, given to beheading those who betray him. "Apocalypse Now" (1979) is about the Army's effort to find and kill the insane colonel. An assassin sent to carry out this mission (Martin Sheen) ultimately hacks Kurtz to death with a machete, prompting his dying words: "The horror, the horror."
Buffalo Bill in 'Silence of the Lambs'
If not for Buffalo Bill, fellow serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster) would never have met, let alone worked together to find him. Played by Ted Levine, the twisted murderer Lecter refers to as "our Billy" is unusual even by serial-killer standards—he skins his victims with the aim of stitching together a "woman suit" for himself to wear. Starling shoots the murderous MacGuffin at the end of this 1991 thriller, but Hannibal the Cannibal escapes to kill another day.
The Glowing Valise in 'Kiss Me Deadly'
Private eye Mike Hammer finds himself smack in the middle of the Cold War in this 1955 film noir. The highly sought-after MacGuffin is a valise—Mike's secretary/lover calls it "the great whatsit"— believed to contain a fortune. Turns out the case contains radioactive material (hence the glow), and the bad guys who find it die in a fiery explosion. Quentin Tarantino borrowed the mysterious briefcase idea for 1994's "Pulp Fiction."
Private Ryan in 'Saving Private Ryan'
Steven Spielberg's epic 1998 war movie is 169 minutes long, but we only meet the MacGuffin referred to in the title— Private James Francis Ryan, played by Matt Damon—in the last few minutes. The rest of the film focuses on a team of soldiers searching for Ryan. He's the last surviving brother of four who took part in the Battle of Normandy, and the War Department wants him brought back home. This is about as powerful a MacGuffin as you'll find.
Home in 'The Wizard of Oz'
You might say the wonderful wizard himself is a MacGuffin; after all, Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her pals spend most of this 1939 classic tracking down the mysterious and elusive figure. But what the girl is really searching for is a way home to her family in Kansas. She makes it back all right—even though she never actually left.
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