Friday, May 18, 2012

The Legend of the MacGuffin

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Blackmail-blogging, essay 6 of 6 blog entries
The Legend of the MacGuffin

Introduction:  The Setup

The thought of young Alfred Hitchcock as a bright and eager assistant on the set of The White Shadow (1924) reminded me of Michael Powell’s apprenticeship on Hitchcock movies like Blackmail (1929).  Michael Powell eventually became a major film director himself, responsible for such classics as Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and Peeping Tom (1960).  With each of these blog entries, I’m opening with a fantasy dialogue between Hitchcock and Powell, circa 1929, as they meet at the nearest pub after a full day of shooting.

Part One, The Sixth Fantasy Dialogue

From the taxidermy studio in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956),
directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The camera follows Powell as he enters the pub and joins a group of people being entertained by Hitchcock.

Hitchcock:  “It’s a Scottish lion, he said.  No, that may not be right.  I must attempt to learn these stories better.  Oh, there’s Mr. Powell.  He can tell us…  Michael, what was that Scottish beast you were telling me about?”

MacGuffin in a bottle
from Hitchcock's
Notorious (1946).
Powell:  “The MacGuffin?”

Hitchcock:  “Yes, that was it!  And there is no MacGuffin because…  there are no lions in Scotland!  Did I get it right, Michael?”

Powell:  “Close enough.  The MacGuffin is a trap for catching lions in the Scottish highlands.  But there are no Scottish lions, so—and here’s the punchline—there is no MacGuffin.  In our film, you could say the MacGuffin is that glove that Alice leaves behind.  The plot pivots on it, yet it could be any object at all.”

A MacGuffin filled
with microfilm in
Hitchcock's North
by Northwest
Hitchcock:  “Perhaps I’d better write it down…  You never know when a good story will come in handy.  You must find me some more Scottish tales when you are in the Orkneys next, Mr. Powell.”

Powell:  “That MacGuffin story came from a man who could spin quite a tale.  Would you believe that he told me that when he was a young boy, his father sent him with a note to the local police department?  The policeman read the note and promptly jailed the boy!  For some minor offense, apparently.  Can you imagine such a father?”

Hitchcock:  “A terrifying story, Michael!  I imagine he was scarred for life.”

Powell:  “Perhaps.  But he was such a big liar we never knew if his stories were true or not.  He might have borrowed the story from someone else or made it up entirely.”

Hitchcock:  “Do people really do such things?”

Powell:  “All the time!”

Hitchcock:  “Have no fear.  Your stories are safe with me, Mr. Powell.”

From the taxidermy studio in Hitchcock's
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

Part Two, Parting Thoughts

Who Wrote Act 3?  This isn’t a question about the British Museum.  I’m willing to accept Michael Powell’s claims that he proposed the chase to the roof of the museum.  I want to know who wrote that last scene that uses the jester painting so effectively and so ironically.  To some degree, I feel like this scene is more quintessentially Hitchcock than the chase.  Yet no one takes credit for it.

Final scene of Blackmail (1929):
Alice between Frank and a
police officer.
The published version of the Charles Bennett play excuses Alice from murder because it turns out that the artist Crewe suffered a very timely heart attack that killed him rather than the knife.  The blackmailer dies when he runs out into traffic.  The resolution between Frank and Alice is left ambiguous.  (Note:  I haven’t read the play so I may have garbled this a little in trying to construct the plot from references in several different sources.)

Alice sees the jester painting
being carried into the station.
The men continue to laugh.
When the play ran on the British stage, lead actress Tallulah Bankhead requested a rewrite of the play’s ambiguous end.  She confesses and goes to jail, thereby demonstrating her character’s ethical convictions.  Hitchcock appears to have liked this ending and to have disliked the published version.

Complicating things further, the film studio insisted that Alice must remain free at the end of the movie.  They didn’t want a downbeat ending with the heroine shuffled off to prison.

From Alice's point of view:
The jester painting
still mocks her.
In his famous Francois Truffaut interview, Hitchcock said that he always wanted the end to match the beginning—the movie would begin with the details of the arrest of a common criminal and end with the details of the arrest of Alice.  Hitchcock typically enjoyed this kind of symmetry.  As the movie stands, it’s unbalanced from this standpoint.  The opening appears tacked on, bearing little relationship to the actual story.  You can see how Hitchcock would be unhappy—and you might also wonder why he didn’t simply rewrite (or scrap) the opening.

So who came up with the ingenious idea of bringing the jester painting into the final scene, thereby creating a superb dissonance in the studio-requested happy ending?  It could have been either Michael Powell or Alfred Hitchcock, but Hitch biographer Patrick McGilligan regularly reminds his readers that there were always three Hitchcocks at work on the script:  Hitchcock’s officially chosen collaborator (Powell in this case), Hitchcock himself, and that mysterious presence in the background of nearly every Hitchcock movie—his wife Alma Reville.  She’s my candidate.  I think that while Powell and Hitchcock were planning their merry chase, Alma figured out how to end the movie with style.

Alma Reville
(Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock).

Mary Rose:  Hitchcock loved J.M. Barrie’s play Mary Rose, a ghost story set on a remote Scottish island.  He saw it on the London stage in 1920 and the prospect of filming it obsessed him for his entire career.

Scottish island landscape in
The Edge of the World (1937),
directed by Michael Powell.
As Powell was much more familiar with Scotland than Hitchcock, they probably discussed the play frequently.  In Powell’s memoirs, he recounts how Hitchcock asked for advice on filming Mary Rose during one of Powell’s visits to Hollywood.  Apparently, it was something of a sore subject with Powell.  Because of his work on remote Scottish islands on The Edge of the World and I Know Where I’m Going!, Powell seems to have felt a personal claim on the area.

But, in retrospect, if ever a movie would have been appropriate for a “Written, Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell” credit, it would have been Mary Rose!

On the Scottish island in I Know Where I'm Going! (1945),
written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The End:  If Alfred Hitchcock, with his considerable wealth and vast popularity, spent the last years of his life being miserably unhappy, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Michael Powell spent the last thirty years of his life struggling to make movies, only to encounter myriad obstacles and disappointments.  Nevertheless, he met and married the love of his life, Thelma Schoonmaker, at the age of 78 in 1984 and died in 1990 surrounded by loving friends and confident that his films would continue to be remembered.

It’s an interesting, and rather sad, contrast…  but instead let’s close this series with the brighter picture of these two brilliant men, Alfred Hitchcock just 29 years old and Michael Powell at 23, as they stood at the outset of their careers, burning with enthusiasm to create popular movies that dared to be intensely personal too.  They had hopes and dreams—and would actually accomplish so many of them in the years to come, leaving behind them a legacy of dozens of wonderfully original movies that are still cherished today.

End title card of Hitchcock's Blackmail.

Reference Sources

A Life in Movies by Michael Powell
Million Dollar Movie by Michael Powell
Michael Powell: Interviews by David Lazar
Hitchcock's Films Revisited by Robin Wood
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan
The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto
Arrows of Desire by Ian Christie
Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut
The Hitchcock Romance by Lesley Brill
A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock by Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague

A special thank you to Joe Marcincuk for tracking down and delivering a copy of A Life in Movies to me in the nick of time.

© 2012 Lee Price


  1. Nice finale! I enjoyed both the moving of authorship of some Hitchcock stories to Powell AND the empowering of Alma. Rest well......

  2. Thanks! "Rest well..." is very appropriate. These essay series completely exhaust me. At the least, I should have been responding to comments all along but I haven't been able to keep up with anything all week. This was a really fun blogathon though. I hope it raised enough to do some good work.