As long as there have been stories, there have been McGuffins, but it took that fat, sleazy old genius Alfred Hitchcock to give them a name. (People who are both a genius and a really, really nice person are very rare. Try to name three.)
In 1935 Hitchcock filmed John Buchan's thriller, The 39 Steps. The story revolved round the hero's attempts to stop a spy organisation from stealing a Top Secret document. It doesn't matter what the document is. It might just as well have been a diamond necklace or a distressed damsel that he was trying to keep out of their evil clutches. Hitchcock came up with "McGuffin" for the item that drives the plot.
The McGuffin needn't even be anything tangible. In North by Northwest, Cary Grant spends the entire film falling into one scrape after another as he is pursued by both villains and the CIA, all due to a case of mistaken identity. Who he is mistaken for and what the pursuers want from him when they catch him, is incidental. It's just the McGuffin that leads the story from one suspenseful sequence to the next.
Now that The Grand Budapest Hotel is in all the cinemas and racking up the favourable reviews, it is a safe bet that our members will be queueing up for tickets and choc-tops at the local multiplex. I thought this would be a good time to take a look at the film's McGuffin, a priceless Renaissance masterpiece called Boy With Apple, by the artist Johannes Van Hoytl the Younger.
You will search your art encyclopedia in vain for Van Hoytl – the picture was painted for the movie by artist Michael Taylor, who had his tongue firmly in his cheek. He has laden it with enough symbolism for a dozen Art History lectures and several doctoral dissertations.
We have the mysterious note pinned to the curtain, the boy's direct gaze, his extravagantly detailed codpiece and the way he holds his long, slender fingers in a gesture which is a conventional mannerist device expressing a sensual tone. Add the apple in his hand, in close proximity to the prominent codpiece. The apple itself is symbolic on many levels, both biblical and classical. Eve's apple of temptation, the golden apple with which Paris chose the goddess Venus ... and just for a bit of added ambiguity, the apple has a few Caravaggio-like blotches on its surface: it is already beginning to decay.
Is the young man looking to choose a wife or a lover? Is the blemished apple symbolic of a doomed love affair? Or is it a portent of mortality – does he have a dread disease of which he is yet unaware?
What fun Michael Taylor must have had, painting that portrait. And what fun for us, the audience, when we get the Art History in-joke: the villain is so enraged when he sees Boy With Apple is missing, that he smashes the picture that has been hung up in its place. The replacement is immediately recognisable to us as a real-life Egon Schiele, a priceless teasure he’s obliterated in his fury at losing a fictional McGuffin.