Hitchcock’s “Notorious” & the McGuffin

by jdavidcharles

Connections between the work of Hitchcock and psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan abound. One of the most common ways is through the use of the McGuffin (Hitchcock’s own term for an object, a meaningless object, around which the structure of a film dances, i.e. Guy’s lighter in Strangers on a Train) which can be correlated to Lacan’s objet petite a, a gap in the symbolic order. Just as the McGuffin is rightly nonsense (in that it does not communicate a sense) so too the objet petite a is something which, although an object of desire around which everything is involved, is ultimately senseless.

In Notorious we notice such a structure emerge, particularly around the use of the wine bottles filled with “ore.” This is the McGuffin—the ore itself is desired by Devlin and the US government which, in the great scene where Alex (who desires Alicia) is heading down to get more wine (because the partiers desire more wine), where Devlin has the object of desire in his hand with Alicia (who desires Devlin). Further, we also realize in this scene the falsity of these desires—the wine is not really wine (but ore), Devlin is not really a mere partygoer, Alicia does not really love her husband Alex, Alex is not really just an aristocrat (but a Nazi), etc etc.

I would like to point out two things. One—this “is not really” is very much like Lacan’s characterization of the objet petite a as having too little and too much significance (that’s what the Real is for Lacan). Alex’s mansion, as a structural and topological center, simultaneously has not enough wine (thus why Alex is going to the wine cellar, the symbolic reserve, the unconscious) and has something more than wine (thus why Alicia and Devlin occupy the same space, the wine cellar, but in the hopes of an entirely different significance). The wine is not enough and too much.

Secondly, I would like to pose that the wine bottles aren’t really the true McGuffin—but alcohol, wine in particular, is itself the McGuffin—the ultimate object of desire and structural unity of the film. After all, it is under the haze of alcohol that Devlin and Alicia meet (“the importance of drinking hasn’t started yet,” and, following Hitchcockian desire, it never does) and this interplay of knowing (or loving) too much and too little begins—think of when Devlin hands his ID to the police officer, Alicia both knows too much (he’s above the law in some way) and too little (but how so? Who is he?). When Devlin finally decides for the both Alicia and himself that their relationship is not to be (with a fabulous tracking shot of the back of his head, just how he was introduced, a sort of empty-man as regards the symbolic) he “forgets” the champagne bottle he bought by leaving it back at the embassy/office (a structural parallel to the wine cellar—the super ego, the big Other with its moral injunctions which run against desire). And, of course, ultimately what captures Alicia, what ultimately allows for Alex to get the “object” of his desire, is the murky liquid (just as in Suspicion), the poisoned coffee.

Hitchcock infamously had stated that “a McGuffin is nothing at all”—it rightly is not working on a symbolic level, but on a very real level, it’s radically a meaningless, empty gap in the otherwise “sensible” narrative. And the McGuffin, the object of desire, the objet petite a around which we are presented characters and their desires and ultimately a film, is ultimately the murky liquid, the drink that is not enough—it can never quench thirst, never get one drunk enough, never communicate love, never heal the sick drinker—and too much—one has already drunk too much, is drunk or hung over, bares too much meaning, the cause of the illness.