The Maltese McGuffin
QUESTION The Maltese Falcon, a statue used in the Humphrey Bogart movie of the same name, has been described as a McGuffin plot device. What is this?
A McGUFFIN, or MacGuffin, is a device for moving a movie’s plot forward, while, in itself, being relatively meaningless. In John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), the main characters struggle to gain possession of an apparently priceless objet
d’art (pictured) without the audience being given much information about it.
The statue is carried around in old newspaper, which scarcely seems appropriate for a valuable item. Possessing it is the sole aim of the characters, good and bad, and their struggles form the plot of the film.
As to the origin of the term, we must thank the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, who coined the term in a lecture at Columbia University in 1939.
In 1966, he was interviewed by French film director Francois Truffaut and he explained the term McGuffin: ‘It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says: “What’s that package up there in the luggage rack?” And the other answers: “Oh, that’s a McGuffin.”
‘The first one asks: “What’s a McGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.”
‘The first man says: “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.”
‘And the other answers: “Well, then, that’s no McGuffin!” So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.’
While it may have no specific meaning, like the secret plans everyone wants to obtain, a McGuffin’s main purpose is to Getting the bird: Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and (inset left) the statue everyone was seeking advance the plot and justify the actions of the protagonists. Kevin J. Last, Hinton St George, Somerset.
QUESTION Are helicopters designed to be relatively easy to land if the engine fails?
IF THE engine of a helicopter fails, the pilot must take immediate action. He has to lower the collective pitch lever to decrease the pitch, or tilt, of the rotor blades. The aircraft is then in autorotation, which means it can fly under full control as it descends, but cannot climb.
The pilot must then seek a suitable landing place and manoeuvre to reach it at the correct airspeed.
If there is an open field, the landing is fairly simple and is similar to that made by a fixed-wing aircraft. However, landing in a confined space needs a vertical or near-vertical landing, and this is trickier.
The pilot must descend vertically for the last stage and judge the moment to apply collective pitch to cushion arrival.
It’s amazing how much energy is stored in the spinning rotor, and this is the main factor in preventing a heavy landing.
For the experienced helicopter pilot, landings with the engine off are fun, especially in testing yourself in arriving at a pre-determined point.
I have done thousands over the years, including displays at the Farnborough International Airshow.
John Fay, The Helicopter: History, Piloting And How It Flies,
QUESTION What is known of Hannibal’s ethnicity and physical appearance?
HANNIBAl Barca (247–183/181 BC) was a general from Ancient Carthage, a kingdom in what is now Tunisia.
The city and empire was one of a number of Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean that traded with the city of Tyre on the coast of what is now lebanon.
Hannibal is best known for his invasion of the Roman Republic, the Second Punic War, when he marched an army that included war elephants from Spain over the Pyrenees and Alps into Italy.
The Greek historian Polybius, who lived almost a century later, wrote about Hannibal’s exploits, but did not describe his physical appearance.
The best evidence is a coin ( right) that is believed to feature the profile of his father, Hamilcar Barca (c. 275– 228 BC), who had wavy hair and an aquiline nose.
From this, we can surmise that Hannibal looked similar to modern Tunisians or Sicilians, who are descended from the Phoenicians.
Mike Cross, London N10.
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