The Double McGuffin (1979)

12 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles used McGuffins in almost each of their own movies. A McGuffin, as described by Orson Welles’ narration at the beginning of “The Double McGuffin”, is a missing piece of a puzzle that leads to what the main characters in a story are trying to figure out. (“Usually there’s only one.”)

In “The Double McGuffin,” a children’s movie directed, written, and produced by Joe Camp (“Benji”), the heroes are a group of prep school kids who stumble upon the double “McGuffin.” One of them discovers a briefcase full of money and brings his friends to see it. Instead, they discover, to their terror, a dead body in its place. But when they bring police chief Talasek (George Kennedy) to its location, the body is missing. Then they notice a man carrying the same briefcase discovered earlier.

So, of course the kids are going to figure exactly what’s happening, and why, and everything leads to the discovery of a murder plot…but who is going to murdered? And why? And where? What makes the movie enjoyable is how bright these kids are and how fun it is watching them figure out a new clue whenever one comes up.

Ernest Borgnine plays the man with the briefcase. I really don’t see the point in casting a high-profile actor as a villain in a film that truly makes us want to follow along with the kids, who are appealing and very likable. He doesn’t have many scenes, but to give credit, despite being a children’s film, the adult actors—George Kennedy included—don’t dumb down their roles. Borgnine, in the few scenes he’s in, is calmly menacing and George Kennedy is convincing as the police chief who doesn’t like to be distracted. But Elke Sommer, as a mysterious woman, is given nothing special to do at all but to be stared upon constantly.

I mentioned that the kids were likable—these kids have to carry the whole movie and they do it very well. Dion Pride is Specks, the unofficial leader of the group; Greg Hodges is Homer, a spunky, witty young boy with a handy Swiss Army knife; Jeff Nicholson is Billy Ray, a young Texan who is probably the bravest of the group; Vincent Spano is Foster, the most enthusiastic of the group; Lisa Whelchel is Jody, the controlling, smart, pretty editor for the school newspaper; and Michael Gerard is Arthur, the stereotypical nerd. Now, it’s dangerous to use the word “stereotypical” in a positive review but I’ll take the chance because the kid is likable. All of these kids are well-cast and the movie works best when it’s alone with them.

What doesn’t quite work is the final half of the film. While not action-packed, the outcome is a bit confusing and set for a typical Hollywood ending.

But “The Double McGuffin” is a little treasure. It features kids and adults who are not dumb and a mystery that is actually worth investigating. I believed it when the kids solved something and was with them every step of the way.

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