A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction?

May 31, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

What is in the briefcase in the movie Pulp Fiction?

SDStaff Dogster replies:

Ah, the Pulp Fiction briefcase. A topic once hotly debated on the AOL Straight Dope message boards, and still discussed today (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=11284). It's tough getting inside someone else's head and I'm not going to try. I'll just give you some thoughts and let you draw your own conclusions.

For those who have forgotten, the movie was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The briefcase in question was pursued by Marcellus Wallace, a crime lord. He sent two of his henchmen, Jules and Vincent, to retrieve it. When opened, the contents of the briefcase (which were never visible to the audience) glowed and elicted reactions of awe and wonder. The briefcase was returned to Marcellus and … well, more on that later.

As for what is inside the case — well, theories abound. One of the more popular is that the case contains Marcellus' soul. Those who support this idea offer the following points as some of the proof:

  1. Marcellus has a band-aid on the back of his neck, and the Bible says that is the place where the devil extracts one's soul.
  2. It glows.
  3. The code to open the case is "666." 'Nuff said.
  4. The men Jules and Vincent kill to get the case back are actually servants of the devil. Something went awry in the deal between Marcellus and the Devil, and it's "divine intervention" when all those shots miss the two hit men.

Hmmm. Another theory offers the suggestion that the case contains the loot from Tarantino's first movie, Reservoir Dogs. Interesting. Yet another, touted by some critics reviewing the film when it was released, drew comparisons to the 1955 Robert Aldrich film Kiss Me Deadly, wherein the protagonist searches for a case filled with radioactive material. Hey, it glows when you open it! Search on, and you'll have no problem finding even more theories. But there is one that seems to make a little more sense than any of the others that I've seen, and its name is . . . MacGuffin.

What's a MacGuffin? In a 1939 lecture at Columbia University, Alfred Hitchcock spoke of the MacGuffin. Crediting it to his friend Angus MacPhail, Hitchcock said it originated in the following exchange:

Two Scotsmen are riding in a train. One asks the other what is contained in a package in the overhead luggage compartment.
"It's a MacGuffin."
"What's a MacGuffin?"
"A device for hunting tigers in Scotland."
"But there are no tigers in Scotland."
"Well, then, it's not a MacGuffin, is it?"

Simply put, a MacGuffin is a plot device. It can be anything — secret spy papers, a mysterious briefcase, etc. — but its only purpose is to set the story in motion. Once that's accomplished, the MacGuffin usually become relatively unimportant. In the case of Pulp Fiction, chronologically, pretty much everything that happens with Butch and Marcellus (except for when they first make arrangements for the boxing match) occurs after the case is returned. In the book Tarantino A to Zed, Tarantino admits there is no official explanation for the briefcase contents, and that it was simply written into the screenplay as an intriguing MacGuffin. He also says he saw the similarity between his briefcase and the one from Kiss Me Deadly, but not until after all the writing was done.

In an April 1995 Playboy interview, Samuel L Jackson, who played Jules, offered his perspective:

John (Travolta) did ask Quentin exactly what was supposed to be inside and Quentin said, "Whatever you want it to be."

So I assumed it was something that, when people looked at it, seemed like the most beautiful thing they had ever seen or their greatest desire. When I looked inside, between scenes, I saw two lights and some batteries. What I would have wanted to see are the next ten films I'm going to do and hope they're all as good as Pulp Fiction.

So, unless I've missed an interview wherein Tarantino spilled the beans (entirely possible — me missing it, not him talking about it, and if I did then give me the flaming I deserve), what's in there is pretty much open to your imagination. As Humphrey Bogart's character said in Maltese Falcon (another classic MacGuffin, by the way), "It's the stuff that dreams are made of."

In the meantime, learn from Mia and don't snort heroin that isn't yours.

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