Red Herring: Fun Friday Movie Terms

Does your movie have a Red Herring? Understanding production and movie terms can help a new or veteran cinematographer understand the types and motivations of shots, and how the characters interact within a movie. It's also fun to gain geeky insider knowledge of movie stuff. 

Last week we talked about the movie term McGuffin – which describes an object, being or place that is the purpose of a character's quest, or which can trigger a character's actions. We learned that R2-D2, although playing a seemingly small role in Star Wars – A New Hope, had a significant part in the storyline, as his whole purpose was the motivator that got things moving – he was the movie's McGuffin. Director Alfred Hitchcock coined the term, and used a McGuffin often in his movies.
This week let's talk about another term that is also fun and functional – and sometimes, a bit annoying. Although a McGuffin is a relatively unknown term by many outsiders, a Red Herring might be one of those movie terms many people heard about, but its purpose is more subtle. It's a trick – don't go down that dark alley, the writer or cinematographer put it there to fool you, it doesn't pan out.
What is a Red Herring?
A fish – right? A red smelly fish, to be more descriptive, which is why the phrase was coined in movie terms vernacular. When the fish is smoked, it takes on a red color and pungent stench. So, when you think of a scene and wonder why a prop, person or location was introduced, it might seem "fishy" or "smelly" to you – in other words, like it doesn't fit, and so it might be a Red Herring. I said "might", because it might be nothing at all. 
A Red Herring is a design in books or movies to take the audience off the scent of the real culprit and to plant doubt for the audience. The book or movie is usually in the thriller or mystery genre, meant to divert you from guessing the villain's purpose or identity until the end of the story. The red herring can be a suspect in a murder mystery, or a seemingly innocent character – right up to the end. Or a red herring can be something that the audience believes to be significant to discovering the puzzle, and turn out to be nothing at all. 
Red Herring Movie Examples
Kindergarden Cop – [image:blog_post:30541]John Kimbel (Arnold Swartznegger) is a cop working undercover as a kindergarten teacher while he tries to flush out a killer searching for his estranged wife and son. Kimbel's character doesn't know what the woman and kid look like, but must find them first and we're led to believe throughout the movie that a different child in the class might be the possible victim. 
The Bodyguard – In this movie, Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston) is a high-profile singer/actress being threatened by some unknown triggerman. Throughout the movie we see an uber-fan who gets carried away with his adoration and appears to be the stalker, but the true culprit turns out to be a hired professional assassin. 
[image:blog_post:30540]The Da Vinci Code – Throughout the entire movie, (based on the book by Dan Brown) we're led to believe that Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina) is the central culprit in a Vatican cover up, but he's actually just a red herring whose presence keeps us from seeing the true conspirators. This movie has another red herring in it – a church in London where false leads take the characters. The story is full of twists and turns, and Brown also coded the Bishop's name, if anyone deciphered it, as a clue. Aringarosa translates roughly to mean red herring in Italian. (although in Italian movie terms, what we call a red herring they call a falsa pista, which translates to "false track".)
Scream – (the first installment in the series.) We are given info that the police chief happens to wear the same shoes as the murderer, but the chief isn't the bad guy and we never see him in the movie again.
[image:blog_post:30542]Red Herring – a new movie aptly named and based on the thriller genre by independent director, Ousa Khun and writer-producer Joshua Cohen. According to the website, Red Herring is described as a "Neo-Noir Murder Mystery," and involves Detective Jack Adamson (Robert Scott Howard) hunting for a killer within the Las Vegas movers and shakers. In the trailer for this movie, the main characters are hunting for someone they're calling "the bluescreen" which I'm guessing is a term similar to the red herring term, that implies a definition as a smokescreen. With a name like Red Herring, we can assume there are some plot twists and turns with a red herring or two along for the ride! Having attended 16 tradeshows over eight years in 'Vegas, I love watching movies based on that crazy town. Watch the trailer
Politics and Fooling the Constituents
Red herrings have been around long before movies – or even books! Politicians, (or more specifically, the spin-doctors the Pols employ), have been known to plant a red herring in an opponent's arena in the form of disinformation. This is meant to divert the media (and its audience) from real facts to implied information that will hinder the opponent and keep the media from investigating further into the Spin Doctor's client. This leads to our last movie example.
[image:blog_post:30544]Wag the Dog – The entire Wag the Dog movie was about how spin doctors work the media and the citizenry of their country, creating a massive red herring to throw the entire world off the scent. In this movie, Conrad Brean (Robert de Niro) is called in to do damage control after the American President gets caught up in a sex scandal. Brean hires Stanley Motss, (Dustin Hoffman) a Hollywood producer, to create a fake war using movie magic to divert the media attention from the president's indiscretion. Although it's a drama with comedy, the movie is scary because it leaves you thinking, "Can that REALLY happen? Can the government really make a pretend war (and hide the truth), complete with a top-notch cinematographer, paid actors, greenscreen cheats, a nationally televised full honors funeral for a fake soldier and insider tactics so easily, completely and rationally?" hum.
Working your Plant
One of the major differences between red herrings and McGuffins is a McGuffin is planted in a movie to move the plot along while a red herring is a plant to confuse and mix up the plot. If you want to learn how to use a red herring well, study the masters – if you want to learn how to write a good compelling story, sit down to your own Sofa Film School watch a LOT of movies and dissect them… that's the best free education you can find!
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) and Agatha Christie were well-known writers that used red herrings in their books and master cinematographer, Alfred Hitchcock, used them in many movie plots. If you want to use a red herring in your movie, use it wisely, otherwise you'll just annoy your audience. No one likes to be fooled, but if you're a cinematographer that can do it cleverly the audience might enjoy that "Aha!" moment, otherwise, they might feel like you succumbed to cheap tricks to get them to see your cheesy movie, and they won't like you much!
What other red herrings in movies can you recall? Share with the class, please!
Jennifer O'Rourke is Videomaker's managing editor
Primary image courtesy of
Jennifer O'Rourke
Jennifer O'Rourke
Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy award-winning videographer & editor.

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