Mischievous kids Specks (Dion Pride), Billy Ray (Jeff Nicholson), Foster (Vincent Spano) and the youngest member of the group: Homer (Greg Hodges) like to sneak out of boarding school at night for various misadventures, driving local Police Chief 'Tally' Talasek (George Kennedy) nuts. While wandering in the woods Homer stumbles onto an abandoned briefcase full of money. When Homer returns with his friends the briefcase is gone, replaced with a dead body! However, when the kids alert the police the body also vanishes, leaving an exasperated Tally refusing to believe their story. Aided by classmate and gutsy girl reporter Jody (Lisa Welchel) the gang try to unravel the mystery involving a sinister man (Ernest Borgnine), a mysterious woman (Elke Sommer) and what might be a murder plot.
Not many children's films open with an ominous voice-over from Orson Welles. Or feature scenes where kids discover a severed hand or walk in on a couple naked in bed. But then The Double McGuffin is no ordinary children's film. It is a rare non-canine-centred outing for Joe Camp, creator of the enduring Benji series. Keep your eyes peeled for a blink-and-you'll miss it cameo from the adorable mutt itself alongside avuncular animal trainer Frank Inn. Around this time in the late Seventies kid sleuths were a minor pop culture phenomenon. Especially on television where the likes of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and The Red Hand Gang drew large ratings. However Camp already had past form fashioning thrillers for the junior set given the early Benji films often featured the heroic dog foiling some sort of crime.
Working from a self-penned and often very witty screenplay Camp crafts a genial comedy-thriller that, as signaled by the title, is part self-conscious Alfred Hitchcock pastiche, lifting plot motifs from Rear Window (1954), The Lady Vanishes (1938) and both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934/56), and part heartwarming slice-of-life children's drama. While Camp's direction is obviously nowhere as taut as that of Hitchcock he still manages to imbue The Double McGuffin with an engaging, inventive story laced with moments of genuine suspense. Crucial to the film's appeal are its well-drawn child heroes. Far from wisecracking goofballs these kids take their sleuthing seriously. Especially when it turns out there is a life at stake. As the plot plays out, taking turns actually far darker than Camp's lighthearted treatment makes them out to be, it becomes really satisfying to watch them methodically piece the mystery together. Camp wisely assembles a vivid cast of likable cool kids including a young Vincent Spano and one-hit-wonder Greg Hodges whose peppery persona proves refreshingly realistic without crossing the line into irksome.
The film is all the more impressive for foregrounding black actor Dion Pride, son of country music legend Charley Pride (Dion also performs the end title song) as the group's charismatic leader at a time when such a thing was rare enough in a movies for adults let alone children. Instead of a crude jive-talking stereotype, Specks is a smart, resourceful, seemingly unflappable kid more than able to match wits with Ernest Borgnine's imposing bad guy. On the other hand no modern children's film would make the mistake of sidelining the lone girl in the group. Especially given former Mouseketeer and future Facts of Life star Lisa Welchel is such a sparkling presence. Nonetheless she makes the most of her few opportunities to shine. Among the adults, Borgnine and George Kennedy are well cast in their roles, exuding urbane menace and strained if still genial patience respectively. Meanwhile Elke Sommer essays a pivotal role even though her screen-time is so brief it is barely more than a cameo.
Much of the film's humour, including the aforementioned sex gags, semi-nudity and Homer's occasional potty-mouthed tirades come across more jarring now than they probably did in the late Seventies. And there are a few notable plot holes. Yet it is a mark of quality that whereas Disney films from this era typically climax with a big silly slapstick set-piece, The Double McGuffin comes up with a denouement that is far more clever and satisfying.