Details in _Psycho_ such as the license plates and the "Phoenix, Arizona,
2:43 p.m." are indeed classic examples of the MacGuffin at work, but
they're still intriguing.  At the risk of pressing a dead issue, given
Joseph Stefano's statement and the good argument that such details may just
function syntactically and not semantically, I'll make the following

Marion's first car does have the ANL 709 license plate, and her license
plate does serve as one way to identify her.  When Mr. Lowery sees Marion
driving out of town, he appears to glance down at her license plate
twice.  We first get to read it when the cop interrogates her.  So if we go
with that for a moment, we make the equation that she's "anal," which helps
encode (if we buy the somewhat simplistic Freudian account) her
guilt/pleasure for having stolen the money.  (Recall also that once she
decides to return with the money to Phoenix that she tries to flush some
evidence in the toilet in the Bates Motel.) A clever student of mine also
asked once if we had here a case of "auto-eroticism."  The cop's car, by
the way, has the license plate 99931.

Anyway, when Marion gets to the used car lot, it's clear that she does see
her license plate as one way to identify her.  Before she sees the cop pull
up, she looks at the license plate of one car (RWS 1___), then back at her
own.  Then another car's (PGM ___).  After she sees the cop, she doesn't
look at any other license plates (at least not that we can see) and ends up
with the NFB 418 car.  Although Spoto's suggestion about the F (St. Francis
of Assisi) seems a bit of a stretch, this second car is distinctly
associated with Norman.  He of course tries to "flush" the evidence in the
swamp.  In the closing shot, his face (and hints of Mother's skull) are
superimposed for a moment over the image of the car being pulled out of the
swamp. (If the license plate had been ORL 418, we'd really be onto something.)

Having said all this and looked pretty closely at what Hitchcock shows us
(DVD sure makes it easy to do that), it's pretty clear that if we fixate on
what those license plates signify we miss the opportunity to discuss the
bigger issues, the context that would give them meaning even if they were
to have some, as others have noted.

For what it's worth.

David Blakesley
Director of Writing Studies
Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Burke-Lers Unite:

For past messages, visit the Screen-L Archives: