Vertigo – Micro Live – tape 236

First on this tape, Vertigo, regarded by many as Hitchcock’s greatest film. I’m not sure I agree. It’s a bit of a shaggy dog story, one that lacks the visceral nature of Psycho or the rip-roaring adventure of North by Northwest, but I can see why it appeals. I’m not saying it’s bad, far from it, just that it’s not my favourite of his films.

James Stewart plays John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, a police detective who we first meet giving chase to a criminal across the San Francisco rooftops, against some unconvincing back projection. He loses his footing, and is overcome by Acrophobia and Vertigo as he hangs on, leading to a policeman slipping and falling to his death below him. He hasn’t been back to work since. and he’s looking forward to retiring.

He’s friends with Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, a designer. In an early scene they discuss a brand new design of brassiere. “Works on the principle of the cantilever bridge. An aircraft engineer down the peninsula designed it. He worked it out in his spare time.” I wonder if that’s a reference to the story that Howard Hughes supposedly designed a bra for Jane Russell in The Outlaw.

Barbara Bel Geddes and James Stewart

Stewart is hired by an old friend, Gavin Elster, who’s worried about his wife. He seems to think that she’s somehow become posessed by the spirit of a dead woman, and she’ll go out all day and not know where she’s been. He wants Stewart to follow her to see where she goes, and he agrees.

Elster’s wife, Madeleine, is played by Kim Novak, and Stewart follows her around for a day. She appears to be fascinated by Carlotta, a woman who lived in the city a long time ago.

Kim Novak

It’s all very mysterious, and Stewart doesn’t really know what to make of it all. Then, when she falls into the San Francisco Bay and he has to pull her out, he finally gets to meet her.

Her husband is worried. Madeleine is the same age as Carlotta was when she committed suicide.

So Stewart keeps tailing Novak, and she starts confiding with him, until, at the edge of the ocean, with waves crashing behind them, they start kissing. Hitchcock is nothing if not heavy with the metaphors.

Stewart is convinced he can cure Madeleine of her ‘delusions’. But when he takes her to an old mission church, preserved from 100 years ago, she still remembers having been there as Carlotta.

Then, wouldn’t you know it, she runs into the church and starts climbing the tower. Stewart tries to follow, but his vertigo holds him back. This is one of Htichcock’s most famous sequences, and features his ‘zoom-dolly’ shot where the camera zooms out at the same time as it moves forward, which keeps the foreground at the same size, but stretches the background in a strange way. Famously, Steven Spielberg used the same shot (in reverse though) for the shot of Roy Scheider seeing the shark attack on the beach in Jaws.

He’s still climbing the tower when she reaches the top, runs outside, then he hears her scream and sees her plunge to her death through the window.

Although he’s not officially blamed for her death by the inquest, the coroner makes some very pointed remarks about him, and he’s still plagued by guilt, as shown by the dream he has, which also sees him auditioning for Doctor Who five years too early.

Vertigo dream

And when he meets Judy Barton, a woman who looks uncannily like Madeleine, he sets about transforming her into Madeleine.

Judy Barton

There’s a lot to like in Vertigo – Bernard Herrman’s score is lovely, and is a big part of the movie’s atmosphere. But the story is incredibly slight, and mostly consists of James Stewart stalking Kim Novak in her various personas. And the ending is a touch ridiculous, if we’re honest (although who hasn’t been frightened to death by a nun in the past).

After Vertigo, back to safe ground for me, with yet another episode of Micro Live. (I apologise for any regular readers with no interest in the 8-bit computer scene of the 80s, but it’s my adolescence and early adulthood, as well as my career, so I do have a lot of stuff in that area.)

Fred looks at portable computers, including the new Sinclair Z88. I wrote a version of Spellmaster from the Z88 which required me to

  1. Learn Z80 machine code
  2. Disassemble the internal Z88 code to see how it stored text
  3. Write my own Z80 assembler, because the cross-assemblers that were available were rubbish

We also had to use a specially made circuit board that emulated a ROM chip, but actually contained battery-backed RAM, and could be written to by an Archimedes. I’d write the software on the Archie, assemble and build the ROM, then transmit that to the RAM board, which I’d then test on the Z88 itself. It’s a wonder anything worked at all. Coupled with an operating system that couldn’t allocate much more than 256 bytes of RAM in one go, it was a tricky job.

Fred and the Z88

Then there’s a look at Walt Disney’s EPCOT centre and the technology that goes into creating a theme park. I presume that a lot of this footage is not originally filmed by the BBC, because here’s animator Ward Kimball looking over some audio-animatronic characters. I doubt the BBC would happen to have been there for that.

The trip there was part of a competition for young computer enthusiasts, won by 11 year old Joanna Dudney.

Joanna Dudney

The second part of the EPCOT report looks at the dolphins in EPCOT.

Then, the show looks at Desktop Publishing. Here’s Fred and an Apple LaserWriter.

Fred and a Laserwriter

When I was working at Computer Concepts, we’d produce our own manuals. In my very early days, Rob Pickering was the general manager, and he’d write the manuals in Wordwise Plus, but he’d add special markup to the text. Wordwise Plus had a way of embedding printer codes in the text. It was usually used with the old dot matrix printers to set things like bold, underline, italic (if your printer had it) etc. each printer manufacturer had a different set of codes, so Wordwise let you define what your printer codes were, and let you create custom codes if your printer did special things.

Rob had devised a set of codes for writing manuals which, when combined with a colour dot matrix printer (swanky!) would allow him to print out proofs of the manuals, with different colours for things like headings, sub headings, code listings, etc.

But when he came to actually produce the finished manual, this needed a file which our printer and typesetter could read, and Rob would change the printer codes output by Wordwise to markup that the typesetter could understand. I can’t remember the details, or the kind of typesetter used, as Rob was the only person who understood that system, but it was enough to get the marked up text into the typesetter, and produce beautiful typeset documentation.

Needless to say, when we got a Macintosh, and especially when we got one of the original LaserWriters, it was something akin to a miracle. Here was a device, sitting on a desk in our office, that could produce beautiful pages, using real fonts (Palatino was a favourite in our manuals) that looked like they had been typeset. Even though the LaserWriter was only 300dpi, crude by today’s standards, it looked gorgeous. You could do anything.

Well, that’s as long as your Mac word processor didn’t keep crashing, and losing 15 pages of work. In those floppy-only days, that happened to me more than once. But it was clear the future was here.

In the years that followed, at Computer Concepts we wrote our own DTP software, Impression, which even won an award which I was proud to pick up on behalf of the team. So I got to know the ins and outs of DTP quite well. But at the stage this programme went out, it was all new horizons.

Anyway, back to the programme. Ventura Publisher gets a demo, and he drops in a graphic. “That’s the lens of a camera” says Mac.

Ventura Publisher

I can see why he thought that, but no, that’s a familiar demo drawing, originally from AutoCAD, of the nozzle of a firehose. It was often used as a demo line-art sample, and was often used as a timing test for graphics packages.

BBC Genome: BBC Two – 16th March 1987 – 09:38 – this broadcast was a morning repeat, so the listing is buried in the Daytime on Two listing. But the original broadcast is: BBC Two – 14th March 1987 – 18:25

Following this, there’s Economics: A question of Choice with the episode Workers or Machines. The tape ends after 15 minutes.

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2 comments

  1. Vertigo is now the official Best Movie Ever Made thanks to knocking Citizen Kane off the top spot in the most recent Sight and Sound Poll. But I think I prefer Kane, Vertigo only makes sense as a nightmare, otherwise it’s pretty hard to swallow. I agree there are more satisfying Hitchcock films, his favourite was Shadow of a Doubt, and I wouldn’t have a problem with that.

  2. Thanks for the old footage on Epcot. Was so much better back in the 80’s compared with what it is now, all that lovely greenery surrounding it has mostly dissapeared nowadays even though I still visit on a regular basis while on vacation away from hussle and bussle of London.

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