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26 June

First barcode scanned, 1974

On this day in 1974, a packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first product to be scanned by a barcode reader for commercial purposes. The so-called Universal Product Code had been in development since the late 1940s, when Bernard Silver, a Pennsylvania graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology had overheard a local supermarket owner bemoaning the fact that there wasn’t a system for automatically scanning items through a checkout. Drexel went to work, first using ultra-violet inks (they faded), then Morse code in which the dots were stretched to become lines, fatter ones being the dashes, thinner ones being the dots.

Essentially, this is the system in use today, one hashed out by 1949, though there wasn’t affordable technology then to read the codes. Silver and his co-researcher Norman Woodland offered their patent to IBM, who didn’t offer enough money, the pair thought. Instead Philco bought it, who then sold it on to RCA. Meanwhile, coming from the scanner direction was David Collins, who had been working on a system for identifying railroad cars as they passed through certain checkpoints. Using blue and red reflective strips to act as a six-figure identifier, Collins’s system worked well enough for a New Jersey toll bridge to request something similar to log cars. Then the US Post Office asked for one for its trucks, and a pet food company, Kal Kan, asked for one for its cans.

Collins decided to branch out, forming Computer Identics to work on the solution to a fast and error free reader. He came up with helium-neon lasers and a mirror as a solution. The US’s National Association of Food Chains brought the code and the scanner technology together and rolled out the barcode system nationally. However take-up was slow.

By 1977 there were fewer than 200 grocery stores using it. But once it was shown that stores that used the barcode tended to have significantly higher profits (because the codes allowed them to have a better overview of their stock) there was a rush to adopt.

Hitman (2007, dir: Xavier Gens)

Many films are derived from computer games, but Hitman really makes no bones about it. Following the titular hitman, a cypher with a bald head bearing a barcode tattoo, as he blasts through one shoot-’em-up situation after another, Hitman is either an exercise in pure style, or a prolonged drag, depending on your attitude to console culture. Certainly Timothy Olyphant looks the part as Agent 47, a gun for hire whose upbringing – by an agency called the Agency, in some remote special ops orphanage – has uniquely prepared him for a life of repeated brutal assassination. As with all hitman films, we don’t join him to witness a series of flawlessly performed executions. Instead we pitch up at the point where it either goes wrong or he gives up or he gets killed. Or maybe all three. Avoiding obvious spoilers, what can be said is that Agent 47’s normally impeccable record is tarnished early on, as a hit against the Russian president goes wrong, it appears, which means he’s not just got the Russian secret service bearing down upon him, but his own guys, who don’t have much tolerance for failure.

It’s a chase movie, in other words, though it pauses as Agent 47 comes across a moody prostitute who has been held captive by the president’s drug-dealing (of course) brother. The prostitute is played by Olga Kurylenko, and whatever you might think about her acting abilities, there is no denying that Kurylenko is born to play a woman men will fight over. The two of them hook up, they run, they are pursued. At some point the woman offers herself to the man, perhaps more graphically than some puritan souls would wish. These early scenes between the two are fascinating because we’re watching a man trained to act like a machine realising there’s more to him than a termination program.

But never mind the emotion, what about the action? There’s lots of it. Lots. And the body count is relentless. Personally, I found this kill, kill, kill, approach strangely refreshing, liberating, as if James Bond had been released from laboured quips, raised eyebrows and unnecessary set-ups to just do what he does best. It lends the film an edginess that many films of this sort lack. We’re in the melee with our man, quick-cams to some extent borrowed from the Bourne films which, let’s face it, are at least partly inspired by video game swivels. Dialogue is minimal, peremptory, Olyphant and Kurylenko both understanding that their roles are subservient to the propulsive drive of the enterprise, to keeping it video-game real. Turn the music down if you must. It has an arcade game clamour that is entirely in keeping with the ambience director Xavier Gens is after but does start to grate after a while. And ignore Dougray Scott as Agent 47’s control. No one is sure what to do with him. He almost has a personality, for god’s sake.

Why Watch?

  • Another fascinating film from talented Xavier Gens (Frontiers)
  • Olyphant and Kurylenko perfectly cast
  • Laurent Bares’s nervy cinematography
  • Jacques Bufnoir’s brilliant production design

Hitman – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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