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The Quare Fellow

Misses the mark
This is certainly a compelling movie. The acting is fine to very good. Sylvia Syms is especially good. I think she may be a little miscast: Her elegant manner comes through even in a cat fight.

I guess it was an admirable undertaking. And the basic theme is still there: Hanging is a pretty brutal thing for civilized men to do, even in the name of justice.

But the wit of the original play is mostly lost. The story is opened up for the movie. That happened a lot, especially in those times. But in making it more cinematic, its original punch was lost.

A major character is either left out or greatly toned-down. What's left is a 1930s Warner Brother prison movie transposed to the UK. Those movies were almost always at least entertaining and were often powerful. This is entertaining and a little powerful. But I'm not sure it's Brendan Behan.

The Kiss Before the Mirror

A rare James Whale shocker
This is not a horror movie. James Whale is best known for those. (His 1936 "Showboat," on the other hand is my absolute favorite movie musical, bar none.) This one is a brief but insightful character study.

Frank Morgan plays a famous lawyer engrossed in a murder case. He finds himself identifying with the jealous husband of a beautiful woman.

He identifies a little too strongly. He begins to see in his own wife the behavior of his client's wife.

Morgan's wife is played by one of the most charming of early movie actresses: Nancy Carroll. I've seen her primarily in light comedy, where she is absolutely charming. She has a quirkiness that resembles that of Janet Gaynor. And she physically resembles the ultra-sexy Clara Bow.

Her career was short, apparently by her own choice. This is one of her best roles. And, though it's atypical and little known, it's a very fine example of James Whale's masterful touch.

Two Dollar Bettor

A real gem!
Watching a mediocre print of this movie was like seeing "Detour" for the first time. The movie has a terrible, pedestrian title. The stars don't promise much. Well, of course Marie Windsor is always good and Steve Brodie is a noir staple. But John Litel, as the central figure -- which he is? It's the very suspenseful story of a decent guy getting dragged down into a whirlpool of crime and deceit.

Litel is what today would be called a middle-manager. He has an OK job and works hard. He has two daughters in their late teens, whom he adores. He lavishes everything he can afford on them. And, it turns out, more than he can afford.

Urged to bet a horse to show at the races, he slowly gets bitten by the gambling bug. From small bets he moves on to a bookie. And who does the bookie send to collect his money but -- Marie Windsor.

Far be it from me to say exactly what role her character plays in the story. She looks great, as always. This is all I'm saying. But the Litel character is very likable. The money he wants to win is truly only to continue pampering his daughters. And seeing his decline is painful. (And its shocking.)

Though the film seems to have been made on a very low budget, its plot and character development are nuanced. I'm eager to see it again.

The Kid from Spain

This made me fall in love with Lyda Roberti!
I like Eddie Cantor movies. This is an early talkie and one of his best. It has two superb dance sequences from Busby Berkeley.

I'd have rated it an 8 but for the number done in black-face. Yes, I know that was fairly standard at the time. It grates today, though. The whole thing is fun. It's improbable but that can be the key to the charm of a Cantor movie.

Nevertheless, the highlight for me was his leading lady. I'd heard the name Lyda Roberti. Probably I've seen her before, too. But I was knocked out by her delightful comic performance. Here was a pretty woman, svelte and attractive, who was a topnotch comic. She presaged such greats as Joan Davis and Judy Canova.

I see she died young. What a loss to Hollywood then and to those of us who treasure vintage movies now! Lyda, you were sublime!

The Long Dark Hall

Not a bad movie but I wonder about the stars' motivations
This is a pretty interesting mystery. It's not really suspenseful but it's done with style.

However, I wonder what purpose it was meant to serve for the public relations of its star Rex Harrison. His friend Carole Landis, a charming star of generally minor films, had killed herself a few years before this came out. As a result, his therefore rising box office appeal had plummeted. Indeed, the brilliant "Unfaithfully Yours" had the bad fortune to come out right after Ms. Landis had died. No one wanted to see Rex Harrison killing a woman over and over -- even if it was in his imagination. "Unfaithfully Yours" was not a success, despite director Preston Sturges's career as Hollywood (apparent) golden boy. Sturges really did not survive this failure commercially.

So, here we have a decent man accused of murdering a pretty young woman. Like the star himself, the character is married to (the very appealing) Lilli Palmer. I don't want to give away the plot. Let's just say that this is a movie that comes out against quick decisions in tabloid cases.

Can this have been a coincidence? Maybe it was. I don't know anything about its history. However, I sincerely doubt that it was.

Bunny Lake Is Missing

Stylish most of the way through
This is a beautifully cast, suspenseful movie. For most of its length. Without giving a thing away, it veers toward the very end into Grand Guignol along the lines of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" Till then, it is chic and icy.

Carol Lynley gives an effective performance as a young women whose little girl has disappeared from her school in London. Keir Dullea is Lynley's brother. The ladies at the school are cast with excellent British actresses. And Laurence Olivier gives a stunningly good performance as the inspector on the case.

We are meant not to know if there actually is a Bunny Lake. If there is, did she ever get to school? If so, who took or her or where did she wander? Though the casting is indeed superb, I have to say that Noel Coward did himself and his memory no favors by appearing here. He plays Lynley's dithering landlord. Anyone living in a large city has encountered people like the man he plays. Yet, why did he want to play such a person here?

I note that this is being remade. Hmm. I'm not sure why. It seems to me that Preminger's's elegant touch is the primary draw.

Toys in the Attic

Some of the most awful casting in movie history but not without interest otherwise
When Lillian Hellman wrote this play, I doubt she had Dean Martin in mind for the male lead when it hit the screen. In truth, he isn't bad. He may have been cast to provide some box office. If he did, that's good. He contributes nothing else, however.

Similarly, the beautiful Yvette Mimieux is wildly miscast as his insecure wife.

Thankfully, much of the other actors are at home in this film and this sort of film. They give good performances.

Geraldine Page is in fine form as one of Martin's two spinster sisters. It isn't a subtle performance but it works very well. Wendy Hiller, as the other sister, does give a subtle performance. She is not authentically Southern; but for a good actor that makes no difference. (Think, for starters, Vivian Leigh in "GWTW.") Gene Tierney is also on-hand. Though she'd had a troubled life, she'd matured well. She was never a great actress but she had screen presence and she is right for her part here.

I was familiar with the play and wondered if the movie would include its most controversial aspect. (Can't give it away.) To my surprise, it does; and it's very effective.

Please note: I have nothing against Dean Martin. He is fun in "Kiss Me Stupid." But he was essentially a singer and comic performer. This movie contains no songs and is anything but comic. Had his and Mimieux's parts been cast more according to the script, the movie could indeed have been extremely, rather than occasionally, powerful.

High School Confidential!

Juvenile delinquents in the burbs. Great fun
"The Blackboard Jungle" had covered somewhat similar territory in a far more respectable way. Not too much about this movie could be called respectable. It does have a fine director in jack Arnold. He gave us, among others, the classic "The Incredible Shrinking Man." It's by no means a bad movie, despite its exploitative nature.

Boyish Russ Tamblyn is an unlikely jive-talking bad guy. John Drew Barrymore, on the other hand, is typecast as the snarling hotshot of this high school before Tamblyn had arrived. Diane Jergens is very good as a troubled student.

Mamie Van Doren is there for the sex appeal. Her character doesn't make much sense, to me anyway, but her name and picture on posters doubtless sold tickets. And Jan Sterling plays a teacher. She is, as always, very good.

The movie is about drugs. I have never been drawn to drugs, though most of my friends were or still are users of pot. To me "High School Confidential" seems at times like a riff on "Reefer Madness": Yes, all drugs can have their downside. However, smoking pot does not automatically, as is suggested here, lead directly to heroin use.

The movie has great Jerry Lee Lewis music. I also like Bill Haley and the Comets' famous contribution ("Rock Around the Clock") to "The Blackboard Jungle.

Had I seen this when I was a teenager, a decade or so after it came out, I wouldn't have understood it. Thankfully, I knew nothing about drugs while in high school. But I'm sure that even in 1958 some schools were overrun with them.

As a force for social change, the movie is questionable. But as an occasionally campybut solid entertainment, it's a gas, man.

The Merry Frinks

Delightful, rather dark, Pre-Code comedy
At the beginning, this seems like an early version of "You Can't Take It You." It has a darker cast, though.

Aline MacMahon is saddled with one of the most ghastly families seen before the one on the Carol Burnett Show, which was spun off into "Mama's Family." Her husband, Hugh Herbert, is a sports writer described by his managing editor as a chronic alcoholic. Her daughter is selfish and dreams of a singing career. The son (Frankie Darro) is a truant who wants to become a fighter.

The demanding hypochondriac of a mother-in-law is there, too, constantly nagging. And none other than Allen Jenkins is her elder son. He is a lawyer and a Socialist.

Guy Kibbee shows up as a long-last relative. He's all they need in their cramped Bronx apartment.

The plot twists and turns. MacMahon is marvelous. And the rest of the cast does a fine job, too.

Underworld U.S.A.

Lesser-known but iconic Sam Fuller
I had seen this movie only once before, and that was 20 years ago. A lot of the concerns of his masterpiece, "The Naked Kiss," are addressed in it. In some ways, it's more horrifying because it is about what it says it's about: the underworld and, more to the point, the USA. "The Naked Kiss" is, to me, a great movie and also a parable.

(As to Fuller's "best": In terms of polish, it's probably "Pickup on South Street." That movie has most of his eccentricities but uses major stars and is suspenseful and exciting.) Cliff Robertson does a fine job here as the single-minded man out to avenge his father's killing. Dolores Dorn is touching as the girl from the underworld with whom he becomes involved.

The supporting cast could scarcely be better. Paul Duboy is perfect as the slimy Gelo. Richard Rust is shockingly effective as the underworld henchman.

But Beatrice Kay is the standout. She plays the tough female who almost always appears in Fuller's films. (Thelma Ritter's Mo, in "Pickup on South Street, is the most poignant.) We believe that this gal is tough. We also believe that she has a soft side.

When I was too young to appreciate it, an older friend gave me a paperback book about actresses in b-movies, called "Dames." On the cover is a shot from this film: Dorn and Kay are leaning on each other. Kay looks tough as a guard dog and Dorn has bandages over one eye.

The movie is filled with Fuller's most important concerns: At one point, a rooftop swimming pool is pointed out. It is, one character tells another, for the fat cats -- and now and then for underprivileged children. The hypocrisy of some so-called charity is addressed here. So is Fuller's concern for the well-being of children.

I don't think this is out on DVD. You need to find it on VHS. It's absolutely a must.

The Phantom of 42nd Street

The archetype of what we boomers used to see as filler on local TV
This is a creative cheapie from PRC. I like Dave O'Brien. He ought to have had a major career in films. He's good here, but I guess PRC was not the place to forge a career.

I think I saw this on local TV years ago. If not, I saw many mysteries like it.

This is about murders involving a theatrical family. Alan Mowbry, looking quite gone to seed, plays the patriarch. He gets to ham it up a little in "Julius Caesar." Forty-second Street! Wow, are there ever phantoms wandering around! At the time this was made, they were pining for the days of the Ziedgfeld Girl. Then there were legitimate theaters, where plays were performed. Next came years of decline: peep shows, etc. Now it is all cleaned up and is like a vast mall. It isn't much fun. The phantoms will go elsewhere.

Pressure Point

Not without interest but essentially crass and flat
A message film like this is likely to date. Today, as I write, New York is about to have a black Governor. The United States may, come November 2008, have a black President. So the notion of a black psychiatrist (Sidney Poitier) doesn't startle.

The movie is very static. Poitier does his usual good job. The patient he is dealing with is a Nazi-sympathizing military man. Probably casting Bobby Darin was risky and at the same time potentially good box office at the time. But Bobby Darin was primarily a singer, not an actor. He's OK here but the movie could have come alive had the sort of Method actor he makes like -- say, Marlon Brando -- played the role.

It's best when it opens out into the Darin character's past. Some of these flashback scenes are actually emotionally involving. Briefly.

I approve of what the movie was trying to do. But good intentions are not the same as good art, or even good entertainment. We have "Pressure Point" to illustrate that. (And we have Poitier's "A Patch Of Blue," which came out around the same time, to show that done well, a message picture can live on and on and still be moving.)

Phantom Killer

Entertaining and scary
This is not great film art. However, I found it fun. It does its job: It is breezy at times. It has romantic elements between Joan Woodbury and Dick Purcell. And it is frightening: The central concept, that a man who can neither hear nor speak and is never at the scene of the crime is a ruthless killer, has a nightmarish quality.

Ms. Woodbury gets several costume changes. They aren't always logical. She plays an ambitious newspaper reporter. In one sequence, we find her interviewing a central character while wearing an evening gown! (Yes, it's in the daytime.) Discovering films from Monogram is generally fun. Sometimes they don't pan out. This one, whether or not it is a remake of "The Sphinx," does. It held my attention without fail.

Without Warning!

Suspenseful, appropriately creepy
This story of a serial killer came out 55 years ago. It's dated primarily in that it isn't gory and graphic. At moments, it feels as if it's about to go that way. But of course the censors wouldn't have allowed it.

The director, though not in anyone's pantheon, has great noir cred. "Down Three Dark Streets" alone is something to be very proud of.

The pace is just right. The acting, by people wholly unknown to me, is professional and convincing.

We know almost from the start who the killer is. It's a matter of whether and when he will be caught. The film languishes more on his bland good looks than on the appearance of any of his victims. He's nice enough looking: rather baby-faced. We see him without his shirt in a long, not extraneous, scene.

The attention paid to the killer reminded me of "The Sniper," which came out at the same time. "The Sniper" is better known and was done on a higher budget. But I wouldn't say it's better. This is a very good, scary movie.

A Man to Remember

It has a few touching moments
The movie of which this is a remake didn't impress me much. The remake is about even with the original, though maybe slightly better. We feel for the title character. He is a doctor who's down on his luck and tries to go home again. He gets home but the citizens toss him scraps. He becomes an essentially unpaid, under-appreciated doctor to the poor.

The acting is pretty good. It held my attention. (Though, I must say, the Dutch titles, subtitles, and translations of every sign and letter were bizarre.) OK, now I wasn't there: However, Garson Kanin? Direxcting rural melodrama? I guess every director has to get a start. But this is light years away from his Hepburn and Tracy movies and from what he and wife Ruth Gordon wrote.

The actor playing the doctor is kind of blank. I prefer his approach to the original film's actor's (naming no names.) But could a less congenial director have possibly been found than that bon vivant, Gason Kanin?

Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

Extrmely informative yet a lot of surface
I want to proceed cautiously, as I know some of the people interviewed in this film,. It's essentially an excellent documentary about collector Wagstaff. His protégé Robert Mapplethorpe is far better known. To the degree, that is, that either is known outside the worlds of art.

The filmmaker worked against built-in problems: Many people involved in the art scene of the time are dead. Some have died of natural causes and many, all too sadly, were lost to AIDS.

Part of what he comes up with as a result is fascinating. For example, who knew that Dick Cavett had interviewed Sam Wagstaff on television! John Richardson's presence lends the undertaking much panache. He is a magnificent art historian and writer. And Patti Smith: Patti, we love you! I was confused now and then by unattributed voice-overs. For example, a woman speaks disparagingly about the relationship between Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe. I see a name or two I don't recognize in the cast list and guess she is one of them. But since she is almost the lone negative voice, it would have been helpful to identify her when she spoke.

Overall, though, it's a fine work. One Fifth Avenue is still there. The museums mentioned are still here. A few of the people -- Richardson, Dominick Dunne, Smith, John Giorno -- are still here. But the scene is pretty much gone. This documentary helps people remember it and keep Mapplethorpe's work, and the history of collecting and of photography in the US, in perspective.

Seven Doors to Death

Everything but the kitchen sink ...
... And less! This starts out kind of nicely. A woman screams in the dark. (The whole thing was dark in the print I saw. It was not only hard to see but also hard to hear.) People then rush about. A couple suspects are immediately established. But it's downhill from there. We have mad scientists. We have mummies. We have everything but a coherent plot.

On the other hand, the major players are good. Chick Chandler is pretty decent as the male lead. (I can't call him a noir protagonist: Though this is a PRC movie clearly done very cheaply, it is not film noir.) June Cylde is good, too. And the other female lead is also. And hat a name the actress went by: Rebel Randall!

The Rake's Progress

Beautifully made but the title character is hard to take
Rex Harrison plays a young man, Vivian, who thinks primarily of himself. He's somewhat witty, sort of daring, extremely unreliable. Though his character is tempered slightly as time goes on, as written the character is very obnoxious.

I didn't go to Oxford, as Vivian does for a time. But I went to an Ivy League school and I knew many people like him: showoffs who thumbed their nose at convention but wanted, and generally had, the money convention brings. I was transported back not just to the time of the film but also a few decades back to the wise guy cutups of my own college years.

Harrison does a good job. Indeed, he seems to be playing himself, though that was doubtless just fine acting. I like him in most of what I've seen, particularly in "Anna and the King of Siam" and the brilliant "Unfaithfully Yours." The rest of the cast is superb, too: His real-life wife of the time, Lilli Palmer is very charming. Playing an Austrian girl, she reminded me of Luise Rainer, sans music. Griffith Jones plays his ostensibly more stuffy friend. To me, he is infinitely more appealing in all regards. And Margaret Johnston is beauty and charm itself as Vivian's father's secretary.

It would be interesting to show this on a double-bill with "Look Back in Anger." That was written as an antidote to the "mustn't forget about tea" movies and especially plays that had preceded it.

Yet Jimmy Porter, its protagonist, comes across today just as badly as Harrison's character does. The acting in that film, too, is marvelous. But at the core of each is a character who is not just a boor: Jimmy and Vivian are really creeps, though we are not intended to think them so.


A Brilliant Film from Ophuls' Time in Hollywood
Barbara Bel Geddes is perfect as a starry-eyes young woman who wants to make something of herself. She goes to charm school. Who would ever dream that a young lady in such a cloistered setting would meet and be wooed by a fabulously wealthy eccentric!

"Caught" is cast in a unique manner. Maybe it was the director's lack of familiarity with American performers. More likely, these are the people who were most eager to work under him. Whatever the reason for his choosing Robert Ryan to play the millionaire, it was brilliant casting: Ryan was a superb actor. He was tall and intense. In his most famous noirs, he plays cops or military men. Yet the character he plays here is withdrawn, well-spoken, and even a bit effete. He's in analysis, to boot! It's an exceptionally good performance that today would win an actor all sorts of awards.

James Mason is also cast very much against type: He plays a doctor who treats poor people for little or no pay. (Light years, not just a bit more than a decade, away from his Humbert Humbert!) And Ryan has a manservant who plays piano and calls everyone, male or female, "darling!" He is played to perfection by Curt Bois.

"Letter from an Unknown Woman" is a lovely film and probably Ophuls' most famous American work. It'd dreamy, romantic, heartbreaking. "Caught" is very different -- I would place it squarely as film noir. However, it does not lack for his famous shots of people ascending staircases and doing other graceful things beautifully.

If only for Ryan's performance, "Caught" is a must. And there is far more to it than that one performance.

The Divorcee

This is not just Pre-Code.
It also seems Prehistoric.

It's an early talking picture. We read about the disdain for movies that East Coast writers had and I think they may have been thinking of this sort of thing. After all, there were some brilliant films in the first few years of the talkies. One has to look only at "Scarface," which still shocks today. Jean Harlow, Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Constance Bennett ... There were many great, saucy stars. (And of course, there was Mae Wrest, too!) Please don't misunderstand me: I like Norma Shearer in many movies. She's superb in "The Women," for example. But it seems that her idea of being racy, as shown here, was to giggle a lot -- and maybe not to wear a bra.

The movie presents itself as the latest in adult views. However, it is essentially very conventional.

The dialog is so stilted, one expects someone to burst onto the scene at any moment asking "Tennis, anyone?"

The Big Timer

Nothing special ...
... But hard not to like.

Ben Lyon is a cocky boxer. The marvelous Constance Cummings plays a gal who becomes both his manager and his wife.

Lyon does a good job in the fight scenes. He is also appealing when not in the ring: His character has an attitude about women's being in their place. Yet, his wife is managing him. And Thelma Todd is a society girl who manages him in her way, too.

The supporting cast is good. We even have Nat Pendleton in a small part.

It's not memorable. It's not a naughty sort of pre-Code film. You'll like it, though.

I Killed That Man

Entertaining Monogram mystery
This is a mystery with elements of comedy. It also has (minor) noir elements and a romantic touch.

Ricardo Cortez is excellent in the lead. We begin as a man is about to be put to death in prison. The press and the law are there, as well as a few others who like to observe executions.

Things do not go as planned. And Cortez tries to solve the mystery right on the spot. That doesn't work. His girlfriend, reporter Joan Woodbury, gets involved. Iris Adrian is, as always, effective as a moll.

This sort of thing continued to be standard fare at Warner Brothers till the mid-forties. Interestingly, Monogram does it even better here. The list of players boasts only Cortez as a box-office name. But it's cast in a clever and entertaining manner and neatly directed by Phil Rosen.

Yield to the Night

This is a powerful movie. Diana Dors is the star. She's on screen virtually the whole time and turns in a fine performance. It's not what we expect from Diana Dors: She is not a sex pot or glamor girl.

She plays an unhappy young woman who is taken in by a man. She kills him -- very early in the film; so this is not a spoiler. She is sent to prison. Much of the film is set in prison and there are many flashbacks.

Yvonne Mitchell is also superb as a sympathetic prison matron.

In her later years, Dors went from voluptuous to very large. She is shocking in the first movie I ever saw her in: "Baby Love." And she's large, good, and naked in the fine "Deep End." The woman could act and that is very clear in "Yield to the Night." She wears no, or very little makeup. The close-ups show a pretty but unglamorous woman.

It's film noir in structure. And it's one of the few in which a woman is the primary character. Look for this one!

Lilly Turner

Excellent Ruth Chatterton vehicle with dark overtones
Once I'd seen Ruth Chatterton in "Dodsworth," I wanted to see her as much as possible. In a movie different from that also from this one, she plays a brazenly sexual executive: That film is "Female." "Lilly Turner" has many elements of the standard women's picture. A women's picture that is, one must note, distinctly pre-Code. Also one that is directed by William Wellman.

It transcends the genre on many counts, though: Chatterton gives an excellent performance. I had to laugh when she gives her age as 22! Chatterton was 40 when this came out and 40, especially for women, was sort of the equivalent of 60 today.

Fine actress she was, whatever age she was passed off as. She gets excellent support here from peculiar collection of co-stars and supporting players. Frank McHugh is especially good as the alcoholic carnival worker who rescues her when she's dumped by a no-good new husband.

I was particularly impressed by the scenes with Robert Barrat. He was hardly an actor of Chatterton's caliber. He plays a strongman in the carnival run by Guy Kibbee. In his later scenes, the nature of which I will not give away, he is filmed in a manner highly reminiscent of German Expressionism. James Van Trees filmed the whole movie beautifully but these sequences are true knockouts. They'd be right at home in the very finest of film noir.

Be advised that some of the dialog exhibits racial and ethnic insensitivity that was acceptable at the time.

Teacher's Pet

Stylish and clever
The script is well done. The premise amusing: A hard-boiled editor faces off with a journalism teacher.

The gender politics haven't aged well: Today, the Doris Day character would surely be an editor herself. In those days, though, being a nurse or teacher were what bright women did. And Day is a professor here (albeit in a night school.) She and Clark Gable, playing the newsman, don't exactly have chemistry. But they're not supposed to like or trust each other at first. They are both major movie stars in a system that was dying out.

Speaking of dying, this was near the end of Gable's career -- only a few films before more famously ill-fated "The Misfits." And two of the major supporting players were to die at their own hands: Gig Young plays a brilliant psychologist Gable sees as a rival for Day's affections. (The scenes in which he's drunk are where it began, for me, to lose its charms a bit. They're slightly mean.)

Nick Adams, too, died of unnatural causes. He plays a promising up-and-comer at the paper.

Day is stuck with a very unbecoming hairstyle. It sort of bridges the gap between her days singing with big bands and her greatest (popular, if not critical) glory days in the movies with Rock Hudson. She gives a sturdy, likable performance.

Mamie Van Doren is a nightclub singer of Gable's acquaintance. She too has a terrible haircut. (Please note: I generally don't notice actresses' hair but these two are notably unflattering.) The nightclub scenes recall "The Awdul Truth." And if, as she sings, she invented rock and roll, the song she sings in the club certainly shows no sign of that.

The movie is long for a comedy. It could have been shorter and could have been better. Still, it's pure pleasure most of the way through.

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