Crime Films


BIG HOUSE, U.S.A. Bel-Air/United Artists, 1955. Ralph Meeker, Broderick Crawford, Lon Chaney Jr, William Talman, Felicia Farr, Reed Hadley and Charles Bronson. Written by John C. Higgins. Directed by Howard W. Koch.

   Despite the title, this isn’t really a prison movie. It’s a film that could have been agreeably subversive, in the manner of Kiss Me Deadly, but instead it settles for being merely unpleasant.

   Ralph Meeker stars as Jerry Barker, who seems at first to be just a guy out for a walk in the woods who stops to help a lost child. But this is Ralph at his nastiest, in a role that makes his Mike Hammer look like Saint Francis by comparison.

   Things get disagreeable pretty quickly, and what seemed at first to be an act of kindness turns into extortion. Ralph almost comes out of those woods with $200,000 and a guilty secret. I won’t go into details, but it was all pretty grim, even for a seasoned old movie-watcher like me.

   I said Ralph “almost” comes out of the woods with the money. Turns out he hid most of it back in the timber (at Royal Gorge National Park, where most of this was filmed) and when he’s picked up he only has a few thousand on him — enough to get nailed for extortion and draw a one-to-five-year sentence; with good behavior he can expect to get out in a few months and go back to claim his loot.

   But things take an interesting turn when Ralph gets thrown in a cell full of cult-movie bad guys: Broderick Crawford, William Talman, Lon Chaney and Charles Bronson. And there’s another fun twist when Ralph’s cell-mates plan to bust out and take him with them… to lead them to his loot.

   Like I say, this could have been enjoyably loathsome — like The Lineup or The Killers (the 1964 remake) with a writer and director attuned to its noir potential. But the folks in charge here decided to go for a Dragnet-style approach; Reed Hadley comes on as an FBI agent, complete with voice-over narration, and everything gets filmed at arm’s-length, in a near-documentary style, but without the sense of gritty realism.

   Even the most harrowing moments — and there are quite a few here — are shot with a detachment that seems almost uncaring. And when everyone gets their comeuppance, we get no sense of things coming together or falling apart. All we get is the sad conviction that with this story hook and those actors, this could have been a lot better.

  DESIRE AND HELL AT SUNSET MOTEL. Two Moon Releasing, 1991. Sherilyn Fenn, Whip Hubley, David Hewlett, David Johansen, Kenneth Tobey. Screenwriter-director: Alien Castle.

   An unhappily married couple, a toy salesman and his bored wife, check into a 1950s hotel four miles from Disneyland. He hires a friend to spy on his wife; she asks her lover to kill her husband.

   This was described somewhere as “comedy noir,” but unless you have a high tolerance for ennui, forget it. It’s arch and snooty, and on a low budget in a cheap motel, that won’t even buy you a vanilla phosphate.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.


A KILLER WALKS. Grand National Pictures, British, 1952. Laurence Harvey, Laurence Naismith, Susan Shaw and no one else familiar to US viewers. Screenplay by Ronald Drake, from the play Gathering Storm by Gordon Glennon, based on the novel Envy My Simplicity by Reyner Barton. Directed by Ronald Drake.

   You probably never heard of this quota quickie, but if you come across it, you should give it a try. It offers all the usual flaws of a British-made-to-order cheapie: tinny sound, canned music and jaggy editing because they didn’t shoot enough film to cover things properly, but A Killer Walks has more redeeming qualities than any movie really needs.

   For one thing, it’s based on a play and a novel, which means (1) they had to pay someone for the rights, (2) the action is confined to a few simple sets, perfectly suited to economy measures, and (3) the characters and dialogue are handled rather neatly, and in this case by an able cast.

   Laurence Harvey stars as a man who has spent his life working on his grandmother’s farm, and resented every minute of it. Now I don’t know about you, but when I see him on the screen I find it hard to believe Laurence Harvey ever did an honest day’s work in his life, much less tilled the soil, but fortunately the makers of this thing keep him dressed in suit and tie, always just about to go out for a night on the town with his expensive girlfriend, so we don’t have to deal with the sight of him getting his hands dirty in gumboots & dungarees, which would have made the whole thing unbelievable.

   In fact, it quickly develops that Harvey doesn’t like farm labor any more than you’d think he would, and he’s about had it with having to take wages from his grandmother (Ethel Edwards) at a farm he stands to inherit whenever the old bat kicks off. He’s also losing patience with his younger brother (Trader Faulkner) who has some mental problems that seem to have got him into some vaguely-hinted trouble in the past.

   In due course the plot heads where we knew it would, with Larry murdering Gran and pinning it on his little brother, but Killer Walks gets there gracefully, gradually working up to the thing with evocative characterizations from Edwards and Faulkner. As for Harvey, there’s an excellent bit where he tells his brother that old people don’t really want to live anymore, skillfully written, and delivered with baleful relish delightful to behold.

   When the murder comes, it arrives with a bit of polish, probably the work of co-photographer Jack Asher, who defined the look of Hammer’s horror films a few years later with his stylish visuals. In this case he does it on the cheap, with a few odd angles and superimpositions that lend a nightmare feel to the homicide we knew was coming all along.

   The fun in these things, however, is always in watching things unravel; I mentioned somewhere before that we read detective stories to see things come together and crime films to see things fall apart, and in this case they do so in one brilliant scene between the two Laurences (Naismith & Harvey) perfectly written and performed. Suffice it to say that “a killer walks” is the title, not the coda, and things wrap up very neatly indeed.


THE GANG THAT COULDN’T SHOOT STRAIGHT. GM, 1971. Jerry Orbach, Leigh Taylor-Young, Jo Van Fleet, Lionel Stander, Robert De Niro. Based on the novel by Jimmy Breslin. Director: James Goldstone.

   Thanks to director James Goldstone’s frenetic pacing, there’s not a lot of down time in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. In this comedy film, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. Despite a fairly thin plot, this off-kilter satire of Brooklyn’s mafia wars moves from scene to scene at a rapid clip, not giving the viewer much time to digest what happened. Most of the time, it works well and distracts the viewer from the fact that there’s not whole much depth to the proceedings.

   But who needs much depth when you’ve got Jerry Orbach portraying Kid Sally, a low-rent South Brooklyn enforcer and Robert DeNiro portraying a character named Mario, an Italian bicycle racer turned con man? Both are such fine actors that it’s difficult to not get lost in their respective characters various schemes and machinations.

   Then there’s veteran character actor Lionel Stander, whose career was among the most effected by the Hollywood blacklist. He portrays Baccala, a crude, tough talking mafia don who utilizes his wife to start the ignition on his car. You know. Just in case.

   The plot follows two parallel tracks. Kid Sally’s attempts to rub out Baccala, and Kid Sally’s sister, Angela’s (Leigh Taylor-Young) budding romance with Mario. Eventually these tracks merge in Kid Sally’s hilariously incompetent attempt to kill Baccala in an Italian restaurant. In this scene, as in many others, the humor isn’t exactly subtle. But it’s not childish and infantile, either. The comedic talent on display makes The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight an enjoyable enough movie, but not necessarily one that necessitates a second viewing.

Editorial Note:   As coincidences go, this is a sad one. This review was scheduled yesterday for today. This morning Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jimmy Breslin’s death was reported. He was 88.


THE DROP. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014. Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Michael Aronov. Based on the 2009 short story “Animal Rescue” by Dennis Lehane, who later expanded it into a novel titled The Drop (2014). Director: Michaël R. Roskam.

   It may be somewhat odd to begin a movie review with a brief allusion to the movie’s ending. But there’s a line spoken by one of the secondary characters at the tail end of The Drop that basically sums up the whole film. I’m not going to tell you who it is, of course, or what he says. Trust me when I tell you that it’s one of those lines, so rare in commercial cinema today, that makes you sit up and take notice.

   How perfect a line it is and one that goes a long way in distilling a complex, multifaceted film about two cousins running a small criminal enterprise out of their bar in working class Brooklyn. Cousin Marv (the late James Gandolfini) and his younger cousin Bob Saginowski (a perfectly cast Tom Hardy) are getting by, but are hardly living the high life. Years ago, Marv was forced to sell his establishment to Chechen gangsters. It’s something he’s never quite gotten over. Bob, on the other hand, seems to be perfectly fine with living a quiet, uneventful life as the bartender.

   In exquisite noir, or should I say neo-noir, fashion, the plot unfolds due to a series of coincidences, near coincidences, and bad luck.

   There are actually four separate strands to the compellingly bleak story that is The Drop. The first involves a plot hatched by Marv to steal from his own bar – technically, the bar owned by Chechen gangsters – in order to have money to keep his father on life support. The second concerns Bob’s interactions with a detective that he recognizes from church. The third revolves around the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a bar regular some years ago. The fourth story, and as it turns out the movie’s linchpin, concerns the budding romance between Bob and a local girl (Noomi Rapace). A romance, it should be noted, that begins when Bob discovers a beaten, abandoned dog in a garbage can in front of her home.

   It admittedly takes patience to watch and wait, as the story doesn’t unfold quickly. Rather the movie operates like a slow burner, amplifying the heat and the tension without the viewer exactly realizing what’s happening until it’s too late. There’s a big reveal in the end of the film, one in which the infamous line that I referenced at the beginning of this review is intimately tied to, but it’s also fun to watch everything leading up to that point.

   The cast is uniformly excellent and the movie doesn’t dumb things down for a mass audience. This is a sophisticated crime drama, one as much about characters and their personal journeys as much as about the crimes themselves.


HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS. American International Pictures, 1958. Yvonne Lime, Bret Halsey, Jana Lund, Suzanne Sydney, Heather Ames, Nancy Kilgas, Rhoda Williams. Director: Edward Bernds.

   With a film title like High School Hellcats, you know you’re almost certainly in for a movie that is more exploitation than artistic. Did I mention it’s an American International Pictures production? They more or less had a corner on the teen and juvenile delinquent low budget market back in the 1950s. This particular product – er, film — is true to form. It’s got wild teenagers doing bad things, worried and strict parents who just don’t understand the younger generation, and a misbegotten romantic couple struggling to make things work despite the chaos that surrounds them.

   What makes this particular story different from many of the similar juvenile delinquent and hot rod movies churned out at the time is that the focus is on a female gang. You read that right. The leader of the gang may be mean, but her lieutenant is downright sadistic.

   When innocent, but rebellious Joyce Martin (Yvonne Lime) shows up at her new school, it doesn’t take long for her to be bullied by the Hellcats. Soon enough, she’s joining their ranks at a late night initiation ceremony at an abandoned movie theater. It doesn’t take long, however, for Joyce’s romantic life to be strained by her membership in the Hellcats. When the gang’s leader dies under mysterious circumstances, Joyce realizes that she has signed up for more than she has bargained for.

by Francis M. Nevins

   Considering that I was an inch from death last month, perhaps a March column is asking too much of myself. We shall see. I suspect this one is going to be a bit skimpy.


   On the 6th of February, at age 91, Alec McCowen died. He was one of the most revered English actors, having appeared in several Shakespeare productions, including ROMEO AND JULIET and KING LEAR, and a number of 20th-century classics like PYGMALION and EQUUS.

   He also had roles in 30-odd movies, of which the best known is probably FRENZY (1972). Who can forget his performance in that last of Hitchcock’s great films? As the harried Scotland Yard inspector, a bangers-and-mash man if ever there was one, who comes home after a hard day trying to track down a serial rapist and killer only to find his wife (Vivien Merchant) getting ready to serve him a tasty dinner of sautéed lovebirds’ wings or something of the sort, he’s unforgettable.


   The last time I saw FRENZY was when it came out 45 years ago, but it’s still green in my memory. Shot in London, it tells the story of down-and-out ex-RAF pilot Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), who becomes the prime suspect in a series of brutal rape-murders and goes on the run. The real criminal is Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), a Covent Garden fruit-and-vegetable merchant as was Hitchcock’s father, and much of the location shooting takes place in the neighborhood the director knew as a boy.

   For a time the fugitive Blaney is protected by fellow RAF veterans — which would have made more sense if the picture’s events had taken place immediately after World War II, when the surviving Battle of Britain pilots were national heroes — but eventually he’s caught by Inspector Oxford (our man McCowen) and locked up. Knowing by then that Rusk is the real murderer, Blaney escapes and sets out for revenge.

   I’d be a toad if I gave away more of the plot, which is summarized on several websites devoted to the picture. Among all the Hitchcock films after PSYCHO (1960), FRENZY stands out as by far the most suspenseful.


   So far this is indeed a mini-column, but a recent phone conversation with a friend who teaches literature and film allows me to extend it. For a forthcoming book on film noir, my friend has agreed to write a chapter on the French contributions to the genre during the Nazi occupation. This is a subject on which I’m woefully ignorant but I do know that one of the titles that falls within this category is LES INCONNUS DANS LA MAISON (1941), which was based on Georges Simenon’s 1940 novel of the same name, translated into English after the war as STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE (1954).

   In both novel and film the main character is Hector Loursat, a gross and unkempt lawyer — his bearishness signaled, at least for those who know a little French, by his name — who has retreated into an alcoholic shell after his wife left him. When a small-time gangster is discovered murdered in the huge Loursat house, our protagonist finds himself forced to defend his daughter’s lover, who’s accused of the crime.

   Unusually for Simenon, a good bit of the novel takes place in court, and the legal procedure will cause readers familiar with the English or American systems to throw up their hands more than once. (For example, the defense counsel cannot question witnesses directly but must ask the judge to repeat each question to whoever is on the stand.) Anyone who expects the kind of forensic fireworks associated with Perry Mason novels is likely to find the book frustrating, but on its own terms it’s widely considered one of the best of Simenon’s stand-alone crime novels and I would have to agree with this verdict.

   How close the Occupation-era movie came to its source is unclear, although from what I’ve found on the Web there seem to be considerable differences. The film climaxes with a passionate speech by Loursat (Raimu), indicting the older generation for the peccadilloes of the young, which has no counterpart in Simenon. (This speech can be accessed on YouTube, but it’s in French.) To discover any other differences I’ll have to wait for my friend’s essay.


   To complete my account of Simenon’s novel [WARNING] I have no choice but to reveal the real killer. It turns out to be a young delinquent called Justin Luska, whose motivation for the crime is clear as mud. He’s described as the “son of a tradesman,…[who] because of his red hair, his name, his real first name, Ephraim, the Eastern origin of his father, was the object of ridicule of his schoolmates….People said that he smelled, like his father’s shop….”

   When the father enters the courtroom late in the proceedings, Simenon tells us that he looked like “a man belonging to that race of humans you find sleeping in the corridors of night trains, sitting patiently in police stations, trying desperately to explain themselves in an impossible language, the sort that is always questioned at frontiers….[D]idn’t the fact that his coat smelled bad cause others to step aside?….He was dark and oily, almost flabby….”

   The word Jew is never mentioned, at least not in the English translation that postdates WWII and the Holocaust, but the Luskas père et fils remind us irresistibly of those scruffy East European Jews who to Simenon’s discredit pockmark his novels of the 1930s.

   If they are clearly identified as Jews in the original French, this wouldn’t be the first time a translator refused to be true to Simenon’s text. As I discussed in an earlier column, Anthony Boucher did precisely the same thing when during the war years he translated a Simenon short story with a Jewish villain for EQMM. Sometimes it’s better to be unfaithful. Indeed, when the 1941 movie was re-released after the war, the soundtrack was tinkered with so that Luska’s first name morphs from Ephraim to the clearly un-Jewish Amédée. In the France of the immediate postwar years, even the appearance of anti-Semitism was taboo.


   Ah! Now we have a column of respectable dimensions. Perhaps I’ll do better, or at least longer, next month.


T-BIRD GANG. The Filmgroup, 1959. John Brinkley, Ed(win) Nelson, Tony Miller, Pat George, Coleman Francis, Nola Thorp. Music: Shelly Manne. Director: Richard Harbinger.

   You know the old adage about going to see a fight and having a hockey game break out? That’s what I thought of when watching T-Bird Gang, a Roger Corman-produced programmer that is significantly better, in both style and substance, than it has any natural right to be.

   The reason for this is that the movie occasionally makes you feel as if you’re at a jazz concert and somehow a crime film broke out. I joke. But the movie’s at times overwhelming score by West Coast jazz drummer Shelly Manne lends the proceedings a frantic, hip energy that makes what would have been an ordinary crime film into something a bit more memorable. It definitely kept me watching and tapping along.

   The plot isn’t all that inventive. Nor is it particularly difficult to follow. Future television star Ed Nelson (billed here as Edwin Nelson) portrays Alex Hendricks, the son of a warehouse night watchman gunned down in the line of duty. Alex takes it upon himself to avenge his father’s death and ingratiates himself into the good graces of the local criminal gang responsible for the crime. After Alex lands in police custody, he is given a choice. Give up his vigilantism and help the police to bring down the gang or go to jail.

   Alex chooses the former option and assists Captain Prell (Coleman Francis) in the police department’s efforts to nab the unsavory criminal element plaguing the local community. Did I mention that the head honcho in the outfit drives a white T-Bird? But don’t let the car or the lobby cards fool you, this really is more a gritty crime film than it is a juvenile delinquent film.


CHARLES EINSTEIN – The Bloody Spur. Dell 1st Edition #5, paperback original, 1953. Black Curtain Press, softcover, 2013.

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS. RKO, 1956. Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Sally Forrest, Ida Lupino, James Craig, Vincent Price, John Drew Barrymore. Robert Warwick. Screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the novel The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein. Directed by the one & only Fritz Lang.

   Okay. At the time of this writing, and from all I can tell, this is the earliest film to be based on a paperback original. I’m open to other suggestions.

   Einstein’s book is what I call a novel-novel: a diverse cast of characters interacting in a dramatic but realistic situation, having affairs, changing jobs, getting drunk, palling around, quarreling and otherwise getting some drama into their day-to-day lives.

   In this case the impetus is the death of the second-in-command at the Kyne Publishing empire (the book opens, in fact, at his funeral) and the hustling of high-ranking underlings to get promoted to his place. As a sub-plot, there is a serial killer terrorizing New York and the race to the near-top quickly devolves into a competition to be the first with the scoop on the identity of the killer, an undertaking that turns into detective work, seduction, betrayal, and more drinking — these newsmen all act like they think they’re in a Fredric Brown story.

   Einstein does a capable job of cutting between them, though: a crusty old newspaper editor, an ambitious chief of wire services, a lascivious female columnist and a philandering ad man, punctuating the story with some catchy lower-level lives: a smart crime reporter, another not-so-smart reporter, cops, secretaries… and the killer himself.

   I said “capable” not “brilliant.” The Blood Spur will keep you reading, but it’s not the sort of thing one remembers for long or with a great deal of affection: passable but not much more. Surprising then that the film made from it is (to use a hack’s pet phrase) so gripping and suspenseful.

   Well, maybe not all that surprising. Director Fritz Lang mastered the Movies in the 1920s, adapted to social commentary in the 30s, moved to international intrigue and film noir in the 40s, and the 50s found him still attuned to the times, with an edgy rock-and-roll tempo that seems to roar right out of The Wild One.

   Of course it helps that he had a cast like that. Dana Andrews and Sally Forrest play the reporter/secretary couple with affection that never turns to cuteness, George Sanders is his reliably scheming self, playing nicely off Thomas Mitchell’s ink-stained editor, and Vincent Price is agreeably slimy as the big boss manipulating them all. Also I should make special mention of Ida Lupino as the -um- flirtatious columnist radiating no-nonsense sex appeal that contrasts nicely with Rhonda Fleming’s duplicitous trophy wife.

   With a few exceptions (which I’ll get to later) Casey Robinson’s screenplay follows Einstein’s novel closely — sometimes eerily so. Little bits of business, place names and odd phrases like “in cold daylight” appear on the screen with surprising faithfulness in a medium that was never known for its fidelity. But the changes are even more significant.

   Starting with the ending, well, in the book it’s pretty prosaic; the killer tries to assault a stranger ”in cold daylight,” a chase through the subway tunnels ensues, and if you can’t guess the outcome I won’t spoil it for you except to say one of our intrepid newsmen gets the scoop. In the film however, reporter Dana Andrews decides that the best way to catch the killer is to use his fiancée as bait, putting a personal and more involving twist on the proceedings.

   (PARENTHETICAL NOTE: I don’t know about you, but to me having your betrothed use you as the potential victim of a mad killer is a sign that this relationship may be in trouble. I’m just saying….)

   Another note of interest: in the novel, the killer obsessively reads the Bible; in the movie, he’s had his mind warped by Comic Books, and thank you, Dr. Wertham; I don’t think the Legion of Decency would have let them get away with that anyway.

   And finally, there’s a delicious in-joke near the beginning: The book kicks off with the death of the second-in-command at Kyne Enterprises; in the film the story is kicked off by the death of the patriarch himself, leaving his son (Vincent Price) to select someone to actually run the damn thing. Price lets the competition hinge on a comment his late daddy made about catching the serial killer – thus making While the City Sleeps the second film centered around the last words of a dead publisher whose name starts with “K.”

   No prizes for guessing the first.


TRAINING DAY. Warner Brothers, 2001. Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger. Director: Antoine Fuqua.

   A brief warning, if I may, especially to those of you who have not seen the movie and think you might. In my comments that follow, there will be aspects of the film that may be revealed before you’d like to know about them. This is one of those films that if you know too much before it begins, it will spoil everything for you.

   Training Day, the film for which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor, works on two different levels. On the surface, it’s a gritty crime film about two cops. One is a veteran African-American detective, Alonzo (Washington) from the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. The other, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) a fresh-faced White rookie from the suburban San Fernando Valley who is not prepared for what will face him on his first day — his training day — working in the narcotics division.

   As the movie begins, the viewer goes along with Hoyt as he rides along with the charmingly crude Alonzo as they cruise the mean streets of Los Angeles, encountering rapists, thugs, and drug dealers. Alonzo does his best to tell his green apprentice that unless he’s willing to be a wolf, he’s going to be eaten alive by the criminal element plaguing the city.

   That’s one level of the film and it’s not a particularly bad police film. There’s plenty of action, and Washington shows he’s a top American film talent. For an actor who had previously played rather cerebral types or at least heroes, he really does seem to lose himself in the role. No surprise then that he won an Oscar.

   But there’s a whole other level to Training Day and that’s one that, from what I can tell, seems to have gone little noticed among critics. And that would be the story unfolding from the point of view of the film’s protagonist, Jake Hoyt.

   In many ways, the movie isn’t about Alonzo at all. It’s about Jake’s perception of what is happening — or not happening — all around him. For most of the film, Jake thinks he’s in the company of hothead at best, a corrupt cop at worst. But as things progress, he learns that he has perceived the situation incorrectly all the time. True, Alonzo is a hothead and corrupt, but he’s also been working on a scheme involving Jake from the very first moment that the two men meet in a diner.

   Much of the film features scenes in which the two men burst into various apartments and houses. Alonzo knows what to expect inside; Jake does not. For most of the movie, we experience this disorientation from Jake’s perspective. What waits inside these homes? Where is Alonzo taking him? Are the people that Alonzo is shaking down criminals or just innocent people caught up in a web of corruption? Everything seems to be happening so fast that Jake can hardly gain a sense of where he is and what is happening.

   Typical of the film noir genre, the movie positions Jake as an object, rather than a subject. He’s seemingly at the whims of a world gone mad, caught up in a continual spiral downward. That is until a coincidence — also a noir trait — ends up saving his life and allows him to regain his footing.

   Also key to the plot is the fact that very early on Alonzo forces Jake to smoke marijuana, telling him that if he wants to be a narc, he has to be familiar with drugs. Turns out that it isn’t marijuana at all, but the far deadly and more disorienting PCP. Something else that not only changes Jake’s literal perception of urban Los Angeles, but becomes central to the wildly devious plan Alonzo has in mind.

   After putting up with Alonzo’s increasingly crazed behavior for a one bruiser of a day and discovering how Alonzo has set him up as a patsy for his plans, Hoyt finally sets upon a course of action that will ultimately lead to his would-be mentor’s final downfall.

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