Crime Films


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE JANUARY MAN.  MGM, 1989. Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Harvey Keitel, Danny Aiello, Rod Steiger, Alan Rickman. Writer: John Patrick Shanley. Director: Pat O’Connor. Streaming online with ads on various platforms. Available for rent on Amazon Prime as well as other outlets.

   You have been unjustly fired from a job you did well,and now your ex-employers, faced with a crisis Only You Can Handle come crawling to ask you back. Along the way they almost interrupt you in a casual act of heroism, but you agree to come back, whereupon the Red Carpet is rolled out, you meet a sexy young girl who falls madly in love with you, your ex-girlfriend suddenly wants you back, and everybody who ever talked nasty to you is now at your beck and call.

   And wouldn’t it be great if they all brought Beer?

   Well, I suppose there are worse male fantasies, and although The January Man is neither as suspenseful as it should be nor as amusing as it could be, it still deserves some credit for realizing its limited aspirations in a light-hearted and relatively non-violent way. In fact, for a movie about a serial killer of women, it’s surprisingly un-sadistic in concept and execution (no pun intended — honest).

   The January Man also offers some decent thespic opportunities to its performers, who try not to look too surprised at getting them. Kevin Kline is engagingly off-beat as the Cop-turned-Fireman Hero called back to solve the Calendar Girl Murders, Danny Aiello and Rod Steiger are appropriately choleric as his superiors, and Susan Sarandon purveys her own brand of predatory sexuality as Kline’s ex-sweetie.

   Best of all is Alan Rickman, looking more than ever like a young Vincent Price, as the Maynard Krebbs to Kline’s love-happy Dobie Gillis.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #34, September 2004.

   

BRICK. Focus Features, 2005. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye, Nora Zehetner as Laura Dannon, Lukas Haas as the Pin, Noah Fleiss as Tug, Matt O’Leary as The Brain, Emilie de Ravin as Emily Kostich, Noah Segan as Dode, Richard Roundtree as Assistant V.P. Trueman, Meagan Good as Kara, Brian White as Brad Bramish. Written and directed by Rian Johnson.

   If there is or ever has been a category of films called “high school neo-noir” – or let’s put it this way, if there isn’t, there should be, even if there’s only one film in it, and that film would be this one, a small little gem called Brick.

   Emily, the former girl friend of Brendan, a loner if not loser in high school, has left him for the higher “societal” levels of that same institution, calls him and asks for help, giving him hints that she’s over her head, and she has gotten into serious trouble. But se gives him only hints as to what that trouble might be, using the words “pin,” “tug,” and “brick.”

   Soon enough she is telling him to back off, but of course he does not. Following her trail through paths that only those of us who have managed to survive high school, except that was then and this is now, Southern California style, Brendan does find her, but alone, dead, next to a ditch filled with water leading to (or from) a circular sewage tunnel.

      “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business.”

   And so is Brendan, whether he realizes it or not, a detective, as he (very painfully) struggles to avenge Emily’s death. This being a contemporary high school story (although not a single scene is filmed in a classroom) drugs are involved, and Brendan’s investigation leads straight to (and not through) the local kingpin of the local drug trade, as well as other well-hidden secrets, or so they thought.

   Most striking is the language, a local slang used in a combination of (yes) Dashiell Hammett and William Shakespeare, flowing like poetry in this small but ever expanding drama, and thanks to IMDb, I’ll finish the rest of the review by quoting some of it:

Brendan Frye: Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.

Laura Dannon: Do you trust me now?
Brendan Frye: Less than when I didn’t trust you before.

Brendan Frye: Emily said four words I didn’t know. Tell me if they catch. Brick?
The Brain: No.
Brendan Frye: Or Bad Brick?
The Brain: Nope.
Brendan Frye: Tug?
The Brain: Tug? Tug might be a drink, like milk and vodka, or something.
Brendan Frye: Poor Frisco?
The Brain: Frisco? Frisco Farr was a sophomore last year, real trash. Maybe had a class a week, I didn’t know him then, haven’t seen him around.
Brendan Frye: Pin?
The Brain: Pin. The Pin?
Brendan Frye: The Pin, yeah?
The Brain: The Pin is kinda a local spook story, you know, the King Pin.
Brendan Frye: Yeah, I’ve heard it.
The Brain: Same thing, he’s supposed to be old, like 26. Lives in town.
Brendan Frye: Dope runner, right?
The Brain: Big time. See the Pin pipes it from the lowest scraper for Brad Bramish to sell, maybe. Ask any dope rat where their junk sprang and they’ll say they scraped it from that, who scored it from this, who bought it off so, and after four or five connections the list always ends with The Pin. But I bet you, if you got every rat in town together and said “Show your hands” if any of them’ve actually seen The Pin, you’d get a crowd of full pockets.
Brendan Frye: You think The Pin’s just a tale to take whatever heat?
The Brain: Hmm… So what’s first?
Brendan Frye: Show of hands.

Brendan Frye: Maybe I’ll just sit here and bleed at you.

Kara: You better be sure you wanna know what you wanna know.

Emily: Brendan, I know you’re mad at these people because you think I went away from you and went to them but, you need to start seeing it as my decision. Stop getting angry because where I want to be at, is different from where you want to be at.
Brendan Frye: Who fed you that line, Em?
Emily: Stop picking on Dode. He’s a good guy.
Brendan Frye: The pie house rat?
Emily: He’s a good friend.
Brendan Frye: So, what am I?
Emily: Yeah, I mean what are you? Just sitting back here, hating everyone? Who are you to judge anyone? God, I really loved you a lot. I couldn’t stand it. I had to get with people. I couldn’t have a life with you anymore.

Laura Dannon: Listen, you’re scratching at the wrong door. I didn’t know Em well enough to know what she was in. I just got wind of the downfall.
Brendan Frye: If you haven’t got a finger in Em’s troubles, why did her name get me into your rather exclusive party?
Laura Dannon: Keep up with me now. I don’t know, but it sounded like you did. And a body’s got a right to be curious. Now I’m not so sure.
Brendan Frye: Oh, put that body to bed. I don’t know a damn thing about whatever troubles and that works for me. Just in fun.
Laura Dannon: Coffee and Pie.
Brendan Frye: Coffee and Pie, Oh My?
Laura Dannon: You didn’t hear it from me.

PS. This is one outstanding movie.

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

THE THIRD KEY. J. Arthur Rank / Ealing Studios, UK, 1956. Original title: The Long Arm. J ack Hawkins, John Stratton, Dorothy Alison, Michael Brooke, Sam Kydd, Glyn Houston. Director: Charles Frend.

   A business in Westminster is burgled, and when the police arrive they are greeted by a nightwatchman. The safe has been opened with a key and its contents stolen. The following day, however, it emerges that the nightwatchman was actually the thief in disguise, and the real nightwatchman is in hospital with a burst appendix. Superintendent Tom Halliday (Jack Hawkins) and his new Detective Sergeant Ward (John Stratton) begin their hunt for the fraud.

   With the help of his boss and friend Chief Superintendent Jim Malcolm (Geoffrey Keen), Halliday discovers that there have been more than a dozen safe-breaking jobs all across Britain, with each involving the same make of safe.

   With no suspects at the manufacturer, the case seems to have reached a dead end, until the thief strikes again and an innocent bystander is killed with the getaway car. The vehicle is later found in a scrapyard, inside of which lies a newspaper that leads Halliday and Ward all the way to Snowdonia, North Wales, and a Mr Gilson, a deceased former employee of the safe manufacturer.

   The pair discover that there are twenty-eight identical safes in London. The most lucrative haul will come from one that is located at the Royal Festival Hall, where a trap is duly set for the thief…

   This mid-fifties police procedural plays like an ever so slightly grittier episode of Dixon of Dock Green, with always-reliable Jack Hawkins, famous at the time for playing resolute men of sturdy, sensible authority, as the investigating officer. An almost documentary style keeps this part of the realist school of detective drama, with only occasional moments of gentle humour, mostly between Halliday and his new sidekick, who, in a running gag that’s more of a leisurely stroll, is forever interested in getting off work to see his girlfriend.

   The cast is made up of dependable stalwarts of the era, with the likes of Geoffrey Keen (so often excellent in these sort of roles, who sometimes got the chance himself of playing the main detective in lower-budgeted B-films), Sydney Tafler (a big favourite of mine, here playing a character named ‘Creasey’, presumably because of big-name crime writer of the time John Creasey), and Ralph Truman.

   Ian Bannen also appears as the victim of the hit and run, to whom Halliday somewhat insensitively questions while on his death bed, and would go on to play the lead role in the amiable Scottish farce Waking Ned over forty years later.

   A bunch of other actors with walk-on roles, such as Stafford Johns, would go on to appear as police officers again in the rather more grim Z Cars and Softly, Softly, a dramatic direction which would lead to The Sweeney and everything else that makes The Third Key now seem antiquated and, despite its efforts at realism, a little unsophisticated.

   That’s probably ungenerous, as middle-class police investigating mostly non-violent crimes is no less realistic than cockney, blue-collar police chasing rapists, but it nonetheless feels more genteel when you have Hawkins’ wife fussing about him being late for tea.

   She is, by the way, one of only three women to be given any meaningful role, out of five who appear in the whole film, while most of the cast are middle-class, middle-aged men, with the only ones left over being a street-seller hawking his wares, and Nicholas Parsons as a beat constable.

   In fact, thanks to a scene in which Halliday’s son has a birthday party, and another in which a young urchin played by Frazer Hines (of ‘60s Doctor Who and evergreen rural soap Emmerdale) offers a significant lead, there are several more prepubescent boys in the film than women.

   Much of which you have to accept with a picture of this vintage, not least as these glimpses into a bygone era are often so interesting, with the location work in particular standing out. The narrative itself may seem a little ho-hum, with the only action being an exciting finale in which Hawkins grips recklessly to the bonnet of an escaping car (the idea of handcuffing the villain not having occurred to the experienced detective).

   The film isn’t long, and more focused and markedly less grim than its spiritual successor Gideon’s Day a couple of years later, in which Hawkins plays another Scotland Yard man struggling to juggle serious police work with his home life and family. The main difference there is that he has a teenage daughter instead of a young son, and his wife is rather less worried about him.

Rating: ***

REVIEWED BY MIKE TOONEY:

   

LARCENY, INC. Warner Bros., 1952.  95 min. Edward G. Robinson, Broderick Crawford, Jane Wyman, Jack Carson, Edward Brophy, Anthony Quinn, Harry Davenport, John Qualen, Grant Mitchell, Barbara Jo Allen, Jackie C. Gleason. Based on the play The Night Before Christmas by Laura and S. J. Perelman.  Director: Lloyd Bacon.

         “Weepy, I don’t like the idea of going into a bank through the front door.”

   Edward G. plays J. Chalmers Maxwell, known to his associates as “Pressure.” He and his not-so-bright pal Jug Martin (played to lunk-headed perfection by the greatly underrated Broderick Crawford) have just been released from prison and plan to go straight. All they need is some money to buy a dog track in Florida, but when Pressure applies for a loan at the bank. he is turned down — the “c” word: collateral. (Those were the days when bankers actually considered such things.)

   Pressure figures that to get the dough he needs for his enterprise, why he’ll just have to extract it from the very bank that turned down his application, nyah. But he’ll need a cover and finds it in a luggage shop located right next door. He buys the shop, not realizing until later that he has acquired a cash cow.

   Oddly enough, in spite of a plethora of criminals, some with guns, nobody dies in this movie.

   The entire cast is great, but this is still very much Edward G.’s show.
   

GUNS, GIRLS AND GANGSTERS. United Artists, 1959. Mamie Van Doren, Gerald Mohr, Lee Van Cleef, Grant Richards, Elaine Edwards, John Baer, Paul Fix. Director: Edward L. Cahn. Currently streaming on YouTube (see below).

   A heist movie, and everyone reading this knows exactly how heist movies, go, if not having possible scripts already in mind and ready to go, if only someone would come along and offer you the money to start filming it tomorrow. In this one, Gerald Mohr’s character has just been released from prison and has a armored car hijacking all figured out.

   He hooks up with a night club owner (Grant Richards) who could use a sizable cut of the loot (somewhere in the two million range) to help finance the robbery. Working for Richards is a singer (Mamie Van Doren) who, as it happens, is/was (I’m not clear on this point) married to Mohr’s cellmate (Lee Van Cleef), who is still in prison.

   I won’t go into how the heist goes wrong, but the movie certainly picks up its rather slow and sluggish pace when Van Cleef breaks out of prison, even with only a few months before he is due for a parole. Livens the movie right up, it does.

   Unfortunately, while Gerald Mohr had a great tough-sounding voice for radio (Philip Marlowe), he has been rather stiff in any of the movies I’ve ever seen him in. Mamie Van Doren is always easy to look at, but in this movie her voice is harsh and bitter-sounding. Lee Van Cleef’s eyes brighten up with glee whenever he can do some damage to whatever the plot is that he’s walked in on, and he walks away with full acting honors in this otherwise lackluster black-and-white crime film.

   

BULLET SCARS. Warner Bros. / First National, 1942. Regis Toomey, Adele Longmire, Howard Da Silva, Ben Welden, William Hopper (uncredited). Director: D. Ross Lederman. Currently streaming on YouTube (see below).

   The plot of this one is definitely second-hand, if not third. When the members of the Frank Dillon gang hold up a small town bank, one of the thieves is shot and seriously wounded. They need a doctor for him right away. They kill the first one, who gets too wise too quickly. The second one, played by Regis Toomey, is a lot slower on the uptake, and agrees to operate (brain surgery, no less) is a small cabin in the mountains, with only a nurse (the wounded man’s sister, but under duress herself) to assist.

   As I say, Dr. Bishop may be a whiz at the operating table, but then again, he’s the kind of guy who’s interested in doctoring and doing research and never listens to the news. It is Nurse Madison (sharp-featured and pretty brunette Adele Longmire) breaks the news to him, they both realize that they have to keep the patient alive, or else. Complicating matters is that Dillon, whose mob it is (Howard Da Silva) is sweet on Nurse Madison. (She does not reciprocate the feelings.)

   In spite of the well-worn plot, the cast is fine, the pacing is marred only by one of the hoods always whining comically about his health, and the ending has a lot of firepower – at least ten minutes’ worth. This was female star Adele Longmire’s first film, and while more than satisfactory in the role, she didn’t make another movie or TV appearance for another six years, with no more than a dozen additional credits on IMDb after that. And even though William Hopper was on the screen very early on (as a bank teller) for only maybe two or three seconds, I think I recognized him, but only because I went looking.
   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

SHORT CUT TO HELL. Paramount Pictures, 1957. Robert Ivers, Georgann Johnson (debut of both), William Bishop, Jacques Aubuchon, Murvyn Vye. Screenplay by Ted Berkman and Rafael Blau, based on the screenplay by W. R. Burnett for This Gun For Hire (1942) and the novel A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene. Directed by James Cagney.

   With apologies to film critic Bosley Crowther, Short Cut to Hell certainly is.

   James Cagney’s debut as a director, and his only film as one, is a mess by any measure, not the least the absolute failure of this two stars making their less than stellar debut in two of the least charismatic screen performances imaginable.

   Watching this it is hard to believe the legendary Cagney who worked with some of the finest directors in Hollywood like Wellman, Walsh, and Curtiz, could have picked up so little or produced so pedestrian a film, pedestrian being a compliment because this often looks like a bad half hour episodic television cop show of the era.

   Whatever Graham Greene thought of the original 1942 version of his novel A Gun for Sale, filmed under its American title This Gun For Hire, there was no denying the extraordinary appeal of its cast: Alan Ladd as the emotionally and physically scarred gun man Raven, Veronica Lake as Ellen, a sexy smart young singer/magician caught up in Raven’s mission, Laird Cregar as the effete double crossing club owner who hires Raven and then betrays him, and Robert Preston as Ellen’s policeman boy friend.

   In that version, the plot moved from London to LA, and Raven changed from a man scarred by a cleft lip to one with a twisted wrist, Raven kills to cover up a crime for Cregar’s character who then betrays him to the police. Raven escapes swearing revenge on Cregar and whoever employs him, runs into nightclub performer Ellen on the way to LA for a job and ends up taking her hostage as she awakens his long buried humanity and sense of decency. Meanwhile Ellen’s boyfriend Robert Preston is the policeman hunting Raven, especially once he discovers Ellen is his hostage.

   That film made iconic stars of Ladd and Lake, who went on to be teamed in multiple films and was a major success for the studio.

   Not so much Short Cut to Hell.

   Here we meet Kyle (Robert Iver, changed from Raven and chosen because Chad seemed too tough sounding, I assume) who lives in a rundown hotel with his cat who he obsesses over while violently spurning the advances of the daughter of the manager (Yvette Vickers) who is attracted to and repelled by the slender slight killer.

   Kyle cold bloodedly assassinates a young engineer and his secretary who threaten to reveal a crime by his employers and meets effete Jacques Aubuchon at a small restaurant to be paid, not knowing Aubuchon plans to claim the sequential bills he has paid Kyle were stolen from him, and knowing Kyle let him shoot it out with the cops and die.

   Enter policeman William Bishop assigned to the case, whose performer girlfriend Glory (Georgann Johnson) is leaving for LA to work in a club rather than marry him.

   Kyle escapes and Kyle, Aubuchon, and Glory all end up on the train to LA where Kyle takes Glory hostage.

   From there the film pretty much follows the Greene novel and the 1942 film in terms of plot, but only in terms of plot.

   Otherwise it bears the same relationship to the classic film that Abbot and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde bears to the Oscar winning Frederic March version directed by Rudolph Mate.

   Let’s start with Ivers, a wanna be James Dean type with the charisma and screen presence of unbuttered toast. Perhaps he did better in later performances, but I see no evidence of that here. What is supposed to be a smoldering killer with budding humanity beneath the ice cold mask instead looks slightly petulant and somewhat constipated as if his chewing gum lost its flavor.

   I have seldom seen a worst performance in a film from a major studio, or a less compelling one. Compared to Ivers, Alan Ladd was Olivier.

   Our other debut Georgann Johnson as Glory isn’t much better though somewhat more animated and certainly better to look at. Without the teasing peek a boo mix of playful sensuality and smoky sexuality that Lake exuded, the character of Glory just doesn’t make much sense. There is no reason for her to feel anything but fear of Iver’s Kyle, so her protection of him and aid seem perverse and a bit stupid. Minus the visible sparks that flowed on screen between Ladd and Lake, the plot doesn’t make much sense without Greene’s novelist voice to carry us through.

   No one else fares much better. William Bishop was always better cast as charming bad guys, and Jacques Aubuchon has the unenviable task of following Laird Cregar in the role of the cowardly immoral and effete bad guy , and frankly rather than a sense of menace and vague depravity, he only communicates dyspepsia and the snobbery of a punctilious head waiter at a second rate French restaurant.

   Murvyn Vye appears as Aubuchon’s sadistic chauffeur in a noirish touch, but it is so blatant and so flat that it comes across as unintended humor rather than noir. Unintended humor is pretty much the definition of this film that is often laughably off key, thanks to the performers and script.

   One dramatic scene where Kyle kills a cat to keep it from revealing his hiding place is supposed to be played for his horror and anguish at what he has done, but plays more like a Monty Python sketch gone horribly wrong.

   Painful as it is to write, James Cagney comes in for his full blame for this as well. His direction is unimaginative and pedestrian. He disdains any use of light and shadow beyond the simplest of shots, his camera is objective and cold, mostly in two shots and long shots even when extreme closeups would seem unavoidable, and he shows no sense of pace or suspense much less cinematic flair unfolding his story as static as episodic television at its most unimaginative.

   It is not surprising a man of his taste didn’t venture into the director’s chair again after this. I applaud his recognition of his limits.

   Short Cut to Hell was remade in 1979 as made for TV movie with Robert Wagner and Lou Antonio. I only hope it was better than this.

   There is a language of film, and it is always disappointing when someone you expect to know it intimately proves deaf to its rhythms and lyric style. This film is actively bad, perhaps not a bomb, but empty and devoid of any sense of style. It isn’t Ed Wood, and I am not suggesting that, but the combination of James Cagney, Graham Greene, W. R. Burnett, and a classic film should have been more than this.

   It is currently on YouTube, and I can only say if your curiosity overcomes you, watch at your own peril.

   

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. 20th Century Fox, 1950. Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Gary Merrill, Bert Freed, Tom Tully, Karl Malden, Ruth Donnelly, Craig Stevens. Screenplay: Ben Hecht, based on the novel Night Cry by William L. Stuart.. Directed by Otto Preminger.

   A tough police detective, repeatedly in trouble for beating up suspects in cases he’s investigating, accidentally kills one of them, a guy being framed for knifing another guy after a dice game. After dumping the body, he finds someone else accused of the crime.

   That someone being the father of the girl he’s falling in love with, the estranged wife of the guy he killed. Whew. I hope I didn’t give too much away with all this plot summary. The fun in a movie like this is just to sit back and let events flow naturally.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.

   
   

THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Lawrence Tierney, Ted North, Nan Leslie, Betty Lawford. Based on the novel (McBride, hardcover, 1938) by co-screenwriter Robert C. duSoe. Director: Felix E. Feist.

   A traveling salesman, a happy-go-lucky sort of guy, with a good job and a wife waiting home for him, makes a serious mistake. He picks up a guy thumbing a ride. They then pick up two girls who are hoofing their way to Hollywood, then stop and have a party.

   A deadly one. Lawrence Tierney is perfect in the role of a killer on the run.With his cold and shifty eyes, he was made for the part. Everybody is fine in their roles, even the minor ones. I even recognized the voice of Arthur Q. Bryan as a local cop. (Among others, he played the role of Fibber McGee’s friend Doc Gamble on the radio.)

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

ANDERS BODELSEN – Think of a Number. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1969. No paperback edition.

THE SILENT PARTNER. Carolco Pictures [Canada] 1978. With Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Céline Lomez, and John Candy. Screenplay and co-directed by Curtis Hanson. Directed by Daryl Duke.

   A disappointing book turned into an intriguing film.

   THINK OF A NUMBER starts out with a neat little hook and develops it with some skill and suspense. Bork, a meek bank teller with a thoughtful streak, perceives hints that someone plans to rob his bank – probably his own station—during the busy Christmas Season, and decides to get in on the act himself.

   Bork makes a practice of hiding away large sums of cash, and when the robber strikes, he gets away with a few thousand Kroener while Bork carries off a few hundred thousand. And so crime pays…

   Until the robber decides to go after Bork’s share.

   What follows is a battle of wits between Bork and the Bad Guy, complicated by the appearance of a Mystery Lady who may be a key piece in the game. But what makes it readable is that the wits involved are genuinely sharp, with Bork somehow keeping one jump ahead of the others, even as they out-think him.

   Unfortunately, author Bodelson seems to have mapped out his ending without considering the characters, because in the last third of NUMBER, everybody gets stupid. And I mean Everybody: Bork, the mystery gal, the robber, even a cop on their tail… all of them, after being sharp-witted for so long, suddenly commit the most obvious and unforgivable mistakes imaginable. And I say “imaginable” because what we have here is clearly a case of a writer shepherding his characters to a tidy ending that reads like the author himself descended from on high to personally arrange it.

   So when our neighbors to the North made this into the movie SILENT PARTNER, they wisely opted for a more convincing resolution, one that is rich in irony, yet seems to rise naturally from the characters. And it may be the casting, but those characters, as played by Elliott Gould, Susannah York and a nasty-nasty Christopher Plummer, seem more rounded and interesting than the predestined losers of Bodelson’s novel.

   I should add that there’s some surprisingly graphic violence here, mostly directed at women, but it helps that PARTNER is directed at a brisk pace, acted with enthusiasm, and written with an air of spontaneity that breathes freshness into every scene. This is a film not to be missed by lovers of tricky caper flicks who want to see a few new wrinkles in the celluloid fabric.
   

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