Monday, March 26, 2007

Gun Crazy (1950)

Written by Tim (aka Mappin and Webb Ltd.)

Joseph H. Lewis’s film Gun Crazy is not a film noir. Gun Crazy is an existentialist film disguised as a film noir. It could also be classified as a two person crew gangster film, lovers on the lam picture, or possibly even a criminal psychology flick. It defies a simple definition as its two main characters and their story may comprise some or all of these elements. I’m far from the type of person who over-intellectualizes or reads too much into films (especially 1950s B-Movies) however, the philosophical dark waters of “Gun Crazy” run deep below its turbulent surface.

Fortunately for the viewer, the story we watch unfold on that surface is gripping, dangerous and crackerjack filmmaking at its best. The core of the film however consists of two characters who are questioning what they are, if they were created that way, or if their actions define their identity.

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We first meet young adolescent Bart Tare (Russ Tamblyn) on a miserable night of pouring rain and unsatiated desire. Bart is stopped on the street outside the shop window of a small town hardware store, fixated on its display case prominently presenting an ornate revolver. From inside the store we watch him heave a rock through the front window, creating a big hole just above the gun. He turns himself around and attempts to obstruct the view of the hole in case anyone about is looking to see where the sound of the crash came from. He does this by blocking the hole with his torso and outstretching his arms perpendicular to his vertical body. This ends up looking eerily like he is about to be crucified rather than slyly covering his vandalism. He grabs the gun, a few small boxes of ammo and begins to run away. Bart trips and falls dropping the gun. The camera follows the gun skidding across the street where it stops in front of the boots of a man. The camera tilts up and we see the figure of the local sheriff. The lust for guns, we later discover, is Bart’s cross to bear.

Cut to a court room where we get a glimpse into Bart’s life as this juvenile’s crime is being weighed by the judge before sentencing. Bart’s parents are absent but his sister informs the judge that Bart has always had an obsession with guns but he wouldn’t harm a fly. One flashback later reveals that as a young boy he accidentally killed a baby chick with his BB gun and was deeply traumatized and regretful of this action. Since then he has refused to kill anything. His friends Dave and Clyde attest to this by recounting a story to the judge that one day, while they were exploring the local mountains, they had an opportunity to kill a mountain lion they spotted while hiking. Bart (never without his rifle apparently) is goaded into shooting the lion by his friends but he purposely misses. His friends chide him for his inaccuracy but Bart proceeds to throw his canteen high in the air and pump it full of several rounds before it hits the ground to prove a point: Barton Tare is a dead eye marksman. He is not however, a killer. A former teacher testifies about Bart bringing in a gun to school a year prior and refusing to give it to her after she catches him showing it off to his classmates at his desk (ah, the good old days). The judge wisely decides that Bart must go to reform school as his actions must have consequences. Bart however feels misunderstood as he tells the judge that shooting guns is the only thing he’s good at, it’s what he wants to do when he grows up and, “I feel good when I’m shooting them. I feel awful good inside like I’m somebody.”

A dozen years later we are re-introduced to Bart now played by John Dall. He has come back to town and is taking some leisurely target practice in the mountains while drinking beer (ah, the good old days) with his same old friends Clyde (now sheriff) and Dave. Bart has just gotten out of the army and is unsure what he will do next in life. For kicks his friends suggest they all go to the traveling carnival in town that evening. Little does Bart know that by going to the carnival his fate is about to change faster than a speeding bullet.

They enter a tent where a gun demonstration is being held by one Miss Annie Laurie Star (Peggy Cummins).
Beautiful and dressed to the nines in a cowgirl outfit and tight slacks, Laurie comes out with guns blazing and then points and fires one straight at Bart. The gun, it turns out, is filled with harmless blanks, but her effect on Bart however is like a .38 caliber slug from cupid’s gat right through his heart. She proceeds to demonstrate her prowess with the six-shooter by blasting a cigarette out of her assistant’s mouth at twenty paces and so forth. Bart is mesmerized by Laurie as if his dream woman has been dropped from the sky before him. The carnival host then challenges anyone in the audience to match bullet for bullet the deadly accuracy of Annie Laurie Star. Naturally Bart accepts and what happens next is one of the most ludicrous and amazing seduction scenes ever filmed. As the two take turns back and forth shooting dangerously close to each other in a deadly William Tell like competition, Laurie has noticeably become interested in Bart. Here the two meet for the first time in their purest forms: deadly accurate marksmen who love the tools of their trade and the rush they provide.

Bart takes a job at the carnival to be close to Laurie and they begin falling hard for each other and eventually leave the carnival. They decide on a shotgun wedding but before tying the knot Bart confesses his stint in reform school and Laurie confides that “I’ve never been much good but I want to be good. I don’t know, maybe I can’t but I’m going to try.” Despite the confessions of being outcasts they pull the trigger on their nuptials and travel around the country honeymooning like a typical happy couple. They honeymoon ends as the money runs out and Laurie becomes discontented. Bart suggests that he take a job at Remington (guns not electric shavers) for 40 dollars a week. That kind of dough isn’t enough for Laurie because she wants to do “a little living” so she suggests a lifestyle of crime where they can earn easy money with their guns by stealing from others. Bart expresses his concern at this proposal by stating that he doesn’t want, “to look in the mirror and see nothing but a stickup man staring back at me.” Laurie on the other hand believes she is entitled because, “I’ve been kicked around all my life and from now on I’m going to start kicking back.” Faced with the ultimatum of Laurie leaving him or seeing that stickup man in the mirror, Bart caves and they begin robbing everything from gas stations to banks.

While what comes next is a series of exciting crime scenes, the most interesting aspect of the film is the characters of Bart and Laurie. As the viewers, we wonder what makes them tick and we see that they are trying to figure that out for themselves as well. Their identities are nebulous entities that they never quite know where they begin or end. Is Laurie rotten to the core even though she honestly tries and wants to be good for Bart? She reminds Bart she told him from the beginning that, “…I was no good. I didn’t kid you did I?” yet she demonstrates moments of real tenderness, concern and love for Bart. Is Bart nothing but that criminal he sees in the mirror even though he is essentially good at heart? Keep in mind that Bart can’t bring himself to shoot anyone if the need arises whereas Laurie has an over itchy trigger finger when she gets scared and stressed. Most would argue that’s not conducive makeup for the life of being successful armed robbers, but Bart and Laurie are misfits and walking contradictions. Bart comments that “It’s all going so fast it doesn’t seem like me.” This elusive selfdom both share is further evidenced by their crime spree where they are literally and figuratively trying on different identities, disguises and role-play while pulling jobs and being on the lam. They impersonate a bookish straight couple, Army officer and wife, beret and sunglasses wearing 50’s hipsters and finally “disguise” themselves in full on cowboy and cowgirl costumes during the infamous single take bank robbery scene shot from the back seat of their car (there’s plenty written about it this deservedly classic part so I will refrain). Despite all these various guises and roles, at their core Bart and Laurie are rare birds that have never quite found nests to call their own. Yet they look for validation and comfort in each other as they are united in their existence as square pegs. Bart tells Laurie “We go together Laurie, I don’t know why, like guns and ammunition go together.”

The two decide to pull one last big heist which goes awry, produces two corpses (thanks to Laurie’s hair trigger finger) and sends them running back to Bart’s home town for a confrontation with his past. Here he faces his sister, Clyde and Dave who beg for their surrender but it’s too late for the two. They have finally established their identities in the form of outlaw robbers, but like their predecessors Bonnie and Clyde they can run for only so long before he law catches up with them.

Director Joseph H. Lewis makes the Gun Crazy script jump off the page and crackle with energy. Lewis seems to have a very strong sense of patience and payoff when it comes to visually narrating a scene. For example he knows when to finally give the audience a close-up for maximized emotional impact at just the right time in the context of the entire scene, whereas another director may give it to the audience too soon and expect the close-up to create significance just because it’s a close-up. Overall the film looks fantastic with great camerawork bolstering its visual strength. Lewis also paces the action at a brisk clip yet knows when to slow down to let the viewer savor the fantastic characters of Bart and Laurie. He lets them breathe and come to life without too heavy a hand and too broad a brush. The only flaw I find with the film is the pace lags for a brief time at the very end but otherwise Gun Crazy is a lean, streamlined movie from start to finish. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this film as it has so many great nuances, qualities and themes that are all worthy of exploration. I will say (and go out on a biased limb) that Gun Crazy is one of, if not, the most underrated film noirs (okay it is a film noir) from the classic period of 1940 to 1958. Truly a must see for any fan of film noir or great filmmaking in general.


Monday, March 19, 2007

The Well (1951)

Posted by HJ

Isaiah 11:6 ("...and a little child shall lead them....") might have been an influence on this movie in several ways. The love of all adults for a small child is the common plot element thread in this movie, and the discovery made by another small child leads to the denouement.

A lovely little African-American girl headed for school goes skipping through a meadow and falls into a well whose opening was hidden by some high weeds growing around it. Her distraught parents report her absence to a genuinely-concerned Sheriff, who in turn begins a routine search. When it's reported that an adult white male had bought the little girl some flowers that morning, things begin to unravel, and the routine search turns into a major operation!



On the surface, the town (probably Midwestern) appears to have no racial problems of significant proportions, but when the Black population hears that a white man was last seen with little Carolyn, racial tensions surface. And when the white man is discovered and subjected to a vigorous and accusatory interrogation by the Sheriff and his deputies, the reactionaries among the white populace begin fomenting violence against the African-American citizens. The African-American community is incensed that a white man may be responsible for the disappearance of little Carolyn and begins to confront the white racists.

The Sheriff sees the very real threat of a full-blown race riot and asks the Mayor to request State Militia assistance, while beginning to arm both Black and white Civil Defense volunteers with riot guns. This missing little girl has become less of an immediate issue than the mounting racial tensions.

Fortunately a little boy and his dog happen to be going through the meadow in which the well is located and find evidence that little Carolyn may be in the well. The child gets the word to the adults, and a rescue effort is mounted.

The racist owner of Packard's Construction Company, Sam Packard (played by Barry Kelley, who looks like a cross between Broderick Crawford and Richard Herd) makes all his equipment and laborers available for the exploration and rescue effort. And Sam Packard's nephew Claude Packard (played by Harry Morgan), the white man thought to be involved in Carolyn's disappearance, swallows the anger he feels at his treatment to become very personally involved in the effort to rescue the little girl. Harry Morgan gets to play the part of the Hero!

The first 45-50 minutes of this movie are quite Noir, but the last 35-40 minutes are involved with the rescue operation. DON'T let that convince you that this movie isn't worth the watch! It's a very enjoyable film, and I will be among the first to buy the restored version when it soon becomes available.

So a little child precipitated the situation, and the caring for her welfare began the reconciliation. And another little child's discovery of the well began the realization that little Carolyn was far more important than the racial divide.




Monday, March 12, 2007

Pitfall (1948)

Posted by samspadefan

By the time he helmed Pitfall in 1948; Hungarian born émigré director André de Toth had a filmography consisting of a handful of largely forgettable films, and was perhaps better know as the one-eyed husband of the beautiful Veronica Lake. Although he’d have limited success later in his career, most notably with the 3-D horror film House of Wax, a growing number of people, myself included, have come to believe that in Pitfall he has created one of the finest, and most unique, entries in the film noir canon.

PLOT RECAP (SPOILERS APPLY)

Pitfall opens with the seemingly idyllic suburban life of John Forbes (Dick Powell), insurance company claims adjuster, his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) and their young son Tommy.

It soon becomes apparent that this vision of the American dream is simply an illusion, at least to the melancholy John who dryly complains of the rut “six feet deep” that he feels himself caught in and his longing for something more exciting and less routine in his life.

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Forbes finds his excitement through ‘Mac‘ MacDonald (Raymond Burr), a private investigator hired by his firm to track down and recover insurable gains. MacDonald points Forbes in the direction of Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), possessor of several items purchased for her by her imprisoned ex-boyfriend Bill Smiley using stolen money insured by Forbes’s company. During the course of his investigation MacDonald, known as ‘gruesome’ around the office, has developed an attraction towards Mona. Forbes opts to go and see Mona himself to re-inventory the stolen gains.

After a very rocky start, in which Mona strikes at the very heart of Forbes’ personal dissatisfaction with his current life by calling him a “little man with a briefcase”, the two spend the afternoon boating and sharing cocktails before Forbes returns home quite late into the night after the implied adultery. It is worth noting that Forbes does not offer up the information that he is a married man, nor does he wear a wedding ring. Forbes’ late return is not lost on a lurking, and jealous, MacDonald.

After warning, then threatening Forbes who meets again with Mona, MacDonald takes a more physical approach and administers a brutal beating to him. Hearing that Forbes is sick and out of the office, the faithful Mona attempts to deliver some cheer and chicken soup, only to learn the truth of Forbes’ marital status which leads to severing their relationship. MacDonald, however, doesn’t quite buy into this and continues his stalking of Mona and threats against both her and Forbes, including informing the soon to be released Bill Smiley of the dalliances between his girl Mona and Forbes in the hopes of forcing a confrontation.

This all leads to the ultimate confrontations where an armed (by MacDonald) Smiley heads to a forewarned Forbes’ house and MacDonald, awaiting the outcome of this confrontation in which he expects one man to end up dead and the other imprisoned, heads to Mona’s to force her into leaving with him.

Smiley is killed by Forbes and upon hearing the news over a police scanner, Mona in turn kills MacDonald. Although in the apparent clear, Forbes has a fit of conscience and confesses all to his wife who declares that in the interests of maintaining the illusion of their perfect family he not tell the police. Continuing his need for conscience cleansing, Forbes does tell all to the police. Forbes’ killing is considered justifiable self defense, but Mona may not be so lucky. In the words of the DA, he believes they are “holding the wrong person upstairs”.

Forbes stumbles from the police station to find his dutiful wife awaiting him, willing to give their marriage another chance, while Mona’s fate hangs in the balance.

End Spoilers

In Pitfall, de Toth has largely removed the noir film from the urban settings of the large, looming city, populated by gangsters and cops, and placed it firmly in the suburbia of America populated by the everyman (or everywoman). By creating a domestic noir, de Toth taps into feelings of familial incarceration which is more easily related to by, and perhaps more disturbing to, the everyday Joe. While very few of us would act on any of our impulses the way Forbes does, it would be folly to suggest that many haven’t occasionally felt trapped in our own domestic or employment rut. In this context, Pitfall serves as a moral cautionary tale with great effect, even though the ultimate punishments seem misplaced.

One other characteristic standard that de Toth manages to turn upside-down in Pitfall is that of the femme-fatale. In other reviews or comments on this film, I’ve frequently seen Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) referred to as the femme-fatale of the story. My own view is quite different as I view Mona as the doomed innocent. Mona’s lone faults are that she commits with her heart and she attracts the wrong men. Of the three men in her life throughout the film, one is arrested for embezzling in order to provide her gifts, one is a sadistic stalker and one is a philandering husband who manages to place her in further peril. In none of these instances is Mona responsible for leading the ‘innocent’ male characters towards their doom. Instead, it is the actions of the men who lead Mona to hers. Indeed, Mona’s respect for the sanctity of marriage and the family, only further imperil her to the point of requiring forceful self defense in an act that may ultimately mean jail or death for herself, while the cheating Forbes is returned to his loving, though damaged, family. Clearly it is Mona who suffers the most of the pair at the hands of the film’s homme-fatale(s).

In the final retrospective, Pitfall represents something of a zenith on several fronts. As a unique and subtly complex noir, I believe it to be the best work from director André de Toth (at least of the several films I’ve seen to date). It also represents some of the finest acting from the three main leads - Dick Powell in a more nuanced role than that of Philip Marlowe and one in which he hits it perfectly, noir icon Lizabeth Scott in what I consider to be her best role and Hollywood heavy favorite Raymond Burr delivering at the top of his game as well.

Sadly, Pitfall remains without a DVD release on the horizon and while TCM occasionally airs it and collectors copies are available to those that search them out, this is one film that noir lovers should be clamoring to see.


Pitfall Trivia:
• de Toth was originally hired to do a rewrite of the script before accepting the director’s chair.
Humphrey Bogart was originally cast as the film heavy MacDonald, but was vetoed by de Toth in favor of Burr, an actor he had never seen work before.
• de Toth was also responsible for the casting of Lizabeth Scott.
• Powell was originally attached to the project as an executive producer.

Additional reading on, and interviews with, André de Toth including his work on Pitfall can be found here:

Senses of Cinema de Toth interview
Senses of Cinema de Toth


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Chase (1946)


Posted by Paulcito

We're on the outside looking in. And boy do those flapjacks and pig sausages look good. The Chase begins with a vicarious breakfast seen through the eyes of Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a down-on-his-luck Navy vet who stands in front of Mary's Coffee Shop in Miami, not a nickel to his name. Under his feet, providentially, he finds a fat wallet belonging to gangster Edward Roman and treats himself to a full breakfast, cigar included, before tracking down Roman to return the property.

Turns out (surprise!) the gangster lives in a huge mansion, and after some peephole interrogation by Roman's Number Two thug, Gino (Peter Lorre), Chuck enters, refusing to state the reason for his errand to anyone but Mr. Roman himself. Right away we know we're in trouble. Every corner of the house is menaced by lattice-blind shadows and palm fronds, and the house is filled with statuary: a neo-classical nightmare that recalls the Nazi house in Notorious (there's even a wine cellar).

After sizing each other up, Gino escorts Chuck to a back room where Roman (Steve Cochran) has just gotten a manicure and a close shave by his butch female barber and her young assistant. Eddie follows the "pretty-boy gangster" ethic - look good and act psychopathically. Both women hang apprehensively on his every word, and in short order he delivers, rewarding the manicurist with a blow that sends her sprawling to the floor and a hearty "stupid dame!" The two women limp out as hapless Chuck walks in, the barber muttering "filthy beast" under her breath. Just another day in the Eddie Roman household.

When Chuck explains to the incredulous Roman that he has come to return the wallet (still brimming with cash despite the breakfast outlay), Roman is impressed: "You outta get a medal." Chuck replies sarcastically, "Thanks, I got a medal." Roman offers new pal "Scotty" a job on the spot as his chauffeur. Now we really know whats coming: here's another wounded war vet about to learn a little about the post-war world. Gino however, is nonplussed by this "law-abiding jerk," to which Chuck can only feebly add, "I guess I'm just a sucker." And how. Cochran's Eddie Roman is all silk and introspection, nicely contrasted by Lorre, whose role as Gino chews through every scene with all the venom that his employer keeps under wraps.

Chuck's trial-by-fire comes the first day on the job as he chauffeurs Roman, Gino and pet hound Charlie around. Roman trips a second accelerator pedal hidden in the back of the car, and sadistically hits the gas. When Chuck realizes he's lost control of the car, Roman chortles at him to just steer. They race a locomotive and break to a stop just inches before the crossing. Lorre spits out the window in nervous frustration, but Chuck keeps his cool and passes the test. Control-freak Roman has broken in his new lackey.

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Cochran is one of noir's perennial baddies, best known for his loco turn in Cagney´s White Heat, alongside Virginia Mayo; he also starred in Highway 301 (with Virginia Grey), Tomorrow Is Another Day (with Ruth Roman) and with La Crawford in The Damned Don't Cry. Watching Cochran in this film, I am struck by Colin Farrell's striking resemblance to him. Robert Cummings was no stranger to the dark side of the tracks either, having starred in The Accused, Sleep, My Love and Rio.



And here's where The Chase really begins (* SPOILERS *)

Cut to Wednesday night: Roman entertains shipping magnate Emmerich Johnson (Lloyd Corrigan) regarding a business deal and we finally meet Mrs. Lorna Roman (Michèle Morgan), a French beauty who Roman keeps under wraps. She beats it for her room after Roman insults her. Sap Johnson, surprised the gangsters would invite him over, asks about Eddie's line of work. Roman & Gino cackle: they're "in the amusement business:" everything is "strictly for laughs!" Johnson doesn't sense the danger and lets himself be swayed into visiting the wine cellar. Killer pooch Charlie is waiting for him there and as Johnson meets his end, the gurgle of a choice bottle of 1815 Napoleon brandy slaking blood-red across the cellar floor lets us know that he is down the drain as well. Eddie Roman has his new yachts.

Chuck, meanwhile, has gotten into the habit of taking the missus for long waterfront drives -- her years with Roman are wearing very thin. In her white sequined two-piece, Lorna looks like a sad Vero Lake and Chuck is all ears. Lorna asks Chuck if he knows Havana. Sure, he says, "cheap hotels, cheap restaurants, cheap friends." They plot to escape together the very next day: Pier 26, S.S. Cuba, 11PM sailing. Lorna was originally to be played by actress Joan Leslie, but she was under contract at Warners and they would not release her. Michèle Morgan plays her as a sultry enigma.

Next day, Chuck buys the tickets to freedom. Roman knows something is up, that Lorna is restless, and has been going to the oceanfront nights. At this point the Chase score begins to insinuate itself, a mix of strident piano and whooshing strings. The piano pounds as the hour approaches and the film gets increasingly gauzy and surreal. A morose Roman sits at home listening to the long-play version of the soundtrack when Gino informs him of Lorna's escape: "Whaddya want me to do?" to which Eddie replies laconically, "Play the other side". In a nice bit of audio fade, We cut to another piano, this one shipboard, as a surprised Lorna listens to Chuck play. As she stares in the mirror, a shadow guillotines down over her reflection, an effect that is repeated as their lips lock and we pull back outside, through the porthole. Like a shutter aperture stopping down, the future closes in on them.

Havana is all shadows and crumbling decadence, and Chuck hesitates over whether they should return to the ship. Instead they defiantly enter a bar, and in short order Lorna is dead, stabbed by a jade-handled monkey dagger which Chuck had bought earlier that day from chinawoman Madame Chin. Chuck is interrogated by local police to the strains of Amor Brujo. Escaping from the detectives, Chuck confirms the worst -- he's been framed -- when he runs into Gino menacing the antiquities dealer and Gino...kills Chuck.

But wait. Chuck wakes up, still in bed at his room at the Romans, earlier that afternoon. Flushed with fever, amnesiac and panicked, he bolts from the house and goes to see his old Naval shrink Commander Davidson (Jack Holt) who reveals that Chuck suffers from "anxiety neurosis" and its not exactly the first time. Like any psychologist worth his weight, he invites Chuck down to the club for a drink, where Roman is likewise hanging out with Gino after belting Lorna for being a homebody. But Scotty can't shake the feeling he had plans for 9PM that night. His memory restored, he goes for Lorna and the chase from his malarial fantasy repeats itself. Roman races to stop them at the tramp steamer but has Gino drive, repeating the "let's race the choo-choo" trick, this time with horrifyingly fiery results.

The Chase stands out memorably because of its mid-film dream sequence, which offers much more in the end than simply disorientation for the viewer. Through this story device, disillusioned vet Chuck has already seen the worst and thus, once he recovers his memory, he is free to pursue Lorna all the more, and control his destiny, something rival Roman wants so badly but which ultimately costs him his life. It's as though the film delivers its noir ending without the consequences. There is life after death and a film gris denouement is possible. (Of course, for hardcore enthusiasts, seeing Roman & Gino hit the train is plenty noir enough).

*END SPOILERS*

The Chase is an archetypically noir film in both story and style. The dreamlike atmosphere, expressionistic tone, and fatalistic outlook all make for a very fine noir screening. The Chase's noir credentials are impeccable: The score is provided by Russian-born composer Michel Michelet, who also scored Joseph Losey's M, Impact and Lured. The shadowy camerawork is thanks to Franz Planer, an old-school German cinematographer. The screenplay, by Philip Yordan, is based on the Cornell Woolrich novel The Black Path of Fear,one of the films in the "black novel" series, which include The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain, Black Alibi, Phantom Lady, and The Black Angel, all from Woolrich's most prolific period as a pulp novelist. Director Arthur Ripley is a bit of an oddity within noir. His legacy is more for his early work in the twenties with Frank Capra and Mack Sennett writing comedy; later in life, he was a driving force at the UCLA Film Center. Besides The Chase, his forties' output included Voice in the Wind, and in 1958, Robert Mitchum got him to helm Thunder Road (perhaps in exchange for a jug of moonshine?)

The DVD: The Chase is available on DVD from two sources: Alpha, and more recently, from VCI on a double feature DVD with Bury Me Dead. The VCI edition is the recommended one, as it underwent some restoration by VCI archivist Jay Fenton, although the print and audio still leave much to be desired.




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