Sunday, September 27, 2009

Chicago Deadline (1949)

Chicago Deadline is one more entry into that sub-genre, the newspaper noir. You know the story; hard-boiled reporter follows a hunch and uncovers layers of corruption.

This time the story starts innocently enough with Ed Adams (Alan Ladd) chasing down a runaway girl in a cheap hotel. Just so happens while the girl agrees to return to her home and her worried mother, the girl occupying the room next door is found dead by the cleaning lady. So what would any reporter worth his salt do, of course go snooping around in the dead girls room. While foul play is nowhere to be seen, Ed lifts the girls address book from her purse just in case.

Soon the cops and coroner are on the scene and the cause death, which must be a first in noir, is given as a hemorrhage caused by TB.

With nothing to indicate anything more than death by natural causes, once back in the newsroom Ed begins the process of non-systematically calling each of the 54 names listing the girl’s book. Rather than staring at the first name, Ed asks his sidekick, Pig (the always watchable Dave Willock) to pick a name at random. This leads nowhere until a number with just the initials G.G.T. is called. Pig correctly surmises the initials stand for one G.G. Temple, V.P. of a major financial house, or as Pig tells Ed; “He’s a big shot, a four handicap man.”

Thank goodness there’s some snappy dialogue and boat load of bodies piling up along the way to hold ones interest because the stories harder to unravel than the Gordian knot. Fortunately a couple times along the way Ed explains what’s going on to whomever he happens to be with at the time. Near the end he pretty much sums up the whole plotline so the viewer can make sense of the whole mess.

Once on the trail of the dead girl with the unlikely moniker of Rosita Jean D'Ur, Ed gets to pump out more zingers like when asked why he’s so interested in Rosita he shoots off these:

“Simply routine. A kid dies alone in a cheap hotel without friends, relatives, or any one caring whether she’s buried in a cemetery or an ashcan”

“When you mention the name of Rosita D'Ur people run and hide”

“So far I’ve just been digging but I’m beginning to get a pretty dirty smell in both my nostrils.”

Somewhere around the 24 minute mark, we finally get to see the reason for the dirty smell, the mystery woman Rosita D'Ur (Donna Reed) via a snapshot shown to Ed by her brother Tommy (Arthur Kennedy). This is also when the first of several flashbacks begin, complete with the use of the wavy screen method of transporting the viewer back in time.

This one starts with Tommy meeting up with Rosita at a roller skating rink in San Francisco. So now I’m thinking, oh no not another of those noir roller rink pictures! Fortunately the film doesn’t head off in that direction but what is somewhat amusing is the large picture window in the rink with the view of the bay. It’s quite obvious the folks from OSHA hadn’t done an on site inspection of this joint. There’s really nothing that complements roller skating like a huge panel of glass!

Anyway, Rosita’s run away from the farm in Texas and met up with the man of her dreams, Paul D'Ur. He’s a budding architect and soon he and Rosita are married and off to New York. Sadly, Paul ends up the victim of an auto accident and becomes the first of many who end up biting the bullet after encountering the lovely Rosita. Fade back to present and Tommy’s telling Ed; “There always seemed to be a wrong guy around,” which seems something of a misnomer given the bodies that start stacking up it should be “the wrong gal’s around’”

Let me digress here a moment and mention the raft of colorful characters, all with major speaking parts, we encounter during the 86 minute run time; Bat, Belle, Blacky, G.G., Hotspur, Leona, Minerva, Pig and Solly, really!. The cast itself is made up of much more recognizable names, for in addition to Ladd, Reed, Kennedy and Willock we get; June Havoc, the always slimy Berry Kroeger, Tom Powers (for once not playing a cop), Roy Roberts and several other “I’ve seen that guy in something” faces.

Mean while back to the story; after Paul’s death Rosita makes her way back to Chicago where she bunks in with Leona (June Havoc) and begins dating the somewhat shady Blacky Franchot (Shepperd Strudwick). All seems fine until Rosita ends up meeting the aforementioned G.G. Temple at a party and he’s of course smitten by her and must have her as his next play thing.

To make sure Blacky’s out of the way, several charming fellows stop by and rearrange his face and convince him the climate elsewhere would suit him better than Chicago. The connection being Temple is financing the illegal actives of one Solly Wellman (Berry Kroeger) and these nice fellows are working for Solly. Once Blacky’s out of the picture, Temple begins throwing gifts and other things (while it’s not made clear it does appears he and Rosita are sharing living quarters) to entice her.

As noted, following the storyline is somewhat difficult as some key characters are never seen and only after their actions are we clued in as to what took place. For example, how Rosita breaks away from Temple and ends up as a housekeeper for the wheelchair bound uncle of one of Solly’s thugs is never shown and is only much later explained in one of Ed’s conversations.

While on conversations, let me share a few more bits of dialogue:

Ed; “Look Solly I don’t care how many are killed or who does it.”
Solly: “Naturally not, you being a reporter.”

Wonder what the censors thought of this one from Ed to Leona (who becomes his love interest)
“Don’t lie to me baby, you know I’m going to get it out of you.”

And from the prophetic police detective Anstruder to Ed;
“Somebody’s going to shot you sooner or later.”

But my favorite is from Pig to Ed when speaking of Rosita;
“You got a lot of seeing to do brother. She was as loose as ashes”

Pig’s words ring true as along the way Rosita continues getting men stuck on her like flies to flypaper. In addition to her husband, Blacky and bedding down with Temple, there’s one of Solly’s thugs, and a prize fighter by the name of Bat Bennett. At least he escapes the fate of the others but does end up getting clobbered in his fight on the way to the championship because of his remorse over hearing of her untimely demise.

As noted above by the police detective, Ed does get plugged but not before getting roughed up a couple times by Solly’s boys too. But you can’t keep the wavy hair reporter down and from his hospital bed he rises and with the faithful Pig by his side confronts Solly for the final showdown in a downtown parking garage. During this final bit of mayhem, one of Solly’s boys is plowed into by a speeding car being driven by the one armed Ed. At last, Solly himself is taken in by the old, no more bullets, when in fact there’s one left, ruse by Ed. He ends up taking a sole slug right in the gut and face plants himself in the oily mess left from a used Studebaker on the floor of the garage.

To sum it up, in the end you’ve got something less than perfect. A pretty confusing story (although I think part, if not all of it may be attributed to TV editing) to go along with some nice exteriors of Chicago. These go from the opening montage, to the elevated train platform, to the final cab chase near the end. In addition you’ve got a dandy final body count of 7 as Rosita and virtually every man she comes in contact with meets their maker. For those without a scorecard, in order they are: Rosita, Paul, Blackie (Shot dead), John Spingler (found in ditch), Temple (shot dead), Solly’s henchmen (run down by car), and lastly Solly (shot dead). All that said, one thing that is perfect is the title Chicago Deadline which doesn’t conger up the idea of making the “deadline” in connection with getting a Chicago newspaper out on time but rather the line of dead bodies left in the wake of Rosita Jean D'Ur as she made her way through Chicago.


Written by Raven

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Journey Into Fear (1943)

Magician, burlesque dancer, ballistics expert and assassin: Like Norman Foster's taut thriller, Journey Into Fear, all of these professions rely on excruciatingly good timing.

"The terror of waiting for the final revelation, not the seeing of it, is the most powerful dramatic stimulus toward tension and fright." Curtis Harrington, Hollywood Quarterly 1952.

Timing is the essence of this particular journey into fear.

The year of the film's release is 1943, and presumably, that is the time period indicated in the story line.

"Nineteen forty-three was a year of intense war effort in the United States. Industrial production reached a figure it wouldn't match again until 1951. The war marked all civic activity." (A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953)by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, page 39.)

Both actors and movie-goers could relate to the experience of dire "real-time" pressures and deadly consequences during the ongoing fight against the Nazi regime. Much of the world's focus was on which side would win.

Our story unfolds in Europe, as our characters arrive at the exotic locale of Istanbul.

Promptly after their arrival in Turkey, Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten) and his wife Stephanie (Ruth Warrick) are greeted by an associate, Kopeikin (Everett Sloane).

Kopeikin ends up taking Graham for a boys night out to a nightclub with burlesque and illusion performances. During a magician's disappearance act, Graham is persuaded to participate. Graham is tied to a cross and the magician nails himself into a coffin-like box. The lights go out in the nightclub. We hear a gunshot. The lights go on. The act has ended successfully, as the magician is now tied to the cross and Graham is in the box. But tragically, the magician has been shot. It is clear that the intended target was Graham.

"I knew that shot was meant for me. You know how many months I spent for the company on the Turkish navy. Well time counts in this war, and with me out of the way it'll take all that time and more with somebody else out here, before Turkey can get any more guns. That's why they're after me." (Much of the tale is revealed to us in this voice-over, Graham reading a letter he is writing to his wife.)

An imposing Colonel Haki (played by Orson Welles, notably showcasing one of the only believable foreign accents in the film), is head of Turkey's secret police, and legendary not only for being a womanizer, but also his ability to drink two buckets of whiskey without becoming intoxicated. Under the circumstances of the attempted murder, the Colonel rushes Graham to board a cargo ship transporting cattle, to ensure a safe return to the United States.

So, naval engineer Howard Graham commences a terrifying voyage across the Black Sea. The real "noir" triumph of the film at this point, is that the viewer is suspicious of EVERYONE. All of the supporting characters (with the exception of Graham and his wife) could potentially be in alignment with the Nazis seeking Graham's death.

In one scene on the ship, Graham comes face to face with Banat the hitman, sitting across from him at a meal. Shocked and scared, realizing that the cold-blooded killer is his fellow passenger, Graham tries to concentrate on his food. As Banat violently crushes crackers for his soup, Graham reaches for the salt and spills it. Here we see the mythic, superstitious quality of the noir protagonist. While keeping eye contact with said killer, a trembling Graham reaches for some of the salt and proceeds to toss some over his shoulder.

A few comic jewels relieve this kind of deadly tension throughout the plot.

There is the Turkish captain of the ship (Richard Bennett), a stereotypical salty drunken seafarer, who is thoroughly amused at Graham's paranoia that a murderer is on board. He does not speak English, but knows how to point and teasingly says "Bang, bang" every time he encounters Graham.

There are Graham's weak attempts in the voice-over/letter to wife, justifying his blossoming friendship with Josette Martel (Dolores del Río), a fellow passenger and a dancer in the nightclub where the magician was murdered. "I was lonely!!"

Then there is one of the ship's passengers, Mathews (Frank Readick), who explains to Graham that he has "tamed" his disagreeable shrew of a wife (Agnes Moorehead) by publicly making outrageous claims about his own political beliefs. The most hilarious moment occurs when the ship makes its final stop in Batum. Mathews is surreptitiously "arming" Graham with unlikely weapons, a pocket knife and an altered umbrella, then Mrs Mathews walks in. "Discreet?!" She looks on disapprovingly. "What is there to be discreet about?"

Mathews replies, without pausing, "Ahhh. You may ask! Mr Graham and I are going to blow up the bank of England, seize Parliament, shoot the gentry and set up a Communist government."

Journey Into Fear (1943)
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One aspect of this film that I found to be most intriguing from a technical perspective is the rumor that Orson Welles took over the directing of Journey Into Fear, which he vehemently denied. Welles stated instead that he did not direct any part of the film and his friend (Norman Foster) was the director. I do not want to disregard the talent of Norman Foster, whose filmography also includes two other noirs, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) and Woman on the Run (1950).

However any fellow Orson Welles fans watching Journey Into Fear would agree with me, without a doubt, that significant creative input from him is evident in this film. It has all of the marks of an "Orson Welles project." The camera angles and visually detailed arrangement of the shots have Welles's distinct thumbprint. In addition, it is coincidental that the cast of characters has many of the same actors that starred in Citizen Kane (1941).

Orson Welles, like Tim Burton, apparently liked to cast the same actors over and over again. Both Citizen Kane and Journey Into Fear starred: Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Joseph Cotten, Ruth Warrick and Welles himself.

Orson Welles produced and designed Journey Into Fear, and co-wrote the script with Joseph Cotten. Apparently this is the only script that Cotten is credited with writing despite his long career in film. Welles's stand-out contribution was the beginning pre-credit sequence. The camera slowly glides up to his apartment room from outside, mimicking the style of crane shots in Citizen Kane. It depicts the portly assassin listening to a phonograph; the record begins to skip, as he prepares for his next murder. The sound of the skipping record is creatively and strategically used in other scenes of the movie to emphasize the murderer's proximity to Graham.

In the 1992 autobiography he wrote with Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles,Welles was documented as saying that he thought he was the first to come up with a scene before the credits but that he later learned that there were a few films that did this in the late thirties.

In any case, the godfathers of noir (Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton) profess that Journey Into Fear, "bears the signature of Norman Foster....Welles collaborated on the scenario, and the exceptional breeziness and subtlety of his style emerge in the precision of the shooting script and the plastic beauty of the photography. Basing the film on a spy case that's only a pretext and visibly turns into a hoax, Foster and Welles have rediscovered the chief laws of the noir genre: an oneiric plot; strange suspects; a silent killer in thick glasses, a genuine tub of lard buttoned up in a raincoat, who before each murder plays an old, scratched record on an antique phonograph; and the final bit of bravura, which takes place on the facade of the grand hotel of Batum." (A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953), page 39.)

And the final bit of exciting "bravura", played out in a slippery downpour, made that slow journey by boat to Batum worth the wait!

Written by Phantom Lady Vintage

Her entertaining website is here

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Our Man in Havana (1959)

If you have ever wondered how to turn your vacuum cleaner into a satirical film noir, then this movie is for you.

British novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene and director Carol Reed, who brought you Harry Lime, The Third Man (1949), team up again for Our Man in Havana (1959). Shot on location, it’s noir in the tropics with a strong rip current of dark humor.

It’s a cross genre flick. Although my library classifies it as a comedy, the movie has elements of film noir.

Expatriates and Amateur Espionage

The story is about a British expatriate living in Havana, Cuba in the late 1950s. Set against a backdrop of political instability, James Wormold (Alec Guinness) unwittingly and gradually slides into a dangerous world. The stakes are high; it’s Cuba on the brink of revolution in the cold war.

In the first act, Greene and Reed introduce us to Wormold and his difficulty. He faces money troubles. His only teenage daughter, Milly (Jo Morrow), has expensive tastes: horses and country clubs. An ordinary expatriate, Wormold sells vacuum cleaners in Cuba, but does not produce enough money for his daughter’s expensive tastes and his ambitions for her.

As sure as the trade winds blow, opportunity blows Wormold’s way. The British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) needs a man in Havana. Spymaster for the Caribbean, Mr. Hawthorne (Noël Coward) offers Wormold a job - to spy in exchange for money. Wormold accepts the offer.

Wormold’s task is to recruit local agents to work for MI6. But without training and experience in the art of spy craft, the hapless amateur does not know what to do. So to keep the spy cash flowing, our man in Havana invents a list of phantom agents who include local country club elites and strippers.

And to add to the untruth, Wormold draws what is supposed to be a secret military installation in the mountains of Cuba, inspired by a vacuum cleaner design. The drawing gains the attention of the top clandestine directors at MI6 and the British Prime Minister. Wormold also attracts the attention of the enemy. Cold war paranoia gets everyone believing Wormold.

As we enter the third act, the story turns noir. Folly leads to dark results and transforms our man. The satire is dark, and the circumstances and choices are existential.

A prolific writer who wrote critically acclaimed and popular novels, Graham Greene served in the British Secret Service in World War II. In this satire, he delivers insight about the murky world of espionage and political paranoia. Faulty thinking and confusion run amok.

In a general way, the theme of Our Man in Havana reminds of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There (1979) staring Peter Sellers, as Chance the gardener who gives metaphorical advice to world leaders. Our Man in Havana is about amateurs duping professionals. And, as Graham Greene illustrates, being misled by disinformation in the espionage business is dangerous and embarrassing. And, material for dark satire and film noir.

On Location Cinematography

Carol Reed guides us through the streets, clubs, and bars of 1959 Havana with excellent cinematography.

The on location shooting is a remarkable tour. We see the city as it looked just after Castro overthrew the Bautista regime - the transfer of power of one strong-arm dictator to another. We see Havana in its heyday - sleazy, corrupt, and beautiful. A hot town in a cold war.

Throughout most of the flick, Reed delivers daylight cinematography paralleling the lighthearted humor in the early part of the movie. But, as the story turns dark towards the end, he gives us night scenes, long shadows, back alley streets, seedy bars, and gunfire. It’s typical expressionist film noir. Some of the camera shots and angles are reminiscent of Vienna in The Third Man.

But Reed gives us only a few snapshots of noir Havana; he could have given us more. Only about 10 to 15% of the cinematography contains noir features: dark scenes, wet streets, long shadows, sleazy hangouts, offset camera angles, mayhem, and tough dialogue.

Greene’s book was darker than the movie. I suspect a corrupt, crumbling, and revolutionary Havana in the late 1950s was not a lighthearted place laced with British reserve, understatement, and double entendre.

Satirical Dialogue

Greene’s dialogue throughout is largely satirical. It’s not the hard-boiled dialogue of James M. Cain, Art Cohn, Cornell Woolrich, or Raymond Chandler, but Chandler would have probably appreciated the wit.

While sitting in Sloppy Joe’s bar (Ernest Hemingway’s favorite Havana bar), here is how Hawthorne lures Wormold into the spy business:

Hawthorne, “Where’s the gents?”

Wormold, “Through there.”

Hawthorne, “You go in, and I’ll follow.”

Wormold, “But I don’t want the gents.”

Hawthorne, “Don’t let me down. You’re an Englishman, aren’t you?”

Overall Convincing Acting

Alec Guinness does a notable job portraying the amateur spy…a buffoon, who gets nasty in dark alleys when he has to.

Noël Coward plays a persuasive British spymaster; his performance almost steals the show from Guinness. Hawthorne warns Wormold spying is a dangerous business, but Wormold doesn’t grasp that fact until it’s too late. Coward and Guinness interactions are some of the flick’s high points.

Burl Ives
plays the rotund Dr. Hasselbacher, a German expatriate friend of Wormold, who gives Wormold the idea to invent spy stories. And, although Ives plays the character well, one wonders what the impact of Orson Welles playing the character would have had on the film. Welles’ influence on The Third Man is undeniable.

Comedian Ernie Kovacs plays a strong supporting role as the smooth Captain Segura, a corrupt sleaze-ball and double-dealing cop who wants to marry Wormold’s daughter - Milly. Kovacs has several bits of dark satirical dialogue, including a debate about torture, which he delivers in deadpan style. Captain Segura believes torture is for the lower class.

Maureen O’Hara makes an acceptable appearance as MI6’s appointed assistant to Wormold. Her character adds some mild tension to Wormold’s problems, but she under delivers in the romantic role.

Bland and blonde, Jo Morrow plays the teenage Milly. Her acting is uninspiring. The other cast members and the strength of the story carry her along. She is not a femme fatale, but rather an innocent catalyst. Wormold’s need for money to satisfy her lifestyle sets the plot in motion.

Paul Rogers plays the stuttering enemy agent, who has trouble talking to women, even in pick-up joints.

As Entertaining as Gin and Tonics in the Tropics

The movie is entertaining.

Although the flick does not have the emotional impact of The Third Man, which is one of the all-time film noir greats, Our Man in Havana is well worth the watch, just to see how Greene and Reed create. They are master artists.

For film noir addicts, sorting out the out the noir from the satire is half the fun. And for students of cinema, Reed is an expert director, stylist, and expressionist.

At the very least, Our Man in Havana has given me new respect and ideas for my vacuum cleaner.


Written by Hard-Boiled Rick

Sunday, September 06, 2009

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

There's a lot to like in 1953's City That Never Sleeps. Unfortunately there's plenty off unintentional laugh-out-loud scenes as well.

City That Never Sleeps is one of the last Noir documentaries - a noir film filled with newsreel-like location shooting and “voice of God” narrations - also known as semi-documentaries. The 1953 film is clearly modeled after the best noir doc The Naked City released five years earlier. Noir documentaries were popular for a short time during the classic noir period. Following World War II and the popularity of documentaries, film critics predicted that Hollywood films would become more “realistic” and “show the real truth” by shooting movies in a documentary style. The prediction came true - at least partly in 1945 with the release of The House on 92nd Street. Conservative film critic Bosley Crowther in 1949 praised the use of location shooting and naturalistic photography and wanted to see it become a lasting style in Hollywood. By that time the Noir documentary was already on it's way out. Lasting only until the early 1950s the style at the end was seen as more of a fad; and the most obvious elements were dropped from realistic films that followed. In particular the films' opening and closing “voice of God” voice overs - once done brilliantly and poetically by an obvious New Yorker Mark Hellinger in The Naked City- didn't play well in other films. Noir documentaries - unlike The Naked City with its simple murder plot - when seen today appear unbearably preachy (instead of the original intention to be “real” and “truthful”) when they focused on topics like Nazis/Communism (House on 92nd Street), problems with corruption (The Street with No Name), flaws in the legal system (Boomerang), bad cops and juvenile delinquency. Sometimes film studios had to backtrack on its supposed “truth” by tacking disclaimers onto films. One of the best examples is Richard Conte looking into the camera and praising New York's Bellevue Hospital at its doctors at the beginning of The Sleeping City after public outcry and industry reaction after seeing the film. The juvenile delinquent film City Across the River toned down the unflattering opening voice over and stripped any mention of Brooklyn in the film's advertising after citizens' groups protested the film's depiction of their neighborhood.

City That Never Sleeps is a film about a gloomy night in 1950s Chicago. After a laughable opening voice over by folksy cowboy actor Chill Willis the film kicks in. Willis - the spirit of the city who inexplicably becomes a "guardian angel" cop early in the movie that shatters any attempt at reality - introduces the viewers to a number of people in the city that are all trying to escape their own world and be something else. A cop who wants to quit and move to California; a failed actor working as a “mechanical man” in a night club that wants to run off with an uninterested burlesque dancer; a punk bell boy that wants to join the mob; a stripper who wanted to become a ballerina; a former pickpocket who once had dreams of becoming a magician; a famous lawyer who is more attracted to power and the criminal element in his city than justice; and his wife who wants his magician friend and all her husband's money - all are interconnected and play a part in the story. Come to Chicago: where your dreams are never fulfilled!

The best film noir focus on “a struggle with powerful inner forces” like the characters in Double Indemnity and Sorry, Wrong Number. Noir documentaries instead give us lots of characters and a external voice to tell us what's happening and what's wrong. The main character in City That Never Sleeps is a cop (Gig Young) that wants to quit the force and his wife. He's nagged by his wife and mother in law. Even his stripper girlfriend is pressuring him to do something. His story - the main story - isn't all that interesting when compared to others in the film. It's the use of the documentary style, however, that makes the story even less engaging. I suspect that if the story was shot as a straight noir drama it would have been more successful.

So what's to like about City That Never Sleeps? Plenty. First of all, the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller, in his list of the top 25 film noir, praises director John Auer for at least having the chutzpah to use the city as a narrator and hits the nail on the head when he says “Plus, it's got Marie Windsor and William Talman as lovers. That's noir.” Talman (the magician) and Windsor (wife to lawyer Penrod Biddel played by Edward Arnold) are absolutely great in the film. They're the only actors that show any spark in the film. Bug-eyed Talman - who got his ass handed to him by Raymond Burr every week on Perry Mason - is always good in film noir. Earlier that same year he had his best role as the unblinking killer in The Hitch-Hiker. Windsor - 5' 9” of sexy - was just too tall and intimidating to be a movie star. Instead she killed every time she played the untrustworthy and vicious black widow. Her part is too small in City That Never Sleeps but she's one of the best parts of it.

Psycho's cinematographer John L. Russell's night-for-night camerawork is amazing too. Sweaty nightclubs and back alleys never looked so nice in a noir. Gig Young chasing William Talman through the streets of Chicago is a wow too. Pickpocket Talman slipping between trains until the final confrontation on a raised rail is something every film noir fan should see.

City That Never Sleeps doesn't do for Chicago what The Naked City did for New York. The colorless leads are overshadowed by Talman and Windsor. The obvious production values that marred most Republic Pictures does the same here at times. While the cheap studio sets and some performances are stale film noir fans, however, should be able to overlook these flaws and appreciate some of the supporting cast and amazing on-location camerawork. City That Never Sleeps is worth a look.

Written by Steve-O


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