Monday, July 25, 2011

The Blue Lamp (1950)

The Blue Lamp, a 1950 British crime film from Ealing Studios and directed by Basil Dearden (Pool of London 1951, Sapphire 1959) presents a story of two British policemen whose daily beat brings them into the sphere of two young desperate thugs. Sentimental viewers may fall for the idea that The Blue Lamp shows a gentler, kinder age. More cynical viewers (including yours truly) understand that The Blue Lamp is a reflection of the age and its censorship. The film was passed by the BBFC with no cuts made. Not too surprising as the film does nothing to offend.

It’s a toss-up whether the police in American noir are corrupt or not, but in British film of the 40s and 50s, corruption is startlingly absent thanks to censorship. In The Blue Lamp, the policemen are portrayed both sympathetically and impeccably as hard-working, caring, humane individuals while the crims are unstable delinquents on the make who get their just desserts. Forget tasers, SWAT teams, brutal interrogations, strip searches or indeed any hint that policemen are less than saints in uniform. In fact, one scene shows an urchin pretending to be lost just so that he can get a jam bun from the kindly policemen. In other scenes, The Blue Lamp finds London police directing traffic, giving directions, finding lost dogs, and even singing in the police choir. The grossest sin committed by the police at the Paddington Green station is a tendency to park themselves in the police cafeteria and drink a few too many cups of tea.

The film’s script was written by former policeman T.E.B. Clarke from a story by Ted Willis and Jan Read. It begins with a semi-documentary style which establishes the basic premise that thanks to WWII, many homes are “broken and demoralized by war.” The film carefully laces the action with the lurking shadow of WWII--one woman arrives at the police station to file a lost ration card report, and in another scene, street urchins play amidst a bombed-out London street. The film argues that the social upheaval of WWII has fermented an environment which fosters the emergence of delinquents:

“Those restless, ill-adjusted youngsters have produced a type of delinquent which is partly responsible for the post war increase in crime. Some are content with pilfering and petty theft. Others, with more bravado, graduate to serious offences. Youths with brain enough to plan and organize criminal adventures and yet who lack the code, experience and self-discipline of the professional thief which sets them in a class apart. All the more dangerous because of their immaturity.”

The film pits the police against two desperate young thugs who have turned to crime. Spud (Patric Doonan--who gassed himself to death at the age of 32) and Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) have teamed with 17-year-old runaway Diana Lewis (Peggy Evans). These three young people are hell bent on a life of crime. Dressed in a cheaply cut suit, Riley is the dominant character here, and that’s unfortunate as he’s far more emotional, a potential psycho and a bigger risk-taker than his more reasonable pal, Spud. Riley and Spud knock off a jeweler’s on the Edgeware Road. Riley imagines that he’ll be able to sell the hot goods to seasoned, sneering professional crook Randall (Michael Golden).

In opposition to the film’s two thugs are two policemen from Paddington Green Station. Gentle, unassuming PC Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley) is a young wet-behind-the-ears lad from Kent, and genial, wise and seasoned PC George Dixon (Jack Warner) is a happily married, begonia-growing policeman with a mere 6 months left on the force until retirement. Mitchell is at the beginning of his career, and Dixon, after 25 years, is on his final lap, yet both men share some common attributes--both are kind, patient and dedicated to their chosen profession. Dixon assumes a fatherly role and takes Mitchell under his wing; he brings Mitchell home for a proper cooked meal, and even persuades his wife (Gladys Henson) to accept the young PC as a lodger.

PC Mitchell unknowingly becomes involved in the jeweler’s robbery case in a tangential way when he’s called in for a domestic violence dispute at the chaotic Lewis home. Seems Mr. and Mrs. Lewis have frequent fights that result in visits from the police. In this instance the fight is triggered over the disappearance of Diana Lewis. Diana’s worn-out-mother wants Diana to return to help with household chores, so the 17-year-old girl is logged as a runaway. Mitchell eventually finds her--although he has no idea that she’s involved in any criminal activity. Later Diana, Spud and Riley plan another robbery that has tragic consequences, and at this point, the film becomes a police procedural as the resources of the Metropolitan Police dept. relentlessly converge on the criminals.

The Blue Lamp sets up its story well. It’s fairly easy to predict that the desperate young criminals will fall foul of the law, and the film goes to great lengths to illustrate the vast moral distance between characters such as explosive, dangerous baddie Riley and the public protector PC Dixon. Indeed the first scene lays out just how Joe Public can easily become a victim of crime:

“What stands behind the ordinary public and this outbreak of crime? What protection has the man in the street against this armed threat to his life and his property?”

Clearly the opening scene, which is cleverly tacked onto the film’s underlying argument that the police have a new tough job to catch the young violent criminals, serves to endorse the idea that men like PC Dixon and PC Mitchell stand between us and the End of Civilization as we know it.

The Blue Lamp is a seminal film in the history of British cinema. That’s not due to the film’s greatness, but rather it’s due to the fact that the film presents a cross-section of British life even as it proffers an impossibly optimistic view of the British police. The police in The Blue Lamp seem to exist just to make society run smoothly, and they treat most of the crims like naughty children who divert them from their police choir performance. The film is also notable for the fact that it inspired the long-running television series Dixon of Dock Green (1955-1976). The series starred Jack Warner as the ever-popular PC Dixon--a role that formed the perception and PR role of the police for years. Warner, who was eventually promoted to desk sergeant, was 81 years old when the series ended.

Another fascinating feature of The Blue Lamp is its depiction of the hierarchy of the criminals. There’s a clear demarcation between young thugs (Spud and Riley) and professional criminals and thieves such as Randall, a man who weighs the risk of the crime against the benefit, and who understands that some crimes are just not worth the consequences. To Randall, punks like Spud and Riley are liabilities, and when Riley approaches Randall about fencing the stolen jewelry, he wryly tells them: “stick to gas meters, sonny.”

Available for instant play from Netflix


Written by Guy Savage

Monday, July 18, 2011

Desperate (1947)

Anthony Mann's Desperate stars Steve Brodie (not to be confused with the other Steve Brodie) and Audrey Long (the future Mrs. Leslie Charteris) as a young married couple on the run from sinister thugs led by the glowering Raymond Burr.

Steve Randall (Brodie), the owner and sole operator of Stephen Randall Trucking, is such a sweetie that he buys flowers for his wife Anne (Long) on their four-month anniversary. (When I watched this movie with my wife, she turned to me and said, "You didn't get me anything for our four-month anniversary." Thanks for making the rest of us look bad, Steve.) But the happy couple's celebration has to be postponed when Steve gets an offer he can't refuse ... $50 for just one night's work.

When an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. The crew of mugs loading merchandise from a warehouse into Steve's truck are clearly up to no good. When one of them flashes a rod, Steve balks, so they shove him back in the truck and keep the gun on him. They need a clean "face" for the cops.

When a police officer shows up to investigate, Steve signals him with his lights, which leads to a shootout between the cops and the thieves. Steve drives away. Al Radak (Larry Nunn), who has one foot on Steve's back bumper and the other on the loading dock, falls and is captured by the police. His older brother, Walt Radak (Raymond Burr), the leader of the crew, gets away with his henchman, Reynolds (William Challee).

Walt's crazy about his kid brother, and Al will face the death penalty for the cop who was killed during the warehouse heist. So Walt demands that Steve turn himself in to the cops and claim he was responsible. To convince him, Walt calls in Steve's license plate number and then has his boys work him over in a dark room with a single swinging overhead light. It's a stunning sequence, and quintessentially noir.


When Steve doesn't give in, Walt tries a new tactic. "Say, I'll bet that new bride of yours is pretty," he says while holding a broken bottle. "How 'bout it Steve?"

Walt has found Steve's Achilles' heel, and he agrees to Walt's plan. Walt says, "I don't care what you tell them, but if Al doesn't walk out of that police station by midnight, your wife ain't gonna be so good to look at."

But Steve manages to slip away from Reynolds and call Anne from a pay phone. He tells her to meet him at the train station. They'll go on the lam together, so Anne will be out of Walt's reach.

Most of the rest of the film is an extended cross-country chase, as Steve and Anne move from place to place, establish new identities for themselves, and pick up work where Steve can find it. They're pursued not only by Walt and Reynolds, but by the authorities, since Steve is still a person of interest in the murder of the police officer at the warehouse.

Along the way they have the obligatory conversation about how he can't turn himself in to the police because they won't believe him. They have a second wedding on the Minnesota farm owned by Uncle Jan and Aunt Klara (Paul E. Burns and Ilka Grüning) because their first marriage was just a courthouse deal and they deserve a big gathering with a real priest. Anne finds out she's pregnant. They are crossed up by a sleazy private investigator named Pete Lavitch (Douglas Fowley) and they are assisted by a sympathetic police detective, Lt. Louie Ferrari (Jason Robards), who's not above using Steve as bait to catch Walt.

Desperate is not a long film (it's less than an hour and 15 minutes), but it drags a little during its middle act, which sometimes feels repetitive. It redeems itself completely in its final act, however, which is as dark and as tense as any film noir fan could ask for. Steve insures himself for $5,000 and heads for Walt dead-on, like a man playing chicken with an oncoming freight train. Six months have passed since Al was arrested, and he's set to be executed. Walt gave up a long time ago on the idea that his brother could be freed, and all he wants now is the satisfaction of killing Steve at the exact moment that Al dies. A life for a life.

Walt and Reynolds take Steve to an apartment. Walt places a clock on the table between them in the kitchen. It's a quarter to midnight. He gives Steve a last meal — sandwiches and milk — and a cigarette, and promises to shoot him at the stroke of midnight. There are increasingly tight close-ups of their three sweaty faces. "Now who was it said time flies?" Walt asks sardonically.

Desperate is the first really good noir from Anthony Mann, a director whose name is now inextricable from the term "film noir," but who started out in Hollywood making mostly musicals and comedies. Desperate is not as interesting as T-Men (1947) or as powerful as Raw Deal (1948), but it's a well-made, well-acted, exciting thriller. Audrey Long (recently seen as Claire Trevor's little sister in Robert Wise's Born to Kill) is probably the weakest actor in the film, but she's called on to do the least. Steve Brodie is an appealing protagonist. He has a pleasant face and a regular-guy demeanor, and he's believable as a man who's pushed too far.

The real treat in Desperate is Raymond Burr as the vicious Walt Radak. This was only Burr's third credited appearance on film, and while I enjoyed his role as the villain in William Berke's Code of the West (1947), Desperate plays much better to his strengths as an actor. Burr was a remarkable heavy (no offense intended, big guy), and I never stopped to consider how ludicrous Walt's plans were while I was watching this film. Burr sells every one of his hard-boiled lines with ruthless efficiency.

Mann's cinematographer on Desperate, George E. Diskant, deserves mention, too. While he's perhaps not as famous as Mann's frequent collaborator John Alton, Diskant's photography in Desperate is beautiful — full of darkness, hard angles, and vertigo-inducing chiaroscuro constructions.

Written by Adam Lounsbery

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Verdict (1946)

Editor's note: This week's film is The Verdict with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. I'd like to thank The Self-Styled Siren for letting us use this article from her blog. Like the film, The Self-Styled Siren's webpage is always a treat to revisit. We thank her for letting us use her piece on this handsome locked-door mystery.

So last week the Siren finally caught up with The Verdict. (Warm thanks to the fellow blogger who sent it.) No, not the Paul Newman film, although that one is great, but rather Don Siegel's debut movie, the last costarring outing of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. The stars and director alone would recommend it, but it's also a good mystery-thriller with an ending that the Siren didn't see coming. (That doesn't necessarily mean you won't, however. The Siren has great suspension of disbelief and she falls so hard for red herrings you'd think she was a cartoon cat.)

Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films has a great write-up of this movie, in which he astutely points out that it straddles two traditions, the "crisp, quaint" detective stories of the late 30s and early 40s, and noir. He also does a bang-up job discussing Siegel's visual style, which was well-formed already, with lots of shots angled from above and below. The opening, as the bell tolls for a prisoner being executed at Newgate, is particularly striking. There is enough fog around to supply a whole season of Dark Shadows and what were probably cramped, low-end sets are used to great effect to suggest the narrow streets and close quarters of 19th-century London. It isn't so much an Old Dark House movie as an Old Dark Neighborhood movie. It is similar to John Brahm's Hangover Square in that much of the action takes place in a single house of flats, and the square it faces. Greenstreet's apartment is on the ground floor and the Siren took great pleasure in several shots where someone raps on his window and he sticks his head out to see what fresh crime summons him now. That's the kind of actor Greenstreet was--so damn entrancing he gives a thrill just opening a sash window and talking to someone.

In The Verdict, Lorre is cast somewhat against type as louche playboy Victor, best friend to Greenstreet's Inspector Grodman of Scotland Yard. The inspector views the execution that opens the movie with wintry detachment, but that soon changes when he returns to the Yard only to find that his rival has uncovered an unshakeable alibi witness, a clergyman no less. Grodman's policework has sent an innocent man to the gallows. Not only that, but the victim was the aunt of a neighbor and friend. He's forced into retirement, with nothing but memoir-writing and Victor's champagne and bonhomie to while away the days. No matter though--there is soon another murder to occupy Grodman, and naturally this is where he sees a chance for redemption.

Roderick complains about the musical number shoved in at one point, but this is one of those old-movie things the Siren usually digs, like big florid scores, the hiss of the soundtrack, intertitles and nice lengthy establishing shots. In The Verdict, the music-hall number is about one-third of the way through. It serves to give some relief from tension and also to soften Joan Lorring's trampy character, who up to that point had seemed hard as nails, admittedly in part because it was Joan Lorring. (Lorring usually did play tramps. Her turn as Bessie in The Corn is Green always gives the Siren a little shiver of delight. She has one scene in that movie that she almost steals from Davis, and how many actresses could claim that?) It also goes to the character development for Greenstreet and Lorre. Up to that point Greenstreet has seemed rather formal and stuffy, but it is clear that he isn't perturbed by what passes for London lowlife entertainment, in 1890 anyway. And Victor is half-aroused, half-bored, as Lorre balances the ambiguities of his character to the end.

How well these two always managed to flesh out relationships that were somewhat superficial on paper. In The Maltese Falcon their more-than-business association is startlingly plain, but it's all in the playing. When Lorre attacks Greenstreet, yelling "You, you imbecile! You bloated idiot! You stupid fathead!" we hear not just a criminal sidekick but also a frustrated ex-lover. If it weren't for the year it was made, you would expect Lorre to follow with recriminations about Greenstreet's lack of libido or how he got too flirtatious with last night's waiter. Three Strangers has them playing two characters who, for once, have no history as a couple nor any potential in that way, but the wary way they size each other up suggests all manner of unspoken perceptions. In The Mask of Dimitrios, where Lorre plays a Holly Martins-type writer drawn into Greenstreet's intrigues, Lorre gives hints that his fascination with Greenstreet may have to do with aspects of the big man's lifestyle that aren't being spelled out on screen. "He was my friend!" Lorre protests at the end of the movie. "Well, he wasn't my friend, but he was a nice man. Compared to you he was..." It could be the epigraph for their whole eight-movie association.

They had very different approaches to acting, as Don Siegel once noted. Lorre was modern, seemingly casual (although no actor as good as Lorre is ever truly that), prone to be dismissive of his parts and (this is the Siren guessing) an actor who strove to keep things fresh in part by doing his preparation on the fly. Greenstreet, born in 1879, was a man of the theatre for many years before making his astonishing debut as Kaspar Gutman. His preparation was meticulous, his adherence to the script absolute. Both of them made a career primarily playing villains, but such was their charisma that, with the mind-blowing exception of M, their characters worm their way into our affections, sometimes more so than the hero.

You frequently find Lorre to one side of a scene, but you always find him and stay with him. Is he chewing on his cane, watching the bubbles in his drink, sizing up the dance-hall girl? Whatever it is, Lorre sidles up to an audience from the margins, he doesn't push himself forward. Lorre understood that the mouse in the center may turn frantic somersaults, but the audience will be watching the cat, because that's where the drama is coming from, sooner or later. Like George Sanders, Lorre had that European knack for seeming too smart for the situation even when he is the lowest player in the game. Unlike Sanders, Lorre's air is not of princely detachment, but proletarian resignation.

Greenstreet always played a man who enjoys every minute spent acquiring his heft and finds it an advantage, not a hindrance. In theatrical parlance, he takes the stage. Watch Greenstreet in The Verdict, gliding to stand near his rival (George Coulouris) when first informed of his horrible mistake, letting his bigness speak for the character's imposing career and experience. He is the furthest thing from an apologetic or buffoonish fat man imaginable. Even in Three Strangers, where Greenstreet's role is that of a lonely, venal Monsieur Verdoux manqué, his character is ready to go upstairs with Geraldine Fitzgerald and follow the events wherever they may lead. His villains are never so blackhearted that you recoil, because they have the spirit of romance and adventure in them, even some vestigial chivalry: "I am moved to make one more suggestion. Why, I do not know, because it cannot possibly profit me." (Lorre and Greenstreet have no scenes together in Casablanca, but the Siren always assumed Ugarte and Ferrari did, shall we say, comfortable business together.)

Greenstreet and Lorre are deeply loved, actors who can bring the Siren together with old sparring partners--a while back John Nolte named them as one of the five all-time great screen teams. (I can't find the link, just trust me, I remember it well.) The Siren agrees completely, but here's the thing. She has now seen three of their best outings together; in order of preference, The Mask of Dimitrios, Three Strangers, and The Verdict. The Siren's preference for one over another is not huge--they are all entertaining. The Mask of Dimitrios could even be called great. Not one is on DVD. The Siren offers a marketing suggestion to whoever the hell owns the rights: Put out a boxed set of those three movies. Add The Woman in White, in which Greenstreet plays the Count Fosco of your dreams, and the Lorre vehicle The Face Behind the Mask, a grippingly dark B-thriller directed by the unjustly forgotten Robert Florey. That set would surely sell to a great deal more than the nostalgia market, which seems to be where many worthy old movies get pastured.

Greenstreet retired in 1952. He suffered from kidney disease and had spent eight years making 24 movies, beginning at an age when many healthy men contemplate slowing down. Still, he yearned to play full-out comedy and hadn't had many chances to do it, aside from his delightful boss in Christmas in Connecticut and Pillow to Post with Ida Lupino, which the Siren hasn't seen. (Karen?) According to David Shipman, Greenstreet hinted that he might re-emerge if someone offered a good funny part, but none came, and he died in 1954. Lorre, as Dan Callahan has written, suffered from a career that went from Brecht to all-purpose bogeyman. (Dan relates that when asked how he got through the Mr. Moto series, Lorre replied, "I took dope.") There were some bright spots, certainly, but Hollywood offered precious little worthwhile for this intelligent man after about the mid-50s, until a stroke finally killed him in 1964.

Both Lorre and Greenstreet remain two of the truest pleasures an old-movie lover can have, so much so that when she clicks off the TV the Siren always has to remind herself that they're both dead. So too does David Thomson. Of Greenstreet, Thomson writes: "It is difficult not to believe that he is still in search of the Falcon -- 'Ah yes, sir, the falcon!'" And of Lorre: "He hardly seems dead, just as it is difficult to believe he was ever clinically alive...He must be somewhere still, pattering around Sydney Greenstreet and doing what he can to dodge Bogart's laughter."


Written by The Self-Styled Siren. Since this article was written, The Verdict has been released on DVD as part of the Warner Archive collection.

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Girl on the Late, Late Show (1974)

Sunset Blvd. meets Citizen Kane meets Laura, with a strong dose of In a Lonely Place,” says film noir aficionado Don Malcolm about The Girl on the Late, Late Show. And he's not wrong.

This interesting TV movie from 1974 not only combines elements of the movies mentioned above but it adds movie actors from that same era. The movie - actually an early 70s TV pilot for a Don Murray - follows Murray as an early-morning show TV producer who decides to track down a forgotten 50's movie star - Carolyn Parker (Gloria Grahame. The character is misnamed Carolyn Porter at IMDB). The gimmick is, after a movie airs late at night, the star of the film is then seen on William Martin's early-morning news show. The mystery of Carolyn Parker leads Martin to Hollywood and then to San Francisco looking for the blonde. The film follows a Citizen Kane-like investigation - Martin tracks down and interviews friends and faded Hollywood cogs that knew the actress. The mystery gets darker and darker. Some of the folks Murray tracks down are killed. He's even run off the road in a Duel-like car joust.

Gloria Grahame haunts the film. First in actual movie clips from two of the best film noirs: In a Lonely Place (with Bogart) and Human Desire (co-starring Glenn Ford and Broderick Crawford). Grahame is shown to be Carolyn Parker but Gloria's films are highlighted. Later, the actress - who's real life is as mysterious and nearly as tragic - shows up. Pushing 50, Grahame is still gorgeous and youthful. Although only briefly seen, she's the main focus in The Girl on the Late, Late Show. But there are plenty of other familiar faces from 40s and 50s noir. Not all come across as well as Grahame does.


Ralph Meeker
is currently being rediscovered by a new generation of film noir buffs after Criterion's Blue Ray release of Kiss Me Deadly. Years after Mike Hammer ended the world, Meeker saw a successful run as a supporting actor. Gruff cops was his specialty. The world-weary cop role he plays in this is a carbon copy of his parts in (another TV pilot) The Night Stalker, Brannigan, and the under-rated Sean Connery/Sidney Lumet caper The Anderson Tapes. Gone are Meeker's movie-idol good looks (like in Jeopardy with Barbara Stanwyck) but these kind of parts kept him working throughout the 70s. Joe Santos is also in familiar flat-footed shoes. The same year, Santos would play Sgt. Becker in the long running (and for at least the first season neo-noir tinged) Rockford Files.

Van Johnston didn't have much of a noir presence in the classic period - Scene of the Crime and Slander come to mind. But he was a big star. That was enough to get him in this movie - playing himself. A charming but plastic movie star from the past.

Coming across much better is (special guest star) Walter Pidgeon playing a former director great interested in getting his story out on Martin's early-morning show. For those keeping score, Pidgeon noirs include The Sellout and The Unknown Man. His best noir may be a little out of the category. Fritz Lang's Man Hunt from 1941 is fantastic. 60-year-old John Ireland plays a muscle out to beat the brains out of Martin's nosy head. Ireland has a amazing amount of movie credits and his film noir credits are almost as impressive. Ireland - not a household name even by noir buffs- managed to appear in over 200 TV shows and movies in his life. Behind Green Lights, Railroaded!, The Gangster, I Love Trouble, Open Secret, Raw Deal, Mr. Soft Touch, The Scarf, and The Good Die Young (also with Grahame) should keep any film noir completest busy. Look for him in Mitchum's take on Phillip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely released a year after this.

Yvonne De Carlo is the only other femme fatale from the past besides Grahame. Unfortunately, that 70s over makeup and clothes only reminded me of Lily Munster. Gone were her sexy rumba ways in Criss Cross.

But back to the movie. I find it strange that a movie could get so nostalgic for films that were only 25 or 30 years old. That would like today waxing nostalgic about Moonstruck or No Way Out. Maybe because movies made huge technical strides from 1950 to '74. B-movies weren't shot in black and white. Violence and nudity could be seen (and commented on by Walter Pidgeon in the film). Whatever it is it works. The film ends up being a time capsule to be rediscovered today.

The film is a treat. Slick voice-overs while Martin drives the dark streets of LA and San Francisco - along with the giant cars and wider ties - is something to experience. Fans of 70s TV are probably just as trilled to see Mary Ann Mobley, Sherry Jackson (who still does the Star Trek autograph circuit), horror king Cameron Mitchell and Aqua Velva-splashed Bert Convy as I was to see the noir actors. TV actress (and wife of the film's producer) Laraine Stephens plays producer Martin's girlfriend - not much of a stretch there. While Martin isn't bedding sleepy, sex-craved beauties (even woman driving by him are trying to pick him up!) he's phoning her back in New York to tell her about the case. She seems to always be wearing a sexy night gown in an impossibly large NYC apartment. Murray as Martin doesn't let corniness like this affect an overall exceptional performance. And this would have been a fun TV series for Murray. I imagine they wouldn't have had a hard time tracking down actors from the 50s to appear regularly on a series. Looking back at Columbo and Quincy it's clear that these former stars still enjoyed working - even if it was TV.

The film is more meta than this year's LA Noire, and like the game it doesn't hurt it. Don Murray, Gloria Grahame and an ending that's a real heart breaker overcomes the 70s TV feel. This film isn't easy to track down and I suspect we'll never see this one released on an official DVD. The film is a must see for noir fans... even if it's as elusive as Carolyn Parker.

Written by Steve-O
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