The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown 1927 Joan Crawford Lon Chaney

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless circus performer who entertains crowds by expertly throwing knives with his feet. He’s in love with his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus’s owner, who after years of being groped and pawed at, has grown to loathe being touched by men. Alonzo is one of the few men she can trust because he isn’t able to touch her the way other men can. However, she doesn’t love him the same way he loves her; she’s in love with Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus’s strongman, and Malabar adores her back.

What Nanon and the other circus performers don’t realize is that Alonzo isn’t actually armless. He is a criminal on the run from the law who has a very distinctive thumb, so he decided to avoid the police by binding his arms to his sides with a corset and pretending to be armless. When the owner of the circus discovers the truth about Alonzo, Alonzo strangles him to death. Nanon witnesses the incident, but the only thing she can distinctly see is her father’s assailant’s unusual thumb. Since all the other circus performers believe Alonzo is armless, he avoids suspicion yet again.

Alonzo is still deeply in love with Nanon, but the only person who knows Alonzo’s secret warns him that they can never be together because she will eventually discover his secret and learn the truth about who killed her father. Desperate to be with her, Alonzo has his arms amputated for the sake of keeping his secret. Meanwhile, Malabar has managed to help Nanon move past her fear of being touched by men and they decide to get married and Malabar starts working on an idea for a new act.

When Alonzo hears Nanon’s news, he is shocked and absolutely devastated. But when Alonzo finds out about Malabar’s new act, he thinks of a way to sabotage the act so he’ll be able to have Nanon for himself.

Although it’s easy to look at The Unknown now and think how great it is to see two of Hollywood’s greatest stars together on screen, it’s important to remember that Joan Crawford wasn’t quite a big star yet at the time she made it. She was still pretty early in her career and The Unknown is definitely one of her first really great movies. In fact, she often talked about how making that movie was a hugely important stepping stone in her career because she was able to learn so much about acting by working with Lon Chaney.

The Unknown was absolutely perfect material for Lon Chaney; I truly can’t think of another mainstream actor who could have played that role as well as he did. Joan’s great in it, too. Since Joan’s silent film career is pretty defined by Our Dancing Daughters and playing a lot of very exuberant, youthful flapper characters, The Unknown offers a chance to see her doing something considerably darker and more complex, which I really enjoyed getting to see. The movie is very fast paced and full of incredible tension and drama; I absolutely love this movie.

Dead Ringer (1964)

Bette Davis Dead RingerIn their youth, twin sisters Edith and Margaret (Bette Davis in a dual role) were both in love with Frank DeLorca.  Even though Frank had been pursing Edith first, Edith’s relationship with Frank comes to an end when Margaret announces that she’s pregnant with Frank’s baby and they are to be married.  Edith doesn’t see Margaret again until eighteen years later when they are reunited at Frank’s funeral.

After the burial, Edith visits Margaret at her home and all of Edith’s past resentment comes rushing back to her.  Frank had come from a very wealthy family so while he and Margaret were living in the lap of luxury, Edith was struggling to make the cocktail lounge she owns financially solvent. To make things even worse, she finds out that Margaret was never really pregnant all those years before.  With so many financial problems hanging over her head, Edith plans to get Margaret to come over, kill her, and switch clothes with Margaret so it looks like Edith committed suicide and Edith can assume Margaret’s identity.

Even though Edith has no problem physically passing as Margaret, she struggles to cover up the differences in their behaviors.  But as Edith spends more and more time living Margaret’s life, she discovers that Margaret had a few skeletons in her closet — specifically one named Tony Collins (Peter Lawford).  And with police sergeant Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden), who had been dating Edith, getting involved, can Edith keep up the act?

I’ve always thought Dead Ringer was one of Bette Davis’ more under-appreciated movies.  What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is generally thought to be Bette’s last significant movie, but she made a few gems after that and Dead Ringer is one of them.  It has its moments of pure camp; the scene where Margaret offers Edith money and Edith yells, “You haven’t got that much!” before knocking the checkbook out of her hands and shoving her into a chair is the stuff Bette Davis drag queen impersonator dreams are made of.  And you have to admit that the whole concept of getting to see Bette Davis duke it out with herself on screen is pretty campy in and of itself.

But on the whole, Dead Ringer is actually a very interesting thriller.  Bette has a field day in this movie; she’s great in both roles. The story has plenty of suspense and twists to keep you wanting more.  I love its supporting cast; Karl Malden is good and even though I don’t generally care much about Peter Lawford, I loved how wonderfully sleazy he was in this.  The musical score by André Previn serves as the icing on the cake.  Dead Ringer also features some fine direction from Bette’s Now, Voyager and Deception co-star Paul Henreid.

A word of warning: If you have never seen Dead Ringer, do yourself a favor and do NOT watch the trailer first! It’s one of those trailers that gives away absolutely everything.

Dueling Divas Blogathon 2013

Thanks to Lara from Backlots for hosting the third annual Dueling Divas Blogathon! Head on over to Backlots to read more contributions.

The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three (1974)

The Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3

When a gang of four armed men in matching disguises — known only as Blue (Robert Shaw), Grey (Héctor Elizondo), Green (Martin Balsam), and Brown (Earl Hindman) — hijack a New York City subway train, they round up seventeen passengers and put them into one subway car before separating it from the rest of the train.  Blue gets in touch with Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), a police Lieutenant with the transit authority, and demands a million dollar ransom to be paid within an hour.  If an hour passes and they don’t get their money, they will kill one passenger for each minute they are late with the money.

The mayor of New York is hesitant to pay the ransom at first, but eventually agrees.  While the money is being gathered, Garber and Lieutenant Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller) work in the control room to keep the situation under control and try to figure out who the gunmen are.  Garber figures that since one of them clearly knows how to operate the subway train, at least one of them might be a disgruntled former transit employee so they get to work finding a list of dismissed transit employees.

Police officers manage to get the money delivered in time, but the ordeal is only just beginning for the hostages.  When the gunmen get the train moving again, they get off and leave the hostages trapped on a train barreling through the subway system at 70 miles per hour.  Tensions also start to get to the gunmen and when it’s all over, only one of them makes it out alive.

Simply put, The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three is a must-see movie for anyone who enjoys a good suspense film.  It easily ranks as one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen.  From beginning to end, it’s filled with action and tension that leaves you on the edge of your seat.  The pacing is perfect; there isn’t a single dull moment to be seen here.  Everybody in it is perfectly cast.  It’s just marvelous.  Believe me, you do not want to miss The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three.  It does everything a good suspense film is supposed to do.

The Tall T (1957)

The Tall TWhile making a trip to buy a seed bull, cowboy Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) loses a bet with his former employer and has to give up his horse.  Pat starts walking home and along the way, he’s passed by his friend Ed Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt), who is driving a stagecoach with newlyweds Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Willard Mims (John Hubbard) on board.  Ed offers to give Pat a lift, but when they arrive at a way station, a group of three men — Frank Usher (Richard Boone), Billy Jack (Skip Homeier), and Chink (Henry Silva) — holds them at gunpoint and tries to rob them.

Ed tries to reach for his gun, but is shot down.  Willard, who has only married Doretta for her money, tells the robbers that they could get more money by sending a ransom note to Doretta’s father than they could by robbing stagecoaches.  Frank writes a ransom note and sends Willard and Billy to deliver it while the others leave for the robbers’ camp.  Willard and Billy arrive at the camp the next day with news that Doretta’s father has agreed to pay a $50,000 ransom and Willard gets permission to leave camp, but is shot dead before he can get very far.

When Frank leaves to get the ransom from Doretta’s father, that leaves Billy and Chink to keep an eye on Pat and Doretta.  But luckily for Pat and Doretta, their captors are easily manipulated and Pat comes up with a plan to break free.

I quite enjoyed The Tall T.  Randolph Scott is fantastic in it and Budd Botticher’s direction is excellent.  It’s a fast paced story loaded with grit and suspense; there isn’t a single moment that left me looking at the clock wondering how much of the movie was left.  The Tall T is one of those westerns that makes it very easy for people who aren’t typically fans of westerns to enjoy it.  Definitely keep your eye out for this one on the TCM schedule.

A Cry in the Night (1956)

A Cry in the Night PosterLike many teenagers, Elizabeth Taggart (Natalie Wood) enjoys spending evenings with her boyfriend Owen (Richard Anderson) at the town’s Lovers’ Loop.  Elizabeth and Owen are engaged, but it’s a secret engagement because Elizabeth is afraid that her overbearing father, police captain Dan Taggart (Edmond O’Brien), won’t approve.  One night at Lovers’ Loop, a disturbed man named Harold Loftus (Raymond Burr) hides among the trees watching the couples.  When Owen hears a noise, he goes to investigate and is knocked unconscious by Harold.  Harold then drives off in Owen’s car with Elizabeth inside.

After Owen comes to again, he tries to get help from the police, but the officers mistakenly think he’s drunk and take him to the station to sober up.  Meanwhile, Harold has taken Elizabeth to an abandoned shack where he tries to force her into being his girlfriend.  Back at the jail, Owen is examined by a doctor who realizes Owen isn’t just another drunk.  The police finally listen to his story and realize Captain Taggart’s daughter is involved.  When Captain Taggart finds out his daughter has been kidnapped, he blames Owen for the ordeal.

While the police are investigating Elizabeth’s kidnapping, Harold’s mother calls the station to report that he has gone missing.  The way Harold’s mother talks about him makes a criminal profiler realize that Harold might be the man they’re looking for.  They manage to track down the shack, but Harold isn’t willing to let Elizabeth go without a fight.  During the fight, Owen saves Captain Taggart’s life and when Harold finally surrenders, Captain Taggart finally gives his blessing for Elizabeth and Owen to be together.

I was somewhat underwhelmed by A Cry in the Night.  The cast is quite good; Raymond Burr made an excellent creep and Edmond O’Brien nailed the overbearing aspect of his character.  A Cry in the Night isn’t a bad movie, but unfortunately there just isn’t a lot of substance to it.  It’s an alright way to spend 75 minutes, but it left me wanting something more.

A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) has got a bright future and a lot of big plans for his life.  However, he’s decided that the easiest way to make it big is to date Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward), whose father owns some major copper mines.  But when he finds out Dorothy is pregnant, he’s horrified when she suggests getting married because he knows her father would never approve and any chance of getting a part of those copper mines would go out the window.  Dorothy insists on getting married and Bud eventually reluctantly agrees.  But then Bud hatches a murder scheme!  Only Bud is kind of an idiot and doesn’t think his cunning plan all the way through first.  He reads up on poisons, steals some poisons from the school’s chemistry lab, and makes them into capsules.  Then he tricks Dorothy into writing a translation of something that could read like a suicide note.  So he gives Dorothy the pills he made, telling her they were vitamins.  Only he doesn’t actually watch her take them and he sends the suicide note to her sister Ellen before he knows for sure whether or not Dorothy is dead.  So imagine his surprise when he shows up for class and sees Dorothy!  He tries to stop the post office from sending his letter, but has no luck.

Now Bud’s got to kill Dorothy and fast.  When Bud and Dorothy meet up to get their marriage license, Bud picks a time when the office will be closed for lunch.  When Dorothy gets there and sees the office is closed, he suggests they go up to the roof to wait.  When they get up to the roof, Dorothy admits to not taking the pills and Bud takes the opportunity to shove her off the roof.  The police are confident it’s suicide and Dorothy’s family wants to avoid scandal so they don’t push for a bigger investigation.

But Bud is still determined to get his hand on the Kingship copper mines so he starts dating Dorothy’s sister Ellen (Virginia Leith).  Dorothy’s family didn’t really know she was seeing Bud, she only wrote a few vague details about him and mentioned a nickname he had for her in letters to Ellen, so Ellen doesn’t know who he is.  A few months after Dorothy’s death, one of Dorothy’s sorority sisters sends Ellen one of Dorothy’s belts.  Ellen then realizes that Dorothy was wearing something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue when she died.  She begins to suspect that Dorothy had been planning to get married and it wasn’t suicide, so she contacts Gordon Grant (Jeffrey Hunter) to tell him her suspicions.

Gordon and Ellen start investigating on their own and manage to track down Dwight Powell, who Dorothy had briefly dated.  When Ellen meets Dwight, she’s ready to confront him, but realizes he’s innocent when he doesn’t recognize the nickname that Dorothy had mentioned.  But he does think he has the address to the guy she dated after him.  They head back to his dorm to get it, but Bud follows them.  When Dwight gets to his room, Bud shoots him and makes it look like he killed himself out of guilt for killing Dorothy.  Ellen believes it at first, but then Gordon discovers that Dwight couldn’t possibly have killed Dorothy, he was in Mexico for a tennis tournament when she died.  So if he didn’t kill Dorothy, there would be no reason for him to kill himself.  Gordon was an assistant professor where Bud and Dorothy had gone to school and remembers seeing them together, so he starts investigating Bud further.  But as far as Ellen knows, Bud’s never been to college, let alone known her sister.  Ellen initially dismisses any idea of Bud having known her, but when she gets Bud alone during a trip to the copper mines, he slips and calls Dorothy the nickname she had mentioned in her letters.  When she realizes the truth, Bud tries to throw Ellen off a cliff, but Bud is the one who ends up dead.

For the most part, A Kiss Before Dying was pretty good.  The beginning is slightly on the campy side.  Bud is such an incredibly bumbling murderer and when Dorothy and Bud are on the roof together, I couldn’t help but laugh at how Dorothy totally misses the sinister tone in Bud’s voice and proceeds to make a point of leaning way over the ledge.  But once we get past Dorothy’s obliviousness, the movie starts turning into a pretty decent thriller.  It’s just too bad that Joanne Woodward and Mary Astor, who had a small part as Bud’s mother, didn’t get more screen time.  Joanne did very well with the time she did get, I think she gave a better performance in her small part than Virginia Leith did in her bigger role.  And Robert Wagner definitely nailed being cold, calculating, and sinister.  Overall, it’s an enjoyable movie.  Just don’t be put off by the slightly campy first part.

The Stranger (1946)

After World War II, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is hard at work rounding up Nazi war criminals and seeing that they are punished.  One Nazi in particular who has evaded his reach is Franz Kindler (Orson Welles).  In hopes of finding Kindler, Wilson releases Kindler’s old friend Konrad Meinike thinking that Meinike will go to see Kindler, wherever he is.  Sure enough, he does and Wilson follows him to Harper, Connecticut where Kindler has assumed the identity of Professor Charles Rankin and is engaged to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.

In fact, Meinike and Wilson arrive in Harper on the day Mary and Charles are set to be married.  Meinike knows he’s being followed and evades Wilson long enough to find Charles, but obviously, this is not a happy reunion.  Meinike has seen the error of his ways and tries to convince Charles to turn himself in, but Charles isn’t about to give up his new life so easily.  He strangles Meinike and buries the body in the woods before going on with the wedding.  But what Charles doesn’t realize is that Meinike had talked to Mary about where to find him.  Over the next few days, Wilson does some investigating and concludes that Charles is really Kindler.  He even recruits Mary’s brother Noah (Richard Long) to help him nab Charles.  But the only person who can definitely tie Charles to Meinike is Mary.  Meanwhile, there’s someone else posing a threat to Charles’ new identity — Mary’s dog.  When Charles takes Mary’s dog for a walk in the woods, it starts digging at the area where Charles buried Meinike, so he poisons the dog.  When Noah finds the dog dead, he and Wilson start investigating more and Meinike’s body is found.

Charles really starts getting nervous when Wilson questions Mary about whether or not she’d seen Meinike.  Charles tries to keep her quiet by concocting a story about how Meinike had been trying to blackmail him so he killed him to protect her.  Mary desperately wants to believe her husband and protect him, but it gets harder when Wilson shows her horrifying footage from concentration camps and tells her about how her husband was responsible for all that suffering.  Even then, Mary doesn’t want to believe this about her husband.  But Wilson knows that Charles is very likely to try to kill Mary next and he’s right.  At last, Mary is able to accept the awful truth about the man she married.

There isn’t a single thing about The Stranger that I didn’t like.  The cast was great all around.  Loretta Young totally nailed the innocence and naivety her character needed.   It’s got plenty of suspense, I didn’t think there was a dull moment in the movie.  I know Orson Welles didn’t think very highly of this movie, largely because he wasn’t given as much creative control as he would have liked.  But I think this is a case where limitations may have worked to the film’s advantage.  There were about 20-30 minutes worth of scenes that Welles had wanted in the film that were cut by the studio.  Although I’d love for those lost scenes to surface someday, I thought the movie was just right in terms of length.  For how outstanding The Stranger is, it’s a somewhat underrated Orson Welles movie.  It’s awfully hard not to be overshadowed by The Third Man, Citizen Kane, or The Lady From Shanghai and I wouldn’t put The Stranger on par with any of those, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic movie.

Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

Another case of a movie poster not truly reflecting the movie.

When airline pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) gets a letter from his girlfriend Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft) to break up with him, he goes to the hotel nightclub she sings at to get some closure.  After Lyn says she’s breaking up with him because he isn’t understanding enough, Jed heads back to his room to spend some time with a bottle of Rye.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the building, Eddie the elevator operator has gotten his niece Nell (Marilyn Monroe) a job for the night babysitting for a couple of hotel guests.  After Nell gets the girl she’s watching, Bunny, to bed, she finds Bunny’s mother’s fancy robe and jewelery and because she was never allowed to have any of those things growing up, she can’t resist trying them on for just a few minutes.

Back in Jed’s room, he looks out his window and sees Nell in the negligee.  He figures out which room she’s in, calls her up, and asks to come over and Nell agrees.  Nell never tells him that she’s just babysitting for the night.  When he gets there, he can’t quite figure her out and her explanations as to why she’s staying at the hotel just aren’t adding up.  But since he wants to work on being more understanding, he gives her the benefit of the doubt.  However, when Jed mentions that he’s a pilot, things really start to unravel fast.  Nell had a boyfriend named Phillip who was killed in a plane crash and she starts to believe that Jed is actually Phillip.  But then, Bunny wakes up and comes out to see Nell still wearing her mother’s things and starts causing a ruckus.  Nell forces Bunny back to bed and orders her to be quiet.  But when Bunny starts crying, Jed goes to see if he can take care of her and Nell opens the window for her when she complains of being hot, but Nell warns her again that she better not make any more noise.  Nell believes that Bunny is trying to stop her from being with Jed, who she still believes is her dead boyfriend.

Jed has had just about enough for one night, but before he leaves, he notices some scars on Nell’s wrists and she confesses that she tried slashing her wrists after Phillip died.  Just as Jed is finally ready to leave, there’s a knock on the door from Eddie, who came to check on Nell.  Jed hides in the bathroom and Eddie is furious to see Nell wearing Bunny’s mother’s things.  When he orders her to take them off immediately, Nell becomes even more unstable and hits him with an ashtray.  Bunny screams again and Jed tends to Eddie while Nell quiets Bunny down by tying her up and gagging her.  Only this time, some nosy neighbors come to see what’s going on.  They’d seen men coming into the room and heard Bunny crying and came to make sure everything was OK.  While they’re talking to Nell, they get the idea that Jed was holding them captive.  Jed sneaks out while she’s talking to the neighbors, but he goes back when he realizes something wasn’t right with Bunny.  When he gets back to the room, he unties Bunny and frees Eddie from the closet he had been locked into.  When he gets out of the closet, Eddie finally admits that Nell had spent the last three years in a mental hospital.  After they realize that Nell is now missing, they find her in the lobby with a razor blade, threatening to commit suicide.  Jed manages to talk her down.  Lyn witnesses the whole thing and is willing to give Jed another chance while Nell is taken to get the help that she needs.

For being the massive pop culture icon that Marilyn Monroe is, I think she is severely underrated in some respects.  Specifically, in terms of how outstanding she could be in dramatic roles.  In my book, Don’t Bother to Knock and Bus Stop are Marilyn’s two most underrated performances.  Don’t Bother to Knock was Marilyn’s first attempt at serious acting and she did an excellent job with it.  When playing a person with a mental illness, it’s so easy to make it over the top, but she played Nell with a great deal of restraint and vulnerability, which make her character all the more dark and disturbing.  If you only know Marilyn Monroe for he comedic roles, then Don’t Bother to Knock is definitely worth seeing.  You’ll really get a look at a whole different side to her.  It’s also worth noting that this was Anne Bancroft’s film debut.  Anne had a fairly small part, she spent most of her on-screen time singing, but she was a very nice singer.

Blackmail (1929)

In Blackmail, John Longden plays Frank Webber, a detective for Scotland Yard.  One day, after work, he meets his girlfriend Alice (Anny Ondra) for dinner.  Only Alice has secretly arranged to meet another man, so she starts a fight with Frank to get him to leave.  She succeeds, but as he leaves, he turns and sees Alice with the other man.  The other man is an artist, and he and Alice go back to his apartment where they start out having some harmless fun.  But then the artist convinces Alice to try on a costume his models wear, and while she’s getting changed, he attacks her.  Alice reaches for the nearest weapon she can find, a knife, and stabs him to death.  Of course, Alice does her best to hide the fact that she was even there, but she accidentally leaves behind one clue: her glove.  When Frank is called to the crime scene the next day, he finds the glove and knows it’s Alice’s.  He goes to bring it to her, but the two of them are confronted by Tracy, a local thief, who says he saw Alice at the artist’s apartment the night before.  Tracy tries to blackmail Alice and Fred, but when the artist’s landlady tells police she saw Tracy in the area at the time of the murder, Tracy takes police on a chase through the British Museum.  Alice can’t bear the thought of an innocent man being accused, so she goes to turn herself in.

When you’re talking about someone like Alfred Hitchcock, whose career had so many highlights, sometimes it’s hard to mention all of his finest moments.  But after seeing Blackmail with the Alloy Orchestra last month, I walked out of the theater astonished by how little attention it gets compared to some of his other movies.  I have nothing at all against his stuff like Psycho or Rear Window, but I don’t think those are his most visually interesting movies.  My favorite shot in Blackmail is one where Alice and the artist are walking up the stairs and the camera moves up with them, as if the camera is actually moving through the floors of the building.  The diagonal lines of the stairs, the movement of the people, and the movement of the camera all added up to one spectacular shot.  To me, that shot was way cooler than any shot in Rear Window.  Hitchcock had an amazing eye for shots, and if you only really know him for Rear Window, you’re really short-changing yourself in the whole Hitchcock experience.

My favorite thing about Blackmail is how it’s like a little preview of things to come in later Hitchcock movies.  There were quite a few scenes that really reminded me of some classic scenes from his later movies.  It’s like this was Hitchcock saying, “Wait a minute, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” because he went on to take those elements and bring them to a new level.  First, there was the scene where Alice is reaching for the knife (skip to the 6:40 minute mark). That scene definitely made me think of Grace Kelly reaching for the scissors in Dial ‘M’ for Murder. This was also the first Hitchcock movie to feature a chase through a national monument. This time it was through the British Museum, but in 1941’s Saboteur, it was in the Statue of Liberty.  And, of course, he really outdid himself with the chase on Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. This was also an early instance of Hitchcock dealing with the issue of someone being wrongfully accused.  Even though it plays a relatively minor part of Blackmail, it’s a theme he was very famously fond of, as can be seen in North by Northwest, I Confess, and The Wrong Man.

Blackmail was both Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie and last silent film.  It was originally meant to be a silent, but during production, sound equipment became available.  Rather than just film the last reel with sound, as was initially planned, Hitchcock went ahead and made a complete talkie version as well as the silent version.  Both versions are fantastic, but I personally preferred the silent version.  I thought the nature of the story and the general atmosphere of the movie made were better suited to a silent film.  Although I thought the part in the talkie version where, after the murder, Alice can only hear, “Knife…knife…knife,” was brilliant.  It’s pretty easy to find a copy of the talkie version of Blackmail, but the silent version is a bit harder to find.  If you ever have the chance to see the silent version, it’s very much worth checking out.

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