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Archive for the ‘GANGSTER DRAMA’ Category

Love Is Colder Than Death

20 Mar

Love Is Colder Than Death – Directed by Rainer Werner Fasssbinder. Gangster Drama 88 minutes Black And White 1969
★★★★
The Story: A gang syndicate invites a crook to join them, but he won’t, and then what?
~
No one feels anything. Emotional inertia is both the style and the subject. Characters stare off into space full front. A car tracks the wet city streets for five minutes looking for someone in a yellow dress. Much Significant Lighting Of Cigarettes. You care about none of these sorry folks or their doings, nor do you care about the law that seeks to keep them off the streets. So what whether any of them live or die.

But – boy – does the director hold your attention!

Why you can’t put it down, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because you want to see if any of their masks will betray a single human quirk.

This description may put you off, but I should be wicked to wish that to happen to you, for a master-hand is already at play here, even though this is Fassbinder’s first feature film.

He takes one of the three leading roles, and the other two are for the first time taken by actors he was to work with often in years to come, both of whom had big careers in German and international cinema.

Ulli Lommel plays the handsome, heartless hit-man. Hanna Schygulla plays Fassbinder’s girlfriend.

The title of the film is misleading, since Love is never at stake. The Fassbender character plays fast and loose with his girlfriend/whore, but no attraction is evinced between him and her, nor between her and him, nor between him and him. Such is not where the drama lies.

It lies in the audience, held in suspense to see if any of these people is worth anything at all, and they are not. But the film is. The experience of watching it is.

Oh, the ending is botched as well as the bank heist they plan. But by that time the film is over. A corpse.

I liked it. If liking is the word.

Held by it is the word. Held by the confidence of its energy. And by the insolence of its means.

 

Black Mass

28 Sep

Black Mass – directed by Scott Cooper. Crime Drama. 122 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★

The Story: A Boston racketeer becomes an FBI informant and The Godfather of Boston.

~

Johnny Depp is the inheritor of Brando’s mantle. I don’t mean the mantle that had “The Greatest Actor In The World” written on it that everybody in the world could see but him.

That mantle ruined Brando. No, I mean the mantle of all the parts Brando never played, through laziness, perversity, and ruin.

Depp made two movies with Brando, one of which Depp directed, The Brave in which Brando gave one of his most brilliantly conceived and terrifying characterizations. Brando kept contact with Depp; the long midnight calls for which Brando was known, yes, but also the fact that who else was there? Sean Penn, whom Brando also called? Penn didn’t have the range, and he was also lazy.

Brando’s mantle is not the parts that Brando never played: Coriolanus, Lear, Macbeth. No, Brando was a heavy actor; Depp is not. Depp must choose lighter fare to dine on. Depp is a miniaturist. Depp could play Iago, but never Othello. Both could do Restoration comedy, but Depp only has done it. His brilliant performance in Mordecai is a version of it. He keeps setting before us small masterpieces of technique. And Black Mass is one of them.

He wears a big makeup from the start, and it does not relent as the character ages and becomes more ruthless before our eyes. He plays a gang lord who achieves immunity from his crimes because he has enlisted himself as an informant to the FBI on the doings of gangs rival to him.

However, this betrays a code common to his community, his cohorts, and his Catholicism. You do not peach! Those you were raised with, in the Boston hood and boyhood, you remain loyal to through thick and thin, mainly thick. No murder, crime, betrayal, divorce, may clash with the code of this loyalty. You stand by this code as you would your family, your own dearest child. You sacrifice all higher ideals for this code. It is more to you than religion.

Now when the story of Black Mass appeared, I read it with fascination because it recorded the daring of this gang lord, James “Whitey” Bulger, his long career, his eluding arrest, and his eventual escape. Set against this story is the story of Bulger’s younger brother, William Bulger, who was a state senator and as honest as James was dishonest – but would not betray him, nor more would he benefit from Whitey’s crimes. The story is starling and daft. As journalism it is superb.

But as drama it looses force because the power that brings Bulger down is not the arrival of a new FBI chief in Boston as we are told, but the arising and resumption of a set of standards and codes older than loyalty codes. Those codes are the codes of human decency. They are more primordial than any code of loyalty, justice, or retribution. For Whitey is seen in time as the enemy of the survival of family itself. Whitey kills everyone slightly suspicious. And, as he does this, his cohorts stir and see that his loyalty code does not hold true. It is being used for assassination. Any of them might go next.

However, in the journalism on which Black Mass is based this older code of decency is not given play, and in the movie it is only hinted at. The women are the first to express it, but we lose track of them in impotence and focus. Eventually the men of his gang see his madness and arise loyal to that decency, and turn state’s evidence against Bulgur. But this is only done cinematically and slightly. There is no scene for it. There is no confrontation.

So in the end, the film disappoints. It is not high and noble ideals that brought Bulger down, but simple, primitive, human ones. But that’s not what we get. Instead, we get is journalism. What we need is a movie.

Whitey Bulger was never brought down. He slipped away and lived in hiding for years. In a way, his escape was from the very human values that did him in. But we never see this.

What we see is a superb production, beautifully acted by everyone. And Johnny Depp with nothing to play against.

Here he is, though, playing The Godfather, an Irish one. How different he is from Brando. And how right he is to tackle a role of this ferocity. Played, unlike Brando, without humor, without kindliness. But just as sane, just as determined. He is a businessman for our time. It is a chief work in Depp’s portfolio.

 

 
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Posted in Benedict Cumberbach, GANGSTER DRAMA, Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon

 

Three On A Match

18 Mar

Three On A Match – directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Drama. 63 minutes Black And White 1932.

★★★★

The Story: Three grammar school girls stick together as grown women, even more so as one of them goes to the dogs.

~

What is important about this film is not Bette Davis’s cute figure in a bathing suit, nor her part, which is as peripheral to the story as is Humphrey Bogart’s and Glenda Farrell’s and Edward Arnold’s. All three of these make the same impression they were always to make: Bogart as a man to take into account, Farrell as a woman knowledgeable in her own sensuality, Arnold as Humpty-Dumpty pushing everyone off the wall.

Davis plays the least colorful of the three women and the one least connected to moving the plot forward. Joan Blondell plays the light-fingered jailbird who goes straight and marries the boss. We see Davis in the secretary pool at an Underwood, and she really looks like she knows how to type well, for she really did know. One can believe she is a secretary. Later she becomes an au- pair with Blondell in scenes at the beach with a tiresome tyke one wishes they would drown.

Ann Dvojak has the leading role, and Davis, aged 23, could probably have played it beautifully. The point is that Dvojak is excellent and that this is the sort of part that women were getting before 1934, not just wild-assed women who grab men into their beds impenitently and salt their lives with pleasure, but women’s issue parts. These were the pre-Code days of great parts for women which Mick LaSalle writes of in Complicated Women, his celebration of the actresses of this era, their talents, their roles, their films, before the Code put all such roles out into the woodshed for a whipping.

While they lasted, Davis never participated as a leading actress in these sorts of films, although she was of an age to. This is her twelfth film. She is not exactly starting out. Warners still did not know what to do with her. They threw her around like chicken feed. And she knew it.

The sort of parts she fought to play depicted just this sort of woman, women living their lives to the full. They didn’t have to be prostitutes to do it. They could be society women of the sort Norma Shearer played at MGM and Ann Dvojak plays here.

Davis fought for such roles, but Davis fought for what did not exist. Such parts were not mounted after 1934. After 1934, women must suffer for their pleasures or die. The closest Davis could come to such a part was the sexually predacious wife in Bordertown and Mildred Rodgers in Of Human Bondage, who is a tart. She had made 21 films by then, none of them giving her the meaty roles Ruth Chatterton, Constance Bennett, Mae West, Mae Clarke, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, Ann Harding, Miriam Hopkins, and Barbara Stanwyck played. Davis was good friends with Jean Harlow, but she never got parts like Harlow got. The Code flattened them.

In Three On A Match, Davis is still a Harlow peroxide blonde. Her old chum, Joan Blondell, from New York acting school, has the second lead. Davis is on the sidelines where she doesn’t even look convincing smoking a cigarette.

 

The Rover

22 Jun

The Rover – directed by David Michôd. Crime Chase Drama. 142 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: 10 years into dystopia and world chaos, a man seeks justice, and justice seeks him.

~ ~ ~

One of my two favorite actors in the world, Guy Pearce holds the screen with a focus so intense, you stay with him through thick and thin, although you have no idea what, if anything, is at stake. If you want to know what it takes to carry a movie, watch Pearce here. He scarcely moves a muscle, he scarcely shows a feeling, because what he has in mind must be – mustn’t it? – more precious than his life. With Pearce it is not, and never has been, that less is more. It is a question of him somehow having subtlely mainlined a character, and then honored the essential.

In saying this I am speaking of a talent that cannot be learned. I don’t know how it is done. Perhaps he doesn’t know either. It is probably inborn. But he does know how to do it. As you can see as you watch him be Houdini, or Edward, Prince Of Wales, or the detonation expert of The Hurt Locker, or Andy Warhol, or the cad husband in Mildred Pierce, what you see is a character brought into being with a minute shift. Pearce may appear as he appears, he may sound as he sounds, but the soul-flavor of the other person is in him, and that is what is being given. He knows how to do this, naturally, as some people know how to sing – which he happens also to know how to do, if you have ever seen him in The Slipping-Down Life. He is the one modern actor I suggest you watch and study and enjoy. He is not often cast in comedy, although he did not long ago play the petty villain in a Walt Disney Dog Movie. As with any good and interesting actor, I would love to see him in one of those Restoration Farce roles Olivier took such delectation in.

While the story here focuses on him, you are willing to put up with your own ignorance as to what is at stake – but as soon as he is joined by Robert Pattinson, an artistic wreck takes place. You get a consummate master faced with a consummate ham. The story drains as soon as this actor appears playing the backward brother of the fleeing antagonist.

Pattinson, like bad TV actors, makes much play with his mouth. Will it never stop thrashing about? He makes much play with his body, which flies flaccidly in all directions. He makes much play with his eyes, which never stop roaming except when they do long enough for you to wonder when they will start roaming once more. He withdraws focus from his eyes. He slurs his speech – which is never forgivable because never necessary – so you cannot understand what he is saying. What’s more – and this is the quandary beyond all quandaries – he plays an Australian low-life with an accent from Lil’ Abner (although Pattinson himself is from England.). All this with heavy makeup on his teeth and a half beard and you have?  You have a pitch for pathos, that’s what you have.

The excess of effects is just galling. And the result is that attention is distracted from the story – for you cannot feel compassion for him as a human being – and that is the actor’s job in this part, because the story is exactly the same as the story of Maleficent; that is to say, it is the story of a person who hates someone eventually coming to care for them. You’ve got to see how someone can come to care for him, and you can’t. The startling and beautiful ending to this movie is lost in the anarchy of Robert Pattinson’s show. All an actor needs do is one thing. For this part all Pattinson needed to do was play: To survive I Don’t Need To Know Right From Wrong; I Just Need To Believe What You’re Telling Me — Is That Right? Instead he does nine things, none of them available to the audience because none of them entertainable by them.

 

The Street With No Name

20 May

The Street With No Name –­– directed by William Keighley. Police Procedural. An FBI agent imbeds himself in a bank robber gang and almost doesn’t make it. 91 minutes Black and White 1948.

★★★★★

This good film is listed as a Noir, which it is not. It is not, because in Noir the protagonist much have something wrong with them, and there is nothing wrong with Mark Stevens at all. He is a good-looking honest-John male period.

The person who has something wrong with him is Richard Widmark who once again plays the psycho thug, which he began his career with by pushing Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs in Kiss Of Death while snickering. He did this sort of thing in a number of pictures in the ‘40s until he put his cloven-hoof down – but, in fact, he is much better as psychopaths than as a leading man. Here, thank goodness, he is a violent closeted homosexual.

Mark Stevens plays the agent who infiltrates Widmark’s gang, and to say he is too straight to be the hero of a Noir is not to diminish his gifts, for his playing is smart. He makes the character blithe, as though he didn’t have a care or worry in the world. He flirts with Widmark and sails into the harbor of the gang without a glance to the left or right. It’s a shrewd acting move, and Stevens is good at it. He laughs his way through peril. At least that is what he does while others are around and until the thrills start.

A word about such actors. Nice-guy actors form a blank which audiences fill in with themselves. The actor just stands there in his masculinity and his decency, and you do the rest. You find this all the way through literature, from Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince Of Tyre to Dickens’ David Copperfield to almost everything Gregory Peck ever did. These good-guy actors sometimes seem to almost have no temperament as actors, no human imagination, although lots of moral imagination, which is why they crowd together as leading players in Westerns. There are too many of them to list. They provide an empty upright outline which it is the audience’s mission to flesh and fill, a job the audience readily adopts because such actors are always in heroic roles.

A word about Noir style. It’s easy to mistake such a picture as this as Noir because of the way it looks. This one looks terrific, and that is because it was filmed by Joe MacDonald, a master of city streets at night. He would film Sam Fuller’s remake of it, House Of Bamboo, and Kazan’s Panic In The Streets. You might say that the story is really told by the way Joe MacDonald lights and films and moves it, that the narration is really in his hands, rather than the director’s, although the direction is good. The astonishing shoot-out in the immense factory at the end is an example of Joe MacDonald’s extraordinary ability to make a story happen. Someone should fo a study about the narrative power of such photographers as William Daniels, Ernest Haller, Joe MacDonald and other master photographers – although it’s probably already been written, ignoramus as I am.

The film is an A level crime film, with Lloyd Nolan, John McIntyre, and a teen-age Barbara Lawrence, in a gorgeous performance as Widmark’s beard-wife.

 

Killing Them Softly

12 Dec

Killing Them Softly – written and directed by Andrew Dominik. Crime Drama. A gangland gambling club is robbed, and the perps must be rubbed out; or if not the perps, anyone standing around will do. 97 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
I sit back in my seat and am amazed by the brilliance of American actors, of these particular American actors, and let’s name them right off. Scoot McNairy as one of the dumb hold-up guys and Ben Mendelsohn (actually Australian) as the other. Ray Liotta as the owner of the club and Vincent Curatola as the skeptical mastermind. I watch James Gandolfini hold the screen and I am astonished at his ease, his conviction, his imagination as an actor. Then there is Richard Jenkins (actually from Canada) as the naive businessman acting to hire the hitmen. I watch him see through this character to the bitter end. And I watch them all with amazement at their commitment to their craft, their skill in it, their comfort with the camera, their physical reality, their believability, and their ability to find humor in their characters without semaphoring it to us.

So, if you love an astonishing display of the craft of acting, look no further.

Brad Pitt is the focal character of all of them and all of this, the managing director of the offs.

Brad Pitt is an actor incapable of wearing a suit. But within his range, he is the best actor in American films. His particular instrument is not meant to play a king or a peasant. He is not Charles Laughton. Pitt lacks majesty. He can play only a peasant. But what a variety of peasants he has given us!

He always brings to the screen something new, something we have never seen before. Yes, he is usually cast as cocky, sexy, naughty, beyond the pale males, but he always is fresh, always surprising. He is, in fact, always daring. I think of him as an actor who will never win an Oscar, because he would be judged as having a limited range, whereas the truth is that, while he does have a limited range, within that range he has no limits. This is true of a number of great actors: Geraldine Page, for instance, could not play Shakespeare.

Pitt plays a character sorely vexed by the personnel he must deal with, none of whom are as smart, as realistic, or as experienced as he, and, as a self-made businessman, his peroration is a brilliant diatribe on Republican political business theory, and not to be missed.

Moreover, he is given wonderful scenes to play by the director/writer, as are all the actors, for the piece is marvelously written and directed and filmed and told. Never have so many actors been painted so incisively and intensely in so many close-ups. Andrew Dominik seems to be a first-class director at the beginning of a great career with a perfect film under his belt.

 

MARKED WOMAN — Bette Davis 5 of 5

26 Nov

Marked Woman – directed by Michael Curtiz and Lloyd Bacon. Crime Drama. A B-girl heads up the ladies to bring down a crime lord, with the help of a stalwart D.A. 96 minutes Black and White 1937.
★★★★
Was ever such assurance!

For there she stands, defying Eduardo Ciannelli the most terrifying gangster ever to appear in film. Bette Davis is just 27 when she does this and her standing her ground opposite Ciannelli is astounding.

Granted it’s just a movie.

But is it? What you see in Davis is coming from a center of absolute strength of power, and it aint fake.

What you are also seeing is that Bette Davis is a woman. We who saw her during those years, and saw the other big female stars at that time, never suspected there was any other type of female. We never thought that their disappearance in film by the ‘60’s would be absolute. There is not a single female in American films today who is a woman, with the exception of Meryl Streep. Jessica Lang? She’s a seductress. Sally Field? Great as she is, and she is, there is still a little girl in all she does. Julia Robert, Reese Witherspon, Gwyneth Paltrow? Don’t be silly. But Bette Davis – ah – a woman. Not a gal, not a chick, not a broad. A woman! As such, she stands tall with ‘30s female stars as unforgettable types of Women’s Liberation. We were grateful to them at the time, and we still are.

Davis won the Volpi Award of the Venice Film Festival for the Best Actress for this performance. Her Oscar-winning years were over, but, with it, her heyday had begun.

What had not quite begun was Davis’ creation of a peculiar film persona. Her odd enunciation emphasizing certain words. Her bitter consonants. Her deadening the ends of lines. Her nutso phrasing. How may packs a day? Her throwing herself about like a bag of potatoes. Her semaphoring arms. Her sexual seething. The raising of her vocal range to a constant pitch of peevishness. The mouth drawn down in a bow of contempt and distaste. Perhaps a certain loss of humor as she took on the position of Queen Of The Lot.

Warners, where she worked, had ridden the social conscience, gangster, and lower class film nags until Zanuck left the studio in ‘33. When Hal Wallis took over, he kept making those films, and this is one of them, but he also began to make historical biography and grand romances. And Davis was to star in the latter. Wallis did not understand Bette Davis, but he knew her box office value, and he purchased for her the big novels and plays of the day, such as In This Our Life, The Letter, The Little Foxes, All This And Heaven Too, and The Man Who Came To Dinner. This particular story was a Warner’s specialty, hot from the headlines: Lucky Luciano that year was brought down by Thomas Dewey (Humphrey Bogart) with the help of Luciano’s prostitutes. And what became of those girls? Take a look at the end of Marked Woman, and see for yourself.

 

Mikey and Nicky

21 Jun

Mikey And Nicky — directed by Elaine May. Gangster Drama. Two friends from childhood, one to kill the other, amble through the dark streets of a big city. 119 minutes Color 1976.

★★★

That neurotic brat Elaine May indulges herself and her actors in a denuding in which nobody really takes off his clothes. The work by the two principal actors is clearly improvisational, which means that the actors are called upon to actually “write” the script by improvising it. A questionable process, no? The question being, are the two actors good playwrights? Another question being, do the improvisations improve the truth of their performances? Another question being, does the spontaneity of improvisation actually bring depth and key to narrative? In the case of John Cassavetes, a cold actor, the answer is no. For the performance. while showy, never delves beneath the sexy conman with which Cassavetes smirks his way through it. For all his variations on the theme the result is monotony. He makes the character always self-involved and always lying. He is an actor without emotion, and he takes no risks. And what this results in is that there is no moment when what lies inside this liar conman defense and opposite to it has a chance to come to light and importantly tempt his survival. The character never becomes exposed. A sexy conman is the opposite of a sacrificial lamb, but Cassavetes either cannot imagine becoming that or cannot do it, did not have it in him as an actor, and as Elaine May, who is an amateur, is not a real writer either, she simply indulges herself in her entrancement by what is after all no more than the fun of an acting class exercise in Meisner technique. Indeed the brutal and great acting teacher himself is present in the film as the capo financing the hit, and is quite good, without bringing any particular quirk of imagination to the role. Meisner technique is available only in lower class drama, such as this. (Sanford Meisner hated Shakespeare.) But “lower class” does not guarantee drama, and  there is no real drama here, for the Cassavetes character never gets forced to know and so never gets to the point of revealing the truth to his protagonist, played beautifully by Peter Falk, so Falk is never faced with the temptation to spare him. This is the essential drama — will these old best friends spare one another? — and it is missing. The drama is not whether Falk will kill Cassavetes; yes, he will, as far as this film goes; but the drama should be whether he will spare him; this is never available. May supposes that acting exercises write plays. They don’t. Falk, however, is another matter. I acted with Falk in Saint Joan and The Changeling — he was in his early days, his early thirties, but everyone said he was on his way, and he was. He has much more available to him than Cassavetes does. A warm actor indeed, of great natural appeal and no shtick, he plays the co-dependent to Cassavetes dry-drunk. Alas, his exposition scene comes in the last scene of the play and with the wrong character, whereas it should take place with Cassavetes after all those beers. And the revelation scene when Cassavetes learns that Falk is out to kill him comes too early, and is discarded as a subtext. Cassavetes has a brilliant moment with it. And there are brilliant moments throughout the picture. Cassavetes is not a likable actor, just a Mediterranean mug. Falk, on the other hand, is very likeable, and if you’d like to see him in the biggest film role he ever had, take a look. Expect to be fascinated but not be satisfied.

 

The Roaring Twenties

15 Mar

The Roaring Twenties — directed by Raoul Walsh. Gangster Drama. 106 minutes Black and White 1939.

★★★★★

~

The Story:A WW I vet can’t find work and so starts up a bootlegging business which gains control of him.

~

Warner Brothers laid on the A-team for this one. Milo Anderson did the clothes: the ladies’ song costumes place a premium on our tolerance for the tacky, but they are right on the money and the period. Ernest Haller shot it; the same year he shot Gone With The Wind for which he won an Oscar, most of Bette Davis’s big films, Mildred Pierce, and later Rebel Without A Cause. And that sweet toughie Raoul Walsh directed it. It was made the wonder year of 1939, and would have won the Oscar any other year, had Oscars ever been given out for gangster flicks.

The picture is set up as a March Of Time documentary of a period 15 years before it was made; it is a montage interspersed with montages – brilliantly shot by Don Siegel and organized by Byron Haskin. They are simply tremendous. Big male character talents fortify the story from the bottom up, topped off by Paul Kelly as the nasty ur-don, and Frank McHugh as the star’s pal played by James Cagney.

Walsh and Cagney loved working together, and this picture is Cagney’s supreme performance as a motion picture actor. Until I saw it I never thought Cagney could act at all. All I ever saw in him was a bully with a tommy gun for a heart. And for the most part in his career, that is what he is. I steered clear of him. But in this piece he is quite something else besides. One sees him as if for the first time. For here he is — with his dancer’s wrists and carriage. He is open, he waits, he responds, his feelings are hurt, he ponders before he speaks, he does not fall back on his rapid timing for every reaction, he wants something he can’t have and doesn’t know he can’t have it, that is to say, for once, he isn’t entirely smart, he is a mess. You can’t take your eyes off him – because he is so real and because his body is fully alert and engaged. It is a pity this side of him was not ever used elsewhere again.

Humphrey Bogart plays his crumby army pal, excellent especially in two execution scenes. And Jeffrey Lynn is the third musketeer, the one who gets the girl. She is played by Priscilla Lane, who has full lips and a sweet soft open look, rather like Betty Grable. She does her own singing, although the lip-sync is slightly off, as it is with Gladys George who plays Panama Smith, in a sketch of Texas Guinan. She is superb in the subtlety of her response in her every scene: she is an actress who can tell a story without spelling it out.

But it is the director, of course, whose triumph this is. Look at the way he sets up his shots for the crowd scenes, the saloons, the brawls. Look at the time he gives to the love scenes – as an action director Walsh is unique in taking his time for these and in giving equal range and ambiguity to all parties concerned. But what is especially powerful is his sparing use of close-ups and his refusal to do reaction shots. If two people are on camera, they are both always in frame, no matter which point of view is cut to. This means that you can always see the response of both actors at the same time and you never have a break in the animal energy between them. Kurosawa later used to do the same.

McHugh and Cagney improvised their scenes together and you can see the freshness of them. Cagney, Walsh, Bogart and especially Frank McHugh rewrote the script as they went along and had a grand old time, and you can enjoy it in the choices, large and small, that animate the scenes as they unfold. Snappy dialogue throughout. Walsh’s first film at Warner’s and first of four with Cagney. The film actually speaks for a moral rather than a chronological era, and the era is not over. It was a huge hit. It still is. Don’t miss it.

 

 
 
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