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Category Archives: Gregory Peck

Spellbound

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I’ve heard Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) described as a tale of the lunatics taking over the asylum, and that’s actually not a bad summation. Despite sounding like a glib dismissal, it neatly encapsulates the basic premise of this movie. Exploiting the then fashionable trend for psychoanalysis, and enthusiastically supported by firm believer David O Selznick, it’s a romantic mystery served up as a kind of Freudian stew – and a very tasty one at that. Like all of Hitchcock’s films made for Selznick the producer’s fingerprints are visible everywhere, but there are plenty of instances of that familiar visual flair to ensure that you never forget who directed it.

Amnesiacs always make good protagonists in any movie, the blanked out memories that need to be recovered before any sense of order can be restored automatically generate mystery, and so it is with Spellbound. Our hero (Gregory Peck) is referred to variously as Dr Edwardes, JB, and finally as John Ballantyne (I’ll stick with JB for the purposes of this piece as that’s the moniker he carries for most of the running time) while he struggles to find out his real identity, and more crucially whether or not he’s a murderer. His arrival at a New England psychiatric hospital posing as the new director is initially taken at face value. There are a few comments passed regarding his relative youth for such a responsible position, but there are no other eyebrows raised. What it does spark though is an unsuspected passion in the emotionally repressed Dr Constance Petersen, thus providing JB with one priceless ally. Such a deception cannot hope to endure long though and, sure enough, it’s inevitably revealed that the real Dr Edwardes is in fact dead and the impostor taking his place is very likely his killer. So, still in search of who he is and what he did, JB goes on the run with Constance joining him after a short interval. It’s here that the picture comes into its own, as Constance, with the aid of her old tutor Dr Brulov (Michael Chekhov), employs Freudian psychoanalytic techniques in a race against time to probe the depths of JB’s subconscious and discover the truth. It all culminates in the famous dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali, whose interpretation lays bare all the secrets. The whole thing is pure, escapist hokum but it’s executed with such style and conviction that you’re completely drawn in. It’s a good illustration of how, apart from his technical achievements, Hitchcock was masterful at taking stories that were essentially tosh and coaxing the viewer into accepting their credibility for the duration of the movie.

The stuff that dreams are made of - Spellbound.

I mentioned earlier Selznick’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, and I’d say that’s directly responsible for the film’s biggest weakness. Such was the producer’s zeal that he insisted on the involvement of an adviser on all things psychoanalytical. The result is an overly pious attitude towards the science depicted, from the cloyingly reverential foreword to the kind of mangled dialogue that even Ben Hecht was hard pressed to shape into something presentable. The contrast between the kind of clumsy exposition that Selznick wanted and Hitchcock’s talent for economical storytelling is clear to see in one scene near the end. In the space of a thirty second montage, consisting only of close-ups of Ingrid Bergman’s increasingly desperate features and a few imploring lines, the the trial, conviction and sentencing of JB is dealt with fully. Similarly, the whole, lengthy sequence at Brulov’s house could have proven intolerable in the hands of a lesser director. Instead, through the combination of a wonderfully idiosyncratic performance by Michael Chekhov, Hitchcock’s arresting visual style and the scoring of Miklos Rozsa (alternating between lush romanticism and the unnerving strains of the theremin), it stands as the strongest section of the entire film. Of course, in other places, some of the bravura touches could be said to serve no better purpose than to draw attention to their own inventiveness: the revolver discharged directly into the camera at the end springs to mind, but that’s such a memorable shot that it feels uncharitable and unnecessarily sniffy to complain about it.

It’s said that Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant for the lead, and Peck’s performance has been criticised for being a touch too aloof. I can understand where that’s coming from, Peck had yet to find his feet fully in cinema, although I also feel he was actually right for the part. Had Grant been cast I have a hunch he would have brought too much of himself, that innate self-confidence, to the role and thus rendered it less believable. As it stands, Peck had just the right measure of insecurity about him to get across the edginess of a man who doesn’t even know his own name let alone whether or not he’s a criminal. Whatever reservations anyone may have about Peck, it’s hard to fault Ingrid Bergman’s Constance Petersen. She brings real charm and innocence to the part of the slightly uptight academic who gradually learns that there’s a vast gulf between theory and practice when it comes to matters of the heart. There’s nothing the least bit goofy about her, she’s clearly a highly intelligent and capable woman but there’s also a touching vulnerability as a result of her sheltered lifestyle. Aside from the principal performers, there are a couple of excellent cameos in the mix too – the middle-aged cop and his partner discussing the issues he’s having with his mother who are in some ways reminiscent of the travelling salesmen in The 39 Steps, and Wallace Ford as the persistent pest in the hotel lobby – these don’t add anything at all to the narrative but they do enrich the whole experience.

Spellbound has had a variety of releases on DVD in different territories; my copy is the old Pearson release from the UK, which I think has been repackaged and subsequently issued by Prism. I guess there may be better versions out there but that old UK disc is pretty good to my eyes. There aren’t any problems with the transfer, which is clean, sharp and free from damage. There are a range of extras, from text bios and trivia to a gallery and a few clips of Hitchcock interviews etc – I’m pretty sure the latter is replicated on the other Hitchcock titles from Pearson. The movie itself is one of Hitch’s better than average 40s offerings, not as good as Notorious or Shadow of a Doubt but still technically accomplished and very entertaining. There are the familiar motifs (the wrong man on the run and the blonde Girl Friday) and the psychoanalysis angle is quite enjoyable. Like most of the director’s films, it has a high rewatch value regardless of how familiar the plot may be – recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1940s, Alfred Hitchcock, Gregory Peck, Mystery/Thriller

 

Yellow Sky

 

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Ok, so I’ve taken a break from this thing for a while now. I’ve generally found that I need to take a step back from time to time and allow myself a chance to recharge the batteries before starting anew. My last post was on a western, and my latest one is also another oater – for the sake of continuity if nothing else. Yellow Sky (1948) is a typically stylish William Wellman movie that trades on those perennial themes of greed and honour.

The film opens with a bank raid in a small town and concludes, with a quirky twist, in that same town. However, the robbery plays only a small part in the story; it’s the events that it leads to that form the core of the movie. Stretch Dawson (Gregory Peck) is the laconic leader of a band of outlaws who think they’ve just made an easy killing. While their initial getaway appears to have been clean there is a troop of soldiers on their trail, and the outlaw gang find themselves forced onto a barren and punishing expanse of salt flats in an effort to elude capture. From this early stage the first cracks appear in the group. Stretch is the acknowledged boss but his authority begins to be challenged by Lengthy (John Russell) and especially by Dude (Richard Widmark). As these men haul themselves painfully across the hellish landscape they are driven to the very limits of human endurance. Just as they are about to succumb to the effects of exhaustion and dehydration they stumble into the abandoned former mining town of Yellow Sky, and this is the point at which the story becomes most interesting. The old ghost town is not all it seems – for one thing it’s not strictly a ghost town at all. There are two inhabitants, an old half-crazed prospector and his daughter ‘Mike’ (Anne Baxter). Even in their weakened state the outlaws are not so dumb as to believe these two are living there for the good of their health. Putting two and two together, they decide that there’s only one reason anyone would choose to live in a dead town – gold. What remains to be seen is how far each individual is prepared to go in order to satisfy his craving for riches, and whether or not the notion of honour among thieves has any basis in truth. Like all the best westerns, it raises questions about one’s word of honour and, in this case, if that has any value for those who live outside the law.

Now where have I seen this before?

William Wellman’s direction offers a lesson in style, utilizing close-ups, long shots, deep focus, shadows and high contrast. There’s also an especially notable shot down the smoothly rifled barrel of a gun (see pic. above) which foreshadows the famous 007 pre-credits sequences. I’d also like to mention the climactic shootout between Peck, Widmark and Russell that takes place in the gloomy ruins of the town saloon – all the gunplay is unseen by the audience with only the bloody aftermath revealed. The location photography is another positive feature, with the inhospitable Death Valley occupying the first half before the action moves to Lone Pine for the scenes around the titular town. When looking at the characters, the first thing that jumps out is that every single one is known only by a nickname from beginning to end – the sole exceptions being Peck and Baxter, whose full names are revealed to the viewer. Peck handled his leading role competently as the reluctant hero who eventually finds a kind of redemption. John Russell and Richard Widmark make for a worthy couple of adversaries, the former consumed by pure animal lust and the latter with a hunger for wealth and the power to visit retribution on those he feels have slighted him in the past. Widmark in particular is the epitome of villainy, still at that stage in his career when he tended to get typecast as nasty pieces of work for the hero to vanquish. Anne Baxter’s role called for her to be a kind of self-sufficient tomboy who still remains sexually provocative. To her credit, she managed this balancing act and emerged as a fully rounded character that you can believe in. Throughout the film she proves herself the equal of the male cast members and her only concession to the traditional image of femininity comes at the very end when she dons a frivolous little hat that Stretch has brought her as a gift.

The R1 DVD from Fox presents Yellow Sky in a handsome full frame transfer that’s clean and sharp for the most part. Extras on the disc consist of galleries of advertising material and a selection of trailers. The film itself is absorbing and well paced and it was only at the end that I realized how little violence is present, and how even that takes place off screen. This is one of those late-40s westerns that helped usher in the more complex works that dominated the following decade. Recommended.

 
 

The Big Country

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The Big Country (1958) has been described as a Cold War allegory, and I guess the reasons for that are fairly clear for anyone who wants to see them. It’s also been referred to as a traditional “stranger in a strange land” style tale, which is once again obvious enough. Whilst the latter is a theme that’s been visited too many times to mention, the former tends to date movies badly if that’s all there is on offer; one has only to compare a one-note diatribe like Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue to multi-layered works such as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, or Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid to see the difference. What raises The Big Country above a trite critique of contemporary politics and lends it a timeless relevance is the fact that it’s also an examination of man (or should I say men) and what he’s made of. The hero continuously has his masculinity questioned and challenged, and it’s his refusal to play others’ games and conform to preconceived ideas of how he should or should not act that builds up his stature in the viewer’s eyes while, conversely, it is diminished in the eyes of his fellow characters.

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is the archetypal easterner come west. His arrival is enough to literally stop the locals in their tracks, gazing in wonder at this alien figure with his trim suit and odd hat. McKay is a seaman who’s come to this new land to wed Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker), daughter of a wealthy rancher. Within a very short time McKay has a run in with Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors) and his brothers, and so gets his first taste of the situation he’s landed himself in. The Hannassey’s are a rough and ready clan of ranchers engaged in an off and on vendetta with McKay’s future father-in-law Major Terrill (Charles Bickford). The cause of the feud is a piece of land that both families covet due to its providing that most valuable of commodities in the parched prairies of the old west, water. Having said that, the bitterness and venom that both Pat and the Major express when speaking of their not so welcome neighbours hints at some deeper source for the rivalry. Right away you can sense McKay’s unease at the raw hatred he’s exposed to, and the fact that he refuses to share in it and even backs off confronting the Hannassey’s shocks his bride-to-be. In fact, McKay seems to do nothing but disappoint his betrothed; he avoids taking a ride on the unbroken horse that’s traditionally wheeled out to give all newcomers a rough welcome, and worst of all turns his back on a fight that the Major’s foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) goads him into. As far as Pat is concerned, these all amount to calculated insults and his shunning of such public displays of machismo cast doubts on his manhood and, by extension, on her pride and judgement. However, the viewer gets to see what Pat and her father don’t: that McKay is no coward, he’s merely a man with a deep sense of personal honour who’s offended by the act of showing off to others and proving to them that which he’s very sure of himself. When Pat rides off in a huff, and the Major and Steve go hunting vengeance, McKay quietly takes out that unbroken horse and sets about taming it. Time and again the animal hurls him into the dust of the corral, and time and again McKay gets back in the saddle until he finally bends it to his will.

The thing about McKay is he’s spent years sailing the oceans of the world and knows full well what hardships he’s capable of enduring. He feels no obligation to show the Major what a big man he is for the simple reason that he’s already proven that to himself. To McKay, that’s all that matters: that a man should know his own abilities and that his woman should believe in him just because she is his woman. For Pat, however, that’s not the case and she comes to feel shame for having chosen a man who regards acts of bravado as beneath him. If further evidence were needed of McKay’s physical courage then it comes in a remarkable night time scene. Having begged off a public brawl with Steve, McKay pays him a nocturnal visit to “say goodbye”. The two men walk out onto the moonlit prairie and engage in a brutal fist fight that was marvellously filmed and choreographed. Director William Wyler shot the whole scene without music and the only sounds heard throughout are the grunts and gasps of the two men punctuated by the thud of bone striking flesh. Wyler also made excellent use of the camera in that scene, alternating between close-up, medium and ever widening long shots that point up not only the isolation of McKay and Steve but also their insect-like insignificance (and indeed the insignificance of their struggle) in that vast landscape. By the end of their bout, as both men stand bruised and bleeding, McKay asks Steve what he thinks that has proved. In addition, there’s also the standoff with Buck late on, when he rides into the Hannassey’s place to try and rescue Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) and head off a bloodbath in the making. As Rufus (Burl Ives), the patriarch of the Hannassey’s, does the honours the two men take the requisite number of paces and turn to face each other down the barrels of McKay’s antique duelling pistols.

East meets West - Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston in The Big Country.

I’ve already mentioned William Wyler’s masterful use of the wide lens, but it’s to be seen all the way through the film. The whole thing is a visual delight that takes in both the sprawling prairie vistas and the blanched rocks of the canyon between Terrill’s ranch and the Hannassey’s place. Blanco Canyon is the setting for the scene that, for me at least, is just about the finest in the picture. The Major has decided that a showdown with the Hannassey’s is unavoidable and sets off to finish things for good. When it becomes apparent that he and his men will be riding into an ambush, the Major turns to Steve for support. However, this man has had his bellyful of mindless violence and says so. The Major rides off alone to meet whatever fate awaits him. Steve has looked on this man as a surrogate father all his life and you can see the anguish etched into his features as he watches him depart. He mounts up, and the camera moves to the mouth of the canyon and the lone figure of the Major. As Jerome Moross’ spine-tingling score slowly builds the angle shifts slightly and Steve gallops into view, drawing level with the Major he looks back to see the rest of the ranch hands come one by one round the rim of the canyon. There’s not a word exchanged between Heston or Bickford but the flickering glances and quickly concealed smiles speak volumes. To me this is cinema at its purest, where visuals, score and subtle expression tell the viewers all they need to know about the nature of a relationship, and in this case what masculinity is about – the importance of loyalty, affection and sheer guts even when good sense should dictate otherwise.

I honestly couldn’t criticise any of the performances and just about every major character felt fully rounded. Peck’s hero is maybe too straight down the line but that’s a minor complaint when you consider that such a role was necessary amid all the complexity elsewhere. Charles Bickford should be the guy to hiss at, but the raw courage and determination he invests in the Major tempers the less savoury aspects. There aren’t really any absolute villains in The Big Country, Chuck Connors comes the closest but even he is more to be pitied than anything. He shows himself to be only a step or two above an animal towards the end but it’s hard not to see him as something of a victim of circumstance in some respects too. I thought Charlton Heston gave one of his best performances in a role that ensured he got to act in a restrained and measured way, his lower billing probably contributing to that. Burl Ives picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part and I’d say he deserved it on the basis of a couple of memorable scenes alone – his gatecrashing of Major Terrill’s party and the climax, where he is forced to do the unthinkable, immediately spring to mind. Both Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker did well portraying two opposite sides of the female character and made the most of their screen time.   

MGM’s R2 DVD of The Big Country is slightly disappointing. The anamorphic scope image is generally clean and sharp with good colours but there are some really irritating instances of shimmer, especially when any of the wooden buildings are on view. What’s maybe more annoying is the fact that the disc is practically barebones. This is an important film, and not simply because it’s an epic production; it’s a movie that’s both visually and thematically rich and deserves better. Anyway, despite some reservations about the DVD the film itself is a genuine classic that ought to have a place on the shelf of those who consider themselves western fans, or even just fans of quality cinema.

 

The Stalking Moon

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Thanks to the suggestion of a fellow blogger, le0pard13, I decided to dig out and rewatch Robert Mulligan’s 1968 suspense western The Stalking Moon. Although the film contains its fair share of action, it is essentially a slow burning mood picture which builds tension almost imperceptibly yet inexorably towards a conclusion that is both nerve-wracking and satisfying. A good part of its strength comes from the fact that it can be approached from a variety of angles; as the standard chase picture, an examination of race relations, a love story, a tale of friendship, and it even has a suggestion of the supernatural.

Sam Varner (Gregory Peck) is an army scout on the verge of retirement, having already bought a ranch in New Mexico. His last job for the army, helping bring a band of Apaches in to the reservation, leads to the rescue of a white woman who has been held captive for ten years. This woman, Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint), has a young half- breed son in tow and manages to persuade Varner to escort her to the nearest coach stop and help her on her way. At first, her eagerness to distance herself from her rescuers might appear to be rooted in some sense of shame at having given herself to the Apache – an idea reinforced by an uncomfortable stopover at a remote swing station. However, it soon becomes apparent that her desire to be on the move is based on an altogether more serious threat. It turns out that her boy is the son of Salvaje, a renegade Apache with a fearsome reputation. So begins a relentless pursuit that leads to Varner’s ranch and, eventually, a one man siege of the log cabin that seems to grow smaller by the second. All the while, the spectral presence of Salvaje lurks in the shadows or flits from rock to rock and the viewer starts to wonder if this man is indeed human. The film’s masterstroke is keeping Salvaje off the screen for so long; he remains a cipher, a kind of bogeyman who is spoken of in hushed tones but never seen. Even when he does appear, we are only given a fleeting glimpse of him before he vanishes again like some terrible force of nature leaving death and chaos in his wake.

A hunting we will go - Gregory Peck finds himself backed into a corner.

Gregory Peck plays another of his stoical, straight down the line characters in The Stalking Moon. In truth, it’s one of those classic western roles wherein the hero knows that the right thing to do is the unhealthy option but goes ahead with it all the same. In this case Varner has the chance to put Sarah on a train and let someone else deal with the whole mess, but his own sense of honour rules that out. As he toys with his food and gazes repeatedly at the lonely, forlorn figure sitting on the train platform it’s obvious what he’s going to do. Peck was always fine in those parts where his character had to draw on that inner steel to tough out the most hopeless of situations, and the role of Sam Varner might have been tailor made for him. Eva Marie Saint is also good in a difficult part, a woman who has become something of a stranger among her own people and little more than a misplaced possession to the mysterious Salvaje. In a movie that’s short on dialogue she has few lines to speak yet manages to convey the vulnerability of her character without diluting any of the resolve that would have been required to live the way she did. Robert Forster makes an early appearance as Peck’s half breed friend and fellow scout who proves his loyalty right to the end. The Stalking Moon was the only western made by director Robert Mulligan, and that’s something of a shame since he did an excellent job and seemed at home in the genre. He made excellent use of the locations (Nevada standing in for New Mexico) and the widescreen photography to emphasise the isolation of his characters. The open spaces of the first half of the film highlight not only the vastness of the country but also the relentless nature of Salvaje who will follow Sarah to the ends of the earth if necessary. In contrast, the second half becomes claustrophobic with Varner’s cabin, and the encroaching mountains and trees, becoming the focal point.

Warner put The Stalking Moon out on DVD last year in R1 as part of their Western Classics box and it’s also available in much of R2, though not the UK yet, as a stand alone title. It’s been given a fine anamorphic scope transfer with good colour and detail. The disc is as basic as they come without even a scene selection menu, but that seems to be par for the course with WB at the moment. Having said that, it’s a movie that does manage to sell itself on its own merits. There are those who have put forward the theory that Once Upon A Time In The West has a hint of the supernatural about it, with the possibility of Harmonica being an avenging ghost. Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider also play around with a similar idea and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to view Salvaje in The Stalking Moon in that company. Anyway, it’s a damn fine film and one that’s well worth seeing.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1960s, Gregory Peck, Westerns

 

Mackenna’s Gold

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Well, time to roll out one of my guilty pleasures. Mackenna’s Gold (1969) is one of those movies I saw as a youngster and which has entertained me ever since. Everyone knows that the age at which you first see a film is a major factor influencing how much you appreciate it. When I was a little boy this film seemed like the best western I’d ever seen. It had everything you could ask for: a strong hero, a roguish villain, cavalry, Mexican bandits, menacing Apaches, and lots of action. I’m a good deal older and more jaded now and I no longer think it’s a great western, but it is a great fun western. Sure, I can see all it’s shortcomings now and, if I wanted to be coldly objective, I could probably savage it. But I  don’t feel like being objective; this movie was a genuine childhood pleasure and I intend to hang on to the memory.

There’s a great opening sequence with Joe MacDonald’s camera swooping and soaring over a primal western landscape to the accompaniment of Victor Jory’s narration and Jose Feliciano’s theme song. Ancient buttes and mesas rise up from the parched desert floor before the circling camera locks onto a lone figure and zooms in on an equally ancient Indian on horseback. This old man, Prairie Dog (Eduardo Ciannelli), is carrying a map that reveals the location of a mythical canyon of gold. Before dying he passes on the map to Marshal MacKenna (Gregory Peck), but the marshal has little faith in such tall tales and promptly burns the document. When he is subsequently captured by an outlaw band led by Omar Sharif, he is forced to lead them to the canyon whose whereabouts he has memorized. As the treasure hunt progresses more people are drawn in, notably a number of the leading citizens of the nearest town. There are ambushes, Indian attacks, betrayals and more before the whole thing wraps up with a psychedelic sunrise and a massive earthquake. And let’s not forget there’s the very welcome sight of Julie (Catwoman) Newmar stripping off for a swim in among all that.

Omar Sharif, Keenan Wynn, Gregory Peck, and some other guy.

The acting tends to come second in a piece of fluff like this, and that’s pretty much the case here. Gregory Peck is as stoic (those who wish to be unkind might say wooden) as usual in a part that doesn’t call for much more than that. Leaving aside the Egyptian cowboy and the Italian Indian, the best bits come from the starry citizenry of the town (Lee J. Cobb, Edward G. Robinson, Anthony Quayle, Burgess Meredith, Raymond Massey and Eli Wallach) although they have little more than cameo roles and don’t last too long before being massacred. Telly Savalas was generally worth watching when he got to play a villainous part and he’s not bad as a greed fuelled cavalry sergeant.

The direction of J. Lee Thompson, and Carl Foreman’s script keep things moving along fast enough to paper over many of the plot holes and gaps in logic. The action scenes are well filmed, but then you would expect that from Thompson. There’s also some fantastic location photography from veteran cinematographer Joe MacDonald but, despite that, there’s too much reliance on obvious back projection. The only real complaint I have is one shockingly bad effects shot which involves a rope bridge and what looks like an Action Man tied to a toy horse. 

OK, this is no masterpiece of cinema but, as I said, it is a movie that I have fond memories of and I’m willing to overlook or forgive many of its faults. Perhaps others who came to it later in life would not be so generous. Sony’s DVD of Mackenna’s Gold is a reasonable transfer. I have the R2 which is anamorphic scope (I have heard that the R1 may be a pan and scan effort – if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me) and it is generally clear but the process shots do stick out like a sore thumb.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2008 in 1960s, Gregory Peck, J Lee Thompson, Westerns

 
 
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