Sunday Classical Music Noir Citys

Sunday’s Noir City was all about classical musicians; dark, evil, down-and-dirty classical musicians.

Well, not quite.


Talent isn’t enough to make you a great musician. You need to work hard. You have to devote yourself to your art. And you have to sleep with Joan Crawford.

In Humoresque, John Garfield plays a brilliant young violinist from the streets of New York, trying to eke out a living. The promise of success, and then the reality, comes from a wealthy, extremely alcoholic matron of the arts (Crawford). She’s married, but that doesn’t stop her from making beautiful music with her handsome fiddler friend.

Garfield and Crawford were magnetic stars, and it’s fun to watch them spark. Crawford is the real standout, knocking back one drink after another and swinging to emotional extremes.

For a melodrama, Humoresque has a surprisingly strong collection of funny one liners (and yes, they’re intentional). Oscar Levant plays the sidekick pianist, and gets to say most of the wisecracks. “She was born with a silver flask in her mouth.”

And, of course, it’s filled with great music. Isaac Stern worked as a music advisor.

The story slows down in the last half hour, which is why I give it a B. Most of it would earn a B+.

But I can’t really call this movie film noir. There’s no crime, no violence, and no sense of an inherently amoral world. Yes, it’s in black and white and occasionally shows dark shadows. But that doesn’t make it noir.

The 35mm print was hit and miss. Some reels were in excellent conditions. Others were badly scratched. At one point, the film broke.


The other film on the double bill was definitely noir. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good a movie.

But the pre-show was great. First, we were treated by a very good violin solo. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the violinist’s name.

Then Eddie Muller took the stage with Monica Henreid, the daughter of one of the film’s stars, Paul Henreid. She talked about her father’s long friendship with co-star Betty Davis, and how the famous cigarette-lighting scene in Now Voyager came about (it was his wife’s idea).

She told about her father’s political troubles. Working in his native Austria in the 1930s, and he was blacklisted for refusing to sign with the National Socialist Actors Guild. He eventually went to England. But when the war started, he became an enemy alien and was blacklisted there. Then he came to America, and had a good career until the 50s, when he was blacklisted again.

Onto the movie:

Betty Davis plays a musician, although we never see her make music. She’s far too worried trying to hide her past from her brilliant cellist of a new husband (Henreid). He’s just come to the US after some horrible experiences under the Nazis, and he’s too emotionally unstable to deal with the fact that she has been the mistress of a famous and brilliant composer.

Luckily for the audience, that composer is played by Claude Rains. Without Rains’ wonderful scene stealing, this stage-bound talky melodrama would be unbearable. Davis is best when she’s tough, and she’s not tough here. And Henreid is best only when playing a calm but fearless revolutionary; he’s not the artist type

And the story is just too dumb. All she has to do is tell her husband that she’s not a virgin, and her problems would be over. But by the time she finally confesses, there’s been a murder (I told you this one really is a noir).

Thanks only to Claude Rains, Deception gets a C+.

The 35mm print was uneven, but not never got as bad as Humoresque.

Saturday at Noir City

I attended three of the four movies screened at Noir City Saturday. They didn’t all adhere to this year’s theme: The Art of Darkness (ie, dark films about artists). But they ranged from reasonably entertaining to absolutely brilliant.

But the movies themselves aren’t the festival’s only attraction. Many people dress up for Noir City, usually in 40’s style clothing. So, before we get to the movies, enjoy these pictures:

The Dark Corner

Saturday’s matinee wasn’t really about artists, but on those who feed on art: curators, critics, and most important, collectors.

And the first film, Dark Corner, barely touched on the subject, with one of the villains running a gallery. Not much is made of that. But since the movie was enjoyable, I let that pass.

This 1946 potboiler manages to be both a pretty good noir thriller, and a parody of the genre–still new in 1946. Mark Stevens plays the hard-boiled private dick to a way-over-the-top extreme. When he picks up two liquor bottles with one hand and pours their contents into one paper cup, you know it wasn’t meant to be serious.

Lucille Ball plays his secretary/romantic interest…another hint that this was meant to be played at least partly for laughs. And yet it’s an effective mystery/thriller.

I give it a B.

The festival screened The Dark Corner in a perfectly acceptable 35mm print.


The second movie in the matinee wasn’t all that great. But it really was about art critics, curators, and collectors. And also about forgers and criminals.

An art museum employee has a nervous breakdown after surviving a horrible train wretch. But no trains have been wretched. Obviously, someone has been playing with his mind.

That shouldn’t be surprising. A lot of his co-workers don’t like him, because his lectures are too much oriented to regular people. He also wants the museum to invest in an X-ray machine, which can help them study how the great artists created their works. But there’s a little problem here: An X-ray machine can also identify a forgery.

It was modest fun. I give it a C.

Again, I have no complaints about the 35mm print.

The Bitter Stems

Few experiences are as exciting as going to see a movie you’ve never heard of and discovering a classic.

This Argentinian thriller from 1956 can hold its own amongst the best thrillers of the classic noir period. We know within minutes that the main character–not a hero in any sense of the word but the person through who we see the story–is planning to kill his business partner. We know enough about noir to know that he will do the dirty deed, and that everything after that will go horribly wrong.

A flashback fills us in. The soon-to-be-a-murderer starts out as a journalist, but not a particularly good one. He’s frustrated with his assignments and his pay. Then he meets a con man. The two go into business. Their business is profitable and not all that illegal, but not strictly honest, either.

No need to tell you the rest of the story. Better to enjoy it yourself. I give it an A.

This is one of the best-made noirs I’ve scene. The dark, shadowy photography has a moody subtlety the heightens the experience. And that was greatly enhanced by one of the best 35mm black and white prints I’ve seen in a long time.

According to Eddie Muller’s introduction, Saturday’s screening was the film’s North American premiere, and this is the first print of The Bitter Stems with English subtitles. Although it was revered in Argentina in its time, it has been all but lost. But the negative was recently found rotting in a basement, and it has now been restored.

I didn’t stay for the last film, Girl With Hyacinths. It was just too late for me.

Rear Window and Noir City Opening Night

Friday night I came the Castro for opening night of this year’s Noir City festival. They were screening one of my all-time favorites, Rear Window, along with the obscure Public Eye from 1992.

After grabbing my seat in the 3rd row, I went upstairs to the mezzanine, where I examined the bookstore table. The covers looked fun, but I didn’t buy anything. My backpack was heavy enough already.

This year’s Noir City theme is “The Art of Darkness”–noir stories about painters, writers, musicians, and other creative people who barely make a living from their passion. The opening night double bill focused on photographers.

It clearly wasn’t about clockmakers. The Festival scheduled the double bill in such a way as to guarantee running late. Rear Window was set to screen at 7:30, and Public Eye at 9:30. Rear Window is just five minutes short of two hours.

The festivities started soon after 7:30, with this year’s classical music-themed trailer. Then the “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, took the stage, pointing out that our society is built on money, but our culture is built on art. He introduced the model for this year’s poster (sorry, but I didn’t get her name), and then talked a bit about Rear Window. The movie started at about 7:50.

I’ll be posting a full essay on Rear Window soon for my A+ List. In the meantime, I’ll just say that it’s my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. A news photographer confined to a wheelchair and his small apartment (James Stewart) has taken to watching his neighbors to relieve boredom. Then he begins to suspect that one of those neighbors committed murder. The movie is thoughtful, funny, and entertaining. The suspense builds slowly to a point that’s almost unbearable. And it says some interesting things about how we live our lives in the modern city.

But I’m not sure it’s really film noir. Most of it is in bright colors, and the murder is dealt with as something strange and unusual, not the inevitable consequence of our sick world.

The Castro screened Rear Window digitally, probably from a DCP. And it was the sort of DCP that gives digital projection a bad name. The long shots were slightly fuzzy with dots that didn’t look quite like film grain. And the close-ups had that ultra-smooth, waxwork look you find in early digital transfers.

Rear Window is a great film to see with an audience. People laughed and gasped in all the right places. Unfortunately, there was a guy sitting behind me who also laughed in all the wrong places–including the death of a small dog. Very annoying.

The movie ended around 9:45–15 minutes after the second feature was set to begin. Ten minutes later, with no hint of the intermission ending, I decided to skip Public Eye and go home. I didn’t want to be up that late.

And besides, I had to finish this article.

What’s Screening: January 22 – 28

This week’s film festivals: SF Sketchfest continues through Sunday. And Noir City opens Friday and runs through the week and beyond.

And now, some movies:

B+ Aferim!, Opera Plaza, opens Friday

Racially-based slavery wasn’t limited to the Americas in the 1800s. As this disturbing and odd black and white film shows, it was common in parts of Eastern Europe as well. The story follows a constable and his teenage son as they hunt down, capture, and bring back an escaped slave in 1835 Wallachia. Cruelty and bigotry abound all around them and within them (especially the father). The slaves here are “Gypsies” (the word Roma didn’t yet exist), and looked down upon as inferior beings. The protagonists are far from likeable, but you can understand how society turned them into what they are. A fascinating look at a strange yet familiar world. Read my full review.

A Bonnie and Clyde & Screenwriting Class, Balboa, Sunday, 10:00am

This low-budget gangster movie, produced by and starring Warren Beatty , hit a nerve with young audiences in 1967 and became a big surprise hit. Shocking in its time for both the violence and sexual frankness (matching a horny Bonnie with an impotent Clyde), it still hits below the belt today. The title characters become alienated youth, glamorous celebrities, good kids who made a bad decision, selfish jerks, and tragic heroes with a sealed fate. After the screening, Karen Franklin will discuss the film’s story structure.

A+ Rear Window, Castro, 7:30

Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) investigate, it slowly dawns on us (but not them) that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment. On a double bill with The Public Eye. Noir City opening night.

? Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

Charlie Chaplin’s The Cure is arguably the funniest of the 12 shorts he made for Mutual in 1916-17–and all of his Mutuals are gems. In this one he skips the Tramp and plays a rich drunk. The first true Buster Keaton movie, The High Sign, isn’t amongst his best, but it has some wonderful moments and a great chase in confined space. I saw Double Whoopee (starring Laurel and Hardy) a long time ago, but I remember it being funny. I haven’t seen the Charley Chase vehicle, Innocent Husbands. Bruce Loeb accompanies everything on piano.

A The Lady Vanishes, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

If you walked into Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate British film without knowing who directed it, you’d spend nearly half an hour thinking you were watching a very funny and terribly British comedy of manners. An unusually large number of British tourists have overrun a small hotel in a fictitious Central European country, annoying the natives and struggling with the language and culture. Then everyone gets on a train, the heroine notices that a nice old lady has disappeared, and everyone else thinks she’s crazy. Meanwhile a strong whiff of fascism permeates the air. Now it feels like Hitchcock. One of his most entertaining works. Read my Blu-ray review.

A The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, various CineMark theaters, Sunday (matinee only) & Wednesday

Three down-on-their-luck Yankees (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director’s father, Walter Huston) prospect for gold in Mexico. They find and stake out a profitable mine before discovering that they don’t really trust each other. Writer/director John Huston, working from B. Traven’s novel, turned a rousing adventure story into a morality play about the corruption of greed, much of it shot in the remote part of Mexico where the story takes place.

A+ Casablanca, Stanford, Friday through Sunday

You’ve either already seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, the sausage came out perfect. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece. On a double bill with Gilda, which I saw a long time ago and it didn’t make that much of an impression on me.

B- Blazing Saddles, Clay, Friday & Saturday, 11:55PM

The most beloved western comedy of all time doesn’t do all that much for me. Sure, it has moments of great laughter as it lampoons everything from the clichés of the genre to institutional racism to the clichés of every other movie genre. But for every joke that hits home, two are killed by Mel Brooks’ over-the-top, beat-the-audience-over-the-head directing style. If you’re looking for western laughs, Paleface, Son of Paleface, Support Your Local Sheriff, and Shanghai Noon all beat Blazing Saddles.

A The Big Short, Cerrito, opens Friday

Who could expect that an absurd comedy would provide such a clear explanation of the 2007-08 economic meltdown? This is a movie willing to cut away from the story so celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain can use a cooking metaphor to explain CDOs. The movie, based on a true story, follows several traders who foresaw the housing meltdown and made fortunes betting on the collapse. Some of them felt guilty, but they couldn’t stop the meltdown, so they might as well have profited from it. You cheer for all of them, and are horrified by what happens to the rest of us.

B+ Youth, Opera Plaza, opens Friday

Youth is about old age. Michael Caine plays a retired conductor/composer vacationing at a Swiss spa. Harvey Keitel plays his friend, a film director working with a team of young screenwriters at that very spa. There’s no real plot, but several conflicts weave together involving the old friends, their families, their careers, and others staying or working at the spa. Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino provides a relaxed atmosphere (appropriate for the setting) mixed with a sense that anything–good or bad–could happen. I loved it until the last half hour or so, when the parallels to became too obvious.

Aferim!: Slavery Romania Style

B+ Period road movie

Written by Radu Jude & Florin Lăzărescu

Directed by Radu Jude

Racially-based slavery wasn’t limited to the Americas in the 1800s. As Radu Jude’s Aferim! shows, it was common in parts of Eastern Europe while it ravaged souls in Virginia. And the despised, enslaved people were not the decedents of sub-Sahara Africans, but Romas.

Set in Wallachia in 1835, Aferim follows a constable and his teenage son as they hunt down, capture, and bring back an escaped slave. These are clearly not protagonists we’re expected to warm up to. In one of the first scenes, the father questions a woman, insults her, and then becomes livid when she tells him she’s not feeling well (he’s scared of the plague).

Not that he and his son are all bad. They stop to help a priest with wagon trouble (sort of the medieval version of a flat tire). But the priest’s bigotry makes the constable’s seem mild. He explains that the “gypsies” are human, but inferior to Christians, while the Jews are not even human, but the decedents of horrible giants.

Much of the film consists of conversation between the father and son and the people they meet on the road–many of which they consider inferior. The constable talks a lot, often using a coarse and obscene vocabulary. The son is quiet and possibly retrospective. He occasionally expresses sympathy for those they meet–even the Roma.

The word Roma never comes up the film. Like African American, it didn’t exist in the 19th century, and most of the words available to define these people were pejoratives. In addition to gypsies, they’re called crows–a word that suggests that they are black.

You may have noticed that I used the word medieval a few paragraph up. It’s appropriate. Although set at a time when England and the USA were laying down train tracks and stringing up telegraph wire, Aferim shows a part of Eastern Europe that had yet to meet the enlightenment. The economic system was still very feudal, and the Church still controlled society with a violently racist doctrine.

The moral issues become more complicated after the constable and son capture their bounty. He ran away because he had an affair with his owner’s wife. The owner, a powerful aristocrat, found out and the punishment is expected to be horrific. Even the bigoted constable feels bad about what will happen when they return their prisoner.

Shot in widescreen black and white, Aferim uses few close-ups, as if trying to keep us from getting to close to the characters. Based on historical records, the film is studying a (thankfully) long-gone society, not the souls of a father and son. But it’s a fascinating look into that society and well-worth catching.

What’s Screening: January 15 – 21

In festival action, both SF Sketchfest and Berlin & Beyond continue through this week.

A+ The Adventures of Robin Hood, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights. The great supporting cast includes Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Technicolor–a name that really meant something special in 1938. Read my A+ essay.

B+ The Man Who Fell to Earth, Elmwood, Friday through Thursday

Movies were pretty weird in the ’70s, but they didn’t get much weirder than this—at least with a major director and stars. David Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth in search of water, but instead discovers capitalism, TV, alcohol, and human sex. Yet it’s not entirely clear what the film is about. Nicolas Roeg directed it, so you know that the movie won’t be about story. But the images are intriguing, the central characters are puzzles that cry out to be solved, and it has some very sexy scenes for your enjoyment. If for no other reason, see it to remind yourself what science fiction films could be like in the years between 2001 andStar Wars. A David Bowie celebration.

A Chimes at Midnight, Castro, Tuesday

Duty to country conflicts with loyalty to friends in one of the best and most unusual Shakespeare adaptations in the cinema. As adapter and director, Orson Welles combined the best parts of Henry IV Part I (my favorite Shakespeare play), Henry IV Part II (a weak sequel with a great final act), and Merry Wives of Windsor to create a whole greater than its parts–funny, rousing, and ultimately tragic. And if anyone was ever born to play Falstaff, it was Orson Welles. On a double bill with Welles’ last completed movie, F for Fake.

? The Mads are Back, Brava Theater Center, Friday, 7:30

Yet another Mystery Science Theater 3000
spinoff. Trace Beaulieu (best remembered as mad scientist Clayton Forrester) and Frank Conniff (best remembered as Forrester’s sidekick, TV’s Frank), will riff live on whatever movies they plan to show. Part of SF Sketchfest.

A Fruitvale Station, Roxie, opens Friday

The experience of seeing this independent feature is very much like waiting for a time bomb. You watch Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) go through the last day of 2008, knowing that he will be fatally shot by a BART cop in the early hours of the new year. Writer/director Ryan Coogler wisely avoids turning Grant into a saint, but makes us care very much for him. The last moments of the film–not including some documentary footage and the closing credits–will break your heart. Read my longer report.

? Found Footage Festival meets Everything Is Terrible!, Castro, Wednesday, 8:00

Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher collect videos of all types from garage sales, thrift shops, and even dumpsters. Then they put together the worst of these and present them with MST3K-like commentary. Judging from my reviews of past editions (2007 and 2012), this one will probably be very funny. Another part of SF Sketchfest.

B Lost In Translation, Roxie, Saturday, 7:00

Sophia Coppola introduced us to Scarlett Johansson and gave Bill Murray his best performance since Groundhog Day in this film in which nothing of note actually happens. Murray plays an American movie star in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial. Johansson plays the bored wife of a photographer. They sense a bond, but what you expect to happen never does. But that’s okay because it probably wouldn’t happen in real life, either. Coppola allows us to enjoy these people’s company, and their reaction to a foreign culture, for 104 minutes. On a double bill with The Virgin Suicides.

B+ Mad Max: Fury Road, Elmwood, opening Friday

You have to understand three things about this movie: 1) It’s basically one long motor vehicle chase broken up with short dialog scenes. 2) It’s surprisingly feminist for this sort of movie; the plot involves a woman warrior rescuing a tyrant’s enslaved harem. 3) The title character is basically a sidekick. The movie is filled with crashes, weapons, hand-to-hand combat, acts of courage, close calls, and fatal errors. It’s fast, brutal, and for the most part very well-choreographed. The film makes effective use of 3D, and should be seen that way. Unfortunately, the Elmwood will screen it flat. Read my longer essay.

A The Big Short, Vogue, opens Friday

Who could expect that an absurd comedy would provide such a clear explanation of the 2007-08 economic meltdown? This is a movie willing to cut away from the story so celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain can use a cooking metaphor to explain CDOs. The movie, based on a true story, follows several traders who foresaw the housing meltdown and made fortunes betting on the collapse. Some of them felt guilty, but they couldn’t stop the meltdown, so they might as well have profited from it. You cheer for all of them, and are horrified by what happens to the rest of us.

D- Hard To Be a God, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:00; Sunday, 2:00

Imagine the filthy, gory, and ugly medieval world that Monty Python parodied in Holy Grail, but played for gruesome shock and taken seriously. And not much of a story either. Or any real characters. That’s pretty much what you get with Aleksei German’s last film (finished after his death by his wife and son). While costumes, sets, and people’s attitudes reflect Europe’s middle ages, the movie is supposedly set on another planet. Little is made of that. The film, thankfully shot in black and white, succeeds in creating an atmosphere, but that’s not enough for a three-hour movie.

A+ List: The Lady Eve

The art of screwball comedy is pretty much lost today, and has been for at least 60 years. Sure, we still have romantic comedies, and some of them are even pretty good. But the screwball was different. The romantic leads were not only attractive and sexy; they were glamorous–dressed, made up and photographed to look like the absolute zenith of young, gorgeous aristocrats.

And yet these gorgeous aristocrats acted like low comedians. They’d ruin their clothes, do double takes, and suffer the indignity of pratfalls.

Screwballs also dealt with class issues–in a light way. One of the two romantic leads usually came from a more comfortable and respectable class of people than the other.

By bringing together a shy, scientifically-minded aristocrat and a beautiful con artist, Preston Sturges created the perfect screwball. The Lady Eve is cynical, sexy, occasionally touching, and very, very funny. It makes my A+ list of near-perfect films that I fell in love with years (preferably decades) ago and still love today.

(For what it’s worth, Bringing Up Baby is my second favorite screwball. The Coen Brother’s overlooked Intolerable Cruelty is the closest thing to screwball we’ve had in decades. But back to The Lady Eve.)

Barbara Stanwyck plays the title character, or, to be more accurate, she plays Jean, who plays the title character. Jean is half of a father-daughter team of card sharks preying on ocean liner passengers.

She and her father (Charles Coburn) find their next victim in Charles Pike, of the Connecticut Pikes (Henry Fonda in a rare and wonderful comic performance). His family made a fortune ages ago in the brewery business (“Pike’s Pale; the ale that won for Yale”). But he’s not interested in beer. He wants to study snakes. In fact, he’s returning home from an Amazonian expedition. Talk about the perfect mark for a beautiful crook.

In an early scene in the ship’s dining room, every unmarried woman onboard tries to catch Charles’ eye, but he cares only for the book he’s reading (called Are Snakes Necessary). Jean uses her pocket mirror to check out her competition. It’s a hilarious sequence, supported by her running commentary and topped with her brilliant and effective way of getting Charles’ attention.

About half of the film is set on the ship, as Jean and her father set their trap. Of course she’s going to fall in love with the sucker– anyone who’s ever seen a movie knows that. But by the time they reach land, the love has turned to hate.

In the second half of the film, Jean pretends to be an English noblewoman, the Lady Eve, to seek her revenge. And it’s all so easy. American aristocrats, at least in this movie, worship British gentry as the real thing.

Sturges clearly sympathizes with the con artists, not the aristocrats. You can’t watch the movie without hoping that Jean and her father will thoroughly humiliate Charles.

The Lady Eve is filled with the brilliant dialog, loopy logic, and strange characters that populate almost every movie written and directed by Preston Sturges. A romantic marriage proposal is marred by a horse who insists on nuzzling the prospective groom. Charles’ father reacts like a three-year-old when the servants are too busy to bring his breakfast. And there’s the whole thing about snakes; they’re not really part of the plot, but the eccentricity makes Charles more interesting, more socially awkward, and more loveable than your run-of-the-mill rich and handsome young man.

Sturges used comic supporting players brilliantly, especially William Demarest, who shines in almost every Sturges movie. In this one, he’s Charles’ working-class bodyguard “and very bad valet.” With his blue-collar demeanor, he clearly doesn’t belong with all these rich people–or even with the other servants. But he watches Charles like a hawk, suspecting foul play even when Charles is winning (rightly, of course).

The movie is filled with Sturges’ brilliant comic dialog. I won’t quote any. It’s best heard in context.

Visually speaking, there’s nothing exceptional about The Lady Eve. It looks like any other Paramount comedy of the early 1940s, clearly shot on sound stages. But what’s done and said on those stages makes it a masterpiece.


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