Monday, December 3, 2018

Niagara (1953)

“Obviously ignoring the idea that there are Seven Wonders of the World, Twentieth Century-Fox has discovered two more and enhanced them with Technicolor in Niagara…For the producers are making full use of both the grandeur of the Falls and its adjacent areas as well as the grandeur that is Marilyn Monroe.”
A.H. Weiler, NYTimes January 22, 1953
In a similar fashion, the trailer starts like this: “A raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control! Niagara! And Marilyn Monroe!”

Neither review nor trailer were exaggerating. It’s hard to figure out who’s more magnificent. The mighty Niagara Falls with their unstoppable power or Marilyn with her uncontrollable passion. Two forces of nature. Directed for Fox by Henry Hathaway, Niagara was made first and foremost to promote the studio’s fastest rising star Marilyn. And she turned in a star-making performance. The poster for the movie is one of the best I’ve ever seen hitting home its message none too subtly. It depicts a larger-than-life Marilyn seductively draped across the cascading Falls with the water flowing over her scantily clad body.

Niagara is gorgeously vibrant candy color Noir with visuals that literally jump off the screen. The heightened idealization of Technicolor makes this movie look sensational. There’s no reason why Noir has to be in black and white. Eddie Muller stated that Noir is a state of mind and I couldn't agree more. Marilyn Ferdinand of the wonderful blog Ferdy on Films put it like this: “Technicolor in the right hands fits noir like a blood-stained glove”. Color works perfectly within the framework of Noir. It can paint a world as black as the darkest night. Evil doesn’t need dark alleyways to flourish, it can lurk in bright daylight.
Niagara is a movie where the darkness is interior. Inside the mind of a woman with murder in her heart and inside the mind of a man with shell-shock who’s completely shut in by his misery.

The picture is another Noir beyond the Mean Streets of Megalopolis. No snazzy nightclubs, seedy roadside motels, gambling dens and beatings in dark back alleys. Instead we get beautiful sights, wide-open spaces and nice simple clean cabins with a magnificent view of the Falls. Niagara is a happy spot for lovers and honeymooners.

The Falls play an important role in the unfolding events. Big parts of the movie come off like an advertisement for holiday makers as the attractions of Niagara Falls—the Maid of the Mist, the Cave in the Winds etc.—are prominently displayed including signs so we know what’s what. Joseph MacDonald was the cinematographer and he doesn’t just capture the majesty of the landscape for its own sake. In Noir - as indeed in most genres - there is always a co-relation between environment and crucial elements of the film. The landscape not only sets the stage for the players to interact and play out the drama. Niagara’s beautiful attractions become essential to the plot. A setting turned into a character, a landscape turned into a metaphor.

Before passengers go on the Maid of the Mist they have to leave their shoes behind. This plot point will later become relevant in the identification of a corpse. The Falls themselves with their swirling mists and choppy waters are an image for the destructive power of out-of-control and sometimes murderous passions that nothing can stop. Fittingly we see Rose and her lover kissing passionately under the Falls.

The story is barely more than routine. Young sexy wife wants to do away with aging hubby. Name all of the movies which Niagara pilfers elements from and the usual suspects are all there. In fact I expected the postman to ring twice to pick up his slightly stale plot.

Belated honeymooners Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams/Max Showalter) - Mr. and Mrs. Everyman - arrive at their Niagara Falls cabin only to find that Rose (Marilyn Monroe) and George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) have not vacated their cabin. Polly soon discovers that Rose isn’t the devoted wife she pretends to be. She has a boyfriend on the side. She’s bored with her life, her husband, her marriage. Rose and her lover boy Patrick (Richard Allan) are planning to kill George and make it look like suicide. Another one of Noir’s ironclad plan. What could possibly go wrong? Just when they think they’ve covered all the bases the plan goes sideways. It is Patrick who gets killed, in self-defense. Now George is on the lam and he still has a score to settle with Rose. He finally tracks her down in a bell tower.

Niagara isn’t the best thriller I have ever seen. The romantic drama is less than spectacular which has a lot to do with the fact that Rose’s scenes with lover boy are fairly underdeveloped and leave something to be desired. Their relationship is never fully explored. If the movie has a weakness it’s Richard Allan who was an ill-advised casting decisions. He’s a charisma-free zone. It’s no wonder he never had much of a career. Yet none of that really matters. Two stars in this picture do is the heavy lifting, Technicolor and Marilyn. They’re the glue that hold the movie together.

Niagara so often gets slapped with that fuzzy and tired blanket label Hitcockian. I don’t quite agree with it myself, unless you consider every good thriller Hitchcock-inspired. Niagara has a blonde but not Hitchcock’s preferred icy-cool patrician goddess. The suspense is there but Hitchcock’s psychological complexity is missing as is his deliciously twisted perversity - always so latently obvious (not an oxymoron) in his films. It was the Voodoo that he did so well. 

The bell tower scene however would have done Hitchcock proud and he must have at least taken a little peak at it before he made Vertigo. The visuals are simply breathtaking. Indeed, Technicolor can produce Noir shadows too. In this scene the colors are ever so slightly desaturated. When George finally has Rose cornered the shadows let the tower appear like a prison cell.

The dark roots of Hollywood’s most famous platinum blonde bombshell.
Even nowadays most people would be able to put a name to a photo of Marilyn Monroe though they may have never seen any of her movies. She is synonymous with the term sex symbol. The ditzy, flouncy and bouncy nitwit, for all her obvious assets oddly innocent and vulnerable, she was and still is the most iconic blonde bombshell the world has ever seen. Most of her films were comedies where she - without even wanting to - simply sets the hearts of the entire male population on fire with her guileless exhibitionism. (I say hearts because I’m trying to be delicate). She was seemingly unaware of her sex appeal and oblivious to her own potent effect though as any woman can tell you it takes a lot of strategic planning to be so oblivious. Lorelei Lee or Pola Debevoise were manipulative but essentially good-natured. There was a certain lovable goofiness about them. In Marilyn’s comedies she played her persona for laughs. 
Yet before her screen image solidified into the naive temptress there was a different Marilyn, one we’ve never seen before and sadly would never see again. The Marilyn of Noir where her sex appeal was much more dangerous. In Don’t Bother to Knock she plays a mentally disturbed babysitter. She’s psycho Marilyn, the blonde bombshell’s evil twin sister. 

With Niagara Marilyn gained entry into the Bad Girls’ Club. Here she isn’t hampered by the knowledge that she is Marilyn, the naive sexpot. Rose Loomis isn’t a cuddly sex kitten (not that there’s anything wrong with it), she’s all grown-up in every way. In a deliciously slutty turn she’s introduced laying in bed smoking, wearing nothing but that impossibly bright red lipstick, writhing seductively under the sheets, legs apart. This is an image as boldly sexual as anything she’s ever done in her career. Her glow leaves no doubt as to what must have transpired not too long ago. The post-coital cigarette is another giveaway. I’m a bit surprised Joe Breen and his holy crusaders against wickedness let this one slide. Rose puts the cigarette out when she hears her husband come in and pretends to be asleep so she doesn’t have to deal with him. He most certainly wasn’t the lucky guy. Rose despises her husband and withholds sex. She changes her mind about that only once, on the morning he’s supposed to be murdered. Sexual favors are supposed to get him into a compliant mood.

A similar erotically-charged scene occurs when at an impromptu party at the hotel Rose requests her favorite record Kiss to be played. The song reminds her of her lover. The way she sits there enraptured and sings along Rose is clearly wrapped up in some steamy memories of lover boy. Not surprisingly her husband storms out of the room and breaks the record with his bare hands in a fit of fury. He knows she doesn’t put on that show for him. The tune will play a role again a bit later. The bell tower is supposed to play it as the agreed signal between Rose and Patrick that the deed has been done. When Rose hears the bells she walks away smiling wickedly. Little does she know the murder didn’t quite go as planned.

I have to take a little detour here and talk about Marilyn’s outfits. They’re not just to die but to kill for. There is that dress. You know which one I mean. THAT dress. THAT fuchsia dress. Yes, it needs and deserves its own introduction. It’s the sexy dress to end all sexy dresses. It’s a law unto itself. Of course you have to know how to wear a dress like that. Marilyn does. As Polly says: “For a dress like that, you’ve got to start laying plans when you’re about thirteen.” To paraphrase Paul Newman, this is the kind of dress you wear when you want to wake up in the morning and smile.
There is also THAT red lipstick which always stays on. In bed, in the shower, even in hospital in a coma! That boys and girls is determination I admire.

No matter what you think about Monroe, her persona or her acting, there’s no denying that she was one of the sexiest women ever. The way she sashays, wiggles and jiggles her way through the movie is something to behold. Like Jell-O on springs! In fact Niagara is the film usually credited with the birth of THE WALK. As Ray says when Rose walks by: “Get out the firehose.” But it’s hard to put out the fire when she’s constantly adding fuel. Rose is a woman on a mission and her every intention is in her walk, her smile and her body.
Considering she was the sexual icon of her day, the studio unfortunately never again tapped into her talent to play a Thoroughly Rotten Dame.

Because she is so absolutely gorgeous we can’t believe she as bad as she at first seems. A definite miscalculation. She comes with a little twist though. Rose is undoubtedly calculating and duplicitous but she’s not just out for herself. Sex is not merely a means to an end. Rose isn’t looking for a disposable sucker to bump off her husband so she doesn’t get blood on her mink. Here is one femme fatale who is purely and solely motivated by lust. Not greed, not power, not money, but simply sexual desire. She can barely control her own libido. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to believe that Rose would always go where the boys are. That’s how she gets her kicks. One has to see the look of naked lust on her face when she meets her lover in the souvenir shop.  Her lover in turn is so besotted that he’d commit murder for her.

In most Noirs, the femme fatale uses sex to gain power or wealth. In Niagara, sex isn’t a tool to get something else. It’s the crux of the matter. Rose herself is firmly caught in the web. 
Though George is supposedly the mentally unbalanced half of the couple, there is something vaguely unsettling about Rose’s single-minded pursuit of sex.

Rose possesses another trait necessary to the femme fatale. On top of looks she possesses cunning reasoning. Rose is a dangerous woman who has at least enough brains to concoct a plan to murder her husband and involve the Cutlers as unknowing witnesses in her little charade to paint her husband as unstable. It is necessary for the suicide ruse to come off. Ray and Polly are like pawns in her game. When George breaks the Kiss record, the Cutlers empathize with Rose, assuming she’s in danger of becoming a victim to her husband’s volatile temper, but she’s far more in control of the situation than they suspect. It’s just all part of the setup. 
Still, in the end we do feel sorry for her when George kills her simply because she was such an intensely alive creature who was desperately grasping at life.

As for people who say Marilyn was not an actress, well they’re probably right. The jury is still out. I never considered her much of an actress myself. In Niagara she uses the same tricks in the book that she always does. The wide-eyed innocent come-hither look, the breathy little girl voice, the half-opened mouth. It’s just this time around they have a darker undercurrent. Marilyn’s greatest achievement on film was being Marilyn.

If this sounds like a slight it isn’t meant to be in the least. The jury - that would be me - has decreed that it’s absolutely beside the point if she was a good actress or not. She plays certain roles very well because they fit her like a glove. There are many actors who have a limited range, but within that range they are unbeatable. Just as Joan Crawford had roles taylor-made to suit her persona and image, so did Marilyn. If the role suited her she was very effective and instinctively and naturally knew what to do. She didn’t so much seem to play a role but live it. On screen she just IS. Her sheer magnetism beats great acting every time.

Many people have bemoaned the fact that Monroe’s sexuality was exploited. Cow patties I says. I settle for showcased. Beautiful people are always “exploited”. It comes with the territory. Here Rose’s entire demeanor and her in-your-face sexuality demonstrate her effect on men. Her physical attributes express her character.

Monroe exits the movie about two thirds of the way through and her absence causes a problem. The movie loses some steam however the exiting climax makes up for it later.

One wonders how Rose and George ever ended up together. They’re the perfect picture of a dysfunctional marriage. We only get to know that George rescued her from a life as a waitress in a crummy little joint. George Loomis is a wreck of a man, a failed sheep farmer who was sent home from Korea with battle fatigue and spent some time in a mental hospital for soldiers. Unfortunately the PTSD aspect of the story is never further explored as it very likely would have been just a few years earlier. One wonders though where most of his battles were fought, on the battlefield or closer to home.
After he came home from Korea he went wrong though somehow it's easy to believe he’s the type who would always draw the short straw. A perfect patsy. Another Noir sucker who is a hapless pawn in the game of an evil woman until he turns the tables.

Cotten conveys a sense of utter weariness and desperation very well. He’s a guy who’s hit rock bottom and he’s not likely to go much farther up because all he has is his own sense of inadequacy. We simply have to feel sorry for him in his brooding unhappiness and bitterness. He’s trying to battle his demons but somehow he can’t stop himself. He can’t control his love and in the end he can’t control his hate.
George is entrapped by his misery, loneliness and fury. It’s a prison he cannot escape from because the most confining prison cell is the darkness of one’s own mind.

The opening sequence features a nihilist voice-over by Cotten that is quickly dropped right after. Traipsing around early in the morning at 5 am George is visiting the Falls but he has no idea why. It is as if they were calling to him. 
“Why should the Falls drag me down here at five o'clock in the morning? To show me how big they are and how small I am? To remind me they can get along without any help?” 
Right away there is the implication of serious mental problems. The magnificent Falls contrast sharply with his insignificance but their tumultuous restlessness resonates within him. Later he will tell Polly something about love and marriage using the metaphor of the Falls:
“You’re young. You’re in love. Well, I’ll give you a warning. Don’t let it get out of hand like those falls out there…Did you ever see the river up above the falls? It’s calm and easy, and you throw in a log, it just floats around. Let it move a little further down and it gets going faster, hits some rocks, and in a minute it's in the lower rapids, and nothing in the world -including God himself can keep it from going over the edge.” 
It is no surprise that in the end he goes over the Falls to his death. Once he’s killed the thing he loved the most, there’s nowhere else for him to go. “I loved you Rose, you know that.”

Jean Peters as Polly actually has more screen time than Monroe. She’s no slouch in the looks department herself, but it’s hard to compete with Monroe. Peters has a thankless role. She’s supposed to be “the plain one” and I find it admirable that she actually took the role. Anne Baxter turned it down because she didn’t want to compete with Monroe.
Ray and Polly are the normal couple, they're the foil for Rose and George. Polly - though “just” a housewife - is levelheaded and gutsy and would deserve a better husband than Ray. The guy is clearly punching above his weight. Polly tries to be a friend to George but he’s beyond help.
That Peters herself could be very sexy she would show with her next movie Pickup on South Street. In her own words, playing the siren didn’t come naturally to her and she always credited Monroe with showing her the ropes.

Now for the negatives. Just one actually but it’s the elephant in the room. Eager beaver Max Showalter, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and cornier than an Orville Redenbacher factory. As an actor he’s a blunt object. He’s more irritating than a persistent rash in a very delicate place. He takes books on his honeymoon and goes on fishing trips with his boss. The ultimate company man. Anything for a raise, sir!

It’s never quite clear if this portrayal of bungling dopiness is all Showalter’s doing or if there was intent on the producers’s part. But as Billy Wilder’s frequent collaborator Charles Bracket was one of the screen writers/producers on the film, there’s a good chance the little stab at corporatism was intentional.

I wouldn’t call Niagara a bona fide classic but it’s incredibly watchable despite its shortcomings.

16 comments:

  1. Yes, Niagara is incredibly watchable, but I would argue that this dissection of Marilyn and the movie is incredibly readable. I may just put the kettle on again, and have another go at it.

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    1. Thank you, I'm glad to provide some entertainment. :)

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  2. Margot, The overall review of Niagara is perfect, but your thoughts on both Marilyn Monroe and Casey Adams need at the least clarification, and some revision. Beginning with Marilyn, of course she is an actress and a great one -- if you judge greatness on empathy, which is the key to stardom, and boils down to moving an audience, to tears, laughter or desire.She sadly did not posses the personal confidence required to tap into her considerable gifts, nor utilize her technique, ergo, late on set and numerous retakes. The result is generally considered worth the wait. As for Max Showalter, and I agree with you about him in this film, he possessed an abundance of talent, on stage, and scree, the latter perhaps best exemplified by his small, but showy part, in Elmer Gantry as the deaf man who regains his hearing somewhere toward the end of the film at Sister Sharon's last revival meeting. He was, a composer, lyricist, painter and actor never out of work. Also a personal friend, who attended my wedding in 1973 after having worked with me, Rita Gam, Marty Brill, David Grayson and others in a now lost film. Well, it probably desrved that fate, but the gang was just grand.

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    1. Hi Barry, ha yes. About Marilyn. Really some people say she was a great actress, some say she wasn't. You are absolutely right when you say a good actor must move the audience. She did that without a doubt. For me though her range was very limited and we'll never know if she could have branched out to play that were completely unglamorous. As I said, I don't consider her a bad actress by any means, she is just Marilyn on screen. She does that perfectly and that's OK with me.

      About Showalter, that's a difficult one. I've seen him in only four performances and found him the same as in Niagara. However, wikipedia states he has over 1000 TV credits. That's a lot and there must have been something more to him than the shtick we see here. It's interesting that he was also a composer. It's great that he was a personal friend of yours.

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    1. OK reblogged it, had to monkey a bit with the format and type face to fit without it overlapping links list, Thanks again Margot
      Cigar Joe

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  4. Another wonderful piece of writing,often going places other blogmeisters would never dare.
    Margot "delicate" that'll be the day,no wonder Barry Lane is a regular here...more Barry later.
    Firstly I've never seen Niagara,it's a film that's always eluded me. The reason for me joining in the
    fun is the age old discussion if a color film can truly be considered Noir. Without being too boring
    I could list a whole heap of titles but would rather contain it to a select few. Roy Baker's
    impressive Inferno is mainly set outdoors in the striking Mojave Desert but the motivations of the
    villains (Rhonda Fleming & William Lundigan) are pure Noir. I wouldn't go as far as to class it as
    a Noir myself,but if it turned up on these pages I would not complain either. Two John Payne Noirs:
    Allan Dwan's Slightly Scarlet is pure Noir despite Technicolor and Superscope. Phil Karlson's Hell's
    Island is less so,and is presented in Technicolor and VistaVision. What tips the balance in Karlson's
    film is Mary Murphy's Femme Fatale. Murphy,generally a pretty lightweight actress is very impressive
    in Hell's Island,in many ways she is the film's strong suit. Henry Hathaway's 23 Paces To Baker
    Street,is basically Henry does Hitch,it's a more than decent thriller and to me is the closest thing
    you will get to seeing a Hitchcock film in CinemaScope. Now back to Mr Lane. Over at Laura's Barry
    stated that he has watched the lovely new restoration of Lisbon no fewer than four times. For me,
    that's all the endorsement that I need. Ray Milland's film was made in Trucolor and Naturama-but is
    it a Noir. The ending of the film with all the twists and turns is most certainly Noir. Dumb question
    time: do subversive elements in a decent little thriller tip it over into Noir territory? Lisbon,if
    nothing else gets pretty darn subversive at times.Claude Rains character from the get-go is defined
    as a sadist,especially in the scene where he squishes several song-birds to feed to his pet cat!
    There are some pretty racy dialogue exchanges.
    Manservant,Edward Chapman having been kicked in the butt by Yvonne Furneaux
    "I'm going to report you to the master"
    Furneaux "Good! he likes to know when I kick you"
    A little later on:
    Rains: "Burn two of her new dresses"
    Chapman: "She kicked me again sir"
    Rains :"Hard?"
    Chapman "Yes sir,very hard"
    Rains: "In that case only burn one dress"

    One thing's for sure there's lots more going on in Lisbon,than meets the eye.

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    1. Thanks John. Hey I try to be delicate, well at least PG-13. Nothing here the kiddies couldn't read.

      You're right, there's quite a few color Noirs out there. I know Inferno and Hell's Island. And I absolutely love Slightly Scarlet. Two great redheads for the price of one! More color Noir would be Bad Day at Black Rock, Desert Fury and House of Bamboo.

      I saw Laura's review of Lisbon. I have to track that movie down. It sounds really good.

      As for your question if subversive elements in a decent little thriller tip it over into Noir territory, I'd say depends. As it was a label retrospectively applied, there are very few Noirs that can be called textbook. Some movies just have certain noirish elements while others are missing. Sometimes Noir refuses to succumb to genre expectations. It is not a homogeneous genre (actually style) with hard-and-fast unbreakable rules. Something subversive going on is always a good start for Noir.

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  5. I certainly enjoyed Barry's details of his friendship with Casey Adams,and indeed Rita Gam.
    Casey is one of those people that I love to see make an appearance in anything,in fact I enjoyed
    his excellent performance recently watching the new Blu Ray of The Naked And The Dead-Casey
    certainly had range. I may have got this all wrong,but I do remember seeing a news item years
    back where Casey was featured as one of Katherine Hepburn's neighbours and indeed friend.
    As I recall the main feature of the news item was how the community tried their best to protect
    Katherine from intruding journos. I may be wrong regarding this and I'm sure Barry would put me
    right.

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    1. I'll have to give Adams another chance at some time. All the things I've seen him in I didn't like him.

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  6. John, Max Showalter lived the last years of his life in Chester, Connecticut which is about a thirty minute drive from Hartford, so Katharine Hepburn and Max Showalter were in some modest proximity. I have never heard there was a privacy problem, but as that may have been possible, I am certain she was protected by her family. I never met or spoke with Hepburn, but she was acquainted with my father as was max for the same reason. Both had properties in the Murray hill section of Manhattan and patronized his lumber yard when repairs or renovations were on going. Rita and Max did Night People together, which was a pretty fair film. Max also worked with Monroe in Bus Stop.

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  7. Margot...PG13 is fine with me-just my warped sense of humor-as I've stated before,as fans of older
    movies sometimes we tend to get over reverential,your fine blog,to a point, does dispose of some of
    that.I note another Republic Trucolor/Naturama Noir has been recently restored,it does not have the
    highest reputation,but does have a Noir cast to die for,at any rate I'd love to see it. The film in
    question is ACCUSED OF MURDER-I hope someone releases it on Blu Ray.
    Don't know how you feel about the whole "Neo Noir" thing, one I do have fond memories of is Ridley
    Scott's SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME..cannot believe the film is now 32 years old. To be fair I'm not the
    greatest Ridley Scott fan,for me he has made many overrated movies but SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME is
    actually underrated and was a huge box office flop. They were at the time trying to make a major star
    of Tom Berenger,but sadly it never happened. Had he been around in the 1940's he could have been a
    very good Noir actor.
    Barry,thank you so much,as always for your feedback.

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    1. Actually I am very reverential of classic movies even if I occasionally make fun of some aspects of them. Really, they can do no wrong for me. I may not be into certain movies or genres - Andy Hardy movies come to mind - but then I wouldn't watch the modern day equivalent of them either.

      I saw Someone to Watch Over Me about 20 years ago. I liked it. Should really rewatch. Berenger was riding pretty high for a while in the 80s and early 90s, then poof. I'll check out Accused of Murder.

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  8. I had the pleasure of seeing this on the big screen a couple of months ago. Even though I've seen it a few times before, it felt like I was watching it again for the first time.

    Loved your review. I agree it's difficult to think Marilyn is as rotten as she is when we first meet her in the film. I quite like her in this role, and I also agree the film loses something after her exit.

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    1. The movie must look stunning on the big screen. Too bad Monroe never played this type of role again.

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