A Movie A Day: GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947)
Now, Mr. Green, don't get me wrong. Some of my best friends are Jews...
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Wow, what a fascinating movie. I can see why it made such a big splash and why it took home the Oscar for Best Picture. Elia Kazan’s film about anti-semitism is effortless and immediately involving. You get sucked into the story about a writer who takes on an assignment for a progressive New York magazine about the prejudice that still runs rampant against Jews and decides the best angle into this story, one that will reach more than already converted, is to pose as a Jew himself. Afterall, this writer, Philip Green, is new to the city and hasn’t made any of the social rounds yet. Who could tell his faith is a cover?
Gregory Peck plays Green and his fight against intolerance is a theme of Peck’s career. In fact, this movie reminded me a lot of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, no so much in story, but message.
What I think is frankly brilliant about this story is that it’s not a man against an evil, Nazi-like racist KKK world. We hear a couple of stories about kids calling another a kike or dirty jew, but we only get one instance in the movie where we’re shown that and even then it’s someone drunk and embarrassing his sober friends.
Instead, Kazan and screenwriter Moss Hart (from Laura Z. Hobson’s novel) focus on the latent racism or, even worse, passive indifference. There’s even a thread involving Peck’s secretary, Elaine Wales (June Havoc) who reveals that she had to send a false resume, without her very Polish real last name, in order to get hired onto the magazine that is running this editorial! Even in progressive New York, in this liberal magazine.
She reveals that and then, when Peck brings this to the attention of the editor-in-chief and brings about a change in that policy, she gets upset. She says that if they start hiring Jews that a “kikey one” will ruin it for the good ones. Wow! What a great character and the way Peck reacts to this is amazing, mixing both pity, revulsion, anger and sympathy in one look.
I can imagine making this movie these days and having it be much more in your face. Green would get threatened, his kid would be beaten up at school, his good friend, Dave Goldman (played by John Garfield), would be killed or hospitalized or something… you know, it’d be in your face and not under the skin.
The anti-Semitism Peck encounters is almost all that way, people helping perpetuate the stereotype even if they disagree with it. I keep going on and on and on about gray in this column, but it’s movies like GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT that make me want to sing out about how much I love complex characterizations, that gray area that you have in reality and is more often than not missing from entertainment.
And that’s not to say I think every movie should be gritty and real… but I love it when characters aren’t square pegs fitting neatly into square holes. In this movie, the only square peg is Peck and we need him to ground us, to be the shining light of decency to push through all the muddled bullshit.
Now, I don’t exactly subscribe to the theory proposed here, that if you joke about something that you’re perpetuating ignorance and hatred. I’m with George Carlin on this one. There are no such things as bad words. A word is just a word. It’s the context that is good or bad. Words like kike and nigger can’t be good or bad. But what can be is the racist asshole using them, or someone using the words in a way that knowingly hurts someone.
But you don’t have to agree with Peck. That’s one of the points of the movie, actually. There really aren’t any bad guys here, no skinheads or blatant racists. They leave that stuff to other movies. What they’re interested in here are the subtle ways racism and discrimination rear their heads.
The most fascinating and complex role in the film belongs to Dorothy McGuire’s Kathy Lacy, daughter of the editor-in-chief and, in fact, the one who suggested an article on anti-semitism in the first place. She is divorced and Peck is widowed, living with his mother and son. They hit it off and are engaged in pretty short order.
But when he tells her his angle to this story her face becomes mixed with emotion, the most prominent of them being fear. You can read that fear in many ways at first. She’s afraid for his safety, maybe. Or she could be afraid that he’ll be discovered or that his angle just won’t work. However, as the movie goes on you see that the fear is all about perception. She says it doesn’t matter to her if he’s Jewish or not and she means it… but what does matter to her is how society will look at her if they think her husband-to-be is Jewish, how her family will react, how this might impact her standing.
See, she’s not the prejudiced one. She doesn’t hold herself as being superior, but she’s letting her reputation and image in society make her complacent. She can feel good once or twice a year when she gets to vote against some bill or she can have a conversation about how she’s a friend to Jewish people and then spend the rest of the time protecting her standing.
Also great are John Garfield and Celeste Holm, the latter of whom received the Oscar for best supporting actress. Holm is the fashion editor who has her eye on Peck. They get along, but Peck’s heart belongs to McGuire and Holm, surprisingly, respects that. It’s not until tensions bubble over between the two (after a fantastic and emotionally brutal scene where she tries to console him after being called names by the neighborhood kids by telling him it’s not true that he’s Jewish, as if it would be a bad thing if he were… Peck really gets upset with her, accusing that same type of small comment that implants the kernal of racism into millions of childrens heads) that Holm finally comes clean with Peck in the scene that got her the Oscar.
John Garfield is in a small role as a good, long-time friend of Peck’s, an army man who has just landed a good job in NYC, but suddenly can’t find housing or apartments because of the titular “gentleman’s agreement” between those in upper scale communities. It’s not in any rule book, but there’s an understanding that only a certain type of people can get rent an apartment or home. As a result, Garfield is put into a situation where he’s going to have to leave a good, dream job behind because he doesn’t have a damn place to move his family in to.
I also want to point out Peck’s kid in the movie. As the two shared scenes, I was incredibly impressed with this child actor. He was very natural, likable and gives a performance beyond his years. I must have overlooked his name in the opening credits because it was a shock to me to find out after the movie was finished, when I was watching one of the docs on the disc, that the kid was in fact Dean Stockwell.
I’ve seen Stockwell’s work from this era, but I guess it was more when he was a teenager and not a little kid because I totally didn’t recognize him… I mean, it’s Al for god’s sake! Who didn’t want to be best friends with Al when they watched Quantum Leap?
Final Thoughts: It’s an incredible movie that coincidentally came out the same year as another movie about anti-semitism, a movie we previous covered in this very column called CROSSFIRE starring the great Robert Ryan. In the hour or so it has taken me to check up on my online stuff and write this review, this movie has already grown on me. I thought it was great upon first viewing, but as I reflect back on it I find I’m finding more and more to love about it. I highly, highly recommend this flick.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Saturday, November 29th: PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950)
Sunday, November 30th: THE HOT ROCK (1972)
Monday, December 1st: WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)
Tuesday, December 2nd: THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN (1973)
Wednesday, December 3rd: CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971)
Thursday, December 4th: THE CINCINNATI KID (1965)
Friday, December 5th: POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (1961)
Tomorrow we follow director Elia Kazan over to PANIC IN THE STREETS and I also plan on catching up on the AMAD I’m behind tomorrow as well, so expect to see a one-two punch of PANIC IN THE STREETS and THE HOT ROCK! See you then!
June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me
August 27th: The Set-Up
August 28th: The Devil & Daniel Webster
August 29th: Cat People
August 30th: The Curse of the Cat People
August 31st: The 7th Victim
September 1st: The Ghost Ship
September 2nd: Isle of the Dead
September 3rd: Bedlam
September 4th: Black Sabbath
September 5th: Black Sunday
September 6th: Twitch of the Death Nerve
September 7th: Tragic Ceremony
September 8th: Lisa & The Devil
September 9th: Baron Blood
September 10th: A Shot In The Dark
September 11th: The Pink Panther
September 12th: The Return of the Pink Panther
September 13th: The Pink Panther Strikes Again
September 14th: Revenge of the Pink Panther
September 15th: Trail of the Pink Panther
September 16th: The Real Glory
September 17th: The Winning of Barbara Worth
September 18th: The Cowboy and the Lady
September 19th: Dakota
September 20th: Red River
September 21st: Terminal Station
September 22nd: The Search
September 23rd: Act of Violence
September 24th: Houdini
September 25th: Money From Home
September 26th: Papa’s Delicate Condition
September 27th: Dillinger
September 28th: Battle of the Bulge
September 29th: Daisy Kenyon
September 30th: Laura
October 1st: The Dunwich Horror
October 2nd: Experiment In Terror
October 3rd: The Devil’s Rain
October 4th: Race With The Devil
October 5th: Salo, Or The 120 Days of Sodom
October 6th: Bad Dreams
October 7th: The House Where Evil Dwells
October 8th: Memories of Murder
October 9th: The Hunger
October 10th: I Saw What You Did
October 11th: I Spit On Your Grave
October 12th: Naked You Die
October 13th: The Wraith
October 14th: Silent Night, Bloody Night
October 15th: I Bury The Living
October 16th: The Beast Must Die
October 17th: Hellgate
October 18th: He Knows You’re Alone
October 19th: The Thing From Another World
October 20th: The Fall of the House of Usher
October 21st: Audrey Rose
October 22nd: Who Slew Auntie Roo?
October 23rd: Wait Until Dark
October 24th: Dead & Buried
October 25th: A Bucket of Blood
October 26th: The Bloodstained Shadow
October 27th: I, Madman
October 28th: Return to Horror High
October 29th: Die, Monster, Die
October 30th: Epidemic
October 31st: Student Bodies
November 1st: Black Widow
November 2nd: The Ghost & Mrs. Muir
November 3rd: Flying Tigers
November 4th: Executive Action
November 5th: The Busy Body
November 6th: It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
November 7th: Libeled Lady
November 8th: Up The River
November 9th: Doctor Bull
November 10th: Judge Priest
November 11th: Ten Little Indians
November 12th: Murder On The Orient Express
November 13th: Daniel
November 14th: El Dorado
November 15th: The Gambler
November 16th: Once Upon A Time In America
November 17th: Salvador
November 18th: Best Seller
November 19th: The Holcroft Covenant
November 20th: Birdman of Alcatraz
November 21st: The Train
November 22nd: Gunfight At The O.K. Corral
November 23rd: Mystery Street
November 24th: Border Incident
November 25th: The Tin Star
November 26th: On The Beach
November 27th: Twelve O’Clock High
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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Nov. 30, 2008, 8:08 a.m. CST
What he said.
Nov. 30, 2008, 8:18 a.m. CST
I confess that as a Jewish American, I didn't quite "get" this movie. I know that anti-Semitism has been a problem in some places and times (as has prejudice against Catholics, Irish, Poles, French, Germans, English, Africans, and too many other groups to list). However, the only time I've ever encountered anti-Semitism in America, it was so ridiculous that I almost burst out laughing. Maybe I've just had a sheltered life. I dunno.
Nov. 30, 2008, 8:45 a.m. CST
Well, there's no doubt that the US has been the most tolerant place for jews in history. However, when the movie was made, jews were probably the most discriminated group of european descent. Many school, country club, job, had unwritten law against jews. Some events during WW2 might even suggest that a few US officials were antisemite and deliberately sent back jews to their death in Germany. However, today, I would agree with you, anti semites are a very small part of the US.
Nov. 30, 2008, 9:14 a.m. CST
Nov. 30, 2008, 9:45 a.m. CST
Great great movie, Kazan at his best.
Nov. 30, 2008, 10:03 a.m. CST
Another great McQueen performance to look forward to there Quint. And Cab Calloway is good in it too! (But I'm a big Cab fan anyway...)
Nov. 30, 2008, 11:32 a.m. CST
by Mockingbird Girl
Yes, you've led a pretty sheltered life... and 2008 ain't 1948. It's worth remembering that Mississippi Representative John Rankin -- who is, of course, mentioned in GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT -- called columnist Walter Winchell "the little kike" on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Nov. 30, 2008, 12:11 p.m. CST
...it also depends on where you grew up how you'll experience prejudice. I grew up in Kentucky, and only really experienced it three times. The first was over 25 years ago when a fellow Boy Scout called me "Jew Boy" at Troupe Leader Training no less. A second time at my brother's wedding 20 years ago when a guest of someone from the bride's family was sporting a swastika tattoo. He didn't say or do anything, but his presence was enough A(we had several elderly relatives from the East Coast there, and wanted him gone before they saw him). My brothers and I wanted to hurt him, but he was asked to leave by the bride's side of the family. The third time was also about 20 years ago when I went to school in Chicago and a guy a few doors down from me in my dorm was prejudiced against a lot of people. But one day in the cafeteria I made a joke and his response was "That's a typical Jew thing to say." That's pretty much the last time I can recall any personal prejudice. Didn't feel any in Minneapolis, and I don't feel any here in L.A. But prejudice is everywhere.
Nov. 30, 2008, 12:42 p.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
The glutton for punishment says we'll get two reviews, and that's what we get.
Nov. 30, 2008, 1:16 p.m. CST
I don’t know, there was something about this film that always struck me as “weak” and maybe a little too safe, as if they were afraid to offend the sensibilities of the majority of the audience. It is like the “Guess Who is Coming to Dinner” for the Jewish set, or even worse the “Soul Man” of that era. Whenever I hear someone talking about this film, I think of Abraham Polonsky’s quote about the moral of the film being “Always be good to a Jew because he might really be a gentile in disguise. “ But I am glad you mentioned “Crossfire” which I think is much superior movie in dealing with ant-Semitism. It is funny to me that some of the best movies dealing with racism, ant-Semitism, inequality, poverty, and other social issues were the genre flicks, especially the film noirs and the westerns. I mean, it is hard to find better movies exploring themes such as racism than “Odds Against Tomorrow”, “The Well,” or “Sgt. Rutledge”, or about mob justice than “Try and Get Me” or “The Ox-Bow Incident.”
Nov. 30, 2008, 1:17 p.m. CST
While "Pocketful of Miracles" is ok, I wish you had the original "Lady for a Day" instead. Vastly superior version in my opinion.
Nov. 30, 2008, 1:55 p.m. CST
is that it has, I think, a more sophisticated view of prejudice than even many movies today ("Crash" has a tenth of the impact and realism). The film is not about Anti-Semitism so much as the social psychology of prejudice, so it still has a lot or relevance to say today, even in situations with other kinds of populations (races, sexual orientations, religions, philosophies, etc). Nice review, Quint.
Nov. 30, 2008, 3:12 p.m. CST
"I can imagine making this movie these days" Thousands of great, subtle, complex, intricate and ambiguous dramas are being produced today-- they'll be available for free. "Gentlemen's Agreement" was a movie, sold in theatres-- entirely because in 1947 there WEREN'T thousands of great, subtle, complex, intricate and ambiguous dramas produced every year and available for free. You can never see a movie of this nature made today. Why would anyone pay 9 dollars (or 1 at a cheap theatre) for it.
Nov. 30, 2008, 3:19 p.m. CST
I agree with Quint on this one. The first time I saw this movie it knocked me on my ass. I was living in Japan at the time and, while the Japanese were wonderful people on an individual basis, I ran into the "gentleman's agreement" on a cultural level almost every day. I'm sure there are many immigrants living here in the good old US of A who run into something akin to it today.
Nov. 30, 2008, 3:42 p.m. CST
I personally like the scene when Peck tries to get the manager of a hotel to admit that they won't let him in because they think he's Jewish. It's after he gets pissed and wants the jerk to admit it. But the guy won't literally say so, he just asks him to leave. And Peck realizes that even confronting the guy directly didn't really solve anything. Also a nice scene is when his girlfriend is telling their Jewish friend how disgusted she was by a dinner party guest's racist jokes, but he then asks, "What did you do about it?" And she of course was just silently disgusted. It may seem a little "weak" to some people, but the point of the film wasn't to protest in the streets. (And the 40s wasn't exactly a time where many people did that.) It was that thinking "that's terrible, but that's the way it is" just made things worse.
Nov. 30, 2008, 4:30 p.m. CST
At least that is the claim.
Nov. 30, 2008, 5:59 p.m. CST
if you do it in a bubble, neglecting history and current events...then ya, you probably are a jew hater...even the most stalwart supporter of israel has criticism of certain policies...however, usually the critics of israel forget the wars of 48, 56, 67 and 72...they have amnesia when it comes to suicide bombers walking into discos crowded with teenaged kids...they think nothing of gazans shooting rockets into israel proper on a daily basis...
Nov. 30, 2008, 6:09 p.m. CST
But I really enjoyed Celeste Holm. She's great in just about everything she's in. A trivia point about John Garfield is that he actually was Jewish; his given name was Jacob Garfinkle. And one of the films Dean Stockwell was known for as a young actor was The Boy With Green Hair. Saw it a really long time ago but I recall him being quite good in it.
Nov. 30, 2008, 6:59 p.m. CST
this is the heart of the site right now, I just opened my Warner gangsters Vol 1 and began watching Public Enemy, be sure to watch the Leonard Maltin and the Night at the movies feature with the Movie reels and Shorts when you find your set. I paid 25 dollars at SAMS a few months ago, and your plan to watch it made me watch it, along with Tin Star and several others. I will begin a Gregory Peck blitz shortly.
Nov. 30, 2008, 7:21 p.m. CST
"Upper Class" down the "Lower Class." I've encountered it, especially before someone knew I was Jewish; actually when some found out I was secular and not religious, it actually seemed to make me worse; that's the view of the Palin-type crowd all over this country. Well done on this write-up. An enduring film indeed.
Nov. 30, 2008, 8:39 p.m. CST
by Lenny Nero
I'm just going off of his words in "Kazan on Kazan," where he complains about the film being far too on-the-nose.
Nov. 30, 2008, 8:42 p.m. CST
Nothing in the Burroughs literature to reaffirm this ethnic match. But a Jewish pal noted, "Tarzan's tag line is 'Ju-Ju', it's repeated in all of the old movies. He was a vine-swinging Jew, plain and simple. Pretty strange considering he obviously didn't hang around the garment district." Oy!
Nov. 30, 2008, 8:44 p.m. CST
Jesse Jackson; this p.r. parasite and Hitler would have enjoyed some fireside chats.
Nov. 30, 2008, 9:08 p.m. CST
While I am far from a fan of Jesse Jackson and love the fact Obama has made him irrelevant, I think it is absurd to compare him to Hitler. I mean, he might have said some tasteless things but to compare him to the man responsible for the death of millions of Jews is just asinine. I know you weren't sincere in your comparison, but I just can't stand any sort of Hitler comparisons. Wait until someone kills at least a couple million before you do that.
Nov. 30, 2008, 9:13 p.m. CST
It's whining because you are being excluded from Country Clubs, from Power. People should be proud to be excluded from Power. Power should be torn down, and everyone should be equal, which means, no Country Clubs to be excluded from. I don't like whiny movies about how one special group is sadly excluded from perks that NO ONE should have. "But we are such a special group! We SHOULD have power!" Get over it, and work for the common good, not your own unfair shair of the pie.
Nov. 30, 2008, 9:31 p.m. CST
Hell, when Jewish people were excluded from an L.A. country club, they established their own -- for everyone on the other side of the street - really. It's not about that. It's not about obvious racism, hate, etc. It's about the subtle, in some ways more sinister actions.
Nov. 30, 2008, 10:24 p.m. CST
It was not only country clubs. It was R&D, schools, and universities. The ability to fully live the American dream. Doesnt seem whiny to me.
Nov. 30, 2008, 10:28 p.m. CST
So what is the "greater good" we should all be working for? Supporting your fat, lazy ass? In what society (human, animal, insect, etc.) is everybody equal?
Nov. 30, 2008, 11:14 p.m. CST
You wrote a far more eloquent epitaph for Jesse Jackson than yours truly ("While I am far from a fan of Jesse Jackson and love the fact Obama has made him irrelevant..."). I bow to your convictions and thank you.
Dec. 1, 2008, 12:24 a.m. CST
While I agree with you that humans by their very nature look to place themselves on a pecking order and a social rank (read the "Lucifer Principle" for those who disagree). I don't think NoDiggity was advocating some sort of communist utopia. I mean our constitution says, "all men are created equal", and even though we know that is inherently untrue, our society puts emphasis that all of us have equal access and opportunity to wealth and political control over our lives. We are supposedly a meritocracy and not an aristocracy or plutocracy; I see nothing wrong with wanting the destruction of institutions that excludes people from decision-making processes and prevent over groups from having an equal opportunity in making it in our society, even if the chances of that happening are very unlikely. <p> Oh, and the Great Whatzit, thanks for the compliment.
Dec. 8, 2008, 8:07 a.m. CST
I gotta hand it you, Quint, how you've committed to grinding this out every day (or very close to it)... and yet even on the days when you acknowledge it's not as full a column as it could be (because of the gazillion other things you're doing) your honesty about what's going on, combined with a very sincere effort at writing something about your feelings about whatever movie you're reviewing is really well done. Ultimately though, the main thing I love about what you're doing is the scope. I became a fan of the Ain't It Cool News, because I enjoyed reading and being part of a community that mirrored the rt community of friends who love film (cult and mainstream, modern and classic) that were a part of my life in LA, SF and Houston. The site still has a lot of that, but the most consistent part of Ain't It Cool News' "covering almost any type of film that could be possibly be considered 'cool'" is this column now. This review just reminded me of that, in how you take on each film you review on it's own merits, give it a sincere amount of thought, then throw in whatever other films/experiences/references the film brings up for you. Sorry if this sounds too fawning, but this is something I had been thinking about for awhile and thought you might be interested to hear (another) complement. Keep it up if you can, because it is really appreciated.
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