Dead End Job

For those of you who are unhappy in the workplace or out and out hate your job, you ain’t got nothing on the lead in 1921’s DESTINY, the movie that put Fritz Lang on the international map (now on Blu-Ray in a stunning new 2K restoration, courtesy of Kino Classics/Murnau Stiftung/MoMa/rsb/roc-berlin/Bertelsmann/Film Museum/2DF/arte/Deutschlandradio Kultur).

As intimated above, DESTINY was a smash hit worldwide, and it’s really easy to see why.  This movie, a vast undertaking for Decla-Bioscop (with exquisite location filming in Potsdam and Brandenburg), has it all.  Love, sex, violence, supernatural forces, gripping drama and opulent adventure – all perpetrated by one of cinema’s great masters, director Lang who, along with his cowriter (and cohabiter) Thea von Harbou, fashioned the screenplay, subtitled A German Folk Song in Six Verses.

The title itself is rather symbolic, as are the alternate monikers the movie received throughout its decades in release and re-release.  It was also known as The Three Lights and, perhaps, most prominently as Der Mud Tod (translated as either The Tired Dead or Death is Tired, both applicable).

So what is DESTINY, you ask (in a thoroughly un-philosophical manner)?  This highly stylized textbook example of German Expressionism brilliantly follows the travels and career of Death (as superbly personified by Bernhard Goetzke).  The problem with Mr. D. is that he’s sick and tired of humans (“I’m weary seeing the sufferings of men”).  What he’s especially weary of is their whining when he calls, their scheming to cheat him, the lies, the bribes, the total bullshit.  He wants a vacation!  Unfortunately, he’s so good at his job it looks like he’ll (ironically) never be able to rest in peace, like so many millions of his “clients.”

As he moves on to his latest mortal, the grim reaper is stunned to find his task rattled by a bold young woman, the soon-to-be-taken’s lover.  The couple, as portrayed by Walter Janssen and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s great Lil Dagover, is to be a pair Death is definitely going to remember.  The man’s death is sublimely common – a disappearance after the specter’s shadow swoops over the couple’s horse-drawn carriage.  The woman refuses to accept her happiness cut short and is determined to track Death down and demand…well, a recount.  Death, who resides in an (what else) Expressionistic castle (on land newly purchased from a greedy realtor), surrounded by a doorless, mammoth wall, is unapproachable.  Or so it seems. The woman (throughout the movie the lovers are known only as the The Young Man and The Young Woman) sees the ghosts of recent victims enter and exit the stone barrier, including her significant other.  This only underlines her goal.  As we all know, walls really don’t work, and soon Death is forced to allow the daring lady entrance after she downs a dose of poison.  Their verbal and spiritual sparring amongst a chamber of living candles is visually spectacular, laden with (then) state-of-the-art special effects and luminous (occasionally tinted) black-and-white photography (achieved by no less than five cinematic painters: Bruno Mondi, Erich Nitzschmann, Hermann Saalfrank, Bruno Timm and the masterful Fritz Arno Wagner).

Death, at last, offers the woman a deal.  Stop at least one of three other women in history from losing their mates, and he will return her lover.  The Young Woman readily agrees, and we are transported to three exotic locales from another time:  Persia, Italy and China (all the couples are likewise enacted by Dagover and Janssen, with obligatory appearances by Goetzke).  The Young Woman’s mantra, “Love is as strong as Death!” turns out to not be as simple and basic as she thought, putting her through both physical and emotional hell.  This all culminates in a rather shattering climax of irony and suspense so endemic to the Langian world, and one that I will certainly not reveal to readers unfamiliar with this classic silent masterpiece.  Suffice to say that it and the movie are unforgettable.

DESTINY moved The Movies into a techno-abstract upgrade that seemed to be occurring at a standard, rapid pace post-WWI, and usually emanating from Germany.  No surprise that a barrage of Teutonic directors, writers, cameraman and stars were regularly imported over to Hollywood, where they helped elevate the ever-popular mass entertainment into an art form.  Douglas Fairbanks was blown away by this movie, and snatched up the U.S. rights – not for exhibition, but to study the astounding SFX, which he planned to incorporate into his upcoming Thief of BagdadDESTINY’s destiny nevertheless was to have an innovative effect on global cinema, and one that lasted for nearly a half century.  The Ingmar Bergman influence, of course, immediately comes to mind; however, it didn’t stop there.  Luis Bunuel proclaimed, “When I saw DESTINY, I suddenly knew that I wanted to make movies.” Alfred Hitchcock hailed the pic as his all-time favorite motion picture.

That kind of elite cheering section naturally warrants an A-1 restoration, and Kino, in conjunction with the aforementioned plethora of famed companies, studios, archives and organizations, hasn’t scrimped on one pfennig.  This 35MM complete 98-minute 2K version, containing the original tints, looks amazing.  It sounds great, too, thanks to a newly composed score by Cornelius Schwehr, utilizing a 70-piece Berlin Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra (under the baton of Frank Strobel).  Nifty extras include audio commentary by Tim Lucas, a glimpse of how the film was restored and more.

Perhaps the movie’s greatest irony is its initial reception in Lang’s native Germany.  Critics were emphatically nonplussed by the allegorical epic.  But the director and von Harbou held strong, and, when the picture later opened in France and, then, England, it was praised to the gills. For Lang, it was all part of the game: “If I don’t accept a bad critique, I can’t accept a good one, either,” he said shortly afterward.

The fact that, after centuries of failed male brutality, it is a woman who can prove a formidable foe of Death, and possibly its conqueror, is due to the input of von Harbou.  If anyone personified the female warrior psyche it was the future (albeit briefly) Frau Lang.  It was her contribution to their earlier 1919 triumph The Spiders that displayed the artist in full force:  the most interesting character in that piece was the cunning, athletic Lio Sha, one of celluloid’s most remarkable villainesses.  DESTINY is therefore, in spite of its religious tenets and basic good vs. evil overture, an extremely modern treatise on the flawed human condition that suggests its survival is only salvageable via defiant feminism.  As such, it’s absolutely worth visiting.  And often.

DESTINY.  Black and white (with color tints).  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]. German intertitles w/optional English subtitles.  2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Classics/Murnau Stiftung/MoMa/rsb/roc-berlin/Bertelsmann/Film Museum/2DF/arte/Deutschlandradio Kultur). CAT # K20719.  SRP: $29.95.

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Killer Cop

Perhaps the most fascinating of all the great recent UK police TV thrillers, 2016’s MARCELLA, SEASON ONE comes to our shores, thanks to the accommodating folks at the always edgy Acorn/RJL Media (in association with Cineflix, Buccaneer and Netflix).

No wasting time here.  Like all mysteries worth their salt, I’m cutting directly to the chase.  Marcella Backland is one of the top detectives in the London Metropolitan Police.  Meeting Jason, the man of her dreams and a rising star lawyer, she decides to take a break from her too-often lurid vocation and raise a family.  Ten years and two children later, Marcella needs another respite – this time from the humdrum world she occupies – and applies for a return engagement with LMP.  Things have changed a lot in a decade, and Marcella, now considered ancient (being fortyish), must start from scratch.  But she’s always been a quick study, and soon, once again, ascends to the upper rungs of the sleuthing food chain.

Seems simple.  And pat.  And, blah-blah-blah, I’ve seen it all before.  Not so fast, my cynical friends.  I’ve left out a few details.  Firstly, I’ll tease you with a behind-the-scenes tidbit.  MARCELLA was scripted, co-created (along with Nicola Larder) and co-produced by Han Rosenfeldt, the brilliant warped mind responsible for the smash Scandinavian series The Bridge.

But leave us turn to the aforementioned “left out” bits.  Marcella’s original early retirement also involved a particularly grueling murder case, one she couldn’t quite come to grips with.  You see, the pressure caused Marcella to suffer several blackouts, which always paralleled the discovery of new and grisly clues.  Marcella, aside from being a crack police detective, is also a violent psychopath; long story short, she makes Dexter look like SpongeBob Squarepants.

Once away from the force, Marcella thought she could handle the “situation” on her own; she immersed herself in Home Economics 101, and, frankly, did an excellent job.  She’s a great mom with great kids.  But her now-recurring unbalanced tendencies (often melding spousal lust with violence) have gutted her marriage to the woman’s now-super successful husband.  And we know how that ends.  Oh, and by the way, Marcella’s re-entry into police service coincides with the apparent return of the serial killer whose “technique” aided her decision decide to originally quit in the first place.

Meanwhile, husband Jason has become the head legal honcho for a take-no-prisoners business empire.  It is run by Sylvie Gibson, a Medusa-like Leona Helmsley harpy, and her ineffectual but equally repugnant latest husband.  Sylvie’s semi-estranged son (but nevertheless business associate), Harry, hides a gay lifestyle that leans toward the B & D offshoot.  Harry also holds a deep interest in on-line cam-girls, who shield his closeted world and allow for a modicum of physical misogyny.  The one real jewel in the scumbag family’s crown is their daughter, Grace, who really is the female equivalent of the paradoxical altruistic/mercenary Jason.  Soon they are comparing notes…in the biblical sense.

But the ever-clever Marcella intuitively deduces what’s going on.  And then Grace is found brutally murdered.  One of those “this was a rage killing, this was personal” deals.  Marcella is terrified because the death coincides with her first blackout since she left the force (and to which she has now returned).  And she’s covered in blood.

Working to get assigned to the case, Marcella has to multi-task:  to solve the crime (find out if she actually did it and, if so, to corrupt the evidence), find a fall guy/gal and frame them.  As all the narratives (yep, there are more – including a lecherous detective who always had a jones for the deranged policewoman; a series of witnesses to the night of the murder; an expose of the internet porn world…oh, it never ends) twist, wrap, choke and strangle each other, worlds and lives blow up.  And the blackouts are getting worse, more frequent and lead DS Backland to additional bodies.

This is must-see demented TV.  And, indeed, the show would be a bust if it didn’t have a major force in the lead.  Not to worry, they won the lottery.  The beauteous and dangerous Marcella is portrayed by the remarkable actress Anna Friel (costar of the fantastic 2015 WWII Norwegian docu-spy series The Heavy Water Wars, where she basically played a real-life Agent Carter, and undoubtedly where writer Rosenfeldt first saw her).  That Friel (who won the 2017 International Emmy Best Actress Award for her portrayal) can make the audience sympathize with her is a mammoth achievement; and she is backed up by spectacular support from  Nicholas Pinnock (as her straying husband), Game of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd (as Harry), Sinead Cusack (as Sylvie), Maeve Dermody (as Grace), Ray Panthaki, Jack Doolan, Jamie Bamber, Tobias Santelmann, Nina Sosanya and Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael.

The production is as good as it gets, and benefits from atmospheric photography by Urszula Pontikos, Ulf Brantas and Carl Sunberg, a churning score by Lorne Balfe and, best of all, tense, hair-raising direction by Charles Martin, Jonathan Teplitzky and Henrik Georgsson..  Further kudos to Acorn for providing DVD fans with a terrific two-disc set package (housed in a snazzy slipcovered casing), with each of SEASON ONE‘s eight episodes looking and sounding swell in 16 x 9 anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 stereo-surround.

It’s always fun when the hero/villain, or, in this case, heroine/villainess, are likely the same person, and I guarantee you that even the most Sherlockian of viewers won’t see the ending coming.

MARCELLA, SEASON ONE is a keeper, regardless of the fact that its title character needs one.

MARCELLA, SEASON ONE.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78: 1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Cineflix/Buccaneer/NETFLIX. CAT # AMP-2614.  SRP: $49.99.

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Eclectic Collectic: The Best Blu-Rays and DVDs of 2018

Oh, for those long-gone days when I could easily pick the Ten Best DVDs of the year.  Then came Blu-Ray, and 3D Blu-Ray.  And it became a joke.  Ten?  How ’bout 110?  For the skeptics who now stream, I say “Ha-HA!,” disc collecting isn’t dead!  Far from it.

When it became obvious that I couldn’t whittle down a list to ten, I began to group titles by companies, particularly the wonderful indies, like Kino, Twilight Time and the expanding libraries of Flicker Alley and Film Movement Classics.  Then I toyed with genres, the best of pre-Codes, animation, silents, film noir and so forth.  This year might be a mix of everything.  If nothing else, 2018 provided a fantastic twelve months for home video platter addicts.

Any carps.  Maybe one.  It seems that skeevy major studios have bailed on 3D, even after selling millions of TVs and players to fans.  Only Warner Bros. and (to a lesser extent) Universal still seem committed to the format; yet, via Kino and Twilight Time, the stereoscopic process survives.  And will continue to do so.  My suspicions as to why Fox, Paramount, Columbia and Disney made their regrettable choices lean heavily toward the nefarious reasons which I won’t go into now.  Let’s just say that for the present, you suits are saving many collectors a lot of dough.  May that sink in.

Enough with the dregs.  Drum roll.

 

DUE PROCESS(ES):  Anyone who’s just peripherally read my stuff knows that I’m a sucker for cinematic uses of color, widescreen, stereophonic sound and 3D (Jim Limbacher’s 1968 book The Four Aspects of Film is my Bible).  2018 was a fab year to celebrate all these things, from the artistic to the gimmick.  Here are the top cherries.

Flicker Alley’s A TRIP TO THE MOON, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/03/27/long-story-short/, is a fantastic Blu-Ray that belongs in every serious collector’s library.  Taking the 1902 Georges Melies sci-fi classic to new heights, we get a gorgeous-looking rendition in COLOR.  Yep, you read right.  Melies plotted the space adventure to be bursting with hues and tones, hand colored frame-by-frame.  Long thought lost, it emerged in deteriorating shape.  FA, along with Technicolor and others, restored the 35MM nitrate to near-pristine proportions.  A documentary on this cinematic alchemy is also included, plus various versions of MOON, including sound versions (Melies had scripted narration and dialog to be read during screenings).

1925’s STAGE STRUCK, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/09/04/acting-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder,

a riotous, raucous comedy that returned Jazz Age superstar Gloria Swanson to her Sennett roots, was a BIG crowd pleaser at the Neuhaus Bijou.  The exquisite use of two-strip Technicolor for the opening and closing sealed the deal, but, honestly, the pic’s so good (and funny) that it would made the Year’s Best on its own.

It’s always great fun to revisit Warners superb 3D transfer of DIAL M FOR MURDER, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/04/25/3-d-triangle-cunning-with-scissors/, the 1954 crime thriller marking Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary approach to Three Dimensional movie-making.  It doesn’t disappoint.  Many consider this flick to be the best 3D movie ever made.   And they might not be wrong!

Kino, in conjunction with the 3D Film Archive and Paramount Home Entertainment, has gone the distance with two Holy Grail titles from the process’s Golden Age.  1953’s THE MAZE, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/10/25/halloween-blitz-18-crazed-maze/, a sci-fi horror pic by William Cameron Menzies, may not exactly terrify you, but it’s certainly a style-over-substance extravaganza that consistently entertains and overflows with oodles of atmosphere, in-your-face effects and an overall brilliant utilization of stereoscopic possibilities.

The same gang rivals if not bests THE MAZE with 1953’s CEASE FIRE, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/04/10/paramount-3-d-peaks/, a movie I never thought I’d EVER see in 3D.  The first feature-length documentary (actually, a docu-drama), this gritty (but beautifully shot) black-and-white adventure covers the final days of the Korean War (or conflict, as it was then called) starring the actual participants.  It’s exciting, engrossing and an ideal demonstration of how thrilling and realistic 3D can be.

Finally, Flicker Alley (along with David Strohmaier and his Cinerama company) does it again with their sensational restoration of the 1952 lollapalooza THIS IS CINERAMA , https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/look-at-the-big-picture/. True, if your home theater isn’t equipped with a 120 foot screen, you might not exactly feel the same excitement Fifties audiences experienced, but my 60” rig had us screaming at the famous rollercoaster opening.  It’s all presented in SmileBox, which comes as close to mimicking the three-screen miracle as you can get.  Coupled with the new stereo-surround remix and you have a widescreen aficionado’s dream come true.

Black-and-white CinemaScope is another one of my favorite combinations, and few 1950s Hollywood dramas explore the dark spatial (and even noirish) rectangular tapestries better than 1957’s NO DOWN PAYMENT, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/05/29/shaggin-in-the-crabgrass/.  A blistering expose of middle class migration to the suburbs (and the adulterous, racist and class-conscious pitfalls that go with it), this Martin Ritt winner shines from an expert script, direction and cast (including Joanne Woodward, Tony Randall, Jeffrey Hunter, Barbara Rush and Sheree North).

 

FILM NOIR.  Perhaps the most collectable genre for classic movie fans, noir seems to get more popular with each passing year.  And, for Blu-Ray buffs, 2018 was extremely kind for noiristas.

Olive Films, working with Paramount Home Entertainment, really delivered the goods with a trio of 1950s masterpieces, two of them relatively obscure and a third in (at last) in a presentable form (after decades of PD hell).  PRIVATE HELL 36, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/02/13/pulp-friction/, a Don Siegel piece de resistance, provides everything (including the hand-picked cast) that film noir screams for. Robert Wise’s 1959 ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/06/26/black-and-white-and-dead-all-over/, likewise presents an ideal noir cast and adds racism to the plot about losers planning an upstate New York heist.  Another fantastic mean street cast populates Joseph H. Lewis’ magnificent THE BIG COMBO, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/08/08/slimeballs-crime-ball/, at last viewable in 35MM widescreen.

From the 1940s, Olive unveiled a beautifully remastered edition of Abraham Polonsky’s textbook noir FORCE OF EVIL, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/05/22/cain-enabled/, featuring possibly John Garfield’s greatest performance (and think about that!).

Warner Bros., through their Blu-Ray arm of the Warner Archive Collection at last revealed the quartet of seminal Bogart-Bacall noir classics, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE and KEY LARGO (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/05/01/bogie-betty-blue-ribbon-blu-rays/).   None of them have ever looked or sounded better, and all come with fun and extensive extras.

And last, but certainly not least, the great indie company Twilight Time presented two fantastic limited edition noirs from their Columbia Pictures arm, Sam Fuller’s outstanding UNDERWORLD U.S.A. (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/09/18/edgy-cliff/)  and Don Siegel’s EDGE OF ETERNITY (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/12/04/drop-off-point/), the latter which not only delved into my favorite noir subgenre, Color Noir, but was also lensed in CinemaScope!

 

If “noir” is numero uno with classic collectors, “horror/sci-fi” definitely tops the list of overall platter addicts (the Halloween Blitz October posts are our most popular and most re-visited pieces).  It’s impossible to even keep track of all the spooky stuff that gets released each year, let alone re-released on video.  Or the franchises they spawn.  Or the ancillary products.  Or, or, or…

Kino has run the gamut of marvy gory stories, and their covered titles in 2018 underlined that fact with clawed vengeance.

A classic Hammer movie, finally available here uncut and in 1080p Hi-Def widescreen, 1966’s ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/02/06/mighty-hammersaurus-vs-a-twentieth-century-fox/) was unearthed by Kino is its ultimate rendition.  Not one, but TWO versions of the Harryhausen triumph were unleashed in a dual disc set (the uncut UK version and the US American release).  Plus oodles of extras!

Another fantastic Hammer offering, an entry from their late period, came via Synapse with their wonderful, COMPLETE AND UNEDITED version of HANDS OF THE RIPPER (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/freud-where-prohibited/). Not only amazing in 1080p, but crammed full of supplementary material.  It’s the ultimate and ONLY version to own.

Warner Bros., again through their Blu-Ray appendage of Warner Archive, came through like gangbusters with two long-on-demand 1080p re-masters, the brilliant and chilling 1960 sci-fi/horror gem VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/10/23/halloween-blitz-18-kids-slay-the-darndest-things/) and the 1979 macabre and darkly humorous adventure TIME AFTER TIME (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/10/09/halloween-blitz-18-rip-to-the-chase/).

We conclude this section with Kino’s continuing Blu-Ray celebration of the maestro of Italian horror Mario Bava.  Four essential works, BLACK SABBATH, THE WHIP AND THE BODY, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and KILL, BABY…KILL! (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/10/05/halloween-blitz-18-bravo-bava/) were covered in 2018, each one a quintessential must for a buff’s supernatural shelf.

 

ACORN.  That fantastic company that gives us Yanks the best of UK (and Australian/New Zealand) TV continued its tradition of brightening up our lackluster small screen days with a choice selection of crime shows, dramas and comedies.  It was hard to pick the lead pantheon titles, but I think these three make my case.

THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/03/20/agatha-christies-jones/, is not the witty Agatha Christie entertainment millions have known or loved.  It’s essentially the first draft version – the original 1920s piece – a dark, dire descent into guilt, lust and murder.  The impeccable cast, led by the ubiquitous Toby Jones (in one of his 10,000 2018 appearances), couldn’t be better and includes standout work by Andrea Riseborough, Billy Howle and Kim Cattrall.

DOMINION CREEK, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/07/03/golds-fools/, is a gritty, violent western (well, northern), produced entirely in Ireland that fairly accurately depicts the hellish post-Yukon gold rush in the late 1890s.  Using real-life figures to mix with the fictional characters plays a bit with history, but scores A+ for suspenseful, first-rate adventure.

Lastly, sci-fi doesn’t get any better than HUMANS, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/11/05/synth-you-sinners/, the utterly satisfying mini-series about a not-too-distant future where people can fulfill all their needs via synths, super-gorgeous efficient androids.  The fact that the fakes are far more preferable than most of the flesh and blood versions is only the iceberg tip of the many clever messages laced throughout the two seasons now available.  And I defy anyone NOT to fall in love with Gemma Chan!

 

NEO-NOIR, ODDS & ENDS.  A modern offshoot of film noir are the many movies that pay homage to the sombre, twisty thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s.  Some admirable examples made it to Blu-Ray in 2018.  The crème de la crème for me comprised:

HANA-BI, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/01/23/unstable-constable/, the remarkable 1997 crime drama, starring, co-edited and written and directed by the amazing Beat Kitano.  It’s a freaky cyclone of a movie worth visiting often.

Going back a few decades is Noel Black’s excellent and disturbing unmasking of middle-class America, 1968’s PRETTY POISON, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/if-its-tuesday-this-must-be-bellevue/, co-starring the equally excellent and disturbing Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld.

On the documentary front, one would have to search far and wide for better representation of DAWSON CITY: FROZEN IN TIME (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/07/17/reel-find/).  It’s a jaw-dropping story of a small Yukon frontier town and how hundreds of silent films (many thought lost to the ages) were accidentally preserved like so many iced dinosaurs.  The extras include some of the actual reels!

One of my favorite genres, the western, currently deceased to most contemporary movie-makers, lives on for collectors, thanks to the folks at Film Movement Classics and Warner Bros.

The first tip of the hat goes to FMC for their spectacular restoration of the 1968’s THE GREAT SILENCE, https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/06/12/the-violence-of-silence/, one of the finest spaghetti westerns ever made.  By going against all the rules, including cast, locale and sunset finale, director Sergio Corbucci has crafted a sick treatise on capitalism, obsession and America’s addiction to violence.

It’s Warners again, through their Blu-Ray Warner Archive Collection, that gets the 2018 brass ring.  My absolute Number One tie picks of the year was the simultaneous release of my two favorite Sam Peckinpah westerns, 1962’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and 1970’s THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2018/11/13/violent-beauty/).  If you’ve never seen  them, buy these two titles today; if you are acquainted with these classics, upgrade to the Blu-Rays, as they have NEVER looked or sounded as good.  Happy New Year2018bestofcomp

 

 

 

 

Scum Kind of Wonderful

One of those WTF Hollywood rarities – a Yuletide movie frothing with film noir elements – 1947’s CHRISTMAS EVE finally comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the malevolent elves at Olive Films and Paramount Home Entertainment.

Imagine Frank Capra directing a Raymond Chandler or Cornell Woolrich holiday tale and you have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for.  Matilda Reid (aka Aunt Matilda, aka Ann Harding) was one of the great beauties of 1890s New York.  Her looks paled next to her smarts and she amassed millions in investments.  The investments, however, paled next to her eccentricities, which include a dinner table surrounded by electric trains to shuttle condiments to her guests, and  shoveling bird seed on her floor each morning before opening the doors and French windows to let Manhattan fowl feast in style.  But there’s also Manhattan foul, particularly her sleazy, oily relative Phillip Hastings (Reginald Denny), who, armed with a judge (Clarence Kolb) and shrink (Carl Harbord), is determined to commit the now-aged woman to an insane asylum and reap her fortune.

But Matty has an ace card, or so she thinks.  Decades earlier, she adopted three infant orphans and raised them as her sons.  The lady has high hopes that these grownup versions will come to her aid.  Alas, it looks like the ace card is a joker. In triplicate. The lads are bad boys.  And there is the rub.

Michael Brooks, an over-the-hill playboy/fake entrepreneur (with enough bags under his eyes to open a Samsonite outlet), is plotting to marry into dough to alleviate 75K in bad checks.  Ann Nelson, his snarky ex (and still occasional squeeze), whom he passes off as his sister, has other ideas.  That this pair is enacted by George Brent and Joan Blondell ignites a cinematic spark that recalls the best of their pre-Code Warners days.  Can the pair’s verbal battles and schemes to bilk the 400 bend to the do-the-right-thing sector?  They might, due to Michael’s learning of his mom’s plight.  Well, maybe.

Son # 2, Mario Torio (George Raft) has escaped a criminal rap in the States, and now resides in South America, where he runs a high-roller casino/nightclub.  His main source of romance is Jean (Dolores Moran, coincidentally, wife of the pic’s producer Benedict Bogeaus), who, unbeknownst to Torio, is the puppet of an ex-Nazi (Konstantin Shayne), now a war criminal hiding out below the border after taking a powder prior to the Nuremburg trials.

Son # 3, Johnny (Randolph Scott, in his last non-oater before enforcing his “westerns only” policy) is an alcoholic, womanizing rodeo rider, down on his luck, who, upon hearing of Matilda’s problems, figures it’s a good way to maybe score some moolah.  He returns to New York, and immediately hooks up with a femme fatale (Virginia Field) involved in a loathsome baby racketeering crime ring.

It’s that kind of a holiday movie.  True, any Christmas pic featuring Nazis and a subplot where one of the beauteous heroines gets murdered is tops in my book.  And, certainly, in this area, CHRISTMAS EVE doesn’t disappoint.  The cast, as assembled by aforementioned indie producer Borgeaus (who released this poison bon-bon through UA), is phenomenal.  Aside from the excellent Harding as old Matilda (in actuality, younger than both Raft and Scott, and only two years older than Brent), and the other already listed cast members, the stellar thesps include Douglass Dumbrille, Dennis Hoey, Joe Sawyer, Molly Lamont, John Litel, Walter Sande, Andrew Tombes, Marie (Blossom Rock) Blake, J. Farrell MacDonald and John Indrisano.  The script, too, can’t be faulted.  It’s a honey, as constructed by Laurence Stallings (What Price Glory?, The Big Parade, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Three Godfathers), who wrote the story, and contributed to the screenplay with Richard H. Landau plus uncredited participation from Arch Oboler and, in one of his first movie gigs, Robert Altman (all obviously saw the previous year’s Gilda and Notorious).

The shimmering monochrome photography is by Gordon Avil.  Sadly, this is where the Olive/Paramount Blu-Ray drops the Christmas ball.  Although it’s not really their fault.  While utilizing the best elements available to create this transfer, the results are less than perfect.  Seventy-one years of neglect have taken their toll; while certainly viewable, and with nice contrast, images appear occasionally soft and washed-out.  That said, we should be grateful for what we have.  It is that time of the year after all.  The audio, a bit on the bass side and slightly low, nevertheless does deliver and allows us to savor the score by Heinz Roemheld and much of the snappy noirish dialog (“Raise your hands to the perpendicular,” demands Scott, brandishing a gat).

The biggest letdown is the choice of directors.  Edwin L. Marin was a total professional, and his work here is serviceable.  Yet, one can only imagine what the results might have been in the hands of a Jacques Tourneur, Don Siegel, Anthony Mann or Joseph H. Lewis.  Again, the script and cast are so good they help immensely to smooth over any directorial shortcomings.

Long story short, for those who like their mean streets adorned with mistletoe and bullets, CHRISTMAS EVE is the Blu-Ray gift that keeps on giving.

CHRISTMAS EVE. Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1]; 1080p High Definition.  1.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT# OF1155.  SRP: $29.95.

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CRACK AND FRACK

Greedy corporations seeking to tap a natural energy source…in bed with ruthless politicos… resulting in deadly inner space drilling…causing an ecological disaster that threatens the world economy and, ultimately, the planet’s survival…Sound familiar?  No, we’re not regurgitating BP’s 2010 repulsive display of humanity at its worst.  Or the recent administration’s disgusting environmental rape (or virtual grift-gift) of 1.6 million acres of California public land for fracking and oil drilling. This is the plot of a 1965 sci-fi thriller whose lessons still obviously have much to be learnt.  By substituting magma for oil, landlocked missile blasting for oceanic rigging and a fictitious cartel of international businesses for British Petroleum and the WSPA…you have the comparison bare bones necessary for the now-more-eerie-than-ever events that comprise CRACK IN THE WORLD.  Of course, there are major differences.  For example, the meglomaniacal scientists do develop a severe case of integrity…and the non-regulatory presiding politician is genuinely sorry…and Earth leaders do congregate to attempt a viable solution…but…in the overall scheme of things…when its too late – who the “F” cares?!

This nail-biting thriller was part of the ubiquitous Philip Yordan school of filmmaking that seemingly tentacled every English language movie made in Spain during the 1960s not produced by Samuel Bronston (although the delegating writer/mogul Yordan had nevertheless co-scripted several Bronston projects, including El Cid).  This means that there’s gold in them thar hills – speaking in the narrative sense.  The writing, as one might already surmise is first-rate, as is the cast – headed by Dana Andrews, Alexander Knox, Janette Scott and Kieron Moore.  The direction is propelled by the professional hands of action veteran Andrew “Bundy” Marton, who co-helmed the 1950 King Solomon’s Mines and either guided or supervised a million other superb cinematic adventures during the Fifties and Sixties (he was the man unscrupulous star Charlton Heston infamously attempted to sneakily replace Nicholas Ray with on 55 Days at Peking).

That CRACK IN THE WORLD’s fantastic premise could EVER become topical is frightening enough to push the title from unnerving science fiction into pure horror; indeed the underground cameras utilized in the picture to show the unstoppable flow of lethal magma so resembles the near-decade-old nightly news footage of spewing oil into our environment that cynical viewers of this Olive/Paramount release commented about whether or not BP was actually transmitting live pictures or has just looped the SFX from this movie.

As for the upgraded Blu-Ray itself (originally released as a DVD-only title) – Olive Films can take a well-earned bow.  True, this reboot seemingly uses the Olive DVD transfer, and, yes, I would love to see a 4K remaster, but that’s my only carp, and I can certainly live with this edition for now.  The imagery of the pristine 1080p upconvert widescreen visuals do bring back those cherished moments of Baby Boomer nabe theater-going – particularly with those rich undeniable Technicolor reds.  Flesh tones are fine and grain is minimal – the only other man-made disaster being dark-haired Scott’s ill-chosen post-chemo blonde wig.  Other than that, the effects are remarkably realistic – a coup not only for a movie 53 years old, but for a picture of modest budget.  Like its equally goose-bump-raising sibling, Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire, this is a textbook on how to realize an all-too-real effective sci-fi nightmare.

FYI, CRACK IN THE WORLD was one of those great 1960s Paramount double bills, the co-feature being Alexander MacKendrick’s vastly underrated Sammy Going South (retitled here as A Boy Ten Feet Tall, and shorn by at least a third of those measurements, or in footage count, by about 30 minutes).  Would love to see this get a Blu-Ray spin as well…At the time, the MacKendrick adventure of a British youth stranded during a Middle Eastern WWII raid was virtually ignored, despite the splendid participation of Edward G. Robinson, who suffered a near-fatal heart attack during the location filming.  CRACK IN THE WORLD garnered all the attention and the reviews – the lion’s share which were deservedly positive.

This is yet another movie long on collector’s request lists. Olive Films should be congratulated for at last “officially” making this gem available…so throw out those bootlegs!  As for the scary forecast from an era where we thought that such things were still impossible…not that it matters…but, if the world has to be destroyed, I’d personally rather have it be at the hands of Dana Andrews and Alexander Knox than the current EPA and Individual # 1.

CRACK IN THE WORLD:  Color.  Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; LPCM mono.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF283.  SRP: $29.95.

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Dead-Eye Dick

For my last of a current series (for now) on color film noir, I saved one of the rarest and most in-demand titles, 1955’s HELL ON FRISCO BAY, now beautifully restored on Blu-Ray from the folks at the Warner Archive Collection.

The reason for the scarcity of the above had to do with legalities over rights and the Alan Ladd estate.  Post-Shane, after languishing around Paramount for several years in lackluster vehicles, Ladd once again became major player.  This time, he (along with the help of his super-agent wife Sue Carol) also became a producer, inaugurating his own company, Jaguar Productions.  Jaguar had a concurrent deal with Warners and Columbia.  The split arrangement with Warners allowed Ladd to produce pictures to be distributed via the company while additionally appearing in wholly owned Warner Bros. properties (The Iron Mistress, Santiago).  Ladd and Jaguar would likewise make pictures without the star’s on-camera participation (Cry in the Night).  This was a similar deal that Warners had cut with John Wayne and Batjac Productions.  It’s great to be able to report that the entire WB/Jaguar output is now available through Warner Archive.  This one, however, may be the plum in the pudding.

HELL ON FRISCO BAY is based on a gritty novel by William P. McGivern (author of The Big Heat), The script is by Martin Rackin and Sydney Boehm, the latter a favorite of Ladd’s.  Ladd always strove for realism (usually translated visually as graphic violence and authentic location work), and Boehm never disappointed (check out their jaw-dropping 1960 collaboration One Foot in Hell, with the star as a smooth-talking psychopath).  HELL ON FRISCO BAY takes its plot points from prerequisite noir tenets.  Steve Rollins is a police detective, framed for murder and sent up the river.  His loss of respect, employment and family prey on his already delicate psyche (he was infamously known for being a loose cannon).  Rollin’s early release reveals a hollow shell of his former self.  He checks into a local dive hotel, and sets up shop.  Steve’s plan is simple:  find those who railroaded him, and kill them all.

The traumatized sleuth doesn’t have to look far.  The culprit is Vic Amato (Edward G. Robinson), a vicious union-busting gangster, and an even bigger maniac than his pursuer.  While Rollins eventually finds a few people still in his corner (returned spouse Joanne Dru and ex-partner William Demarest), he frankly doesn’t care.  His mission in life is to kill or be killed.  Or kill and be killed.

Although HELL ON FRISCO BAY contains enough tough stuff and action (an obligatory finale confrontation on a speedboat), the key to FRISCO‘s greatness is the color-tone wheel of the male lead trio’s levels of psychopathy.  Every one of these three principles is seriously (and dangerously) deranged.

Many critics chided Ladd’s performance as sleepwalking through the narrative – even suggesting that starring and producing might have been too much to chew.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  Ladd’s ghost, aka Rollins, is letter-perfect.  He’s a dead man walking.  Or stalking.  No feelings, no emotions – everything that matters having been stripped away.  His character is almost a precursor to Lee Marvin’s Walker in John Boorman’s Point Blank, released twelve years later. This is in stark contrast to the showy, wildly lunatic rantings of Robinson’s Amato.  Obviously, capitalizing on the previous year’s On the Waterfront (the working title was Hell on the Docks), the brilliant actor’s interpretation makes Lee J. Cobb’s Johnny Friendly look like Golda Meir.  Vic Amato is a foul-mouthed, sexual degenerate demanding loyalty but offering none.  His Italian Christian values (with crosses dotting his ostentatiously decorated manse), including fake faithfulness for his beleaguered wife, are but a mask for the sadist’s lust for gold, defined by his manipulating the unions and ordering hits at the drop of a fedora.  To say that he’d throw his own family under the bus isn’t folly.  He actually does (devoted thug relative Perry Lopez).  Amato is kin to Robinson’s Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (the actor thought little of his FRISCO role, chalking it up as just another dip, albeit an effective one, in the Little Caesar pond; have to emphatically disagree).

Which brings us to the third great performance in HELL ON FRISCO BAY, Paul Stewart (in likely his finest screen appearance) as Joe Lye, Amato’s right-hand man and fixer.  Lye is one of the most complex characters ever to inhabit the noir universe, or ANY cinematic galaxy.  Well-read, thoughtful and caring when away from his employer, he immediately becomes a cold-blooded killer when Vic snaps his talons, morphing into a truly remorseless, vicious monster.  Lye’s one way out is his romance with Kay Stanley, an aging former 1930s super-gorgeous movie star, now adamant in her determination to help reform the love(r) of her life (she being unaware of the murders he has committed).  The fact that this remarkable 1950s defiant woman is portrayed by Fay Wray remains quietly ironic, as many of her character’s traits rang true-to-life, professionally and personally.  Amato, upon hearing that his chief gunsel is dating the one-time movie goddess, conjures up his past lust for the actress when she was a hot Hollywood item.  In one of the most amazing scenes in the movie, Amato and Stanley have a showdown, where he tries to come on to her, and even begins an attempted rape before the pair’s verbal bitch-slapping reaches its peak.  Stanley wins the battle, but cannot win the war for her doomed paramour – sinking fast into the quicksand of corruption and decay that underline his vocation.

The dialog is as tough as the characters “What are you smoking?,” asks Rollins when Amato offers him a job, wrapping up their meeting with a chilling “I’d like to kill you so bad I can taste it.”  And while lead female Dru is there for box-office, she pretty much gets shunted to the side in the wake of her formidable competition.  It’s also easy to see why the star/producer maintains a strong following among gang members (who refer to him as “MISTER Alan Ladd”).

Ladd’s sense of loyalty was the complete opposite of the fictional Amato’s.  Frank Tuttle, the excellent director whose work went back to the silent era (Kid Boots, Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em, American Venus), propelled Alan Ladd to stardom in 1942’s This Gun for Hire (as yet another psychotic, but with likeable attributes).  Tuttle, however, became a victim of the blacklist, and even left the country to find work (helming the fantastic 1950 French noir Gunman in the Streets).  Ladd, pulling some the strings, brought him back, and basically told McCarthy-ites to go fuck themselves.  It paid off; Tuttle’s direction is lean, mean and expertly brings out the varying emotional tornadoes from the cast (Tuttle’s final movie credits in the States were all for Ladd’s company, as no one else would hire him).  William Demarest, another former Ladd coworker and friend, nicely plays his role as Dan Bianco, Rollin’s former partner.  The spectacular photography is by the superb d.p. John F. Seitz, yet another member of Ladd’s Paramount alumnus.  The amazing supporting cast includes Renata Vanni, Nestor Paiva, Stanley Adams, Willis Bouchey, Peter Hansen, Anthony Caruso, George J. Lewis, Tina Carver, Mae Marsh, Voltaire Perkins, Herb Vigran, Tito Vuolo, and in early screen turns, Rod Taylor and Jayne Mansfield.

HELL ON FRISCO BAY has been miraculously restored from its faded WarnerColor roots, bristling with a palette of neon pop hues and tones, composed in razor-sharp 1080p 2.55:1 CinemaScope dimensions.  The 2.55, as opposed to the normal 2.35, was to accommodate a mag stereophonic track, which is unfortunately lost.  Nevertheless the 2.0 mono is strong and dynamic, and perfectly replicates Max Steiner’s thunderous score.

HELL ON FRISCO BAY is a must for every Alan Ladd and film noir fan.  It’s an uneasy, unsettling stylistic look at disgrace under pressure.

HELL ON FRISCO BAY. Color. Widescreen [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Home Video/The Ladd Family Partnership. CAT # 1000652647.  SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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Drop Off Point

Continuing my theme of film noir in color, a not-as-rare-as-you-think subgenre, I next point to Don Siegel’s spectacular 1959 nail-biter EDGE OF ETERNITY, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from the folks at Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.

Siegel’s mastery at locations, and especially his prowess at making them as much a part of the narrative as the living and breathing actors, is one of the director’s many trademarks.  In EDGE OF ETERNITY, it’s nothing less than the Grand Canyon (most of the movie was shot in Kingman, AZ), and, as every celluloid-cranker knows, one never defies the “big gun theory.”  By that I mean, if you show a formidable weapon, or super car or any other amazing prop – you better damn well use it.  Siegel not only uses it, he drives us into dizzying hysterics with the swooping down crevices, battles in rickety bucket carts, and high-speed runs along a rim with a 1000-foot drop.  Its 80 minutes of non-stop action that underlines Siegel’s roots as a first-rate editor turned first-rate director.

EDGE OF ETERNITY begins with a violent confrontation that concludes with an urban visitor tossed over the side of the famed wonder of the world.  A car speeding from the scene immediately attracts the attention of Deputy Sheriff Les Martin (Cornel Wilde, certainly no stranger to noir – nor ever color noir, if one recalls Leave Her to Heaven), who pursues the vehicle.  It’s a (perhaps) red herring, albeit a gorgeous one – returning local heiress Janice Kendon (Victoria Shaw).

All of the above have a deadly domino effect on the up-till-now lazy community of Kendon (told you she was rural royalty, and one who resides in the era’s rendition of a Barbie’s Dream House).  Martin soon discovers that the (perhaps) friendly inhabitants are carrying a secret revolving around a wartime cache comprising millions in gold.  The fade-in intruder lit the fuse, and there’s no putting it out.  In short, or in a Siegel universe, the town of Kendon becomes another creepy Santa Mira (the burg from Invasion of the Body Snatchers) for the outsider deputy.  Martin’s growing sexual connection to Kendon (the woman, not the town), too, becomes increasingly dangerous as murders continue – each one leading to her affluent family, and possibly the lady herself.

EDGE OF ETERNITY is a mystery wrapped in a thriller wrapped in an action-adventure and rings the bell on ’em all.  The action scenes that had movies audiences breathless in Siegel’s previous Columbia offering, 1958’s The Lineup, are a pale shadow compared to what is on-hand in EDGE.  And “edge” is the word.  If you don’t succumb to at least a modicum of rollercoaster motion sickness during the pic’s unraveling, you’re either a professional tightrope walker or dead.

The picture, of course, had its problems during production, mostly due to the hazardous locations.  Siegel demanded realism, and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.  So, yeah, that’s really Cornel Wilde and Co. occasionally swinging on those bucket cables, peering over those cliffs and hanging on for dear life.  Wilde, especially, had difficulty, as he was suffering from a detached retina during the filming, a vision impairment that played perilous tricks upon his judgment (Siegel thought he was swell).  Columbia contract player Shaw had a fear of heights to begin with, so this performance might be her most realistic (quite a year for the actress at her studio, as she also costarred in Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono).

The project first intrigued Siegel during a visit to pal Jack Elam’s home, where he spied the Richard J. Collins/Marion Hargrove script (from a story by Hargrove and Ben Markson).  In an freakish noir “what if,” Siegel wanted Elam to play the lead, a decision Columbia instantly nixed (nevertheless Elam gets a juicy supporting role, along with such notable thesps as Mickey Shaughnessy, Edgar Buchanan, Dabbs Greer and Hope Summers).

Humorously enough, the cart to a silver mine is christened “US Guano,” being that of the excavation company’s leading functions is to remove bat guano (if that’s really their game) from the cave deposits.  It’s the first of Columbia’s apparent fascination (or dare I say “strangelove”?) with flying rodent fecal matter.

The awesome CinemaScope photography is by the great Burnett Guffey, and he and Siegel had a hell of a time maneuvering helicopters in and out of the Canyon and through the chasms, that seemed to have a bottomless drop (helicopter shots were, as one might expect, still fairly uncommon in 1959).  Guffey’s ghost, we hope, can now rest easy knowing that Twilight Time has at last done justice to his outstanding EDGE-y work.  I’m referring to the fact that the movie was lensed in Eastmancolor, which tended to fade rather rapidly.  Worse, all those decades of TV pan-and-scan grainy scope blow-ups made watching this literal cliffhanger a nonstarter.  Noiristas and all Siegel fans can likewise rejoice, as the specialty Blu-Ray releasing firm has gorgeously remastered this 1950s gem in its full CinemaScope glory with knockout hi-def colors and theater-like mono audio (featuring Daniele Amfiheatrof’s score, available as an IMT option); furthermore, the disc offers commentary by cinema historians Nick Redman and C. Courtney Joyner.

I had never really seen this movie until now (or wanted to, in its reddish illegible full-frame dimensions), and, lately, I screen it often.  I love it.  Siegel himself rather liked it, too.  In his 1993 autobiography, A Siegel Film, he proudly stated that “Some of the things we did on [EDGE OF ETERNITY] were the most dangerous stunts ever…Two professional high-wire stuntmen quit the picture.”  Nevertheless, his take on CinemaScope is rather puzzling. “EDGE OF ETERNITY is the first picture I did in CinemaScope [1956’s Body Snatchers was in post-composed widescreen SuperScope].  I don’t like the proportions at all. Look at the great paintings in museums: they are not in the shape of Band-aids [apparently he’s never viewed The Last Supper].” This comment especially smacks of, well, gobsmackery when one looks at the results.  Siegel brilliantly uses the vast space so that (as indicated above), along with the Canyon, the process is as much a star of the pic as are Wilde and Shaw.  Perhaps more so.  Again, considering Siegel’s splendid use of scope in such subsequent entries as Flaming Star and Dirty Harry, only add to the conundrum.

With its ambience of suspense, double-crosses, aura of corruption, plus the genre’s prerequisites of greed, passion and murder, EDGE OF ETERNITY comes up a winner in the film noir (color or no) sweepstakes.  Remember though, as with all Twilight Time titles, this is a limited edition; when it’s gone, it’s gone.  And we don’t mean guano.

EDGE OF ETERNITY.  Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries. CAT # TWILIGHT 263-BR.  SRP: $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com and www.twilighttimemovies.com

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