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Retrospective: The Directorial Films Of Orson Welles

Retrospective: The Directorial Films Of Orson Welles

Note: this will all sound so much better —as would anything— if you imagine it read in Welles’ mellifluous, autumnal voice:

A century ago this very day, in Kenosha, Wisonsin, a mewling, puking infant was born to Richard and Beatrice Welles, and was named Orson, after his grandfather. Little Orson couldn’t know it yet, but the next 70 years would see him live an astonishing life, criss-crossing continents, living high and low, skittering across theater stages and film sets, intoning into microphones and megaphones, accruing laurels and loathing, dining with kings and duelling with fickle financiers, falling in love and fathering children, ever buffeted by the fair and foul winds of fortune but steering head-on into them, lashed to the mast of his immense self-confidence. Welles is a towering figure in cinema, and yet cinema was just a sliver of his life’s work. But little Orson couldn’t know that yet.

It is hard to imagine Orson Welles as a child —naive, seeking approbation from anyone or anything but his own ferocious intelligence. But indeed he had a childhood, like we all did. Except not like we all did —his was a crazy picaresque, as his alcoholic father, who’d made his fortune inventing a bicycle lamp, took on all the parenting following his musician mother’s death when he was nine. Orson, who was already friends with the children of the Aga Khan, went with his father to Jamaica and to Asia and returned to live in the Illinois hotel they owned. Which then burned down (of course it did), and so he moved on again, attending several different schools (where he established his reputation as an incorrigible kleptomaniac), before his father also died young, when Orson was just 15, stipulating in his will that his son be allowed to choose his own guardian. Just a few years later, snubbing the scholarship Harvard offered him in favor of a European tour, Welles would seemingly on a whim march into Dublin’s Gate Theatre and finagle his way into the company by claiming to be a Broadway star. Apparently, no one bought the lie, but his barefaced charisma in telling it was all the audition he needed.


From acting in theater in Ireland and then the US, to directing plays in New York, to establishing a lucrative career in radio thanks to his glorious speaking voice, to combining all those skills into writing, directing and performing immensely popular and successful radio plays, Welles had established himself as a blazing star long before he ever walked onto a film set. When he finally did start filming for the first time after negotiating an unprecedented Hollywood deal to co-write, direct and star in “Citizen Kane,” he was 25 years and one month old.

We write all this biography partly because it is a lot of fun, but also because 30 years after his death, it’s easy to assume that Welles’ immense legacy is at least partially a fallacy, a product of Hollywood mythmaking when the truth was probably much more banal. But nothing about Welles was banal —even his famous tantrum about that Birds Eye peas commercial may be petty and pathetic, but it’s also weirdly magnificent. And if his stentorian, authoritarian reputation as the original auteur feels creakily unfashionable now in these days when “anyone can direct a movie,” it says less about him than it does about a perverse desire to knock a reputation off its plinth and to enact the kind of cultural parricide our current “democratized” discourse demands.


In fact, modern culture being what it is, even “Citizen Kane,” for so long the go-to title for “greatest film ever made,” has recently fallen victim to this kind of reverse-snobbery. Wrong-headed though it obviously is, there seems to be a growing school of (lack of) thought dedicated to propagating the idea that ‘Kane’ is in fact not “all that” and accepting it as an inarguable fact of the cinephile landscape is a tragically herd-minded approach, against which these courageous iconoclastic renegades are our only bulwark. It’s utter bullshit: admiration for Welles has nothing to do with unquestioning, uncritical acceptance of a handed-down monolithic assessment and everything to do with actually watching his films.

So that’s what we’ve decided to do, to mark this centennial —watch Welles’ films. Or rewatch them (all the directorial features, at least), which is all it takes to buff away whatever dullness they may have acquired in the intervening years and to have Welles’ genius reborn in those dazzling images, those mighty performances, this huge, pure cinema.


“Citizen Kane” (1941)
There’s no bigger bang in the history of American cinema than the one created by Orson Welles in 1941, when at the age of 26 he quantified his boy genius status to such a degree that it almost ruined him. The story of how “Citizen Kane” was made, and the colossal shitstorm it caused in Hollywood is as famous as the film itself. The contract that Hollywood offered Welles lit a dynamite stick in his artistic arsenal and led to the greatest debut in cinema, detailing the story of the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane (Welles) as newspaper tycoon, failed senator, and stupidly-rich hermit who ends his days reminiscing about his carefree childhood. With the benefit of hindsight (and the joys of irony), it’s fitting to note that the posthumous reputation of William Randolph Hearst (the ostensible real ‘Kane’) owes more than a little to Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane,” but at the time, Hearst came dangerously close to making sure the picture never saw the light of day. Everything that surrounds the film has played a part in overexposing it in discussions since, and the embrace of it as the GOAT since the ’60s has slightly suffocated every film Welles made afterwards, but all it takes is one rewatch to see what really matters; the onscreen display of storytelling brilliance that still thrills to this day. Scene after scene, each more technically astounding than the previous, is empowered by Gregg Toland‘s cinematography, Robert Wise‘s editing and the terrific performances Welles got from every cast member (including himself) to create a fluid and meticulously crafted narrative. Telling the story of the soul-corrupting nature of power through its timeless dialogue as much as its unforgettable aesthetic and by framing characters against objects to enhance the materialistic emptiness of an illusionary American dream, “Citizen Kane” is a perennial example of the everlasting artistic power that can be achieved when the camera is in the right hands. [A+]


“The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942)

Almost the archetypal difficult cinematic “second album,” “The Magnificent Ambersons” saw Welles follow up the film often called the greatest ever with a sprawling melodrama, only see backers RKO cut the movie nearly in half and then delete most of the footage. Welles would later say “they destroyed ‘Ambersons,’ and it destroyed me,” but ‘destroyed’ might be a bit harsh, given the inarguable greatness of what still survives. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington, who’d allegedly based the patriarch on Welles’ own father, it’s an ensemble piece about the titular family, the richest in Indianapolis, and the scandal caused by the return of Eugene (Joseph Cotten), a self-made-man in love with Amberson daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello). Somehow less self-consciously showy than ‘Kane’ and more accomplished (the early Christmas ball sequence is an astonishing piece of filmmaking), it is even in subtracted form a dark and uncompromising movie that’s way ahead of its time, at least until the botched ending. Welles doesn’t appear on screen —the only film he directed in which that’s the case— which makes it into a more generous ensemble piece, allowing the actors to truly shine. But he’s still all over the film, not least because he narrates it, and it serves as just as rich a dive into American privilege as its predecessor. It’s unlikely that the missing footage will ever be found, so we’ll always wonder what-if (Robert Wise, who shepherded the cut down version and would later become a great director in his own right, maintains that the released version is as good as the longer one, which tested poorly with audiences), but we’re lucky to have ‘Ambersons’ in any form. [A-]


“The Stranger” (1946)

In the canon of Orson Welles movies —you know, the classics— the writer/director’s third feature-length effort “The Stranger” is curiously overlooked. And if the vanity of most writer/director/stars might dictate that they must play the hero, Welles’ film, arriving four years after the heartbreak of ‘Ambersons,’ at least flipped the narrative in this respect. A white-knuckle film noir, “The Stranger” is a post-WWII thriller about a former Nazi mastermind escaped to the U.S. under an assumed identity living among Americans. But the movie begins with the hunt: FBI agents are tasked with uncovering the identity of clandestine Nazis at home. Edward G. Robinson stars as Mr. Wilson, the dogged War Crimes Commission chief trying to track down Franz Kindler (Welles). Posing as Professor Charles Rankin, a teacher living in a sleepy New England town, Kindler is on the eve of marrying his faithful but naïve wife (Loretta Young). A plan hatched by the authorities, to let a captured known Nazi associate (Konstantin Shayne) go and watch as he leads them to Kindler, almost works, but the crafty German covers his tracks with murderous sociopathy. As Wilson and the feds begin to encroach on Kindler —the walls begin to close in and his lovelorn wife slowly comes to grips with her husband’s revelations— “The Stranger” boils with tea-kettle screaming pressure. It’s no “Citizen Kane,” and the shrill, melodramatic third act threatens to undo what is a well-crafted and classical thriller in Hitchcock mode. But it also has its nail-biting strengths, and for a filmmaker who suffered from the curse of completion anxiety and an uneven career that could never live up to its maximum potential, “The Stranger” is still a strong and respectable early work that Welles enthusiasts —not just the completists— should know. [B]


“The Lady From Shanghai” (1947)

Like too many other pictures after “Citizen Kane,” it’s a complicated business to assess the only available cut of “The Lady From Shanghai” as it’s been so mauled by grubby studio fingers against Welles’ wishes. Going Irish for the adaptation of Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake,” Welles plays able-bodied seaman Michael O’Hara, who falls fast and hard for the elegant Elsa (a breathtaking Rita Hayworth). She’s just arrived from Shanghai with her husband, crippled criminal defense attorney Arthur Bannister (a perfectly cast Everett Sloane), who’s got a mean face and an even meaner reputation. Back stabs, plot twists and swooning expressions of desire ensue when O’Hara agrees to assist the Bannisters on their yachting trip to San Francisco. One can’t help but wonder what could’ve been if that climactic, since infamous surreal shootout was realized as it was originally intended: 20 minutes long and 20 times more cinematically grandiose than its current 3-minute form. And yet the brilliance of those three minutes have resonated enough to influence a plethora of films since. Despite its maimed state, “The Lady From Shanghai” still contains examples of Welles’ signature virtuosity in cinematic storytelling that has had critics and directors discussing the film for decades. Like panning for gold in order to extract the most precious elements, one has to flick away the studio-stained staples of 1940s motion pictures (Heinz Roemheld’s abrasive score is a painful example), the better to look to the scenes of Hayworth and Welles silhouetted to the backdrop of an aquarium and to feel the atmosphere in the sequences shot on location in Acapulco, the yacht, and of course, that hall-of-mirrors in the amusement park at the end. It’s neither Welles’ greatest work nor his most ambitious, but enough of his talent remains intact in the version we know today to mark it a towering example of film noir. [B+]


“Macbeth” (1948)

We’re only a week or so from the debut of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Justin Kurzel’s new take on Shakespeare’s classic tale of ambition and murder at Cannes. With apologies to Roman Polanski’s decidedly flawed take, the bar that film or any other Bard adaptation has to clear in terms of cinematic Macbeths is probably Welles’ 1948 film, a thrillingly expressionistic, unsparingly pared-down version that more effectively than most Shakespeare film productions before or since makes the play truly cinematic. Shot on a low budget in just three weeks for B-movie Western specialists Republic (he recorded the sound in advance and lip-synced the production musical-style, which doesn’t always work), the film draws on his all-black 1936 ‘Voodoo’ production of the play (the brilliant opening sequence sees the witches construct a doll of Welles’ Macbeth out of clay), though with a more traditional Scottish setting and white cast. Elegantly and absorbingly designed in a sort of Gothic/sci-fi apocalypse manner (the director described his vision as “a perfect cross between ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Bride of Frankenstein’”) and gorgeously shot by future “Psycho” lenser John L. Russell, it’s a vivid, nightmarish world, drenched in smoke and enclosed by rock, complete in its execution in a way that sadly few Welles films after this would be. Critics attacked Welles’ cuts to the play (exacerbated by more made by Republic), comparing it unfavorably to Olivier’s “Hamlet,” which debuted at the same time, but “Macbeth” only works as drama if you’re bold with your cuts, and it’s one of the reason this version takes off in a way that many others don’t. Not every actor lives up to Welles’ performance (Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth took the role after Vivien Leigh and Tallullah Bankhead passed, and she’s a little weak), but on the whole, this is terrific stuff. [B+]

“Othello” (1952)

Both suffocatingly dense and scrappily ragged, Welles’ Palme d’Or-winning 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play about handkerchief-prompted homicide is a very peculiar kind of masterpiece. Available exclusively now in controversially restored form, the film famously took more than three years to make, required various cast replacements and was perpetually on the verge of being shut down entirely due to lack of funds. And it absolutely bears the hallmarks of a constantly interrupted, troubled production, as scenes start in one location and end in another, closeups often fail to match wides, sound slips in and out of sync and edits happen herky-jerkily with none of the polish of which Welles was capable. And yet as often as those obstacles lent a wheels-about-to-come-off edge, they also spurred an intoxicating creativity: take Welles’ inspired idea to stage Roderigo’s murder in a Turkish bath, which came about because the production’s costumes had been impounded. But nor is it just a series of innovative solutions to logistical problems —Welles’ “Othello” (in which he plays the central role in unfortunate blackface after the fashion of the day) feels oddly uncompromised in its final roughshod form, as though it might have turned out in this borderline experimental state even with solid finances. Such is the sense of Welles’ singleminded, unwavering directorial confidence which shows in some of his most extraordinary shotmaking that brings the story far from its stagebound roots and into the realm of purest expressionist cinema. Insolently flouting the laws of classical filmmaking and held together entirely by force of the director’s iron will, Welles’ “Othello” is broken but monumental; a magnificent ruin. [B+]


“Mr. Arkadin” (1955)

Existing in as many as six different cinematic versions (only three of which are collected in Criterion’s “The Complete Mr. Arkadin” release), as well as in the forms of book and a radio play, and described by the director as the “biggest disaster” he ever faced, “Mr. Arkadin” was Welles’ ill-fated foray into quasi-pulp territory, and while it’s still perhaps most examined for the nebulous form in which it still exists, it’s pretty damn interesting. Based loosely on episodes of a radio spin-off of “The Third Man” called “The Lives Of Harry Lime,” the story follows an American smuggler (Robert Arden) who is enlisted to investigate the past of a mysterious millionaire, the titular Arkadin (Welles), who claims to remember nothing of his life. Cahiers du Cinema called the version they’d seen one of the greatest films of all time in 1956, but they were undoubtedly overstating the case a little: in any version, including the “comprehensive” Criterion version, it’s constrained by its evident cheapness and dubbing of foreign actors and is a little too indebted to some of Welles’ finer hours as a filmmaker or as a performer ( ‘Kane’ is as much an influence here as “The Third Man.”) And yet it’s still gorgeous, characterful, entirely absorbing and contains some of the best sequences that Welles ever shot. It’s frustrating that we never got to see the film that the director fully intended, but it’s almost as fascinating to examine and unpack the pieces of what’s left over. [B]


“Touch of Evil” (1957)
Initially released as the lower half of a double feature, “Touch of Evil” underwent the familiar growing pains of a Welles production, with three versions existing today. It’s even more of an ode to the film noir genre than “The Lady From Shanghai” ever was, with Marlene Dietrich‘s Tanya and her pianola that’s “so old, it’s new” imbuing the contours of the narrative with an evocative mood of melancholy. The foundation is laid out when Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new bride Susie (Janet Leigh) get embroiled in a murder mystery and face off against corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) and local crook Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). The plot gets tangled up with just the right number of shady characters and shadowy innuendoes from there on, but remains compelling throughout, resulting in perhaps the most narratively organic of all Welles’ films. And when you’ve got that to go along with Russell Metty‘s virtuoso lighting, Welles’ deliciously despicable portrayal of a corrupt soul, and the noirish camera angles that etch themselves as some of the finest in the genre (the hotel room scene with Wells and Akimoff is a thing of orchestrated dark beauty), well, you’re ready to forgive everything —including Charlton Heston playing a Mexican. Like its opening three-minute virtuoso tracking shot that was conceived decades before the long take even got the chance to go out of and come back in style, “Touch of Evil” is a pulpy noir that’s ahead of its time and one of the most polished and almost indecently enjoyable works in Welles’ oeuvre. [A]


“The Trial” (1962)

Finding your way through Orson Welles’ “The Trial” is a lot like waking up to find you’ve been arrested but no one will tell you what for. And in that way it’s of course the perfect adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s novel. But though studded with brilliance and jaw-dropping to look at, “The Trial” offers us much to admire but little to care for or be moved by, amounting to so much cleverness massed around a hollow core. The photography is truly outstanding, the design ultra-expressive, and the performances strong (Anthony Perkins is remarkable in the constrained central role; Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Welles himself provide great support). Yet there’s simply nothing for us to hold on to as we slide down this nightmarish rabbit hole, and that’s maybe because Welles, who was elsewhere mostly fascinated by the inner workings of “great” men, can himself find little purchase on what is essentially an everyman story. It is too much to suggest that he’s on the side of K’s accusers —indeed, the film clearly announces the parallel between the spiralling pettinesses of K’s situation and the workings of totalitarian regimes. But the director’s ironic detachment from proceedings is distancing: he’s a coolly amused researcher observing a rat in a maze. This translates to a stunning gigantism in the sets (inventive work necessitated by practicality when the production moved from Yugoslavia to a train station in Paris due to cost overruns), and to much unforgettable imagery but it comes at the cost of investment and momentum: of life. It’s a darkly comic allegory about the dehumanizing absurdity of bureaucracy, but we could wish Welles, who at one point regarded this as his best film, had established a little more humanity in the first place. [B-]

“Chimes At Midnight” (1964)
“If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up,” said Welles of “Chimes At Midnight.” A personal passion project based around one of the most creative adaptations of Shakespeare ever filmed, it’s five plays coalescing into one to make up an Orson Welles original; an adaptation of a character rather than a story. Welles turns one of the Bards’ recurring supporting characters into a lead, moulding Sir John Falstaff into an inconspicuous anti-hero and rebel of high society, a balloon-shaped softie who is drunk on nostalgia and living life to the fullest. His friendship with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) is the emotional epicenter of the story, as Hal’s primary struggle lies between the obligations he has to his father, King Henry IV (John Gielgud), and the time he spends reveling at Boar’s Head Tavern and thieving with Falstaff and his merry band of rascals. Welles portrays Falstaff with insatiable aplomb —the enormity of his guile outmeasuring the circumference of his waistline— and in his final scene with Hal delivers one of the most heartbreaking silent performances of his career. But ‘Chimes’ excels far beyond an actors’ showcase. Comedy seeps into the tiniest crevices of the production such as the way ceremonial trumpets are edited, and the dazzling action set piece of the Battle of Shrewsbury is art imitating war and one of the grandest statements in Welles’ legacy. The current condition of the film available to the public is in a disastrous state and available on YouTube, but recent news hit that Criterion and Janus will be handling the restoration and eventual Blu Ray release. Hear that? It’s the sound of every cinephile’s heart fluttering with excitement. [A-]

“The Immortal Story” (1968)

It’s odd that for all the unfinished and/or compromised movies that Welles made, perhaps the least known was completed in full: “The Immortal Story,” made for French TV but released theatrically in much of the world (in the U.S, it was paired with Buñuel’s “Simon Of The Desert” in a double-bill, though not available to watch at home until Criterion put it on Hulu Plus a few years ago). But there’s reason beyond that: the 55-minute film feels tossed-off in every sense and Welles feels palpably disengaged both as an actor and as a filmmaker throughout. It’s based on a short story by Karen Blixen (the author of “Out Of Africa” and “Babette’s Feast,” and played by Meryl Streep in the adaptation of the former), of whom Welles was a professed fan, telling the story of an elderly merchant in Macao (Welles), who becomes obsessed with an old story of a rich man offering a sailor money to impregnate his wife, and sends his employee (Roger Coggio) to find both the sailor (Norman Eshley), and a woman to pose as his spouse (Jeanne Moreau). Intended to be the first half of a two-part anthology film, Welles lost interest after financiers forced him to shoot the film in color, and it shows: robbed of his beloved expressionist chiaroscuro, the compositions are flat and uninspired, while the material, very much a short story, feels over-stretched to an hour. Moreau’s performance is much better than the film around which it occurs —it’s a shame that, after her strong turn in  “The Trial” they didn’t get to work on something Welles was more interested in. Other than her turn, the film’s a curio at best. [D+]


“F For Fake” (1973)

Orson Welles’ final masterpiece, nominally a documentary, began as a BBC project about art forger Elmyr de Hory, originally only to be narrated by Welles. After it emerged that Clifford Irving, who’d featured in the footage in his guise as de Hory’s biographer, had himself pulled off a giant hoax by fabricating an “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes (as told in Richard Gere-starrer “The Hoax”), Welles took over the project and turned it into something quite different,and quite remarkable: a meta-tastic, undoubtedly self-indulgent and self-satisfied examination into fakery. Much of the film’s last half-hour, involving Welles’ girlfriend Oja Kodar and Pablo Picasso, appears to be entirely made up. But truth is subjective, and the playfulness of the way Welles approaches his subject enhances its themes in a way that a more straight-ahead film probably wouldn’t be able to manage. Commenting on the art of performance that dominated Welles’ life as much as it does on anything that Hory and Irving ever managed, it’s a dense film, heady with ideas but hugely entertaining, even as its digressions occasionally spin off into dead ends. It’s unclassifiable and was mostly ignored by critics at the time (Welles told Jonathan Rosenbaum that he was making “a new kind of film,” one that was rejected by many devotees initially). Thankfully its reputation has been restored significantly over time. [B+]


“Filming ‘Othello'” (1978)

Designed as the first in a series of features for German television in which Welles was to discuss his films, “Filming Othello” was the only one to be finished, and as such comprises the last feature film completed with Welles as director (footage for “Filming The Trial is available in unedited form). Halfway between a making-of and a director’s commentary, it’s actually a rather wonderful insight, not just into Welles’ filmmaking process but also into his personality. He is a fascinating raconteur, and the storied production of “Othello” yields some choice anecdotes (like how he found out in advance that he’d won the Palme d’Or when a frantic organiser came to ask what the national anthem of Morocco — the country submitting the film—was). But he is somewhat self-consciously an icon, and while he makes frequent self-deprecating remarks, they can seem disingenuous, the performance of a humility he maybe does not feel. But this is part of the delight of this informal and yet entirely directed documentary —the caricature of Welles as a Kane-ian figure whose talents were only matched by his ego is so deeply embedded that it’s enjoyable to see him speak for himself, and to realize just how well-founded that caricature was. Over the course of the film we get Welles talking to camera, sit in on a post-screening Q&A and share in a lunch with friends and co-stars Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards (where all three get progressively squiffier), making it a great resource not just for “Othello” fans, but for anyone interested in Welles as a filmmaker whose creative brilliance both caused and flourished in adversity. [B]

Welles’ filmography is scrappy, comprising so many unfinished or hacked-up films in addition to those few shimmering completed classics. But in light of what a control-freak perfectionist he was, perhaps we should be more amazed he ever finished and released anything at all. The lost footage from “The Magnificent Ambersons” remains one of the greatest White Whales in cinematic lore, and every now and then new hope flares that it may yet be recovered. And long and storied is the epic tale of Peter Bogdanovich trying to bring Welles’ fascinating-sounding “The Other Side Of The Wind” to a finished state, last news there being that it is either all finished and ready for a Centennial release, or that the rights issues that have dogged the project for decades are still not resolved, or editing/restoration work has hardly even really begun, or that financing is in place, or that there’s not enough money. So that’s all clear as mud and par for the course with Welles. Optimists that we are, we’ll leave an open slot on this retrospective in the hopes that someday we’ll have a new title to add.


And this is not even getting into Welles’ acting appearances, which we should definitely return to look at another day. He usually appeared in his own films, but he also took on often substandard projects to fill his pockets (no matter how famous and revered he ever became, Welles never seemed to have quite enough money to meet his needs) and was not even above pilfering costumes and props from his hired-ham gigs to decorate his directorial passion projects. But of his performances in films he did not direct, it would be perverse not to call out his Harry Lime in Carol Reed‘s “The Third Man” (and for anyone still tiresomely clinging to the notion that Welles directed the film, you can hear the man himself refute that at 1.24 in this clip.) Partly because it’s simply such a wonderful performance (and you can read a write up on it in our recent Carol Reed feature here), but also because if you halve the distance between Lime, with his magnetism, wit and manipulation, and Charles Foster Kane, with his self-conscious ideas about grandeur and power, and add just a soupcon of the rapscallion Falstaff, the base Hank Quinlan and the fatally flawed Othello, you do not just get the ultimate Wellesian hero, you begin to get an idea of Orson Welles himself.

—Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Nikola Grozdanovich & Rodrigo Perez

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