Jack Nicholson

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, Bob Rafelson)

The King of Marvin Gardens is an extremely quiet film. Jack Nicholson’s protagonist is a radio monologist, which suggests the viewer should listen to the content of his dialogue, but the secret of Marvin Gardens is that content’s unimportance. After a brief introduction to Nicholson’s job and life, the film immediately moves him into an unknown circumstance. He goes to Atlantic City to meet up with his older brother, played by Bruce Dern.

Dern and Nicholson’s characters are completely dissimilar–Nicholson’s a monk, Dern travels with two ladies (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson), Nicholson’s an introvert, Dern’s an obnoxious talker–and director Rafelson, Nicholson and Dern are very careful to show their relationship. Rafelson and photographer László Kovács shoot a lot of Marvin Gardens in long shot (or at least medium long shot). It seemingly exaggerates the viewer’s distance from the characters, but it’s actually just how far away from one another everyone is situated, viewers and characters alike. Marvin Gardens presents this intriguing situation–Dern’s shady, but big money, business dealings, his relationship with the two women, the oddness of Atlantic City in off-season–and positions the viewer to ascribe certain reactions to Nicholson. After all, Nicholson is the audience’s entry into this weird setting, isn’t he?

Not really is the answer. And, as the film moves on, Nicholson, Rafelson and screenwriter Jacob Brackman have these occasional callbacks to remind the audience maybe they should have been paying more attention. Dern’s got a showy role, Burstyn has the film’s showiest, even Robinson is more shocking than Nicholson–but it’s all about Nicholson. It’s all about what his performance does and how Rafelson uses it in the film.

There aren’t really any set pieces–the most excitement comes at the beginning, with Nicholson arriving in Atlantic City; Rafelson’s vision of Atlantic City is empty, hollow, cold. There’s no music in Marvin Gardens, no score, I don’t even think any soundtrack music, just the wind. The cold wind battering these palatial, empty hotels.

Nicholson’s performance is the film’s initial hook–Rafelson opens on Nicholson performing a monologue in extreme close-up, no cuts, just this insight into the character. Only, Nicholson’s not the most reliable monologist (something the film goes out of its way to warn the audience not to expect). But in such weirdness, such grey quirkiness, such utter sadness, he’s a reference point.

It’s a breathtakingly constructed film. It’s not a character study. Rafelson and Brackman aren’t exactly deceptive about the film–there are the warnings, there are their attempts to remind the audience of important reveals–but they don’t want to fully engage how devastating it can get. Even when there’s danger, it always appears controllable, manageable.

One of the most awkward–and wonderful–things in the film is how little chemistry Nicholson and Robinson have with one another. Their scenes, even though the characters aren’t hostile, have this dreadful discomfort about them. Rafelson’s got a lot of trust in Nicholson, Nicholson’s got a lot of trust in Rafelson. It works out.

The King of Marvin Gardens is an exceptional film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by Jacob Brackman, based on a story by Rafelson and Brackman; director of photography, László Kovács; edited by John F. Link; production designer, Toby Carr Rafelson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (David Staebler), Bruce Dern (Jason Staebler), Ellen Burstyn (Sally), Julia Anne Robinson (Jessica), Scatman Crothers (Lewis) and Charles LaVine (Grandfather).


The Passenger (1975, Michelangelo Antonioni)

The Passenger is an odd mix of existential crisis and globe-trotting thriller. Director Antonioni does far better with the former than the latter, which has Jenny Runacre trying to discover what happened to husband Jack Nicholson. What happened to Nicholson is he assumes a dead man’s identity for no particular purpose in the film’s otherworldly first act. Then the film stalls, then Maria Schneider shows up and it gets back on track, then the stupid thriller stuff comes in.

Schneider initially inhabits the film as a non sequitur, which is far better than how she ends up (explaining Nicholson’s reasoning to him); she saves the picture just as Antonioni runs out of goodwill from the opening sequence. Well, just a few minutes after. Just enough to appreciate her presence.

Unfortunately, Runacre’s storyline–she’s trying to save Nicholson–is too big for the amount of character she’s got. And Antonioni tells her story flat. Everything else gets this beautiful visual lyricism, with amazing editing from Franco Arcalli and Antonioni, with some gorgeous and accomplished photography from Luciano Tovoli. Great sound design too.

Nicholson doesn’t get much to do once the real chase begins. While he’s got some good scenes with Schneider, Antonioni tries too hard to keep the magic once they get talking. It results in well-acted, problematic dialogue sequences.

The ending, which is technically magnificent, falls flat once the story has to come in just because Antonioni clearly doesn’t care about it.

But it’s definitely got its moments.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; screenplay by Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen and Antonioni; director of photography, Luciano Tovoli; edited by Antonioni and Franco Arcalli; music by Ivan Vandor; produced by Carlo Ponti; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Jack Nicholson (David Locke), Maria Schneider (Girl), Jenny Runacre (Rachel Locke), Ian Hendry (Martin Knight), Steven Berkoff (Stephen), Ambroise Bia (Achebe) and Charles Mulvehill (David Robertson).


The Last Detail (1973, Hal Ashby)

Even though Jack Nicholson gets top billing and the most bombastic role in The Last Detail, Otis Young has the harder job. He’s got to temper Nicholson, both for the sake of the audience and of the narrative. The film introduces the two men simultaneously–Robert Towne’s script almost immediately establishes an unspoken bond between the two, even though it takes them well through the first act to get to know each other.

The Last Detail is an atypical buddy picture for many reasons, with the two buddies getting thrown together being one of the more immediate ones. But more, the film is practically a parenting outing. Nicholson’s the crazy, fun dad, Young’s the responsible mother (who you don’t want to cross) and Randy Quaid’s the kid. Of course, Nicholson and Young are escorting Quaid to the stockade.

Along the way, Nicholson and Young do not go on an odyssey of self discovery. Their efforts in humanizing Quaid don’t lead to big momentous changes in their lives. Towne is reserved, saving the expository character development scenes for when Quaid’s doing something else (sometimes just napping); it makes those scenes, with Nicholson calm as opposed to manic and Young not fretting as much, rather special.

Director Ashby and editor Robert C. Jones create a tranquil, quiet quality for the film, using fades to guide the viewer’s attention. Great photography from Michael Chapman and a rather good score from Johnny Mandel.

All the acting’s great. Detail is muted, precise and often devastating.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Hal Ashby; screenplay by Robert Towne, based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Robert C. Jones; music by Johnny Mandel; production designer, Michael D. Haller; produced by Gerald Ayres; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Buddusky), Otis Young (Mulhall), Randy Quaid (Meadows), Clifton James (M.A.A.), Carol Kane (Young Prostitute) and Michael Moriarty (Marine O.D.).


Wolf (1994, Mike Nichols)

Mike Nichols has a very peculiar technique in Wolf. He does these intense close-ups, sometimes zooming into them, sometimes zooming out of them. He fixates on his actors–usually Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, but all of the actors get at least one intense close-up (except maybe Eileen Atkins). It’s like he’s drawing attention to the unreality of the film medium, which makes sense since there’s a lengthy conversation between Nicholson and Om Puri about mysticism and modern life.

Wolf is a strange monster movie because, even though it’s about Jack Nicholson turning into a werewolf–he gets bitten in the opening titles no less–it’s not a monster movie. For a while it’s a workplace drama, then it’s a marriage drama, finally it’s a romantic drama between Nicholson and Pfeiffer. The film’s present action is extremely limited. It takes place over a week or so (one could probably easily chart out the days), but the filmmakers sell the roller coaster romance between Nicholson and Pfeiffer.

On the topic of those close-ups of Nichols’s, they wouldn’t be possible without Giuseppe Rotunno’s photography. Wolf is a beautiful looking picture; Nichols and Rotunno have these wonderful reflections in the car windows. They’re stunning. And having Ennio Morricone’s score over them–just great.

All the acting’s good. Pfeiffer gets the third act to herself and is fabulous. Nice supporting work from Kate Nelligan, James Spader, Christopher Plummer.

I’m not even sure Wolf’s a horror movie; it’s more a supernatural drama.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; written by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick; director of photography, Giuseppe Rotunno; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Ennio Morricone; production designers, Jim Dultz and Bo Welch; produced by Douglas Wick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Will Randall), Michelle Pfeiffer (Laura Alden), James Spader (Stewart Swinton), Kate Nelligan (Charlotte Randall), Richard Jenkins (Detective Bridger), Christopher Plummer (Raymond Alden), Eileen Atkins (Mary), David Hyde Pierce (Roy), Om Puri (Dr. Vijay Alezais), Ron Rifkin (Doctor) and Prunella Scales (Maude).


The Terror (1963, Roger Corman)

It might be too easy just to call The Terror terrible or to go into the various puns one could make with “terrible” and the title. It’s not a surprisingly bad film at all. It’s an expectedly bad film, given it opens with a pointless scare attempt. Boris Karloff shows up in the first scene-walking through his spooky castle-and then disappears for about twenty minutes. Corman apparently just wanted to get the horror “name” in the first scene.

After the opening titles, which are deceptively classy-Ronald Stein’s music starts off strong before going bad as Corman uses it all the time-Jack Nicholson takes over as protagonist. Nicholson’s a French soldier in Germany or someplace, trying to get back to the rest of his regiment. Oh, I forgot, it’s a period piece-mid-1790s, I think. A period piece set in Germany, filmed on the California coast, starring Nicholson who doesn’t even try to hide his disinterest.

The Terror is a great example of when low budget filmmaking doesn’t have any inventiveness. The script is unnecessarily talky. Leo Gordon and Jack Hill’s dialogue goes on and on, probably to pad things out. Then there’s all the excess scenes. The Terror, at seventy minutes, should be lean. Instead, it’s bulky.

Karloff can do this kind of garbage with his eyes closed, but Nicholson isn’t able to fake it. Without a compelling lead, there’s just nothing to this one. It’s a dreadful film.

Very pretty scenery at times though.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Roger Corman; written by Leo Gordon and Jack Hill; director of photography, John M. Nickolaus Jr.; edited by Stuart O’Brien; music by Ronald Stein; released by American International Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe), Jack Nicholson (Lt. Andre Duvalier), Sandra Knight (Helene), Dick Miller (Stefan), Dorothy Neumann (Katrina) and Jonathan Haze (Gustaf).


The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967, Roger Corman)

Director Corman and–probably more so–writer Howard Browne construct The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre as a docudrama. Paul Frees narrates the entire film, introducing characters, providing their backstories–Corman sometimes mutes the film’s dialogue (during boring parts) so Frees can explain a little about the person. Massacre might be mostly authentic in its portrayal of the titular event, but it doesn’t matter. Frees, Browne and Corman could sell anything.

The film’s layered. It opens after the massacre and quietly backs up to explain it. It uses flashbacks a couple more times, specifically to explain the hatred between gangsters Al Capone (Jason Robards) and Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker). Corman doesn’t open with either of them. Instead he opens with George Segal as a sociopathic gangster working for Meeker. It’s good Segal and Robards never have a scene together because they would have–and gloriously so–ripped the sets apart with their teeth.

Robards’s performance has a couple weak spots, but he still transfixes. As written, the character ranges from sorrow to anger immediately and Robards plays it beautifully. Segal has almost no quite moments; watching him is waiting for him to erupt. But he always remains somehow likable, probably because no one in Massacre is particularly likable. Segal just has the charisma to weather it.

Other excellent performances include Clint Ritchie and Frank Silvera (though the film loses track of Silvera).

Corman’s got some great shots; Milton R. Krasner’s an able photographer. Perfect score from Lionel Newman.

Massacre is fantastic.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Roger Corman; written by Howard Browne; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by William B. Murphy; music by Lionel Newman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jason Robards (Al Capone), George Segal (Peter Gusenberg), Ralph Meeker (Bugs Moran), Jean Hale (Myrtle), Clint Ritchie (Jack McGurn), Frank Silvera (Nick Sorello), Joseph Campanella (Albert Wienshank), Richard Bakalyan (John Scalise), David Canary (Frank Gusenberg), Bruce Dern (Johnny May), Harold J. Stone (Frank Nitti), Kurt Kreuger (James Clark), Paul Richards (Charles Fischetti), Joe Turkel (Jake Guzik), Milton Frome (Adam Heyer), Mickey Deems (Reinhold Schwimmer), John Agar (Dion O’Bannion), Celia Lovsky (Josephine Schwimmer), Tom Reese (Ted Newberry), Jan Merlin (Willie Marks), Alexander D’Arcy (Joe Aiello), Reed Hadley (Hymie Weiss), Gus Trikonis (Rio), Charles Dierkop (Salvanti), Tom Signorelli (Bobo Borotto), Rico Cattani (Albert Anselmi), Alex Rocco (Diamond), Leo Gordon (Heitler), Jonathan Haze (Boris Chapman), Dick Miller (Adolph Muller) and Jack Nicholson (Gino); narrated by Paul Frees.


The Little Shop of Horrors (1960, Roger Corman)

The filmmaking economy in The Little Shop of Horrors is astounding. Most of the film takes place in one set–the titular shop–and Charles B. Griffith’s script works hard to imply the world outside that set. My favorite bit in the script is probably when leading man Jonathan Haze is shocked to discover peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. His mother (Myrtle Vail in one of Shop‘s only mediocre performances) only cooks food with healing properties, which they have because she adds medicinal ingredients. Griffith’s a funny guy.

Corman’s direction is best with the exterior scenes. The masterful chase sequence through a tire factory is stunningly out of place in a horror comedy. There’s also a great sequence with Haze meeting a loose woman (Meri Welles), who keeps magically popping into shots. Both of these sequences come in the second half of the picture; the first half just has to rely on the great acting.

Haze is fine, so’s Jackie Joseph as his love interest, but Mel Welles carries the whole Shop as Haze’s boss. He should be a buffoon–no one in Shop is wholly sympathetic–but Welles’s sincere performance makes the character the film’s most human.

In the supporting cast, there are good performances from John Herman Shaner and Jack Nicholson. Dick Miller’s great in a too small role. Griffith’s script makes sure Leola Wendorff gets a couple decent moments too.

Fred Katz’s music is awesome.

Shop is quite impressive; Corman, Griffith and Welles all do excellent work.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Roger Corman; written by Charles B. Griffith; director of photography, Archie R. Dalzell; edited by Marshall Neilan Jr.; music by Fred Katz; released by The Filmgroup.

Starring Jonathan Haze (Seymour Krelboyne), Jackie Joseph (Audrey Fulquard), Mel Welles (Gravis Mushnick), Dick Miller (Burson Fouch), Myrtle Vail (Winifred Krelboyne), Karyn Kupcinet (Shirley), Toby Michaels (Shirley’s Friend), Leola Wendorff (Mrs. Siddie Shiva), Lynn Storey (Mrs. Hortense Fishtwanger – Society of Silent Flower Observers of Southern California), Wally Campo (Det. Sgt .Joe Fink), Jack Warford (Det. Frank Stoolie), Meri Welles (Leonora Clyde), John Herman Shaner (Dr. Phoebus Farb) and Jack Nicholson (Wilbur Force).


Man Trouble (1992, Bob Rafelson)

Man Trouble is a strange film, right from the start. It opens with then thirty-year-old Lauren Tom in old age makeup (well, her hair tinted grey). That casting choice–following the animated opening titles–establishes it as an oddity. It’s not a bad film, just a strangely detached one. The protagonist is Ellen Barkin, but since she’s opposite Jack Nicholson, he’s the de facto protagonist.

Nicholson does a good job playing a sleazy, but lovable ne’er-do-well–he’s so lovable, even the people he owes money can’t stay angry at him–and there are occasional moments of Nicholson brilliance. Unfortunately, they’re during the human parts, which he doesn’t get many.

Barkin’s excellent. The film makes a mistake at one point comparing her to trampy sister Beverly D’Angelo. It’s clear Barkin’s character–intelligent, socially awkward and shyly sexy–would never bother making such an obvious comparison. Especially given D’Angelo’s sister is introduced as an unsympathetic cancer on her life.

Some of the supporting cast–Veronica Cartwright, Saul Rubinek–is good. Others–D’Angelo, Michael McKean, David Clennon–are on autopilot. I don’t think Harry Dean Stanton was even awake, they just taped his eyes open.

But the cast isn’t the problem, it’s the script. Eastman’s script is technically good, but it clearly should have been a novel. It’s a reality-based absurdist conspiracy situation comedy. The movie can’t get enough information across to really tell the story.

Still, it’s charming to some degree and much better than I expected.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Rafelson; written by Carole Eastman; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by William Steinkamp; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Eastman and Bruce Gilbert; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Harry Bliss), Ellen Barkin (Joan Spruance), Harry Dean Stanton (Redmond Layls), Beverly D’Angelo (Andy Ellerman), Michael McKean (Eddy Revere), Saul Rubinek (Laurence Moncrief), Viveka Davis (June Huff), Veronica Cartwright (Helen Dextra), David Clennon (Lewie Duart), John Kapelos (Detective Melvenos), Paul Mazursky (Lee MacGreevy), Gary Graham (Butch Gable) and Lauren Tom (Adele Bliss).


Mars Attacks! (1996, Tim Burton)

I remember seeing Mars Attacks! in the theater–in those days, the pre-Sleepy Hollow days, I was quite the Tim Burton aficionado. That affection has changed (changed is the polite word) in the last fourteen years, but Mars Attacks! has just gotten better and better on each viewing. At present, it’s my vote for Burton’s most accomplished film (Ed Wood being the other contender).

In fact, it’s almost unbelievable Burton made the film–during the war room sequences, one could feel Strangelove, something I don’t think of with Burton, and his handling of the cast is magnificent. In a lot of ways, Burton does here what Soderbergh tries to do with his populist films and can’t achieve fully–Burton makes a great time, but for himself. The film’s completely indifferent to its potential audience (something I sort of remember from the response when it came out) and just… enraptured with itself.

The Martians don’t show up for at least a half hour–it might be forty minutes–so the cast is instead given the opportunity to create these fantastic characters who may or may not matter later on. I think only Danny DeVito really gets to define himself after the invasion begins.

Everyone in the film is fantastic (I always forget Natalie Portman used to be good), but standouts are Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening… oh, wait, I’m just listing the cast.

Jim Brown’s really good.

Burton’s direction–his first Panavision, I think–is singular.

Simply put, it’s awesome.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Jonathan Gems, based on his story and the trading cards by Len Brown, Woody Gelman, Wally Wood, Bob Powell and Norman Saunders; director of photography, Peter Suschitzky; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Burton and Larry J. Franco; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jack Nicholson (President James Dale / Art Land), Glenn Close (First Lady Marsha Dale), Annette Bening (Barbara Land), Pierce Brosnan (Professor Donald Kessler), Danny DeVito (Rude Gambler), Martin Short (Press Secretary Jerry Ross), Sarah Jessica Parker (Nathalie Lake), Michael J. Fox (Jason Stone), Rod Steiger (General Decker), Tom Jones (Himself), Jim Brown (Byron Williams), Lukas Haas (Richie Norris), Natalie Portman (Taffy Dale), Pam Grier (Louise Williams), Lisa Marie (Martian Girl), Brian Haley (Mitch, Secret Service Agent), Sylvia Sidney (Grandma Florence Norris), Jack Black (Billy Glenn Norris) and Paul Winfield (General Casey).


The Crossing Guard (1995, Sean Penn)

I can’t decide what moment of The Crossing Guard is my favorite. I have it narrowed down to two. It’s either the (louder) one at the end, where Jack Nicholson realizes where he is and how he got there, or it’s when I realized Anjelica Huston–who starts the film in a support group–has never spoken in her support group. She just goes and sits and wants to speak and never does. The Crossing Guard opens, after that scene with Huston and the juxtaposed Nicholson scene (Huston goes to support groups, Nicholson hangs out at a strip club), with this beautiful, victorious Jack Nitzsche music. It sounds like it’s a sports movie about a guy who never thought he’d play again, but then did. Nitzsche repeats this piece of music throughout the film and, each time it plays, it gets a little less victorious, a little less triumphant, until the end, when it’s about defeat.

The Crossing Guard is about compassion and submission. Penn doesn’t exactly hide these themes, but there isn’t a single scene where he lets the film get aware of itself enough to think about its themes. The Crossing Guard features a scene where Nicholson wakes up from a nightmare and calls ex-wife Huston on the phone to tell her the dream and it’s one of the best scenes in the film. This scene shouldn’t work, because relating a dream… it shouldn’t work. Penn breaks a couple major narrative rules in The Crossing Guard to great success. There isn’t a false moment in the film and only one where he holds a shot too long (but it’s featuring Robin Wright Penn and he basically casts her as an angel in the film, so he gets some leeway).

The most difficult task for the film’s viewer is connecting with the characters. It isn’t hard to connect with David Morse, whose puppy-dog eyes (which Wright Penn even comments on) and sweet, quiet demeanor visually collide with his hulking figure. His remorse and guilt are palpable. The scene where he tries to explain himself to parents Richard Bradford and Piper Laurie (who are both wonderful and share a fantastic small scene near the beginning) is devastating. It’s a hard moment in the film, where it becomes easier to objectify the film itself–Penn keeps the trailer where Nicholson threatened Morse’s life visible through the window behind Morse–than to listen to what Morse is saying. There isn’t a single explanation in The Crossing Guard. Penn demands his viewer interpret each moment and, if he or she doesn’t get it right, there’s no make-up exam… the film just moves forward.

Nicholson, for instance, is playing a tragic golem. He moves through his life fueled by alcohol, cigarettes and hatred. There are occasional peeks into the person he was before, but it’s all implied. The scenes with ex-wife Huston don’t even offer the most insight, instead it’s how the strippers flock to Nicholson. In this beautiful performance, which gives Nicholson two amazing–once in a career for most people–scenes, the most impressive thing he does is show an exceptional capacity for love. He never shows love for the strippers–Kari Wuhrer and Priscilla Barnes–but they sense it. Barnes has a great scene where she’s yelling at him, but it’s clear even when she’s angry with him. The scene where it’s clear Nicholson’s loved by the junkies, the masochists, the hookers and those who have squandered everything is another candidate for best moment in the film.

And when Nicholson’s humanity returns to him, when the automated processes start to slow, when the clay starts to crack–when it becomes clear just what Nicholson and Morse are both looking for… The Crossing Guard overwhelms.

And Penn isn’t even finished yet.

Penn’s direction–it’s very quiet at times, lots of discreet camera movement–Vilmos Zsigmond does a beautiful job–is sublime. It’s assured and measured. Just like the script’s implications, Penn’s visual moves are perfect. He even plays with the viewer’s perception of movie star Jack Nicholson as such as lackluster person. I kept wondering, as I watched it, if it was going to get better (which, given how great it is from the start, seems impossible). It does.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Sean Penn; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Jack Nitzsche; production designer, Michael D. Haller; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Freddy Gale), David Morse (John Booth), Anjelica Huston (Mary), Robin Wright (Jojo), Piper Laurie (Helen Booth), Richard Bradford (Stuart Booth), Priscilla Barnes (Verna), David Baerwald (Peter), Robbie Robertson (Roger), John Savage (Bobby) and Kari Wuhrer (Mia).


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