TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The film director Sidney Lumet died of lymphoma last Saturday. He was 86. We're going to listen back to my interview with him.
The New York Times obituary described Lumet as a director who preferred the streets of New York to the back lots of Hollywood, and whose stories of conscience - "12 Angry Men," "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "The Verdict," "Network" - became modern American film classics.
Lumet also made the 1964 film "The Pawnbroker," starring Rod Steiger as a Holocaust survivor who owns a pawn shop, and "Fail-Safe," about a nuclear showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Lumet directed Michael Jackson and Diana Ross in the 1978 musical "The Wiz." He was given an honorary Academy Award in 2005.
Let's start with a scene from Lumet's final film, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," which was released in 2007. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as two brothers whose parents own a jewelry store. Hoffman plays a businessman and addict who's embezzled a large amount of money from his company. Facing an audit, he's in desperate need of cash. He's trying to rope his younger brother into helping him pull off a heist.
(Soundbite of movie, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead")
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. ETHAN HAWKE (Actor): (As Hank Hanson) What are we doing, and when?
Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Andy Hanson) It's a jewelry store. This ring a bell?
Mr. HAWKE: (As Hank Hanson) No.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Andy) What if I tell you it's got a Footlocker on one side and a Claire's Accessories on the other? Yeah, that's right. You got it. Now listen. We don't want Tiffany's. We want a mom-and-pop operation in a busy place on a Saturday with a week's take still in the safe.
We both worked there. We know the safe combinations. We know the burglar alarm signals. We know where everything is. And I figure between the week's take, the jewelry in the cases, the vault, there's a $500,000 haul. I figure probably six. That old dumb old lady that works there, she's alone till noon. She's not going to be a problem.
Mr. HAWKE: (As Hank Hanson) Andy.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Andy) Yeah?
Mr. HAWKE: (As Hank Hanson) That's mom and dad's store.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Andy) That's what I said, a mom-and-pop operation.
GROSS: I spoke with director Sidney Lumet in 1988.
You've made about 38 movies in a little over 30 years. And it reminds me of the old studio days, in a way, when there were a lot of movies being made and when directors and actors used to do a lot of movies per year. How have you managed to keep that pace up, especially considering how the movie industry has changed?
Mr. SIDNEY LUMET (Film Director): Lucky, Terry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUMET: No, I love work, and I love movies. I would - I think if I had - if I could ever - these things are clearly impossible, but if I could have had the artistic freedom that I enjoy now under the old studio system - which would have been impossible, by the way - I think I would've been very happy working at a studio, because I love going from one project to another. I love - when I work with actors who I find exciting to work with, I love repeating with them and working with them again and again.
GROSS: So you think of yourself as having more artistic freedom now than you did when you were starting, because of how the movie industry has changed?
Mr. LUMET: Not - partially. I don't...
GROSS: Or because of your stature?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUMET: Part of it is muscle.
Mr. LUMET: You know, you get a couple of hits behind you, and you can slowly start encroaching into that area. And - but I think you're right. I think the studio system has changed. I don't think that Louis B. Mayer would've given me final cut, no matter how many hits I'd had. He would have never given up that prerogative.
GROSS: And you insist on that, right, when you take on a movie?
Mr. LUMET: Yeah, yeah. (unintelligible).
GROSS: You must have final cut? Which means what, exactly?
Mr. LUMET: Well, it means there can be nothing - the film cannot be touched after you finish editing it, whether in the soundtrack or visually. It's yours.
GROSS: What kind of problem had you run into with previous movies that taught you you needed to demand final cut?
Mr. LUMET: Well, as an example, many, many years ago, I did a very, very interesting picture - I think a very good picture. It's one of the few that I like better now than at the time that I did it - a picture called "The Hill" with Sean Connery.
And it was not much of a success in America, but a good picture. And at that time - I did it through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and at that time, they were being owned by a new person. They were changing hands almost daily. There were three new managements in the period of a year.
And at one point, they just said it, as a matter of company policy, that a picture had to run one hour and 55 minutes, because they thought that this would work well for their relationships with the exhibitors.
And the picture ran two hours and two minutes, and they just insisted that I take seven minutes out. They didn't care where it came from. It didn't matter to them that there were no seven minutes to take out without destroying the movie.
And it was a hell of a battle, and the only reason I won it, actually, was because management changed hands again, and the new management came in, which was - listened with slightly more sympathetic ears.
But if the old management had continued running Metro, they simply would have taken the film and removed seven minutes, period.
Mr. LUMET: And that kind of thing goes on constantly. A great many directors have suffered very severely from that.
GROSS: And that's still going on.
Mr. LUMET: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Let's talk a little bit about your first film, made in 1957, and this was "12 Angry Men," a courtroom drama. You had, before that, been directing television, live television dramas. Was this a good transition to make, since it was basically a one-set movie? It's a courtroom drama. It's a jury drama. They're in the deliberation room most of the movie. Was that a good place to start?
Mr. LUMET: It was good, and it was a great problem, except that I was dumb enough not to know what the problem was. I found out - after I had done the movie and people liked it - that it was very difficult to shoot a movie in one room. That never occurred to me.
Mr. LUMET: I had just plunged in with complete ignorance, knowing what I wanted to do with camera, knowing that I could make the camera a good interpretive part of the movie itself, and just blithely went ahead, shot it in 19 days, happy as a lark, and didn't know what the problem was.
I may have felt enormously secure at the confinement of it, because my background, as you say, had been live television and the theater. So the idea of staging something in one room was something that came very easily to me.
GROSS: Well, the movie starred Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. Fonda is the only juror initially convinced of the defendant's innocence. Cobb is the last holdout. I want to play a clip from this movie, "12 Angry Men."
(Soundbite of movie, "12 Angry Men")
Mr. HENRY FONDA (Actor): (As Juror #8) Did you ever see a woman who had to wear glasses and didn't want to because she thinks they spoil her looks?
Mr. LEE J. COBB (Actor): (As Juror #3) Okay. She had marks on her nose. I'm giving you that. From glasses, right? She didn't want to wear them out of the house so people would think she's gorgeous. But when she saw this kid killing his father, she was in the house, alone. That's all.
Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) Do you wear glasses when you go to bed?
Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) No, I don't. No one wears eyeglasses to bed.
Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) It's logical to assume that she wasn't wearing them when she was in bed, tossing and turning, trying to fall asleep.
Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) How do you know?
Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) I don't know. I'm guessing. I'm also guessing that she probably didn't put her glasses on when she turned to look casually out of the window. And she herself testified the killing took place just as she looked out. The lights went off a split-second later. She couldn't have had time to put them on then.
Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) Wait a second...
Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) Here's another guess: Maybe she honestly thought she saw the boy kill his father. I say she only saw a blur.
Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) How do you know what she saw? How does he know all that? How do you know what kind of glasses she wore? Maybe they were sunglasses. Maybe she was farsighted. What do you know about it?
Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) I only know the woman's eyesight is in question now.
Mr. GEORGE VOSKOVEC (Actor): (As Juror #11) She had to be able to identify a person 60 feet away, at night, without glasses.
Mr. JOHN FIEDLER (Actor): (As Juror #2) You can't send someone off to die on evidence like that.
Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) Oh, don't give me that.
Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) Don't you think the woman might have made a mistake?
Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) No.
Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) It's not possible?
Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) No, it's not possible.
GROSS: It's a heck of a cast. In addition to Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, you have Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley. You were - you directed them your first time out on film, and you've since directed Paul Newman and younger actors like Al Pacino and Treat Williams.
Is there a difference in the acting styles of the actors who you were directing in the '50s and the actors who came of age in, say, the '70s?
Mr. LUMET: Not really, Terry. They - the basic craft of acting is, in the United States, has been set for some years, really, even before the Method came in. Basically, people like Fonda worked out of a profound sense of truth.
In fact, a man like Fonda didn't know how to do anything falsely and used himself, used himself brilliantly. Both of those elements are foundations of the Method, and even though he wasn't called a Method actor in the sense of having studied the method, he basically worked out of that, as most good actors did.
GROSS: Do you think of yourself as a Method director?
Mr. LUMET: No. I become the kind of director that becomes whatever his actors need. When I did "Murder on the Orient Express," I could work the way the English actors work. When we did "Long Day's Journey into Night," there was a perfect example, Kate Hepburn has a very specific way of working, her own technique. Ralph Richardson is a prime example of British technique, which is primarily from what we call the outside-in.
Dean Stockwell works completely Method, from the inside out. And Jason has his own glorious world of creating something from inside himself, and heaven knows where it comes from.
But I think part of the job of directing is to not make the actors work your way, but for you to work, as a director, any way that makes them comfortable.
GROSS: You directed Al Pacino in two of his first big movie roles, "Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon." I want to play a short scene from "Dog Day Afternoon," and maybe you can tell me what you think Al Pacino needed when he was getting started.
This is a scene from the very opening of the movie, when Pacino walks into a New York bank and he holds it up, and he wants the money to buy a sex-change operation for his lover.
(Soundbite of movie, "Dog Day Afternoon")
Mr. AL PACINO (Actor): (As Sonny) Freeze. Nobody move. Get over there. Okay, all right, get away from those alarms. Now get in the center. He moves, take his head off. Put the gun on him. Get out of the center.
Mr. JOHN CAZALE (Actor): (As Sal) Sonny? I can't do it, Sonny.
Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) What?
Mr. CAZALE: (As Sal) I'm not gonna make it, Sonny.
Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) What are you talking about? Put it on.
Mr. CAZALE: (As Sal) I can't do it, Sonny.
Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) Sal. Sal. What? Where are you? You can't make it.
GROSS: It's an interesting performance, because Pacino is so manic in it, and yet so insecure and incompetent at robbing this bank.
Mr. LUMET: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: What did he need when he was getting started? You were talking before about giving actors what you think they need.
Mr. LUMET: Primarily, what he needed was he needed a great sense of freedom and a great sense of restriction. That - the creation of the character is really Al's own. He understood something about that man that is irreplaceable, and I don't think a director can ever give - he understood him down to his bone marrow.
The - what he needed was a sense of release, the confidence to know that as extreme as he got in the performance, that it was right, that it went - for example, there's a scene toward the end of the movie where he's talking to his female wife, his real wife, on the telephone, trying to decide what to do.
And the scene is extraordinary in the sense that it requires a level of emotion that I've seen very rarely in movies. We did the scene in one take, because I - with two cameras, because I didn't want him to have to repeat that emotion over and over again.
And when he finished it the first time, it was wonderful. And without waiting an instant, I didn't even cut the cameras, I said: Al, go again. And he looked at me like I was crazy, because he was exhausted. He was spent.
And I said: Right now. Action. And what I was driving at was that he had reached such a height at the end of the first take, such an emotional peak, but that's really where I wanted the scene to begin.
Mr. LUMET: And he - it's really one of the best pieces of movie acting I've ever seen. It was blinding in its intensity, agonizingly painful and just reached a level of emotion that I - as I say, that I don't think I've seen often in movie acting. And that knowledge that he could go as far as he wanted to within the confines of this situation and that man - the situation created by the script, the man created by Pacino.
But that confidence to know that he could go as far as his feelings would carry him was very important to him, and that was really the biggest single directing relationship to his performance.
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with Sidney Lumet. He died Saturday at the age of 86. Here's the scene from "Dog Day Afternoon" that Lumet was just talking about.
Al Pacino's character, Sonny, is doing his best to keep it together. The bank robbery is falling apart. He has a bank full of hostages, and he's dealing with the police and the hostage negotiator. In the midst of the chaos, he calls his wife.
(Soundbite of movie, "Dog Day Afternoon")
Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) I'm dying, you know that? I'm dying here.
Ms. SUSAN PERETZ (Actor): (as Angie) Sonny, I blame myself. I notice you've been tense, like something is happening. Like night before last, you're yelling at the kids like a mad man. And then you want to go on that ride, that caterpillar, from here to there, full of those kids? It's ridiculous. I'm not about to go on the ride. So you yell at me. You pig. Get on the (bleep) ride.
Well, everything fell out of me. My heart and my liver just sunk to the floor. I mean, everything, just...
Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) Angie, dear...
Ms. PERETZ: (as Angie) ...you know what it felt like, you yelling at me like that in front of all them people?
Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) I want to...
Ms. PERETZ: (as Angie) I mean, because you never talked to me like that before, Sonny. I think, he's gonna shoot me. He's gonna dump my body and...
Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) Angie, will you just shut up?
Ms. PERETZ: (as Angie) I mean, I was scared of you. I was scared.
Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) Will you shut the (bleep) up and listen to me? Just listen to me.
Ms. PERETZ: (as Angie) You see? You see this, with the language and everything?
Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) We're not talking. I'm trying to talk to you, and you...
Ms. PERETZ: (as Angie) A person can't communicate with you.
GROSS: A scene from the 1975 film "Dog Day Afternoon," directed by Sidney Lumet. We'll hear more of our 1988 interview with Lumet after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're remembering Sidney Lumet, the prolific film director who made "12 Angry Men," "The Pawnbroker," "Fail-Safe," Dog Day Afternoon," "Serpico," "Prince of the City," "Network" and "The Wiz." He died Saturday at the age of 86. We're listening back to a 1988 interview. Lumet typically shot only one or two takes of each scene.
I wonder if you ever run into conflicts where there's one actor in a scene who works really well on that first or second take, and another actor who sees it as their style to go for 15 or 16 takes, until they really get it perfect. What do you do if you run into that?
Mr. LUMET: I have run into it, and so far - if there were piece of wood around the studio, I'd knock on it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUMET: But so far, I've been able to convince the 15-or-16-take actor that the other works.
The early takes are not imperfect. They are usually the freshest, truest. The repetition, I find - and I think for most good actors - the repetitions tend to become mechanical. One doesn't find more truth in it as it goes on.
Now, that partially has to do with the way I work, because, as you know, or may know, I rehearse very heavily. I rehearse two to three weeks, depending on the complexity of the characters, before we begin. And those rehearsals are conducted like theater rehearsals in the sense that people learn their lines completely, are working without scripts. They're completely blocked, to the degree that we're having run-throughs by the end of it. So it's not as if once we get on camera, that this is their first exposure.
GROSS: Is that uncommon?
Mr. LUMET: Yes, it is. It is. It is not done often. I think mostly, those of us who were trained in television do it. I think Arthur Penn does it. I know Arthur Penn does it, John Frankenheimer, and so on.
GROSS: Oh, because you had to do it for the live drama.
Mr. LUMET: That's right. And - but it turned out for all of us, I think, in movies, to have other advantages.
GROSS: You know, between "12 Angry Men," "The Verdict," "Serpico" and "Prince of the City," you've done your share of police and legal dramas. Is this a special interest of yours, or did you just like those scripts and want to do them?
Mr. LUMET: It's funny, Terry. You know, I don't really analyze these things. I just respond instinctively to a piece of material. But obviously, something in me somewhere is very involved with that level of life. Where it comes from, I don't know, but on looking back on it, boy, there are an awful lot of what I call justice stories. They somehow involve me very viscerally.
GROSS: Have you been affected by the new craze of market research?
Mr. LUMET: Yes. And fortunately, I've had my artistic controls in place before they ever came along, because I think they are disastrous. I think they're destructive. I also think they're untrue. I think a person changes as soon as you ask them something.
GROSS: So do you have a no-market-research clause when you take on a film?
Mr. LUMET: No, because I can't prevent the studio from doing it. But I sure in hell don't let it affect any of my decisions about what I'm going to do with a picture.
GROSS: You obviously love film directing. What - when you're doing a movie, what's the part that you most look forward to and the part that you know you have to do, but you really don't enjoy at all?
Mr. LUMET: There's only one part that I have to do - all of it is a thrilling process to me: pre-production, shooting, post-production, editing, music. The only part that's a bit of a drag is what we call the mix, which is when we come in and do the final soundtrack and put every chair squeak in and every door slam in.
It requires enormous concentration, because it's largely a mechanical process rather than a creative one - although some directors use it very creatively. The soundtrack that I keep remembering particularly is the soundtrack of "Apocalypse Now," which was a brilliant piece of work and a totally creative piece of work.
However, you do have to do it - I feel I have to do it myself, because if the mix is a bad mix, if the wrong thing is emphasized, it can seriously affect the movie and be very destructive to a movie. So I have to do it, but it's the only non-joyful part of moviemaking to me.
GROSS: We'll hear more of my 1988 interview with Sidney Lumet in the second half of the show. He died of lymphoma Saturday. He was 86.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's music from Lumet's 1964 film, "The Pawnbroker," composed by Quincy Jones.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering the film director Sidney Lumet. He died of lymphoma last Saturday. He was 86. His films include: "12 Angry Men," "The Pawnbroker," "Fail-Safe," "Serpico," "The Wiz" and "Network."
Let's here a scene from Lumet's 1981 film, "Prince of the City," adapted from a memoir by a New York City narcotics detective officer who exposed corruption in the unit. Jerry Orbach played one of the dirty narcotics detectives. In this scene, he storms into the office of one of the people in charge of the corruption investigation.
(Soundbite of movie, "Prince of the City")
(Soundbite of door opening)
Mr. JERRY ORBACH (Actor): (as Gus Levy) You indict me on a squawk of a dope dealer who tried to buy out of (bleep) bust. You want to break up another federal operation that'll put away more quality mob guys in a year that you'll tough pissant career?
Unidentified Actor: Detective Levy, you're hardly in a position...
Mr. ORBACH: (as Gus Levy) Why...
(Soundbite of smashing, banging)
Mr. ORBACH: (as Gus Levy) I'll tell you what I'm in a position to do, and that's throw you out the (bleep) window. It's only the fifth floor, but I'll try to aim you so you'll land on your pointed little head.
Unidentified Actor: Levy, you can easily avoid trial. All you have to do is cooperate.
Mr. ORBACH: (as Gus Levy) You got your mind made up to try me, go ahead and try me, but not for a lousy $400. At least get me for assault.
(Soundbite of grunting)
(Soundbite of footsteps)
GROSS: Let's get back to our 1988 interview with director Sidney Lumet.
I want to play another short scene from another movie you directed, and this is "Network," which came out in 1976. Peter Finch won a posthumous Academy Award for his performance in this. And in this scene, he plays a lunatic, self-styled, messianic broadcaster who is basically preaching his editorial.
(Soundbite of movie, "Network")
Mr. PETER FINCH (Actor): (as Howard Beale) I don't know what to do about the depression or the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first, you've got to get mad. You've got to say I'm a human being, dammit. My life has value.
So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell: I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more.
GROSS: And right after, as he's doing that editorial, people all over Manhattan, in high-rise apartment buildings, open up their windows, stick their heads out and start yelling that they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore.
I thought that scene really tapped into something, and for me, what it tapped into is the fear is that in Manhattan, there are so many high-rises filled with so many people with all this pent-up anger, and if it were ever let loose, we'd really be in big trouble.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUMET: Well, Paddy Chayefsky had that unique ability to tap the most fundamental truths in people, in the individual characters, and also in terms of his own - the situation that he's observing. Did you ever see a picture that he wrote called "Hospital"?
GROSS: No, I didn't.
Mr. LUMET: Well, it's hilarious, as "Network" is, with, fundamentally, a deeply serious idea behind it. And he did it in that, too. He's - I miss him every day.
GROSS: "Network" was one of your many movies that was shot in New York locations. Now, I think you were really one of the first directors to actually do location shooting in Manhattan.
Mr. LUMET: Yeah. Kazan first, and me right behind him. But at that time, it wasn't fashionable at all. It was very difficult to put together more than one good movie crew, because there was that little work going on here.
GROSS: Why did you want to shoot on location in New York?
Mr. LUMET: Well, once you were shooting in New York, it was almost no choice. We had very limited studio space in that - in those days, so that you had no choice. But also, it coincided clearly with the kind of picture we were doing, which were usually very realistic pictures, pictures that benefited visually from being done on location.
GROSS: Were there problems when you were one of the pioneers doing that, since crews weren't used to it? The people on the streets weren't used to having movies shot outside their homes or their offices.
Mr. LUMET: Yeah. But they were all good problems. The problems are much more severe now, because everybody's so sophisticated. So they not only charge you a hell of a lot more to use their facility...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUMET: ...but they're also a little bit more contemptuous and irritated by the inconvenience that shooting makes. In those days, it was glamorous. People were amazed by it, were diverted by it and enchanted by it, so that the problems in those days were actually less severe than the problems now.
GROSS: Now, you really came from a theater family. Your father acted in the Yiddish theater. You acted when you were very young. I think you either performed in or were a standby in "The Dead End Kids" on Broadway?
Mr. LUMET: I wasn't one of "The Dead End Kids." I was in a play. There were other children's parts in it.
GROSS: Oh, it was a play called "Dead End" on Broadway.
Mr. LUMET: Right. Right.
GROSS: Okay. Now to this experience with the Yiddish theater, via your father or your own performances, help you understand actors as a director?
Mr. LUMET: I think so, Terry. The biggest thing about actors is that they really are the infantry. They are the most exposed. And most good work - not just acting, but really any creative work - is a matter of use of self, self exposure. And as I say, actors are the infantry, in that it's their emotions, their physiognomy that's being examined, rejected, accepted at the actual moment that they're doing it. They're right up there.
GROSS: Why did you give up acting for directing?
Mr. LUMET: I found that process very invading. When I got out of the Army, I'd been acting since I was five years old. And I got out of the Army in 25 - at 25, and went on with it for about another three years, and that - and I was primarily a theater actor. I knew that good acting, as I say, it is self exposure, to a large degree. And I got sort of embarrassed about revealing those parts of myself to 1,500 strangers a night - if you were in a hit, that is. Otherwise, it was to 50 strangers a night. But there was something about acting that no longer worked for me, and I just slowly drifted into directing.
GROSS: Did having a father in the Yiddish theater help you love performance, drama?
Mr. LUMET: Absolutely. Absolutely. The peculiar thing is there's a sort of a strange, post-World War II American problem. Children don't -children of actors and writers and directors tend to be nervous - and more than nervous, they're terrified of going into their parents' work. And yet the history of the world is going into your parents' work. I mean, last year, two years ago, I did a movie with Jane Fonda and Jeff Bridges, and I'd worked with both of their fathers. I'd worked with Henry, and I worked with Lloyd.
Mr. LUMET: And I found that very moving. I was thrilled at working with the two of them, because that sense of continuity is lovely. It's the way it should be. And I'm quite sure that my father being the actor he was and bringing me into the theater at a very early age was an enormously beneficial and happy-making thing to happen to one.
GROSS: My interview with film director Sidney Lumet was recorded in 1988. He died Saturday at the age of 86.
Coming up: an interview with Will Ferrell. Last night, he started his four-episode arc on "The Office."
This is FRESH AIR.
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