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House of Usher - Original MGM Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 2, 2011 at 10:48 PM

  • Movies review

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    House of Usher - Original MGM Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

    “Still here, Mr. Winthrop? I suggest you leave. No? Then perish … with the rest of us …”

    When Hammer Films unleashed their distinctive brand of gothic horror and garnered oodles of lurid atmosphere from incredibly meagre resources, their style, commitment and sheer quality created such critical and box office success that it is hardly surprising that Hollywood quickly sat up and took notice. The studio’s tried and trusted methodology and astonishing production speed so impressed the king of the drive-in flick, Roger Corman – who was already something of a one-man-movie-making avalanche – that he swiftly decided to try his hand at an American interpretation of the form. Thus, he turned towards the paranoid mind of home-grown Edgar Allen Poe and selected as his starting point into this twisted and macabre new world, his 1839 short story The Fall Of The House Of Usher, the tale of a sick and demented colonial blue-blood whose delusional imagination has him believing that his very house, a magnificently brooding old edifice thrust out in the back of beyond, has come to life and cursed his bloodline forever. The insanity runs rife throughout the moody halls and chambers of the mansion as Roderick Usher (a bleach-blonde Vincent Price – who took some persuading to assume the role, but never looked back) forbids his lovely sister, Madeline (Myrna Fahey), to leave the ancestral home with her lover, Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon, who would make quite a name for himself over in Europe with the likes of the cult favourites such as the “Wurdalack” story from Black Sabbath, for Mario Bava, and The Miniskirt Murders for Antonio Margheriti, as well as a slew of Spaghetti Westerns), and even goes as far as to bury her alive – a favourite concern of Poe’s – when she suffers a catatonic trance and Philip believes her to have died. But, as ever, what goes around comes around … and poor old Rodders is not going to get away with it for long as that scratching at the coffin lid will soon signify.

    Working from a delightfully insidious screenplay from celebrated author Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson, and under the propitious financial steering of James H. Nicholsen and Samuel Z. Arkoff, this set a trend for Poe adaptations from Corman, who would go on to produce and direct some absolute classics including The Haunted Palace and The Tomb Of Ligeia, though most notably the awesome The Masque Of The Red Death, as well as some clear send-up quickies of the genre, such as Tales of Terror and The Raven. The influence of Jonathan Harker's incarceration at Castle Dracula in Bram Stoker's novel, and the many film versions that followed, bears a mighty influence upon House Of Usher (Or The Fall Of The House Of Usher, as the film was more commonly known), but Corman and Poe, of course, are able to provide many Freudian and Colonial slants upon the theme. Hints of incest, a soupçon of veiled necrophilia, and a whole heap of guilt, jealousy, regret, class rigor-mortis and claustrophobia all provide intriguing ingredients to this heady broth.

    Corman craftily took advantage of a forest fire that raged in the Hollywood hills to embellish his fiery climax, and he gained immense mileage out of the dark and sinister milieu with a cast of only four people – adding Harry Ellerbe in old age makeup to play the family butler, Bishop, a role that would surely have gone to Michael Ripper if Hammer had been at the helm. His use of the widescreen (2.35:1) image, lensed by Floyd Crosby, who would become a regular DOP for Corman, was also an inspiration that, in many ways, improved upon the already lavish presentations that Hammer were achieving with exquisite photography from the likes of Jack Asher and his groundbreaking productions of Horror Of Dracula and The Curse Of Frankenstein. His setting of the decrepit old castle – an obvious, but tremendously ominous matte painting for the shivery exterior shots - as his primary visual and thematic focus was also revelatory, magnifying what could have been merely an enormously overwrought period melodrama to heights of eerie splendour and spine-tingling dread. Unlike Hammer, Corman set his costume-horrors almost entirely indoors. Long floating shots as characters wander around ornate parlours, or down mysterious dark staircases and along dreamy corridors would become a staple of these revered Poe adaptations, and the atmosphere was one of dreamy, hallucinatory apprehension, rather than all-out horror and violence. There's a spooky crypt, lots of unsettling sound effects as the house begins to fall apart and a terrific scene of bloodied fingers clawing their way out of a chained casket. The sedate pace of the film is typical of these early Poe sagas that rely on mood over action, and it is true that as many fans as there are for them, there are probably as many who remain unmoved and disappointed by them. But, with House of Usher spearheading the way, they are a classic canon of work that certainly matched Hammer in visual and atmospheric terms, and, it should be noted, the crazy finale of this opening gambit was a clear influence on a certain Dario Argento, whose classics of Suspiria and Inferno both owe it a huge debt of gratitude.

    And aiding Corman considerably in attaining this trance-like, yet eloquent mood was the great composer Les Baxter, whose phenomenal score for House Of Usher was the first of several collaborations that he would have with Corman’s assembly-line of insanity-rife period shockers.

    Never before released, it is actually something of a miracle that Intrada could locate and secure the full score for this pivotal 1960 chiller, as Baxter’s work was notorious for never being recorded separately for protection and properly archived, the composer often only possessing his own audio tapes, complete with sound effects and dialogue! This terrific recording is culled from the surviving music elements found in the MGM vaults, with crossfades and “potting” for original dialogue and sound effects made by the film's music editor minimised wherever possible and, quite franky, it sounds stunning. And this is certainly the complete score. Having just watched the barnstorming movie again for the purposes of this review, I can confirm that the every cue is accounted for on this disc. With the film only stretching to 76 minutes, the score covers over 62, and all of it is presented here, including the majestic original Overture that had only ever been heard during the film's initial presentation, to get audiences in the appropriate frame of mind. Heard in the first track, this Overture brings in many of the elements that glide through the full score, yet retains that era-soaked passion to tell the musical story in massive broad strokes with full symphonic might. The main theme is a lush, sweeping and achingly poignant romantic melody signifying the doomed triangle of affections between Winthrop, Madeline and Price's eccentric nutter, Roderick. After a brisk and raucous introduction for the entire orchestra, strings then sweetly croon, piano, harp and clarinet glisten, and brass accentuates the old school gothic flamboyance of it all. A wordless female choir, something that will play a highly evocative part in the score later on, joins in towards the end, and the whole rousing piece climaxes with a bellicose assertion from the tuba and a nice clash of cymbals, signifying that we are in for a ripe old tale. Although designed to provide many of the ideas that we will hear throughout the score, I actually find this Overture ever so slightly misleading. The romantic angle is brought to the fore, whilst for the majority of the score, we are held prisoner in a haunted dream-world of skin-prickling dread and emotional angst. The Main Title, Track 2, which is the cue that opens the film, gathers up the same theme, twisting it through a shorter rendition that still sounds appropriately epic, but then, halfway through, Baxter descends with us into mysterious tones that get lower and lower as strings meander in the unearthly limbo above. The track fades out on the shimmering of a harp. Now we know what sort of cocoon we are about to be enshrouded in.

    Track 3 introduces Roderick Usher, Price's genteel yet resolutely unnerving master of the house. Uneasy gliding of the harp, edgy low tones of dread from the bassoon and vague, sprightly interjections from the woods collide with the wonderful texture of the bass flute to illustrate his odd, gravely vexed demeanour and his deep-seated fears for his own and his sister's sanity. Hyper-sensitive to sounds, sights and to touch, Usher is a dejected and miserable melancholic, whose parched personality is mimicked by the arid, vegetation starved land that surrounds his mist-enveloped abode. Baxter allows a couple of wretched notes from Usher's own lute to intrude, and there is a great little brassy interruption that heralds more lonely serenading from the harp. There are no distinct themes for Usher or for Philip Winthrop, who is being treated rather poorly and brusquely by the Crown Prince of Ham who wants him to leave immediately – despite his arduous ride from Boston, where he met Madeline and became engaged to her – and only when talk turns sensitively to the plight of the young woman, herself, who is apparently ill and confined to her bed, does any harmony enter upon this sea of dissonance. Thus, a small romantic swoon from the Main Title flows back in, and in earnest, before another quiet and forlornly magical spell in which the harp plays a major part.

    As Roderick discusses the apparent curse that afflicts his family, Madeline enters the room having heard her lover's voice, and the music begins to shift and sway with unnerving undercurrents of slow, icy tension. Long drawn-out string sustains creep over the top of disparate clusters of knotty dread from the woods and the harp. Usher coldly plucks his lute adding a jangling, dulcimer-like medieval abstraction. Flute and bassoon nudge into the piece, and then we are into Track 5's Tormented, which commences with a nervous flourish of the main theme, buoyed precariously upon a swelling duck and dive miasma and then wood-block percussion, xylophone and chimes echo beneath billowing strings. It is great how Baxter makes the small attempts at melody sound sickened and depraved, their pride corrupted. The notion of a haunted tragedy is deliciously played out, the whole cue almost swaying in a reverie of blight. We know now, quite categorically, that there can never be a happy ending in Corman's sumptuous fever-dream. Roderick Usher plays the lute – badly – and Price's harsh, unguided plucking brings a lyrically warped quality to tracks such as Madeline Usher with Baxter's sinister accompaniment cleverly comingrolling beneath it and, naturally, Lute Song, in which the composer completely allows the jagged chords from the strnage instrument to sound all the more emphatic and stubbornly lonely.

    More twisted melancholy resonates at the heart of Reluctance. The strings reach new levels of squirrelling, the harp providing a crystalline backdrop. The tragic romance theme comes back in a style that is very reminiscent of Miklos Rozsa, and Spellbound in particular. But Baxter does not let such things hold court for too long, and the second half of the track becomes glacial and eerie with unusual, watery chimes and that gleaming harp that maintains a recurring phrase until the end, albeit muted-down amid a darker, more subdued fade.

    In The Sleepwalker, after being disturbed by footsteps in the hall, Philip discovers that Madeline has gone missing from her room, and sets about finding her. Searching the glowering shadows of the Usher house, he is accompanied by Baxter's suspenseful, string-led music that seems to whistle and flirt all around him, pointing out the mysteries that lurk around every corner. As he locates her cataleptic form down in the family chapel, Baxter employs the choir once more, but in a very reverent, almost ecclesiastical mode that makes for a marvellous tangent on the inherent spookiness of their usual wailing. The cue becomes reflective, as though we have stumbled into the grounds of a convent, but there is magic here, too, a moment that is now literally spellbound. The cue then turns anxious as Philip's distress at seeing her in this state conjoins with his sense of helplessness as the butler, who has grown used to her nocturnal wanderings, assures him that only he can safely take her back to her room.

    Clearly, the “house” of Usher is a metaphor for Roderick's fear-punctured mind, each room and corridor twisting like the dark passageways of his haunted psyche. A brilliant touch is that the structure, itself, is cracked and coming apart at the seams, just like its master, the great stone walls creaking as fissures rip across them, chandeliers dropping from the ceiling and the whole building swaying as though in the throes of an earthquake. Baxter cues-in to this theme of mental disintegration, creating a swirling tempest of roiling emotions and anxieties. There are plenty of moments when his orchestra capture the gusting, spectral sound of the wind, strings and woods weaving vigorously around and over the top of the firm body of low range tones like a storm rattling away at the awnings and the shingles, yet still with a captivating and mesmerising finesse that puts you in mind of windswept moorland estates or suicidal cliff-top love-pacts.

    Track 9, The Vault, continues with the simmering cauldron of fear and suspicion as, the next morning, Madeline takes Philip downstairs towards the family crypt to show him the cursed lineage that she is a part of. The cue continues with a thudding piano that echoes out against the walls of the crypt – or against the walls of Usher's mind – and a lurching brass stinger as she reveals the dank assembly of tombs. I mentioned that wordless female choir earlier … well, perhaps more than anything else, their formidable wailing and ghostly vibrato lamentation in the next two tracks, The Ancestors and House Of Evil, and then especially during the final two tracks, perfectly embodies the weird and wonderful ethereal aspects of the old dark house yarn, conjuring up the presence of agitated spirits, and perhaps the former holders of the doomed name of Usher. This device may smack of Scooby-Doo, or even remind us of the Three Witches in Macbeth, but it is marvellously modulated and inherently creepy … as well as being wickedly beautiful at the same time. Track 10, The Ancestors, traces the path of Madeline's obsession with death and a twitchy Philip move deeper in to the vault. Morose low tones shift about beneath the web-like canopy of strings, and then the choir enters with an abbreviated semi-stinger that wouldn't be out of place in a Sci-Fi film, so much does it sound like a human variation upon the supreme Theremin, as Philip suddenly begins to comprehend the bizarre mania that has gripped Roderick Usher, who has had a casket made up for Madeline. “It awaits me,” she sighs, before informing the incredulous Philip that her brother has even had one made up for himself. Another bold stinger shrieks out as he tries to tear her away from her melancholia and a casket, high up on a ledge, suddenly clatters to the floor, almost crushing them.

    House of Evil marks one of those quintessential moments in any Vincent Price movie. The gloriously over the top actor now gets to tell Philip, and us, the history of the despicable Usher family and the veritable plague of evil that swept over the land because of their reign of terror over the ages. Commencing on the misty battlements to the swirling strains of spectral woodwinds, horn and strings, Usher acknowledges that the land wasn't always so desolate, grey and infertile. The tone lifts temporarily as a flashback shows us how pleasant the surrounding meadows once were until Usher confesses the effect that his family has had upon the natural world around them. Moving back inside, Usher confronts his own ancestors and introduces them to Philip via their contorted portraits, explaining that the house, itself, which was brought over from England, has been poisoned by the evil deeds of the clan. Baxter spurs the catalogue of insanity onward with his twisting, yearning, insinuating phrases of venom over the centuries, and the ghoulish voices of the choir, returning now in their former guise as the heralds of horror past, and horrors yet to come.

    Although Philip is determined to flee the place with Madeline, and escape its destiny-bound atrocities, fate has other ideas as a fierce row with Roderick induces a catatonic trance that reduces her, to all outward observations, to nothing more than a corpse. In Catalepsy, Baxter seeks, equally, to ease our nerves as the lovers formulate their plan with a wistful return of the romantic main theme, and then to paralyse our senses with anguish and shock at the sight of her motionless form with searing strings and mournful woodwinds. The mood turns darker again when Philip accuses Roderick of killing his sister, but Baxter tempers the charge with melancholy strains as Usher, in calm and clammy retaliation, declares that Philip is to blame for exciting the fragile girl with dreams that could never be. Baxter's cue then becomes a terrifically black comic mix of grief-stricken, church-like solemnity as both the lover and the brother pray beside Madeline in an open casket, and sizzling suspense amidst the mock serenity as Roderick spies his supposedly dead sister's fingers moving and her chest clearly breathing. Just listen to how the strings change their pitch, suddenly sliding upward of poised dignity into glacial tension in one deft manoeuvre. Pallbearers, on the other hand, presents a dirge-like rendition of the main theme, as Usher closes the lid on the casket – Philip unaware that Madeline still lives – and then he and the unwanted guest carry it down into the crypt. This elegy is highly effective, and Baxter treats the disquieting moment with absolute respect, despite the fact that we know Usher's ghastly secret, even if Philip doesn't. I find some of the more emotional aspects of this rendition reminiscent of Christopher Young's work on Hellraiser – Baxter is finding beauty in the imagery of death and the rituals that go along with it, for sure, but there is that hint of transcendence in there as well, that sort of clues you in on the notion that sealing a casket, in this genre, is most assuredly not the end.

    There are many stand-out moments in this score, but you simply have to bow down in the thrall of the final two tracks which, together, paint an epic, nay leviathan, climax of madness and horror. As set-piece compositions go, these almost feel like foundation stones for powerhouses such as the later James Horner to take inspiration from. Together they take in the spiralling suspense of Madeline making her demented rise from her own premature burial and coming after her brother, and the ensuing chaos as the house, itself, turns homicidal and attempts to destroy those that seek to escape its depraved confines. In Track 14, Buried Alive, Philip suffers a terrible nightmare – filtered blue and purple in one of Corman's visual trademarks – in which the restless spirits of Ushers past harass and taunt him as a malevolent Roderick reveals the resting place of Madeline.

    After a suspenseful start, Track 14 then proceeds with a furious pace that is goaded-on by the full orchestra. Horns and trumpets get the chase underway, with strings and piano charging ahead. You can hear elements that would become regular for John Williams during the seventies, and the energetic piano motif is something that wouldn’t sound amiss coming from Jerry Goldsmith. And yet there is the unpredictable discord and percussive clamour that you would associate with Leonard Rosenman, too. This challenging and innovative barrage of impeccably calculated musical mayhem was quite obviously an influential element in many of these composers’ minds. Brass spearheads act as the pacemakers for this frenetic rush of orchestral verve, strings dance and cavort in and out, unbridled. Little bleats from the trumpets, a stumbling piano and some great belches from the tuba, sounding as though it is scuttling about in the Pit, battle with the strings as Baxter's organised cacophony buffets and rages. Things slow down and become much more mysterious, and the choir recommence their supernatural wailing and moaning as Philip's dream gets more and more macabre and surreal. Brass and percussion ignite the senses as Roderick Usher, bathed in sickly satanic purple mist, appears at the head of the procession of his undead ancestors. The wailing of the choir, ululating like banshees, makes an overwrought final statement, and the track then lurches to a close, stabbed by fear-maddened trombones and fading with a distant cymbal clash as Madeline's dream-scream merges her real one, and Philip is startled awake.

    And this all leads directly into the epic Track 15, Fall Of The House Of Usher, a veritable tour de force of horror, suspense and phantasmal fury.

    Now understanding what Roderick has done, Philip confronts him again and demands the truth of Madeline's whereabouts, having found the casket empty. The track begins with that harsh, unmelodious lute playing, spiking the nerves with its claws-on-blackboard jangle. Philip's cat-and-mouse game through the honeycomb of secret passageways now begins, as he searches desperately to find Madeline before she suffocates. Usher, in the full throes of his own insanity, can hear the girl's scratching nails, her agonised breath and her frantic calling of his name – those super-senses really do work, you see. Baxter has relentless fun with all of this. There are bass drums, spinning strings, raucous brass flurries and a jangling piano. There are climbing tendrils of terror, plateauing sequences of suspense, and unnerving lulls of musical stealth as the orchestra sets up the next big scare.

    Listen out for the great little demonic Dies Irae phrase that Baxter can’t resist throwing in as Philip stumbles upon an array of desecrated caskets which may (or may not) be the work of the now-deranged Madeline, who has escaped from her coffin, but left a horrible blood-trail for Philip to follow. This phrase is repeated a second time, though in a fractured and unusually orchestrated form. Once again, I am reminded of Leonard Rosenman, whose often angular, jarring and unorthodox compositions seem to pay homage to Baxter’s wild and startling style, and also because Rosenman would make tremendous use of the Dies Irae in such scores as that for The Car (see Blu-ray review). There are great little interludes for wooden percussion, chimes and harp – the chimes being a lovely, though brief touch, that manages to convey the twisted devotion and warped symmetry of the Usher mindset. Cello and piano add sinister intonations. Baxter is even able to form a bizarre variation of the main theme on stark xylophone. The flute and the harp flutter into this tidal wave of palm-sweating anxiety, the bass flute adding to the rising tide of dread and trepidation as Philip approaches the door behind which we suspect the twisted and now homicidal Madeline is waiting.

    At just after the ten-minute mark, there is a swirling, blustering moment that really reminds me of Dmitri Tiomkin’s excellent score for The Thing From Another World in the way that it rises and then falls, totally depicting the spine-shivering effects of a sudden cold squall. In fact, Baxter is just as accomplished in the musical evocation of such naturally occurring atmospheric displays as either Tiomkin or the great Bernard Herrmann.

    The love theme tries in vain to return as Philip encounters Madeline, but is horrified to discover that she has gone totally mad, and is now possessed of great strength and a fearful thirst for vengeance. Baxter's music whirls with the moaning of the choir, harp cascades, plunging brass and percussion as Madeline hurls Philip aside and goes for her brother's throat. Whether by accident, or by the sheer will of the house, embers from the fire have set the parlour ablaze during the struggle and, as Philip watches in horror, the rafters give way and crash down, in an inferno, upon the bodies of the last remaining Ushers and their loyal butler. To an agonised wailing of the choir and calamitous puncturings of brass, Philip makes his escape from the collapsing building, much like Jessica Harper would do at the end of Suspiria and Leigh McCloskey at the fiery climax of Inferno. It is a startling and violent musical finale.

    The towering track then concludes with a quaint, medieval phrase on the lute, before then closing with a heraldic and grand old fashioned presentation of the main theme, with swooning brass, breezy strings and the choir at their most sprightly. This evokes the style of the huge old MGM blockbusters, but is a welcome conclusion to a score that has battered the senses and rattled the nerves under the expert command of Les Baxter.

    I find it interesting that since Corman was deliberately coining-in on the Hammer vogue for costume-horror, Baxter's musical approach was actually quite far removed from that of James Bernard, who was busy embroiled in the realm of fangs, cleavage and Kensington Gore for the British trendsetters. Whilst both composers adopted a similarly bravura style of almost wall-to-wall music, Baxter was more concerned with simmering suspense and a slow-build churning of mood, matching the languid, hypnotic visuals from Corman obviously, whilst Bernard was considerably more full-throttle and went for the jugular at every opportunity with shrill and exhausting broadsides of never-ending, bone-rattling crescendos. This said, there are definitely times when Baxter's sudden brassy flourishes and orchestral stingers evoke the same heart-lurching spasms of terror as Bernard created for whenever Christopher Lee's caped Count was about to strike with that red-eyed, feral hiss. Baxter was an incredibly talented tunesmith, whose imagination and desire to create new sounds was peculiarly well suited to the films that he worked on. Projects like these gothic shockers, the jazzy, amped-up pace of post-apocalyptic survival in Panic In The Year Zero (CD reviewed separately), the psychedelic chills of The Dunwich Horror and his wild and threatening work on The Beast Within (also released by Intrada) showed quite powerfully that he was willing to take risks and to push the story and the drama into really quite extreme directions of mood and intimidation with his own musical contributions.

    Baxter would also compose similarly intense and brooding scores for The Pit and The Pendulum, The Raven and Tales of Terror, and would even cross over from Poe to Lovecraft with his weird and experimental score for the aforementioned The Dunwich Horror (see separate CD review), which would become something of a cause célèbre with its avant-garde stylings. He would also score Corman's many teeny-bopper beach pictures and the odd biker chick-flick like Hell's Belles.

    Sadly, like Intrada’s limited editions of The Delta Force and Predator, this outstanding release sold out just before my review could be fully prepared. But I would still urge fans to seek out copies that may still be out there at other sites and outlets. It is a gorgeous and haunting score that delivers chills and gothic romance, and lots of lush, spectral menace. A classic horror score that rivals Hammer's James Bernard and even evokes memories of the best of the Universal and RKO chiller scores, yet brings an enormous welter of the purest macabre, all of its own.

    Full Track Listing

    1. Overture 3.03

    2. Main Title 2.00

    3. Roderick Usher 4.02

    4. Madeline Usher 2.50

    5. Tormented 2.24

    6. Lute Song 1.00

    7. Reluctance 3.58

    8. The Sleepwalker 4.12

    9. The Vault 2.36

    10. The Ancestors 2.58

    11. House Of Evil 4.53

    12. Catalepsy 4.13

    13. Pallbearers 2.03

    14. Buried Alive 8.14

    15. Fall of The House of Usher 13.50

    Total Time 62.39


    Verdict

    Well, the fact that this release sold out so quickly at Intrada reveals that there is a definite passion for these rare and often neglected scores. I have no doubt that some copies will still be floating about elsewhere, so my advice is to seek them out, as this is a horror score that acts as a wonderful stepping stone from the genre composers of the Golden Age to the more innovative and creative composers of the Silver Age, firmly entrenching some ideas in the minds of greats like Goldsmith, Williams, Bernstein and even Horner. Slow burn dread is the order of the day, and that grand old school gothic romance of the Overture and Main Title is soon swallowed-up by dark obsession and the haunted eloquence of doom. This is the music of madness … and it becomes slyly irresistible, and possibly even contagious.

    Intrada’s fantastic disc offers the full score, neatly presented with the best sound quality possible, along with lavish packaging, informative notes and a hefty dose of simmering menace, courtesy of the music of the macabre.

    Quite honestly, there is not enough Les Baxter material around. Let's just hope that his other Poe-themed scores claw their way back from the grave soon.

    This awesome release of House Of Usher comes very highly recommended – so good luck to all those who hope to secure themselves a copy.


    The Rundown

    Movie

    9

    Overall

    9

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