Silver and Ursini reflect on the mighty influence of film noir

Alain Silver (left) and James Ursini discuss their book, “Film Noir: The Directors.”

Historians/authors/editors Alain Silver and James Ursini discussed and signed their new work, “Film Noir: The Directors” (Limelight Editions, $24.99, multiple contributors) on Saturday afternoon at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood.

James Ursini

Ursini maintains that film noir is the most important artistic movement Hollywood has produced, and one that’s perfectly capable of jumping genres from Westerns to sci-fi to the traditional women’s picture.

Said Ursini: “Film noir is the overwhelming influence on directors today, in film, TV, comic books … in America and worldwide. Though it went into a sort of remission in the late ’50s, by the ’70s it was back and it never stopped. It’s an incredibly vibrant movement that’s as influential today as it was in the ’40s and ’50s.”

Though appreciated by French critics, most film noir titles (especially low-budget B movies) were widely snubbed by America’s cinematic elite. Ursini recalled that as a UCLA film-school student in the late ’60s, he had to push hard to be allowed to write a paper on director Henry Hathaway.

Alain Silver

Silver pointed out that though the two most frequently cited factors in film noir’s development are the exodus of European filmmaking talent to the U.S. starting in the 1930s and the canon of hard-boiled American literature by authors such as James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the real story is more complicated.

Specifically, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what inspired these very different directors (the book covers 30) to pursue this unique aesthetic, often self-consciously borrowing and sharing ideas. One certainty, though: Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944) was the prototype for the genre.

He added that because of World War II, the production code loosened and the American public developed a taste for realism. Were audiences of the ’40s and ’50s shocked by these cynical, gritty, fateful stories on the screen? It’s hard to say. Silver said the most interesting contextual endeavor now would be to compare the audiences’ expectations against their reactions.

Photos copyright of Film Noir Blonde

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Non-stop film noir on the big screen in Los Angeles

The enduring appeal of film noir shows no signs of waning – there are scads of noir screenings in and around LA over the next several weeks.

Noir City Hollywood continues at the Egyptian Theatre through May 6. Tonight, actress Julie Adams will talk with Alan K. Rode between the films 1957’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (in which Adams co-stars with Richard Egan, Jan Sterling, Dan Duryea, Walter Matthau and Charles McGraw) and “Edge of the City” (1957).

And a must-see for me: Ida Lupino in “Private Hell 36” (1954) by director Don Siegel. Lupino also co-wrote this flick, which runs on Wednesday, May 2, after “Shield for Murder” (1954), co-directed by Howard Koch and star Edmond O’Brien.

In conjunction with the Herb Ritts: L.A. Style exhibition, running through Aug. 26 at the Getty Museum, a companion (free!) film series starts today. Ritts (1952–2002) was a top 1980s photographer and his preference for outdoor locations such as the desert and the beach helped to distinguish his work from his New York-based peers.

Admittedly, “Gilda” is the only true noir on the roster, but Ritts’ work taps retro Hollywood glamour. As the Getty puts it: “Ritts’ relationship with his subjects echoes certain director-actor relationships dating from the silent era and the eight films in this series showcase this special relationship.”

On Friday, May 4, the New Beverly Cinema is showing John Frankenheimer’s sci-fi neo-noir from 1966 “Seconds,” which stars Rock Hudson; cinematography by James Wong Howe. “Seconds” is paired with 1997’s “Face/Off” by director John Woo starring John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Dominique Swain and Nick Cassavetes. Screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary are scheduled to appear in person.

Also worth a watch: Universal Pictures celebrates its centennial with a series of screenings (“The Black Cat” and “The Birds” caught my eye) at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood from May 4 to June 24.

You’ll certainly get a full-on noir lineup at the 12th annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, which runs in Palm Springs from May 10-13.

Van Heflin and Joan Crawford star in “Possessed” from 1947.

Festival programmer and film historian Alan K. Rode has selected a great lineup, including Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat” (1953), starring Glenn Ford, and “Possessed” (1947) by Curtis Bernhardt.

Ford’s son Peter will attend “The Big Heat” screening. “Possessed” earned Joan Crawford her second Oscar nom (she won for 1945’s “Mildred Pierce”); co-starring are Van Heflin, Raymond Massey and Geraldine Brooks.

Other titles, screened from new 35 mm prints, include: “Shield for Murder” (1954), “I Love Trouble” (1948), “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (1957) and “The Face Behind the Mask” (1941), starring Peter Lorre.

I’m also very much looking forward to The Sun Sets in the West: Mid-Century California Noir at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), from May 18-26.

Says LACMA: “Experience the dark side of modern living with this series of mid-century film noirs. Shot on location and set amid the bustle of major cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco – as well as their sun-soaked periphery, beach cities, and desert oases – these 10 films inject the Golden State’s benign climate with a heady dose of postwar angst.”

The titles in the series are: “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955, by director Robert Aldrich); “The Crimson Kimono” (1959, Sam Fuller) “Experiment in Terror (1962, Blake Edwards); “Criss Cross” (1949, Robert Siodmak); “M” (1951, Joseph Losey); “The Damned Don’t Cry” (1950, Vincent Sherman); “Slightly Scarlet” (1956, Allan Dwan); “Murder by Contract” (1958, Irving Lerner); “Nightfall” (1957, Jacques Tourneur) and “The Prowler” (1951, Joseph Losey).

The one and only Bogart

Additionally, UCLA’s Film & Television Archive and the Million Dollar Theater are presenting three interesting double bills in downtown Los Angeles:

Brian De Palma in the 1970s (“Sisters,” his first Hitchcockian thriller, and “Phantom of the Paradise”) on Wednesday, May 2.

“The hunted and the hunter” film-noir night, featuring “Mickey One” (1965, Arthur Penn) and “Blast of Silence (1961, Allen Baron) on Wednesday, May 16.

Nicholas Ray directs Humphrey Bogart in “Knock on Any Door” (1949) and “In a Lonely Place” (1950) on Wednesday, May 23.

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Norwegian hell-on-wheels neo-noir ‘Headhunters’ is no bore

Headhunters/2012 Norway/Magnolia Pictures/100 min.

By Michael Wilmington

Think you’ll be bored at a movie about corporate head-hunting and a missing Peter Paul Rubens painting? Not necessarily. The Norwegian neo-noir “Headhunters” may have its flaws – outrageous improbability chief among them – but it’s definitely no bore. In fact, the movie pretty well blasts you away as you watch it, using hot sex, cold brutality, and a twisty, constantly surprising crime plot to put you on the edge of your seat and then try to knock you out of it.

Based on a best-selling novel by Jo Nesbø– Norway’s most popular and highly regarded crime novelist, and the creator of the Harry Hole detective series – “Headhunters” revolves around a diminutive anti-hero, 5’6” Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), who works as a headhunter and CEO recruiter, and dabbles in art thievery on the side. Roger, a self-professed “over-compensator,” is also married to an intimidatingly tall and beautiful Diana (Synnove Macody Lund), and he pulls his jobs with the unabashedly pathological heist man Ove Kikerud (Eivind Sander), a violent creep with nerves of ice and a taste for Russian hookers.

Into Roger’s life comes the intimidatingly tall and handsome Clas Greve (Danish actor Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), an ex-Dutch commando who also happens to have his hands on a long-missing, incredibly valuable Rubens painting, titillating the little headhunter/thief on two levels and maybe more. Roger’s life soon turns into a bloody mess.

The film however is slick and fast and gorgeously shot – if sometimes almost criminally outlandish and over-the-top. Director Morten Tyldum (a Norwegian TV commercial whiz), cinematographer John Andreas Andersen and editor Vidar Flataukan all succeed at times in knocking our socks off or at least getting them pulled pretty far off our toes. The four main actors are all compelling; Hennie and Coster-Waldau make a nice sparky pair of Mutt and Jeff antagonists. You may be irritated by “Headhunters.” You won’t be yawning, unless you were exhausted to begin with.

Writer Jo Nesbø

Norway’s Jo Nesbø is a thriller-writer in the Steig Larsson tradition, mixing sex and violence and social corruption with complex criminal behavior, and generating huge world-wide sales. Nesbø’s noir novels have been published in 140 countries and translated into 35 languages. He also scored the top three places in a recent Norwegian newspaper poll (by the journal Dagbladet) on Norway’s all-time best crime novels – and then took five more slots among the next eight. Hollywood is apparently impressed: Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg are among the names that have been mentioned for the seemingly inevitable American versions.

But I suspect those movies, when they come, may not have quite the pizzazz of the Norwegian novels – as Tyldum’s “Headhunters” apparently does. It’s a racy, violent, hell-on-wheels neo-noir that makes Norway look, for at least a little while like the capitol of fictional crime – and maybe of overcompensation too.

“Headhunters” opens today in New York and LA.

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Book these dates with noir authors in Hollywood

5 p.m. Saturday, April 28, at Larry Edmunds Bookshop, 6644 Hollywood Blvd.
Noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini will discuss and sign their book “Film Noir: The Directors” (Limelight Editions, $24.99).

A number of authors have contributed to this work and there are chapters on: Robert Aldrich, John Brahm, Jules Dassin, André de Toth, Edward Dmytryk, John Farrow, Felix Feist, Sam Fuller, Henry Hathaway, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Fritz Lang, Joseph H. Lewis, Joseph Losey, Ida Lupino, Anthony Mann, Max Ophuls, Gerd Oswald, Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Don Siegel, Robert Siodmak, Jacques Tourneur, Edgar G. Ulmer, Raoul Walsh, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder and Robert Wise. The book also features more than 500 photographs.

Given the inclusion of Ophuls (“Letter from an Unknown Woman”), it seems really odd that Howard Hawks, Richard Fleischer and Stanley Kubrick were excluded. That’s one for the Q&A with the authors.

6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28, at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.
Actress Julie Adams who will sign “Reflections from the Black Lagoon” (Hollywood Adventures, $29.95) in the lobby prior to that evening’s Noir City Hollywood double bill of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (in which she stars) and “Edge of the City.” There will be a Q&A with Adams, 85, between the films.

6 -11 p.m. Monday, April 30, at Musso & Frank Grill, 6667 Hollywood Blvd.
The Los Angeles Visionaries Association and Esotouric Tours are hosting a literary salon featuring author John Buntin and his 2009 book, “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” (Price varies by format, starting at about $10).

Buntin’s book interweaves two stories, that of gangster Mickey Cohen and police chief William Parker. Tickets to the salon are $100 and include a three-course meal. TNT is developing a new series based on this book.

Additionally, I just got my review copy of “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Most Notorious Mobster” by Tere Tereba (ECW Press, $16.95). Looking forward to reading this and interviewing the author.

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Neo noir snags top award from COL•COA French film fest

The City of Lights City of Angels (COL•COA) 16th annual French film festival on Monday announced its winners. Nearly 19,000 attended the week-long fest at the Directors Guild of America in Hollywood.

I was pleased to see that one of the noir titles, “Early One Morning” (De bon matin) garnered the Critics Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association; Christy Lemire of the Associated Press served as president of the jury. Starring Jean-Pierre Darroussin, “Early One Morning” was directed by Jean-Marc Moutout.

“Paris by Night” (Une nuit) and “A Gang Story” (“Les Lyonnais”) completed the film-noir series on Friday night. There were many terrific films shown at the fest; other movies with noir elements included: “38 Witnesses,” “Guilty,” “Americano,” “Polisse” and “The Minister.” And it was a treat to see Marcel Carné’s “Hotel Du Nord” – a masterpiece of Poetic Realism and an important precursor of film noir.

The rest of the award winners (for feature films) were:

The Critics Special Prize and the COL•COA Audience Award went to “The Intouchables,” written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. Starring François Cluzet and Omar Sy, this buddy-movie comedy will be released in the U.S. on May 25.

Critics Special Mention for “Polisse,” written by Maïwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot; directed by Maïwenn. This opens in the U.S. on May 18.

Daniel Auteuil's breakthrough role was in “Jean de Florette” and its sequel “Manon des Sources,” both from 1986.

The First Feature Award went to “The Adopted,” written by Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Perez and Chris Deslandes; directed by Mélanie Laurent.

The Audience Special Prize went to the documentary “Leadersheep,” written and directed by Christian Rouaud.

“The Well Digger’s Daughter,” written and directed by Daniel Auteuil based on Marcel Pagnol’s original work, won the Audience Special Mention. This film opens in the U.S. on July 20.

Stay tuned for reviews of COL•COA films!

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Grahame, Hayden, Sinatra: Highlights of Noir City Hollywood

I finally got to see Gloria Grahame vamping it up in “Naked Alibi” (1954) on Saturday night at the American Cinematheque’s Noir City Hollywood film fest, now in its 14th year. Grahame is one of my fave femme fatales and this film is hard to find, let alone see on the big screen – the new 35 mm print was introduced by fest organizers and noir experts Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode.

Gloria Grahame in “Naked Alibi”

Co-starring Gene Barry as Grahame’s gangster boyfriend and Sterling Hayden as a vigilante cop, “Naked” certainly has a great cast and a great name. Unfortunately, though, Jerry Hopper is not a great or even a good director. This film reminds of me Grahame playing similar roles in far better movies (“The Big Heat,” “Human Desire,” “In a Lonely Place,” “Sudden Fear”). Still, I always have a good time watching this ultimate good-time girl.

As part of a tribute night to Hayden, “Naked” was paired with 1954’s “Suddenly,” in which Hayden plays a sheriff opposite Frank Sinatra as a psycho leading a plot to assassinate the president. Directed by Lewis Allen and written by Richard Sale, “Suddenly” has been hard to see until now because Sinatra did his best to buy all copies of this film after John F. Kennedy’s death. This digital restoration by Lobster Films featured crisp contrast, though there were many patches of white that looked iridescent. (Apparently, this was a problem with the projection, not the print.) It’s interesting as a B-movie rarity with Hayden letting a malevolent Sinatra steal the show.

The fest continues through May 6 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

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Charms outweigh flaws in pooch pastoral ‘Darling Companion’ by Lawrence Kasdan

Darling Companion/2012/Sony Pictures Classics/103 min.

Watching “Darling Companion,” Lawrence Kasdan’s new movie, is like having drink with an old boyfriend – overlooking faults and letting yourself be charmed is do-able, at least for 103 minutes.

Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline play a longtime couple (Joseph is a stuffy surgeon; Beth’s adjusting to being an empty-nester) who gather their family at their Rocky mountain second home for the marriage of their youngest daughter, Grace (Elisabeth Moss of “Mad Men”).

Occupying a front-row seat at the ceremony is Freeway, the couple’s rescue dog. Freeway keeps Beth company while Joseph tends to his patients and was the catalyst to Grace meeting and marrying a cute, caring vet (Jay Ali).

Also in attendance at the wedding: Joseph’s sister, Earth-motherish Penny (Dianne Wiest); her new doofus boyfriend Russell (Richard Jenkins); her son Bryan (Mark Duplass), another surgeon; and the mountain house’s caretaker, the sage and stunning Carmen (Ayelet Zurer). The day after the wedding, on a walk with Joseph, Freeway runs off and doesn’t return; the group then rallies to try to find him. Sam Shepard plays amiable Sheriff Morris.

You can see early on what’s likely to happen with Beth and Joseph’s relationship – their issues are brought to the fore in this Rocky patch. Russell proves to be more likeable and trustworthy than originally thought. Carmen reveals that she’s psychic (she’s a Gypsy of the caravans and curses ilk) and sparks fly between her and Bryan.

The sentimental story, written by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan from their own experience with a rescue dog, is littered with clichés, but nevertheless it’s an intelligent and entertaining piece with a first-rate cast. (Kasdan also directed 1981’s “Body Heat,” one of my fave neo-noirs.) There’s a great chemistry between these players – most of whom are over 50 years old – and watching their dynamics is a simple pleasure.

Kasey the dog as Freeway

Kasdan falters in a few key ways. The only thing driving the action is the fact that Carmen has psychic visions. The implausible ending pushes Beth over the edge in terms of all-about-me entitlement. Also, it’s a little hard to accept that a woman of her age and background seems to have little else to occupy her besides caring for the dog.

I saw the premiere with a friend who told me I’m a good sport and that was probably why I liked the movie. Good sport. I’ll be sure to share that with the ex-boyfriend during our catch-up cocktail.

“Darling Companion” opens today in New York and LA. LA City Councilman Paul Koretz declared Friday, April 20, Darling Companion Day in Los Angeles. For info about rescuing an animal, visit the Amanda Foundation.

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Stylish and subversive, ‘Gun Crazy’ showcases Lewis’ talent

Gun Crazy/1950/King Brothers Productions/86 min.

Peggy Cummins at the TCM festival screening of “Gun Crazy” on Saturday. Photo by Jason Merritt

Peggy Cummins as Annie

It’s pretty much a given in film noir romance that red flags go unheeded and wake-up calls are ignored. An unforgettable example: the protagonist in Joseph H. Lewis’ groundbreaking noir “Gun Crazy” (1950) in which John Dall plays Bart Tare, a World War II vet who’s gifted with guns. After a circus clown tells Bart that he’s “dumb about women,” Bart simply shrugs and rushes off to do his femme fatale’s bidding, which in this case means robbing banks and living on the lam.

To be fair to Bart, however, this is a femme fatale like no other: rodeo performer Annie Laurie Starr (Irish actress Peggy Cummins) loves guns as much as Bart does but whereas he doesn’t want to kill anyone, she’s cool with that possibility. Blood-chilling and unfailingly bold, this svelte blonde ranks as one of the hardest women on the screen.

Cummins appeared last weekend at the TCM Classic Film Festival’s screening of “Gun Crazy” and spoke with Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation. Muller described Cummins’ interpretation of Annie as “the most ferocious female performance in American cinema.”

Bart (John Dall) and Annie (Peggy Cummins) prefer guns to roses.

Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox brought Cummins to Hollywood in 1945 – she was 98 pounds and had an 18-inch waist, she said.

When the opportunity arose to portray a bad girl for Lewis, Cummins said she was ready. “I loved the idea of it. The tendency was then if you’re a bit short, blonde and reasonably pretty, you were always playing rather pretty-pretty little parts. But this was a meaty part. I always wanted to play all the Bette Davis parts and I was never offered one. She was too good.

“An actor is always so thrilled to get a chance to play against what their character may be or the sort of person they are.”

It was Cummins’ most famous part (Dall is best remembered for this picture and 1948’s “Rope” by Alfred Hitchcock) and the film, as subversive as it is stylish, influenced directors for decades to come. In fact, it is one of the primary bridges between classic Hollywood movies and the French and American New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” from 1960 and 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” by Arthur Penn.)

On the run, playing it straight with some studious specs.

Director Lewis was a solid B-movie director and, with A-list status eluding him, he took advantage of the freedom lower-budget Bs offered to experiment, innovate and break cinematic rules. In his time he was underrated but, because of his inventive style, he was rediscovered and praised by American and French critics in the ’60s.

In “Gun Crazy” when the pair robs the first bank, Lewis shot on location and used real people to play the bystanders. And leading up to the crime, Lewis (via cinematographer Russell Harlan) uses one long, unbroken shot taken from the backseat of the getaway car, from the criminals’ point of view, immersing the audience in the robbers’ subjective reality. During this scene, said Cummins, she and Dall improvised the dialogue.

MacKinlay Kantor and Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood’s finest scribes, wrote the screenplay based on a short story of Kantor’s. But when Trumbo was blacklisted, his work on this film was credited to Millard Kaufman.

Annie’s got some great lines, for example, when she explains her aspirations: “Bart, I want things, a lot of things, big things. I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who will do anything, a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.”

Renamed “Deadly is the Female” for its British release, “Gun Crazy” is insanely good noir.

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Producer Walter Mirisch talks with author Foster Hirsch after ‘Fall Guy,’ a rare film noir, at TCM fest

After a TCM film fest screening of “Fall Guy,” a rare film noir from 1947 starring Leo Penn (Sean’s dad), producer Walter Mirisch (right) talked with author Foster Hirsch. Mirisch went on to produce “The Magnificent Seven,” “West Side Story,” “The Great Escape,” “The Pink Panther” and “In the Heat of the Night,” among many others. The screening and talk were Saturday, April 14, at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.

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‘Fall Guy’ world premiere restoration a highlight of TCM fest

One of the strengths of the TCM Classic Film Festival is that you can watch timeless favorites on the big screen and discover rare gems that are difficult to see elsewhere.

That was the case with 1947’s “Fall Guy,” a little-known film noir whose world premiere restoration screened on Saturday morning. It’s a wonderful example of a low-budget B-movie that tackled dark topics, such as drug use and the struggle of World War II vets to readjust to civilian life.

Jerry Warner’s script is adapted from “Cocaine,” a short story by pulp-fiction master Cornell Woolrich. The action in “Fall Guy” revolves around a disaffected ex-soldier named Tom (Leo Penn, Sean’s dad, credited as Clifford Penn) who wakes up one morning with a hell of a hangover, bloodstains on his clothes and little memory of the night before. He doesn’t remember killing anyone but in his drug-addled state, anything’s possible.

Helping him piece together his fragmented recollections are his girlfriend Lois (Rita Hayworth-lookalike Teala Loring) and his brother-in-law, a tough cop named Mac (Robert Armstrong, of “King Kong” fame.) Elisha Cook Jr. and Virginia Dale spur his downward spiral; Iris Adrian is memorable as the brassy party girl.

Foster Hirsch (left) interviews producer Walter Mirisch. Photo by Adam Rose

In 2012, the rough and ready production values and pat story make “Fall Guy” a bit dated, it’s true. What’s fascinating about this release from Monogram Pictures, a quintessential Poverty Row studio, is the fact that because the budget was so limited, director Reginald Le Borg and the script could fly under the radar, exploring risqué and unsettling subject matter.

The censors still had their say, of course, and by today’s standards, the storyline is tame, but the creators of “Fall Guy” had a certain freedom and flexibility not found at glossy, high-end studios like MGM.

And though Monogram was small, it was smart about cross-branding. The studio’s 1946 noir classic “Decoy” is playing on a movie marquee in “Fall Guy.”

At Saturday’s screening, the film’s producer Walter Mirisch, now 90, talked with author Foster Hirsch. Mirisch offered an apology, noting that “Fall Guy” was the first film he produced and that he was still learning at the time, but the audience still gave the movie enthusiastic applause. Mirisch (and brothers Harold and Marvin) went on to produce “The Magnificent Seven,” “West Side Story,” “The Great Escape,” “The Pink Panther” and “In the Heat of the Night,” among many others.

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