Tag Archives: Burt Lancaster

Criss Cross (1949) 2.79/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.4
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 88 mins
Director: Robert Siodmak
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea

Burt Lancaster and director Robert Siodmak revisit The Killers territory in a not too dissimilar plot involving a double crossing vixen and a complicated heist. As he did in The Killers, Siodmak seamlessly blends back story with present tense so that narrative plays out with a comfortable flow. However, the polished touches of noir which are found all over the aforementioned classic are often missing here. The writing too is missing much of the swift momentum of that picture but given the differences in the source material that’s understandable.

That said, Siodmak’s direction is commanding and it never lets the audience stray from the central theme of the film. There are some wonderfully seductive moments where his combination of source music, lighting, and tracking are inspired. Furthermore, Lancaster is strong as ever in a role that wasn’t as physically intimidating as the Swede but just as emotionally vulnerable. Yvonne DeCarlo is a worthy femme fatale and Dan Duryea adds an interesting menace to his role of mobster but in truth he’s underused. Cross Cross is a fine yarn and solid crime flick but it probably doesn’t rank with the greats of the era. It carries all the overt touches of the classic film-noir but only some of their more subtle hallmarks.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) 5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 92.8
Genre: Drama, Film-Noir
Duration: 96 mins
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Sam Levene

“The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster revel in the delivery of some of the best lines ever written for the screen. Curtis plays a struggling PR agent, Sidney Falco, who operates on the whim of Lancaster’s merciless J.J. Hunsecker, an all powerful column writer who makes or breaks celebrities and politicians with every word he types. When the latter gives Falco the difficult task of breaking up a relationship between Hunsecker’s sister and a principled young musician all his skills of manipulation are put to the test along with the few scruples he has left.

Sweet Smell of Success is a fully engaging and awesomely directed film-noir (even if some debate its status as such) which ranks among the very best of the genre. It’s also a far more original example because there’s not a gun nor gangster in sight. Instead, we have the razor sharp and vicious intellects of the two main players locked in a delicate but deadly battle. Director Alexander Mackendrick brings the world of the socialite to splendid life back-dropping it against the bustle of New York City and ambition of its inhabitants. The staging and lighting in particular are sensational with the latter being used to especially well to accentuate Lancaster’s ominous presence.

As good as this film looks, it’s defined by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehmen’s sizzling screenplay (adapted from Lehmen’s short story) and the performances which give that script its legs. Curtis was rarely better as the slimy PR hack who has mere glimpses of morality. On the other hand, Lancaster proved he was more than just a physically tough guy in a truly intimidating performance as the vengeful and spiteful puppet master who thinly veils his self-motivated misdeeds with smirking claims of self-righteousness.

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Elmer Gantry (1960) 4.14/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.5
Genre: Drama
Duration: 146  mins
Director: Richard Brooks
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy

“Tell me. How is it so many people can only find hate in the bible?” Richard Brooks’ highly complex tale of the emergence of revivalism during the prohibition era bible belt is a stunningly mature and impartial examination of manipulation, faith, truth, and redemption. Burt Lancaster is magnetic as the eponymous silver tongued charlatan who finds he has a knack for rousing people into religious fervour through guilt and moralistic soundbite. Jean Simmons matches him as the self-proclaimed “Sister Sharon”, leader of a travelling roadshow who preaches damnation and forgiveness through the embracing of Jesus and her message.

Brooks’ adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel is superb and whether it be the top of the voice preaching, the more veiled rhetoric, or the quiet and more honest interactions of the principals, it captures the power of that discourse with amazing precision. Through his direction, he brings an easy flow to the movie and he adapts the tone seamlessly as the film repeatedly transitions between big prayer meetings and the smaller more intimate one-on-ones. However, it’s the clarity of focus and motivation which defines the movie so well and it’s astonishing to note how relevant Elmer Gantry is to modern day as it was to the 1960’s when it was made and the 1920’s when it was set. It takes no sides and in doing so, through all the smoke and mirrors, it zeros in on the essential point like few other investigations into the subject have.

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Ulzana’s Raid (1972) 4.24/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.5
Genre: Western
Duration: 105  mins
Director: Robert Aldrich
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke

Burt Lancaster shines in this sublime western, which approaches a staple story line (soldiers vs Indians) from a much more complex and therefore rewarding angle than typically seen. Lancaster is terrific as the ageing Indian hunter McIntosh, who is called into track and stop an Apache war party which is raiding and pillaging the local territories. Initially, the young lieutenant in charge of his troop (Bruce Davison) isn’t too impressed with McIntosh’s Indian strategies, sensibilities, and even sensitivities but he comes to respect him and his Indian scout (the regally poised Jorge Luke) as they get them ever closer to their quarry.

Ulzana’s Raid is as intelligent a western as you’ll see in terms of how the drama unfolds. As McIntosh and his scout forensically follow every clue and devise one unorthodox strategy after another, the audience is slowly exposed to the real point of the film. Coming as it did at the tail-end of the genre’s decline in popularity, it sets itself up as a sombre evaluation of that genre’s latent propaganda. But rather than becoming a morose drama punctuated by bleak moments of violence, through some mature writing and direction, Ulzana’s Raid manages to maintain an adventuresome quality which balances dialogue-centred reflection with a series of innovative action sequences.

With previous films such as The Dirty Dozen and the similarly underrated (and equally brave) Attack under his belt, Robert Aldrich was no stranger to the action genre. However, he hits the pinnacle of his action direction here. The battle scenes are expertly conceived and nothing short of a joy to watch. It’s not that they are particularly big or shot on a grand on scale that makes them so rewarding. It’s that they are smart. The battles in this film are more a battle of wits than brawn and by taking his time and stretching them out on a broad canvas, Aldrich shoots them with a complementary grace. Ulzana’s Raid can be a disturbing film as it doesn’t shy away from the manner in which the Apache treated and dispatched their victims but even this is dealt with intelligently. Everything truly terrible happens just out of sight of the camera. This gives the horror an additional sting but it allows us to consider the behaviour of the Apache intellectually and so properly place it in its appropriate context.

The driving force of this film is undoubtedly Alan Sharp’s laconic script which like Aldrich’s direction doesn’t pull any punches with what it says but is just as economical. At first blush, Ulzana’s Raid might ostensibly come across as just another western with uncomfortable shades of anti native-Americanism (and it could’ve been just that) but through the subtlety of Sharp’s dialogue and indeed plot structure, it ultimately becomes something much more interesting and rich. This is a slow inward examination of belief, morality, and fortitude that absolutely refuses to hit its audience over the head with rhetoric. And the fact that it tells a gripping story along the way makes it all the more rewarding.

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Brute Force (1947) 4.36/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.2
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 98 mins
Director: Jules Dassin
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Sam Levene

Burt Lancaster’s brooding performance as a convict determined to escape a brutal prison is one his best. Brute Force is not your typical prison movie as it’s a far darker and grittier examination of the inner turmoil of the hard timer. Jules Dassin captures the oppressive feel of the prison environment wonderfully and there are some sumptuous shots littered throughout. Richard Brook’s screenplay is also a treat for the ears and along with Dassin’s ingenuity, it ties the back stories of the different characters together nicely. It all builds up to a real bang at the end which will have you on the edge of your seat. The cast are great one and all and in addition to Lancaster, Hume Cronyn’s against type turn as the sadistic prison screw deserves special mention. However, Brute Force is really about the big man who yet again manages to effortlessly let every inch of his massive frame fill whatever room he’s in with a sense of explosive danger.

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The Killers (1946) 4.62/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.6
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 97 mins
Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Anthony Veiller, John Huston, Richard Brooks
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Sam Levene

The original adaptation of Hemmingway’s novel is arguably the best with all the defining touches of the great film noir from the complex plot to the deep staging of low lit interiors. Burt Lancaster plays the former boxer who is killed at the beginning of the film, the reasons for which are told in a series of flashbacks as his insurance company’s investigator (Edmond O’Brien) attempts to put the pieces of the puzzle together. As is typical for the genre, a scheming femme fatal is at the centre of the mystery and in this case it’s the infamous Kitty Collins played wonderfully by an icy Ava Gardner. The film is a little weak in explaining the insurance man’s persistence in investigating a case with such a small pay-out, but O’Brien’s every-man charm is at its best here and with just enough edge to carry the audience beyond any such questions. In his first ever role, Lancaster showed all the charisma that was to define his career and is the perfect rube for Gardener’s treacherous self-server. However, the Killers is all about atmosphere, dialogue, and plot and on those notes, director Robert Siodmak, Hemingway, and writers Anthony Veiller, John Huston, and Richard Brooks (the former two unaccredited) are chiefly responsible for this film’s success. The Killers is both a pleasure to look at and to listen to with the central heist sequence being the best example of this not to mention counting as one of the genre’s best set-pieces. A methodically expansive crane shot narrated in news bulletin style acts as a release valve for all the suspense of the twisting plot up until that point and, as a day-time shot, it contrasts perfectly with the exquisite nighttime shots wherein the characters attempt to illuminate the mystery at the centre of the story. True class.

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The Cassandra Crossing (1976) 3/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 67.8
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 118 mins
Director: George Pan Cosmatos
Screenplay: George Pan Cosmatos, Robert Katz
Stars: Sophia Loren, Burt Lancaster, Richard Harris, Martin Sheen

A terrific old school disaster movie about the attempts to contain a carrier of the pneumonic plague on board a Swiss train bound for Scandinavia. Richard Harris top-lines as a famous doctor trapped on board the train who together with his ex-wife (played by Sofia Loren) take control of the situation until such time that the military show up with an altogether more extreme solution to the potential epidemic. This is really a nice little film from an era which specialised in such movies. There is an interesting array of characters all of whom are nicely rounded and the action on the train is well juxtaposed with the colder more clinical efforts of the commanding colonel (Burt Lancaster) as he attempts to contain the situation from an office in Geneva. Harris, Loren, and Lancaster are in fine form and Martin Sheen offers his usual presence in support. Cosmotos handles it all well and shows some genuine clever touches such as giving the eponymous bridge an ominous character of its own.

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The Professionals (1966) 4.72/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.4
Genre: Western
Duration: 117 mins
Director: Richard Brooks
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan

“Maybe there’s only one revolution since the beginning. The good guys against the bad guys.” Three years before The Wild Bunch, Richard Brooks wrote, directed, and assembled a middle-aged western heavy mob of his own with Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode squaring off against a Mexican revolutionary played by (err..) Jack Palance, who has kidnapped a wealthy American’s wife (Claudia Cardinale). Marvin and co. play four specialists (guns, explosives, horses, tracker) who are put together to traverse the Mexican desert, rescue said wife, and bring her back across the border alive.

Although The Professionals is not as overtly philosophical as Peckinpah’s later film, it has some wonderful moments of quiet reflection where times past and the politics of the modern world are considered in mature and touching ways. Rather than being seen as increasingly obsolete, however, the seasoned experience of the four heroes is taken more traditionally as a virtue, as their combined expertise is put to work in a series of well crafted and memorable set pieces.

The Professionals is a technically superb movie on nearly every level. Conrad L. Hall’s photography creates an awesome  backdrop worthy of the epic action and the use of the “day-for-night” technique gives the night time shots a striking beauty. Maurice Jarre’s score is as rousing as any from that vintage and used well throughout. However, the real strength of the film is the script and story. The plot was hugely original for its time and the manner in which it develops is disciplined and clever. The scenarios which the protagonists act out are its equal and the dialogue is as good as if not better than anything the western has offered up.

Needless to say, the cast is uniformly splendid and while Ryan and Strode have less to do than the other two, they throw in with some wonderfully memorable performances. But this film is all about Marvin and particularly Lancaster who were rarely better. Marvin gives one of those thoughtful man-with-the-will-of-iron turns but with more emphasis on the former than we typically saw from him. This sets the tone for the film more than anything else. Lancaster, on the other hand, sets the theme, the momentum, and the energy with a profoundly magnetic turn as the “the whirlingist dervish of them all!”. Charming, chilling, rousing, and full of shrewd intelligence, his Dolworth is easily one of the most under-appreciated western characters and as we watch Lancaster swinging from trains and scaling 100 foot canyon walls (without a safety harness), the character and actor become one and the same. What an actor. What a man. What a professional.

Although, it has unfortunately been somewhat forgotten over the years, The Professionals is one of the very best westerns of its era. It takes a refreshing break from town marshals and nasty cattle ranchers to explore the more peripherally relevant themes of the wild west but, best of all, it throws a handful of movie legends together with a script and movie big enough to do every bit of their monumental personalities justice. “So what else is on your mind besides 100 proof women, 90 proof whiskey, and 14 carat gold?” Pure class!

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Seven Days in May (1964) 4.75/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 86.7
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 118 mins
Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Martin Balsam

John Frankenheimer was a director of some renown but given the consistent quality of his work across a variety of genres and throughout five decades, he really should be better appreciated. That he made three of the very best films of the 1960’s in the space of three years is an emphatic testament to this. In 1962, he gave us perhaps the greatest Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, and two years later (right before he gave us The Train), he followed it up with one of the few films that could actually rival The Manchurian Candidate for that mantle.

Seven Days in May is a sweeping hair raiser that follows the efforts of the President of the United States, his closest advisors, and a Colonel in the Pentagon to investigate and expose a possible high-level military conspiracy, the aim of which, is to overthrow the government for its left wing stance on US-Soviet disarmament. That the conspiracy seems to be led by a people’s hero, a four star General with strong right wing tendencies and a megalomania complex, makes matters all the more tricky as the investigation requires negotiating their way through fanatically loyal military brass and equally right leaning members of Congress.

The plot (adapted from Fletcher Kneble and Charles W. Bailey II’s novel) is rich with intrigue and impeccably set up against Frankenheimer’s equally clean black and white canvas, a canvas that is further embellished with a luscious balancing of key and fill lighting. It’s speared forward primarily through its beefy dialogue which is strengthened all the more because a host of that era’s great scene-stealers are responsible for its delivery. Kirk Douglas is his usual mix of professionalism and presence as the honourable Colonel who cannot tolerate what he sees as an overreach by his superiors. Frederic March gets to the core of his character’s presidential predicament showing just enough strength and vulnerability. As you’d expect, Martin Balsam, Edmond O’Brien, and George Macready add substantially to the tone of the film as the presidents’ team who head out to investigate the different elements of the mystery.

However, it’s probably fair to say that Burt Lancaster’s power-mad General dominates this movie. Lancaster had an ability to be truly intimidating when he wanted, as his portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success demonstrated, and the controlled menace he shows in this film is scintillating. If there’s one regret regarding his turn in Seven Days in May, it’s that he never got to share the screen with Ava Gardner again (his co-star from The Killers – his breakthrough movie which also starred O’Brien) who plays the jilted lover and potential threat to his reputation. In truth, the scope of the film doesn’t really allow for such an indulgence but cinephiles would’ve liked it!

There’s a controlled but persistent energy to this film as the action skips relentlessly and with a knife-edge like tension between the White House, The Pentagon, aircraft carriers, military bases, Congress, and dark alleys. The result is a movie that is the very definition of a thriller. Moreover, graced as it is with pure class from the acting, writing, directing, and Jerry Goldsmith’s low key but suitably paranoid score and that it also taps a subject that kept audiences of its time in a state of dull fear, it’s easily one of the most arresting thrillers too.

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The Train (1964) 5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.8
Genre: War
Duration: 133 mins
Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau

Unrecognised and inexplicably forgotten, John Frankenheimer’s The Train is one of those films which which will make true movie fans (but particularly WWII movie buffs) leap for joy when they first see it because they’ll have one more classic piece of cinema to cherish. Burt Lancaster stars as Labiche, the station master of a busy Paris train terminal which the Germans are using to evacuate their retreating troops and armaments. Labiche is also a resistance fighter and he uses his position to hinder the German train schedules, facilitate sabotage, and co-ordinate with the slowly advancing Allies. When Paul Scofield’s Col Von Waldheim, attempts to take the French museums’ greatest paintings to Germany, Labiche is called upon to protect the “national heritage” at all costs.

The moral conflict and exploration of humanity that this set up facilitates is what makes The Train so completely compelling for it becomes so much more than just a blinding great action film (which it most certainly is). Ever the hardened soldier, Labiche sees the orders to save the art from the Germans as too great a risk to his thinning ranks of freedom fighters and appreciating that the Germans cannot be allowed procure such a potentially valuable war chest, he would much prefer to simply blow the train up. However, by seeing how much the art cargo means to some of his closest confidants, he gradually commits himself ever more to the task. If one were to stop and contemplate this for a second, one cannot help but be struck by the stirring conception of a hero this leaves us with. A seasoned and war weary hero protecting something even though he doesn’t understand or see the beauty in it but because he trusts those that do. That’s quite an over extension on the part of your typical hero and it’s a hair raising idea to build a film around. And that’s exactly what it does here. As we watch Labiche initially execute one clever scheme after another but ultimately (as exhaustion and gunshot wounds take their toll) push himself through the French countryside in an attempt to keep one step ahead of the train and delay it by any means necessary:- it raises the hair on your neck and gives you goosebumps to match.

The strategies he and his comrades use to to delay the train until the Allies arrive involve everything from stealth missions, co-ordinated intelligence, hand to hand combat, machine gun battles, to setting the trains on split second collision courses. This is action like you’ve never seen it and that it’s all wrapped up in intrigue, pathos (for the loss of life involved), and philosophical reflection (concerning the role of art in justifying our salvation as a species and indeed how a misapprehension of its relevance can undo that justification) makes it all the more unique and downright powerful. The precarious balance between our more admirable traits as a people and our proclivity for brute violence lies at the heart of this picture and the opening scene in which Waldheim bedecked in the Nazi insignia of his fascist regime, silently absorbs the exquisite paintings before he begins his audacious heist wonderfully captures this contradiction in all its curious shades.

The Train is just as striking on the technical front. It’s shot in the same polished monochrome of Frankenheimer’s other 60’s classic The Manchurian Candidate, but with a gritty and edged production design to evoke the emotional and physical state of France in the last days of the occupation. As mentioned the action choreography is stunning thanks largely to some resplendent direction, visual effects (Jean Fouchet) and David Bretherton’s editing. Films that walk the line between tense drama and subtle reflection universally rest of the strength of their dialogue and Franklin Coen and Frank Davis screenplay is therefore duly deserving of huge plaudits. A frayed realism dominates most of the exchanges with the weightier stuff emerging in the well placed interludes. However, the dialogue only ever attempts to frame the debate. Again this adds to the realism because in a time-table based drama there’s little time to realistically pontificate. However, it also allows the audience to make any conclusions their own. Frankenheimer deserves most credit in this regard for he uses the tension of the story to establish a subconscious distance between the characters’ sensibilities and their actions which acts as a discrete invitation to the audience to explore the space in between.

None of this works however, without a lead of considerable magnetism and there can be little doubt that Lancaster was the right man for this job. The former trapeze artist was always capable of boisterous turns (sometimes too boisterous) but this one called for pure intent. He nailed it. Yes, the ageing eyes seemed more apt to catch  the weariness of Labiche and his ability to perform his own stunts added tremendously to the set pieces but in addition to all that physical stuff, Lancaster understood what made this character work and everything in the film hinged on that. Everything. Scofield gives an equally cogniscent performance to allow his man to be much more than just another dastardly Nazi. His is a unique bad guy that represents a much more cultivated consideration of what exactly the Nazis reflected within us. Like everything else in this wonderful film, it resonates at just the right frequency so that thrills and intellect are equally satisfied.

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Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) 4.57/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 90.1
Genre: Drama, War
Duration: 186 mins
Director: Stanley Kramer
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark

Judgement at Nuremberg is a intensely complex analysis of the post-WWII tribunals which sharpened to a focused point societies’ discussion of the guilt and blame regarding the German people of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Rather than merely piggybacking this discussion, Judgment at Nuremberg immerses itself in it and the result is as engaging and integral a film as has been produced by Hollywood.

The great Spencer Tracy headlines as a judge who is flown into Nuremberg some time after the sensational trials of military and political commanders have ended, to preside over the lower profile trials wherein the judges of The Third Reich are being tried for dereliction of their duty to uphold the law. Burt Lancaster plays the most distinguished of these judges and perhaps the one who feels most deeply about his role, however indirect, in the atrocities of the concentration camps and “final solution”. Maximilian Schnell stars as his tenacious legal representative in the trials while Richard Widmark plays the US army’s prosecuting attorney whose fanatical desire to see the entire country punished has left him little pity or tolerance for the complexities of the issue.

Everyone involved gives thoughtful performances with Lancaster’s being much more understated than usual (though he does bubble over into melodrama at least once) and Tracy’s being as pitch perfect as usual. The cast each do their bit to harness the powerful emotion of the context and channel it intelligently so that it resonates with the audience’s awareness as opposed to merely reverberating with them on an instinctual level. The greatest complexity dealt with here are the intertwined issues of culpability and self-justification and the manner in which it is teased out and presented to the audience in the ultimate scene is utterly sublime in both its subtlety and clarity.

There are so many standout moments in this movie (some harrowing, some eminently dramatic) that it’s difficult to pick a true high-point but Widmark’s opening salvo against the defence is as damning an indictment of the Nazi collaborators as any the medium has offered. It is truly one of the most arresting moments in film and that Widmark is responsible for it and not Tracy is perhaps nearly as surprising. True class.

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