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Good evening. Tonight, I have a prepared a variety of reviews based on the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s, finest films. Due to the sheer volume of films involved in this so-called Masterpiece Collection, a total of 15: 14 owned by Universal, one leased from Warner Bros. I’m dividing this discussion into five separate reviews and am basing this division on release date, not popularity or alleged ‘director era.’ Thank you for your attention.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 2

The Man Who Knew Too Much


It’s certainly arguable that Hitchcock ended up remaking the same three or four movies over and over again throughout his career, but The Man Who Knew Too Much marks the only time he officially revisited an earlier release. I haven’t actually seen the original 1934 release (I plan on rectifying that when Criterion releases it on Blu-ray next year), but, based on what I’ve read, the process of comparing/contrasting the two films is more or less academic and not necessary to understanding the production of this 1956 version (Hitchcock himself bemoans the loss of the original film’s climax during interviews, but otherwise dismisses it as ‘the work of a talented amateur’). The Man Who Knew Too Much often feels like another dry run for North By Northwest, but also stands alone, thanks to the focus on visual storytelling and a palpable sense of paranoia. Hitchcock beautifully conveys Doris Day’s creeping suspicion and allows it to bleed into the audience’s self-conscious until we, too, suspect every frowning face of future foul play. The pacing is refreshingly lax, allowing sequences that aren’t particularly needed to play out without interrupting the flow of the narrative. The screenplay, by John Michael Hayes, based on a story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, suffers from some of the heavy exposition issues found in many of Hitchcock’s more complicated thrillers. Unlike North By Northwest, the occasional over-explanation tends to stilt the dialogue and draw too much attention to itself. Jimmy Stewart is, of course, good, though he isn’t cast against type, which makes for a less memorable performance and character. He is given a better chance to be funny, however, giving me a good break as I approach Vertigo. Day, on the other hand, is at her absolute best. Her heartbreaking performance during the breathtaking climax of the theatre sequence is the best brand of Hitchcockian melodrama.

The Man Who Knew Too Much was the third of the five VistaVision and Technicolor Hitchcock productions. It is presented in the intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the usual 1080p video. The quality here matches my VistaVision expectations (based on a series of reviews all in the past year) without exceeding them, like the surprising Trouble with Harry disc. Details levels are good and intricate, especially backgrounds and complex wardrobe/set decoration patterns. The widest wide shots have minor issues with edge haloes and other sharpening artefacts, which is, again, what I tend to expect from the VistaVision format. The absolute roughest, muddiest backgrounds, however, can be blamed almost exclusively on the limits of rear projection and process shots, which Hitchcock uses here often for the sake of control. Grain levels are occasionally thick, but never clumped or unnatural. The mostly vibrant and crisp colours do have some minor issues with consistency throughout, including general hue fluctuation (this can be seen especially in skin tones, which fluctuate between yellower and redder qualities) and some patchy bits (most apparent in blue backgrounds). Unfortunately, there is also a pretty constantly damaged print, including blotchy smears, flecks of dirt, and small, squiggly scratches. These artefacts are borderline distracting somewhere around the 40-50 minute mark, where a darker hotel room interior doesn’t offer the sharp contrasts and bright colours that tend to cover up the issues elsewhere.

The score this time around was, again, mostly written by Herrmann, but also features a version of Arthur Benjamin’s ‘Storm Clouds Cantata’ that plays out over the film’s first (and more successful) climax and won a Best Original Song Oscar for Doris Day’s rendition of ‘Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),’ written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. This film opens with an overture (Herrmann himself is conducting) to prep us for what to expect from this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track, which is a lot, but not quite as natural or warm as some of the previous discs. Everything is still plenty clean and clear, without high volume distortion or noise floor buzz, but there’s just not a whole lot of depth to the mix. This isn’t surprising for a mono mix and the deeper tracks are the exception to the rule. This is also the first track in the collection to feature obvious differences in the audio quality of dialogue mid-discussion, which is likely the result of ADR recording mishaps.

Extras include:
  • The Making of The Man Who Knew Too Much (34:20, SD)
  • Production photo gallery
  • Theatrical trailer


 The Man Who Knew Too Much Blu-ray
 The Man Who Knew Too Much DVD
 The Man Who Knew Too Much Blu-ray
 The Man Who Knew Too Much DVD
 The Man Who Knew Too Much Blu-ray
 The Man Who Knew Too Much DVD

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 2

Vertigo


This year (2012 for those reading this in ‘reruns’) marked a rather famous, some might even say notorious milestone: Sight and Sound magazine, via a critics’ poll, voted Vertigo, not Citizen Kane, the number one best movie of all time. Such a distinction, along with going from 61 to 6 on the American Film Institute’s 2007 update of their original 1998 list, is especially dramatic considering the film’s tepid reception upon its original release. Beyond the fact that ranking movies as ‘the best of all time’ is a fool’s game, painting film criticism as a objective practice, I find it difficult to disagree with the assertion that Vertigo sits high among the greatest of filmic achievements. I believe Vertigo is the best representation of Hitchcock’s uncompromised id and, rather obviously, his most aggressively artistic achievement. Does the script make complete sense? No. Are some of the story concepts a little far-fetched, overly elaborate, and even silly? Probably. Will this pull some viewers entirely out of the experience, particularly those with a stronger mental anchoring on the left side of their brain? Absolutely. But, as a work of pure film art and a stylized character study, few movies match Vertigo’s unrelenting, dreamlike brilliance – and even fewer achieve its genuine emotional climax. I’d also mark Vertigo as James Stewart’s best and bravest performance. It’s not as punchy as his Philadelphia Story appearance or as poignant as his The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance appearance, but it’s the one that always sticks with me. Hitchcock himself has marked Stewart’s age as a problem for the production, making his relationship with Kim Novak less believable, but I’ve always found the 25 year gap another of the film’s more successful subconscious attacks. The age difference boils up all kinds of Freudian implications and tinges Stewart’s subtly dark performance a shade deeper.

Vertigo was likely the most well-received of all of Harris & Katz’ Hitchcock re-masters. Back in 1996, the restoration team found the film in such a state of disrepair that they were forced to take drastic action and make many computer-assisted, colour correcting choices, based on notes and research (some shots were reportedly only available in the 16mm format). This brought about the usual criticism from purists, like it always does. I am no expert on exactly what the colours should look like, but do notice that the opening titles have been slightly altered between this and the Masterpiece Collection release, theoretically for the best. Otherwise, I’m only able to base my opinion of the hues here on my experience with the DVD release and find the overall experience rarely short of riveting (I will hazard to guess that the night sequences weren’t this blue in 1958). Everything is just so vivid, so eclectic, so wonderfully excessive that I’m finding it awfully difficult to complain. The Technicolor qualities of the stock (apparently digitally re-created here) make for a stunning mix of realistic and painterly qualities. The green of Kim Novak’s dress set against the red of that restaurant interior is simply to die for – and all without sacrificing the clarity of natural skin tones. The 1996 restoration was so meticulous that Universal was even able to convert the 35mm film into the 70mm format to best recreate the frame size of an 8-perf VistaVision print. This makes for some intricate details and textures from the front of the frame all the way to the back, specifically in shots where Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks set focus as deeply as possible. There are, of course, many signs of DNR and other digital tinkering throughout the transfer, but I honestly don’t think any of these are a problem in the case of this particular restoration (I assume that the softer sequences are supposed to look soft because they did on the DVD). There’s just no way that negatives found in as bad of a condition as described in the extra features should look this clean. I imagine there should be more grain on the print and notice a bit of a granule ‘smear’ in some of the backgrounds, but no one has eradicated the texture of the film stock and none of the details appear waxy or flat. The worst I can say in terms of the digital preservation is that some of the artefact erasure is a bit clumsy, occasionally covering up scratches with lumpy rubber-stamp tool swaths.

The other side of this particular restoration coin is the reconstruction of film’s original mono soundtrack. While preparing this release for a theatrical re-release, Harris & Katz’ team remixed everything into a modern 5.1 soundtrack. This new track was definitely impressive for type, sitting among Disney’s high watermarked regenerated audio material in terms of a surround sound environment. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track represents that remixed track wonderfully, including all the organic dialogue and effects work without the minor compression issues afforded by standard DVD releases. The best case for the remix is the incredibly immersive and bassy quality of Bernard Herrmann’s evocative score, which was itself remixed from a stereo source. This score is kind of a first for the director/composer partnership, because the music is so ingrained with the image. I’d argue that you could remove Herrmann’s music from all previous Hitchcock collaborations without irrefutably changing the film, but not Vertigo or any of the team’s subsequent collaborations ( The Man Who Knew Too Much may be the exception considering Herrmann’s physical appearance in the film). The best case against the remix is the use of new foley and catalogue effects to fill out the extra channels and make directional effects work more effectively. This is never a good idea and, not surprisingly, sounds artificial, even when presented this gloriously. The mono track has been thankfully included here; it is only in the form of a compressed DTS 2.0 track.

Extras include:
  • A commentary track with French Connection and Exorcist director William Friedkin
  • Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock’s Masterpiece retrospective/restoration featurette (29:20, SD)
  • Saul Bass: Title Champ (10:30, SD)
  • Edith Head: Dressing the Master’s Movies (17:10, SD)
  • Bernard Herrmann: Hitchcock’s Maestro (14:40, SD)
  • Alma: The Master’s Muse (12:20, SD)
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut (14:20, SD), more of that audio recording of Francois Truffaut interviewing the director set to footage from the film
  • Footage from the censored foreign ending of the film, which featured a slightly less depressing coda (2:10, SD)
  • The Vertigo Archives image gallery
  • Theatrical and restoration release trailers
  • 100 Years of Universal: The Lew Wasserman Era (8:50, HD)


 Vertigo Blu-ray
 Vertigo DVD
 Vertigo Blu-ray
 Vertigo DVD
 Vertigo Blu-ray
 Vertigo DVD

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 2

North By Northwest


This is it. Literally decades of mistaken identity movies all built to one thing – North By Northwest: the ultimate ‘wrong man’ thriller. Not to be confused with the ultimate Hitchcock film, this is the ultimate expression of a specific brand of suspense. Fans and critics often refer to North By Northwest as ground zero for an entire subgenre, but this is a case of an engine fine-tuned to its most perfect state and its success was built upon a pile of other films that didn’t quite satisfy the master’s creative itch. In this regard, it may be whatever the opposite of ‘ground zero’ is. I guess an apex? What always strikes me, especially considering the melancholic state of the director’s previous film, Vertigo, is how buoyant North By Northwest is without sacrificing any of its more remembered suspense. I’m sure I’m not alone in considering this Hitch and Cary Grant’s most advantageous collaboration (of the four pairings, only Suspicion, also owned by Warner Bros, is unavailable on Blu-ray). Grant flexes his dramatic muscle well in Notorious and gets all romantic in To Catch a Thief, but neither film captures his seemingly limitless screwball comedy abilities. Oddly, it seems that Hitchcock worked best with Stewart when working against type, but best with Grant when embracing his acclaimed strengths. I can’t help but notice that Roger O. Thornhill is a Madison Avenue ad man, which is an amusing aside, given my affection for AMC’s Mad Men. If they ever make the mistake of remaking North By Northwest, I hope they make the meta choice of hiring John Hamm as the lead. James Mason and Martin Landau add up to the best (and most Bond-like) boss/heavy villain team in Hitchcock’s filmography as well.

North By Northwest is one of two discs in this collection (the other being Psycho) that was already available in a standalone version. For this 15-disc set, Universal leased that exact disc from Warner Bros and changed the cover art. This makes my job kind of boring, since that original release has been available for three years now and is probably already a part of most fans’ collections, but I am able to verify that there really is no discernable difference between the two releases. Apparently, Warner Bros takes better care of their Hitchcock material (which they bought from MGM), because this transfer was reportedly scanned in 8k (!) from the original VistaVision elements. This super-high definition scan leads to incredible detail levels, likely the sharpest and most complex in the entire collection. This pays off best during expansive wide shots, but also leads to plenty of realistic close-up texture (assuming Hitchcock isn’t over-doing his patented soft focus). Grain levels are fine and natural for a large format release, featuring few signs of being overwhelmed by DRN tampering. There are minor signs of print damage, but nothing excessive in terms of dirt or scratches. This release is both cooler and more poppy than the DVD versions, as seen in the screencaps provided by Jonathan. The poppiness could just be a pleasant effect of HD video’s advantages over SD video, but the cooler qualities are hopefully more true to the original release hues. There are two issues I can imagine people might have with this release, however. The first is the framing, which, at 1.78:1, is slightly different than either the matted 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 VistaVision large-format original theatrical releases. As far as I can tell, every DVD release was also framed at 1.78:1, so I’m guessing this isn’t a major bone of contention. The second possible issue is that this transfer is a little dark at times, though, again, I’d be willing to believe this was the intended look if told so by an archival expert.

Because this is a port of the Warner Bros release, the audio codec is Dolby TrueHD rather than DTS-HD. It’s still lossless, so it shouldn’t make a difference for most viewers; it’s just a changeup in the audio specs. This is the second of three 5.1 remixes and overall more successful than the overproduced Vertigo track. Part of this is the age of the remix. During the late ‘90s, restoration artists were really excited by digital surround’s possibilities and tended to overextend themselves in an effort to make an old track sound new. This remix is more true to the source, without any obvious catalogue or foley additions and a general lack of aggressive directional noise. North By Northwest features another immeasurably important Bernard Herrmann score. Again, the 5.1 remix serves the music quite well, especially because the sound designers are working from a stereo source. The disc loses major points for not including the original mono, even in the form of a compressed standard definition track. Boo.

Extras include:
  • Commentary by screenwriter Ernest Lehman
  • Cary Grant: A Class Apart (1:27:10, SD), a feature-length documentary on the actor’s career that originally aired as part of TCM’s American Masters series
  • The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style (57:40, HD), a catch-all documentary about the director’s films that Warner Bros has access to
  • Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North By Northwest (39:30, SD)
  • North By Northwest: One for the Ages (25:30, SD)
  • Sill gallery
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Hitchcock’s ‘guided tour’ trailer
  • TV spot


 North By Northwest Blu-ray
 North By Northwest DVD
 North By Northwest Blu-ray
 North By Northwest DVD
 North By Northwest Blu-ray
 North By Northwest DVD

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 2

Psycho


Historians will often mark Psycho as the first ‘modern’ horror film. It’s difficult to parse exactly what this means, but there’s no denying its massive influence over a heavy sub-section of horror movies and violent thrillers that were released following its 1960 release. The biggest influences would be found on other non-supernatural terror tales, specifically what would become the slasher genre. Psycho itself is not by any means a slasher movie or even a body count movie. It’s barely even a murder mystery, perhaps more of a postmodern murder mystery where the conventions are inverted for the sake of shock. But there are pieces of Psycho in just about every proto-slasher release, from the prolific Italian giallo tradition that largely stems from a Roman-flavoured mimicking of Hitchcock’s brand of filmmaking to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, an underrated villainous character study which director Tobe Hopper based around the same historical figure as Hitchcock – Wisconsin’s Ed Gein. Then there’s John Carpenter’s Halloween, often marked as the first movie to fulfill the slasher template (behind, arguably, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas). Carpenter’s villain, Michael Myers’ weapon of choice is the same as Mother Bates’ and its secondary hero, Dr. Samuel Loomis, is named for Psycho’s secondary hero. Psycho’s impact on modern horror is not in question. However, it was released the same year (or at least within the same year-long period) as a series of foreign horror films with an arguably similar impact, including Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (Italy), Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (the UK), Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (Japan), Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face (French), Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (French/Italian co-production), Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (aka: Hanyeo, Korean), John Llewellyn Moxey’s City of the Dead (aka: Horror Hotel, also the UK), and Giorgio Ferroni’s Mill of the Stone Women (aka: Il mulino delle donne di pietra, Italy). Perhaps the zeitgeist was simply ready for a new brand of horror and Hitchcock heard the siren call.

Psycho is the second disc in this set that was previously available on Blu-ray, mostly because it remains his most popular film and Universal couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to make some cash. You can’t fault them for also including it here, though. Can you imagine a Universal Hitchcock collection without Psycho? That would be ridiculous. This release features the same 1.85:1-framed, 1080p transfer and there continues to be no good reason to complain. The black and white film has been scrubbed of major print damage artefacts (though, I suppose, the original negatives may not have fallen into a similar state of disrepair over the years since, it steadily appeared on home video and television) without sacrificing a lot in the way of natural grain textures. Occasionally, the facial close-ups and blurrier backgrounds look a bit soft, but rarely plasticy or blotchy and never at the risk of the necessary fine details. Wide-angle details are much sharper than standard definition releases, as are smaller set-piece details, like food and stuffed birds. I suppose that the white levels may be set a bit higher than Hitch and cinematographer John L. Russell intended (the overcast skies are a bit closer to sunny), but not at the peril of the deep blacks or the more complicated gradations. These brighter highlights do not bloom, nor does the increase in contrast lead to an uptake in edge enhancement effects (though there is some shimmer along the busiest textures). Print damage is mostly limited to the usual white flecks, small scratches, and a few tiny burn effects.

This DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (which, again, matches the previous Blu-ray release) represents the last of this set’s 5.1 remixes. This remix is another mostly even-handed effort. It doesn’t feature an excess of standout sound effects that weren’t already a piece of the original mono mix. The sounds of doors closing and the central shower are the occasional exceptions. However, some viewers have noted some effects went missing when the soundtrack was restructured, which is arguably a bigger problem (though, these aren’t so obvious that I ever noticed before it was pointed out to me). The stereo and surround channels are given something to do effects-wise during outdoor sequences, specifically those involving moving cars and rain, while indoor scenes receive only the most discrete environmental effects boost. The digital enhancement is a mixed blessing for the dialogue track. The words are all crystal clear, well-centered, and the lip-sync is perfect, with only a slightly artificial sound quality on occasion. Once again, the key case for the remix is Herrmann’s score and it has never sounded richer or cleaner. This cleaner version of the music is also somehow more violent, even without a huge bass boost or particularly busy stereo enhancement. The original mono track is included as a two-channel, standard DTS track for the sake of posterity and comparison.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with Stephen Rebello, author of ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho’
  • The Making of Psycho (1:34:10, SD), a multi-chapter retrospective documentary
  • Psycho Sound (10:00, SD), a look at remixing the film into 5.1 surround sound
  • The Master’s Shadow: Hitchcock’s Legacy (25:60, HD), a look at Hitchcock’s effect on modern filmmakers
  • More Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews set to scenes from the film (15:20, SD)
  • Newsreel footage (7:50, SD)
  • Breakdown of the Shower Scene (2:30, SD)
  • Saul Bass’ Shower Scene storyboards (4:10, SD)
  • Poster, photo, and promotional material archives
  • Trailer
  • Re-release trailers


 Psycho Blu-ray
 Psycho DVD
 Psycho Blu-ray
 Psycho DVD
 Psycho Blu-ray
 Psycho DVD

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Part 2

The Birds


The Birds is the closest Hitchcock ever got to making a pure horror film, closer even than Psycho, and the last great film he’d ever make (though certainly not the last good one). It’s a casually apocalyptic vision still genuinely frightening to this day. There are even two jump scares that can elicit a gasp without the benefit of a musical sting. In fact, both sequences – the first being the bit where crows collect on the jungle gym behind Tippi Hedren and the second being the bit where Hedren opens an upstairs door to reveal a room full of birds – play out the jump as almost entirely silent, a practice almost no filmmaker has had the courage to repeat since. Besides its everlasting ability to shock and an unusually insightful human story, I’m constantly impressed by the film’s special effects work, much of which can go by unnoticed even in this day and age of sophisticated, ‘if you can think of it, you can do it’ computer-assisted filmmaking. The best of these work in large part because Hitchcock recognized that the shortcomings of the industry standard bluescreen process would wreak havoc with the flapping bird wings. Because detail wasn’t as important as sharp edges (the birds are mostly monochromatic), the director utilized an effect Disney used to incorporate animation and live action elements in films like Mary Poppins – the sodium vapor process, under the supervision of the immortal animator Ub Iwerks.

The Birds has never looked great on home video. My DVD copy is noisy, texturally uneven, and muddy, yet just clear and colourful enough to make the viewing a mostly pleasant experience. A lot of the problems can likely be attributed to the film’s many technical practices, including the aforementioned sodium vapor process effects, which tended to create irregular grain levels. Other issues can also likely be explained as the byproduct of Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks’ visual choices, including some soft focus and diffusion, which is used both stylistically and in order to cover the edges on some of the effects. There are also differentiations in the detail levels and overall darkness levels between location and set-based shots. There is an uptake in detail between the DVD release and this 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer, but generally speaking, the problem shots remain the same. The detail increase, which isn’t as impressive as the uptake in the VistaVision releases ( The Birds was shot 35mm), both improves the experience (love those establishing shots of Mitch’s house across the bay) and occasionally increases some of the source artefacts (though not at the risk of making any of the effects appear less impressive). Since some of these inconsistencies cannot be explained away by the qualities of the original footage, I’m going to guess that this print was culled from an assortment of sources and that some were in dire shape. There are very few signs of digital manipulation, as apparent in the patchy grain levels that never entirely clear up. The uneven detail levels never really bothered me, but the blotchy colour qualities are unmistakably unfortunate. Plenty of the images are exquisitely vibrant (even those unnatural Technicolor skin tones) and the bulk of the hues remain better separated than those of the DVD counterpart (the brightest reds bleed a hair), but the patchy and impure bits are distracting.

It’s always been problematic visually, but The Birds has always sounded great on home video. It even sounded good watching it through a single-speaker tube set. This is largely due to the original mix being among the best single channel mixes ever conceived. Though there’s no non-source music throughout the film Bernard Herrmann was hired as a ‘sound consultant’ to offer his ear to the sound effects design, which was officially ‘composed’ by Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann using a synthesizer predecessor called a Trautonium. This musical approach to sound design led to high dynamic ranges, rhythmic approaches to aurally busier moments, and melodic effects qualities, specifically the birds themselves, which sound more like a subconscious representation of living creatures and naturally accurate crows, seagulls, or sparrows. This new DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track doesn’t change the basic design already presented with the DVD’s original Dolby Digital track, but its uncompressed qualities help deepen the already deep sound field and keep the more shrieky birdcalls from buzzing.

Extras include:
  • A deleted scene in script and still form (4:20, SD)
  • The original ending in script and sketch form (3:40, SD)
  • The Birds: Hitchcock’s Movie Monster (14:30, HD) which compares the film to Universal’s other creature features
  • All About the Birds retrospective documentary (1:19:20, SD)
  • A storyboard-to-film comparison gallery
  • Tippi Hedren’s screen test (10:00, SD)
  • More Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews to stills (14:00, SD)
  • The Birds is Coming newsreel (1:20, SD)
  • Suspense Story: National Press Club Hear Hitchcock newsreel (1:50, SD)
  • Production photo gallery
  • Theatrical trailer
  • 100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics (9:10, HD)
  • 100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:30, HD)


 The Birds Blu-ray
 The Birds DVD
 The Birds Blu-ray
 The Birds DVD
 The Birds Blu-ray
 The Birds DVD

I will see you next time for the final five films in Hitchcock’s filmography.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays and original DVD releases, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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