Film poster by Michel Landi
|Directed by||Peter Yates|
|Produced by||Philip D'Antoni|
|Screenplay by||Alan R. Trustman|
|Based on||Mute Witness|
by Robert L. Fish
|Music by||Lalo Schifrin|
|Cinematography||William A. Fraker|
|Edited by||Frank P. Keller|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.-Seven Arts|
|Box office||$42.3 million|
Bullitt is a 1968 American action thriller film directed by Peter Yates and produced by Philip D'Antoni. The picture stars Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, and Jacqueline Bisset. The screenplay by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner was based on the 1963 novel, Mute Witness, by Robert L. Fish, writing under the pseudonym Robert L. Pike. Lalo Schifrin wrote the original jazz-inspired score, arranged for brass and percussion. Robert Duvall has a small role as a cab driver who provides information to McQueen.
The film was made by McQueen's Solar Productions company, with his partner Robert E. Relyea as executive producer. Released by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts on October 17, 1968, the film was a critical and box-office smash, later winning the Academy Award for Best Film Editing (Frank P. Keller) and receiving a nomination for Best Sound. Writers Trustman and Kleiner won a 1969 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. Bullitt is also notable for its car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco, which is regarded as one of the most influential in movie history.
Ambitious politician US Senator Walter Chalmers is set to present a surprise star witness at a Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime, to be held in San Francisco. Johnny Ross, a defector from the Chicago Organization, is to be put under protective custody over the weekend until his Monday appearance. Seeking to associate his grandstanding mob-busting efforts with a high-visibility SFPD detective, Chalmers requests Lieutenant Frank Bullitt be put in charge. Bullitt and his team, Delgetti and Stanton, take shifts providing Ross with around-the-clock protection in a cheap hotel selected by Chalmers. Stanton is on shift when the desk clerk calls at 1:00 a.m. Saturday morning, announcing that Chalmers and a friend want to come up from the hotel lobby. While Stanton checks by phone with Bullitt, Ross secretly unchains the door. Two hitmen burst into the room and shoot Stanton and Ross with a shotgun, seriously wounding both men In the room.
At the hospital, Chalmers holds Bullitt responsible. Bullitt soon thwarts a second assassination attempt by the hitmen, but Ross dies of his original wounds. Helped by a sympathetic Dr. Willard, who had been belittled by Chalmers, Bullitt keeps the death a secret by spiriting the Ross’ dead body out of the hospital by private ambulance, registering it as a John Doe at the city morgue.
Bullitt, unconvinced that he fully understands the deadly event, seeks more clues. He finds the cab driver, played by Robert Duvall, who drove Ross to the hotel, and recreates Ross' movements upon arriving in town, learning that Ross made a long distance call from a phone booth. Bullitt's confidential informant, Eddy, reveals that Ross has stolen $2 million ($14.4 million today) from the Organization and narrowly escaped an attempted mob hit in Chicago and had fled town to San Francisco (seeking protection from Chalmers).
Meanwhile, Chalmers serves Bullitt's captain with a writ of habeas corpus to force Bullitt to produce his witness, Ross (not knowing the witness is now dead).
The film classic dangerous high-speed car chase between the two cars ensues through the steep streets among the hills of San Francisco. (McQueen convinced Director Peter Yates to pass on using a studio stunt driver for many of McQueen’s car chase scenes. McQueen, by then a true world-class race car driver in his hiatus months, personally drives the Mustang through its paces in all of the filmed driver-visual street chase scenes, giving the film great character authenticity (See below for other stunt driver credits).
After many city blocks of suspenseful car chase, the cars move out onto a back bay highway at reckless speed, the chase ending when Bullitt forces the speeding black Dodge Charger off the road and into fuel storage tanks for a gas station. The car explodes in a huge deadly fireball with the hitmen gruesomely burning inside.
Bullitt and Delgetti face Chalmers and their SFPD superiors on Sunday morning. Tempers flare. They reluctantly reveal to Chalmers and the captain that Ross had died of his wounds, and that their only lead is a phone record showing Ross' call was to a Dorothy Simmons in a hotel in nearby San Mateo. With his Mustang damaged and out of commission from the chase, Bullitt gets a ride to San Mateo from his girlfriend Cathy in her yellow Porsche cabriolet. Arriving at the hotel, Bullitt enters Simmons room and finds her on the floor, dead, her throat garrotted with a wire. A man is seen exiting the hotel wing — a man who looks curiously similar to the deceased Ross.
Outside, from the hotel parking lot, Cathy sees police cars arriving, cops rushing into the hotel and she follows, fearing for Bullitt’s safety. She is horrified by the crime scene. On the drive back to San Francisco, she asks Bullitt, driving her car, to pull off the highway to talk. There Cathy confronts Bullitt (”Frank, you live in a sewer”.) and conveys her worries about where the dangerous and violent life he leads as a police detective will take them as a couple, wondering if she should stay with him and attempt to cope with the violence in Bullitt’s world.
Later at the SFPD Evidence Room, Bullitt and Delgetti search Simmons' luggage, discovering brand new clothing, a travel brochure for Rome, and thousands of dollars in traveler's checks made out to an Albert and Dorothy Renick. Bullitt is immediately curious about the true identity of the murdered victims. Bullitt requests photo-passport information for Albert and Dorothy Renick sent from Chicago and a fingerprint check for the dead witness Ross. A facsimile of Albert Renick's passport arrives via telecopier device at police headquarter showing the man whom they believed to be gangster Johnny Ross was actually Albert Renick, a used car salesman from Chicago with a startling facial resemblance to Ross. The passport photo of Dorothy Simmons is, in reality, Dorothy Renick.
It now occurs to Bullitt that the murdered bodies of Ross and Simmons were really innocent civilian stand-ins, Mr and Mrs Renick. It is not clear from the screenplay who arranged the deception, but likely it was Ross, in order to evade the mob.
Ross, very much alive, is still on the run somewhere in San Francisco, likely leaving town by jet to Europe. There are snippets of dialogue in the film that give clues that the mob is in pursuit of Ross in San Francisco.
Bullitt points out to Chalmers that he has been made a fool by Ross, duped by Ross into endangering and causing the murders of both Renicks, to throw the mob off of Ross’s trail as he prepares to escape by jet for Europe.
When Delgetti calls the airlines and finds the Renicks are booked on an evening flight to Rome, he and Bullitt rush to San Francisco International Airport. They stake out the Rome flight gate, only to find that (the real) Ross has switched to a slightly earlier Pan Am flight to London that is already taxiing toward the takeoff runway. Chalmers shows up and intrudes to lay claim to his (murderous) witness Ross, but is again firmly rebuffed by Bullitt. With help from the airport tower, Bullitt has the plane stopped at the runway, but Ross escapes by jumping to the ground out the rear cabin door. Bullitt follows, giving chase across the dark runways and taxiways in between moving jet aircraft, and then through a crew door into the crowded passenger terminal.
When Ross is restrained, he shoots a security guard and brandishes his handgun at passengers and advancing security, forcing Bullitt to shoot and kill Ross with the airport terminal crowd watching.
Arriving at the shooting scene, the empty-handed Chalmers sees his witness plans for Ross have come apart, and so he skulks away to his black limousine, (his limousine bears a "Support Your Local Police" bumper sticker — a misplaced attempt at humor).
Early in the morning as he returns from the events at the airport, Bullitt arrives home to find Cathy asleep in his bed, having chosen to stay in the relationship, and face the challenges of the future together. A satisfied smile from Bullitt, fading to the film credits.
- Steve McQueen as Lt. Frank Bullitt
- Don Gordon as Detective “Dell” Delgetti
- Robert Vaughn as US Senator Walter Chalmers
- Simon Oakland as Captain Sam Bennett
- Felice Orlandi as Albert "Johnny Ross" Renick
- Pat Renella as Johnny Ross
- Jacqueline Bisset as Cathy
- Carl Reindel as Carl Stanton
- Paul Genge as Mike, The Hitman
- Bill Hickman as Phil, The Hitman's Partner
- Robert Duvall as Weissberg (cab driver)
- Norman Fell as Captain Baker
- Georg Stanford Brown as Dr. Willard
- Justin Tarr as Eddy the Informant
- Al Checco as Desk Clerk
- Victor Tayback as Pete Ross
- Robert Lipton as Chalmers' 1st Aide
- Ed Peck as Westcott (reporter at hospital)
- John Aprea as Killer
Bullitt was director Yates' first American film. He was hired after McQueen saw his 1967 UK feature, Robbery, with its extended car chase. Joe Levine, whose Embassy Pictures had distributed Robbery, didn't much like it, but Alan Trustman, who saw the picture the very week he was writing the Bullitt chase scenes, insisted that McQueen, Relyea and D'Antoni (none of whom had ever heard of Yates) see Robbery and consider Yates as director for Bullitt.
McQueen based the character of Frank Bullitt on San Francisco Inspector Dave Toschi, with whom he worked prior to filming. McQueen even copied Toschi's unique "fast draw" shoulder holster. Toschi later became famous, along with Inspector Bill Armstrong, as the lead San Francisco investigators of the Zodiac Killer murders that began shortly after the release of Bullitt. Toschi is played by Mark Ruffalo in the film Zodiac, in which Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) mentions that "McQueen got the idea for the holster from Toschi."
Bullitt is noteworthy for its extensive use of actual often brilliant day and night outdoor San Francisco locations rather than heavy reliance on interior studio sets. The film’s attention to authentic procedural detail, from police evidence room processing to hospital emergency room and cardiac arrest “crash cart” medications and procedures, added interest and realism to the film.
Showcasing the then modern telecopier device, as passport photos were gradually revealed at police headquarters, provided suspense for viewers as well as the necessary plot revelation of the mixed Ross identities. The running in the near darkness at the airport among taxing jet aircraft likewise provided moments of suspense, danger and realism.
Director Yates‘ selective use of stark, harsh interior lighting and background shadows to highlight the characters, especially in hospital, police headquarter, and airport scene close-ups, is remarkable.
At the time of the film's release, the exciting car chase scenes, featuring McQueen at the wheel in all driver-visual scenes, generated prodigious excitement. Leonard Maltin has called it a "now-classic car chase, one of the screen's all-time best." Emanuel Levy wrote in 2003 that, "Bullitt contains one of the most exciting car chases in film history, a sequence that revolutionized Hollywood's standards." In his obituary for Peter Yates, Bruce Weber wrote, "Mr. Yates’ reputation probably rests most securely on Bullitt (1968), his first American film – and indeed, on one particular scene, an extended car chase that instantly became a classic."
The chase scene starts at 1h:05m into the film. The total time of the scene is 10 minutes and 53 seconds, beginning in the Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco, at Columbus and Chestnut (although Bullitt first notices the hitmen following his car while driving west on Army, now Cesar Chavez, just after passing under Highway 101), followed by Midtown shooting on Hyde and Laguna Streets, with shots of Coit Tower and locations around and on Filbert and University Streets. The scene ends outside the city at the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in Brisbane. The route has been mapped, showing that it is geographically impossible to take place in real time.
Two 1968 390 cu. in. V8 Ford Mustang GT Fastbacks (325 hp) with four-speed manual transmissions were used for the chase scene, both lent by the Ford Motor Company to Warner Bros. as part of a promotional agreement. The Mustangs' engines, brakes and suspensions were heavily modified for the chase by veteran car racer & technician Max Balchowsky. Ford also originally lent two Galaxie sedans for the chase scenes, but the producers found the cars too heavy for the jumps over the hills of San Francisco. They were replaced with two 1968 375 hp 440 Magnum V8-powered Dodge Chargers. The engines in both Dodge Charger models were left largely unmodified, but the suspensions were mildly upgraded to cope with the demands of the stunt work.
The director called for maximum speeds of about 75–80 miles per hour (121–129 km/h), but the cars (including the chase cars filming) at times reached speeds of over 110 miles per hour (180 km/h). Driver's point-of-view shots were used to give the audience a participant's feel of the chase. Filming took three weeks, resulting in nine minutes and 42 seconds of pursuit. Multiple takes were spliced into a single end product resulting in discontinuity: heavy damage on the passenger side of Bullitt's car can be seen much earlier than the incident producing it, and the Charger appears to lose five wheel covers, with different ones missing in different shots. Shooting from multiple angles simultaneously and creating a montage from the footage to give the illusion of different streets also resulted in the speeding cars passing the same vehicles at several different times, including, widely noted, a green Volkswagen Beetle. At one point the Charger crashes into the camera in one scene and the damaged front fender is noticeable in later scenes. Local authorities did not allow the car chase to be filmed on the Golden Gate Bridge, but did permit it in Midtown locations including Bernal Heights and the Mission District, and on the outskirts of neighboring Brisbane.
McQueen, at the time a world-class race car driver, drove in the close-up scenes, while stunt coordinator Carey Loftin, stuntman and motorcycle racer Bud Ekins, and McQueen's usual stunt driver, Loren Janes, drove for the high-speed part of the chase and performed other dangerous stunts. Ekins, who doubled for McQueen in The Great Escape sequence where McQueen's character jumps over a barbed wire fence on a motorcycle, lays one down in front of a skidding truck during the Bullitt chase. The Mustang's interior rear view mirror goes up and down depending on who is driving: when the mirror is up, McQueen is visible behind the wheel, when it is down, a stunt man is driving.
The black Dodge Charger was driven by veteran stunt driver Bill Hickman, who played one of the hitmen and helped with the chase scene choreography. The other hitman was played by Paul Genge, who played a character who had ridden a Dodge off the road to his death in an episode of Perry Mason ("The Case of the Sausalito Sunrise") two years earlier. In a magazine article many years later, one of the drivers involved in the chase sequence remarked that the Charger - with a larger engine (big-block 440 cu. in. versus the 390 cu. in.) and greater horsepower (375 versus 325) - was so much faster than the Mustang that the drivers had to keep backing off the accelerator to prevent the Charger from pulling away from the Mustang.
The editing of the car chase likely won Frank P. Keller the editing Oscar for 1968, and has been included in lists of the "Best Editing Sequences of All-Time". Paul Monaco has written, "The most compelling street footage of 1968, however, appeared in an entirely contrived sequence, with nary a hint of documentary feel about it – the car chase through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt, created from footage shot over nearly five weeks. Billy Fraker, the cinematographer for the film, attributed the success of the chase sequence primarily to the work of the editor, Frank P. Keller. At the time, Keller was credited with cutting the piece in such a superb manner that he made the city of San Francisco a "character" in the film." The editing of the scene was not without difficulties; Ralph Rosenblum wrote in 1979 that "those who care about such things may know that during the filming of the climactic chase scene in Bullitt, an out-of-control car filled with dummies tripped a wire which prematurely sent a costly set up in flames, and that editor Frank Keller salvaged the near-catastrophe with a clever and unusual juxtaposition of images that made the explosion appear to go off on time." This chase scene has also been cited by critics as groundbreaking in its realism and originality. In the release print and the print shown for many years, a scene in which the Charger actually hits the camera causing a red flare on screen, which many feel added to the realism, was edited out on DVD prints to the disappointment of many fans.
The original score was composed by Lalo Schifrin and is remarkable and timeless as it tracks the various moods and the action of the film, with Schifrin’s signature contemporary American jazz style (for the time). The tracks on the soundtrack album are alternative versions of those heard in the film, re-recorded by Schifrin with leading jazz musicians, including Bud Shank (flute), Ray Brown (bass), Howard Roberts (guitar) and Larry Bunker (drums).
In 2000, the original arrangements as heard in the movie were recreated by Schifrin in a recording session with the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany, and released on the Aleph label. This release also includes re-recordings of the 1968 soundtrack album arrangements for some tracks.
In 2009, the never-before-released original recording of the score heard in the movie, recorded by Schifrin on the Warner Bros. scoring stage with engineer Dan Wallin, was made available by Film Score Monthly. Some score passages and cues are virtually identical to the official soundtrack album, while many softer, moodier cues from the film were not chosen or had been rewritten for the soundtrack release. Also included are additional cues that didn't make it into the film. In addition, the two-CD set features the official soundtrack album, newly mixed from the 1" master tape.
In the restaurant scene with McQueen and Bissett, the live band playing in the background is Meridian West, a jazz quartet that McQueen had seen performing at the famous Sausalito restaurant, The Trident.
Bullitt garnered both critical acclaim and box office success.
Box office performance
Bullitt was well received by critics and is considered by some to be one of the best films of 1968. At the time, Renata Adler made the film a New York Times Critics' Pick, calling it a "terrific movie, just right for Steve McQueen –-fast, well acted, written the way people talk." According to Adler, "the ending should satisfy fans from Dragnet to Camus."
In 2004, The New York Times placed the film on its list of The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. In 2011, Time magazine listed it among "The 15 Greatest Movie Car Chases of All Time," describing it as "the one, the first, the granddaddy, the chase on the top of almost every list," and saying "Bullitt‘s car chase is a reminder that every great such scene is a triumph of editing as much as it is stunt work. Naturally, it won that year's Academy Award for Best Editing". Among 21st-century critics, it holds a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, representing positive reviews from 34 of 35 critics with an average rating of 7.7/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Steve McQueen is cool as ice in this thrilling police procedural that also happens to contain the arguably greatest car chase ever."
Awards and honors
The film was nominated for and won several critical awards. Frank P. Keller won the 1969 Academy Award for Best Film Editing, and it was also nominated for Best Sound. Five nominations at the BAFTA Film Awards for 1969 included Best Director for Peter Yates, Best Supporting Actor for Robert Vaughn, Best Cinematography for William A. Fraker, Best Film Editing for Frank P. Keller, and Best Sound Track. Robert Fish, Harry Kleiner, and Alan Trustman won the 1969 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture. Keller won the American Cinema Editors Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film. The film also received the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Cinematography (William A. Fraker) and the Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing – Feature Film. It was successful at the 1970 Laurel Awards, winning Golden Laurel awards for Best Action Drama, Best Action Performance (Steve McQueen) and Best Female New Face (Jacqueline Bisset). In 2000, the Society of Camera Operators awarded Bullitt its "Historical Shot" award to David M. Walsh.
The famous car chase was later spoofed in Peter Bogdanovich's screwball comedy film, What's Up, Doc?, the Clint Eastwood film, The Dead Pool, in the Futurama episode, "Bendin' in the Wind," and in the Archer season six episode, "The Kanes." Bullitt producer Philip D'Antoni went on to film two more car chases, for The French Connection and The Seven-Ups, both set and shot in New York City.
The Ford Mustang name has been closely associated with the film. In 2001, the Ford Motor Company released the Bullitt edition Ford Mustang GT. Another version of the Ford Mustang Bullitt, which is closer to resembling the original film Mustang, was released in 2008, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the film. A third version was released in 2018 for the 2019 and 2020 model years. In 2009, Bud Brutsman of Overhaulin' built an authentic-looking replica of the Bullitt Mustang, fully loaded with modern components, for the five-episode 2009 TV series, Celebrity Rides: Hollywood's Speeding Bullitt, hosted by Chad McQueen, son of Steve McQueen.
Steve McQueen's likeness as Frank Bullitt was used in two Ford commercials. The first was for the Europe-only 1997 Ford Puma, which featured a special effects montage of McQueen (who died in 1980) driving a new Puma around San Francisco before parking it in a studio apartment garage beside the film Mustang and the motorcycle from The Great Escape. In a 2004 commercial for the 2005 Mustang, special effects are again used to create the illusion of McQueen driving the new Mustang, after a man receives a Field of Dreams-style epiphany and constructs a racetrack in the middle of a cornfield.
The Mustang is featured in the 2003 video game, Ford Racing 2, in a Drafting challenge, on a course named Port Side. It appears in the Movie Stars category, along with other famous cars like the Ford Torino from Starsky & Hutch and the Ford Mustang Mach 1 from Diamonds Are Forever. In the 2011 video game, Driver: San Francisco, the "Bite the Bullet" mission is based on the famous chase scene, with licensed versions of the Mustang and Charger from the film.
During the only season of the 2012 TV series Alcatraz, Det. Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) drives a green 1968 390 V8 Ford Mustang fastback like Bullitt's. In the series finale, she finds herself in a 2013 Ford Mustang GT, the modern equivalent of the 1968 fastback, giving chase to a black LX Dodge Charger driven by series antagonist Thomas "Tommy" Madsen (David Hoflin). The sequence pays homage to Bullitt's car chase, including Madsen buckling the seatbelt in his Charger before starting, and two passes by a green Volkswagen Beetle.
The Blue Bloods TV series 2015 episode "The Bullitt Mustang" centers around the reported theft of one of the Mustangs used in the film, valued at a half million dollars, a case which detectives Danny Reagan and Maria Baez pick up.
Several items of clothing worn by McQueen's Bullitt received a boost in popularity thanks to the film: desert boots, a trench coat, a blue turtleneck sweater and, most famously, a brown tweed jacket with elbow patches.
The last remaining Charger and one of the two Mustangs were scrapped after filming because of damage and liability concerns, while the other was sold to an employee of Warner Bros. The car changed hands several times, with McQueen at one point making an unsuccessful attempt to buy it in late 1977. The car is currently owned by Sean Kiernan in Tennessee whose father bought the car for $6,000 in 1974 after responding to a listing in Road & Track. The stunt Mustang used for filming was found in 2016 at a junkyard in Mexico. The car was verified by an automobile authentication expert who conclusively determined from the vehicle's VIN and other identifying information.
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"Bullitt," as everybody has heard by now, also includes a brilliant chase scene. McQueen (doing his own driving) is chased by, and chases, a couple of gangsters up and down San Francisco's hills. They slam into intersections, bounce halfway down the next hill, scrape by half a dozen near-misses, sideswipe each other, and leave your stomach somewhere in the basement for about 11 minutes.
- Maltin, Leonard, ed. (2004). Leonard Maltin's 2004 Movie and Video Guide. Penguin Group. p. 195.
Taut action-film makes great use of San Francisco locations, especially in now-classic car chase, one of the screen's all-time best; Oscar-winning editing by Frank Keller.
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Bullitt (1968). Philip D’Antoni, who went on to produce The French Connection, warmed up for it with this Steve McQueen crime drama, set in San Francisco, where the steep hills seem to yearn for cars to go sailing over them. The director, Peter Yates, makes the most of the locations, especially during a gravity-defying chase sequence that earned an Oscar for its editor, Frank P. Keller.
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- "By 1968 the group was performing at The Trident, a prominent jazz club in Sausalito and the group became a regular performer at Glide Memorial on Sundays. By March of 1968, Meridian West had been noticed by Steve McQueen, the actor, who was captivated by a performance at The Trident. McQueen gave the group a visual cameo appearance in the movie, "Bullitt," which was being filmed in San Francisco in April." - Meridian Meridian West web site (archived at WebCite). A similar account is available at Meridian West Folk Jazz Ensemble with Allan Pimentel (archived at WebCite).
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- Bonhams Lot 100 From The Chad McQueen Collection: The Bullitt Jacket. Retrieved March 22, 2014. In 1968's Bullitt, McQueen made the most unlikely items extremely fashionable – desert boots, a trench coat, a blue turtleneck sweater and a brown tweed jacket. Only McQueen could make those clothing items ... global trends... The jacket, much like the man, occupies a very special place in cinematic history, it is unquestionably one of the most important pieces of film –and McQueen memorabilia extant. (WebCite archive)
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One of the Mustangs was so badly damaged during filming it was judged unrepairable and scrapped. The second, chassis 8R02S125559, was sold to a Warner Bros. employee after filming was completed.
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- Sandford, Christopher (2003). McQueen: The Biography. Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing. p. 224. ISBN 978-0878333073.
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