Women-in-Peril – 4 Obscure Gothic Thrillers of the 1940s!

As a treat I thought I’d talk about 4 really interesting films that were released amidst the slew of suspense thrillers of the 1940s. Some Gothic melodrama and a few perhaps conveying an almost hybrid sense of noir with their use of flashback, shadow, odd camera angles and elements of transgressive crime. I’ll just be giving a brief overview of the plot, but no worries there are no spoilers!

I recently had the chance to sit with each film and said to myself… Joey, these would make for a nice collection of obscure thrillers so without further adieu, I offer for your enjoyment, The Suspect, Love From A Stranger 1947, Moss Rose & The Sign of the Ram!

THE SUSPECT 1944

The Suspect

Directed by Robert Siodmak (The Spiral Staircase 1945, The Killers 1946, Criss Cross 1949, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, The File on Thelma Jordan 1950) and adapted to the screen by Bertram Millhauser and Arthur T Horman from the novel This Way Out written by James Ronald. Basing this film very loosely on the Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen murder of his wife that was sensationalized at trial in 1910.

The Suspect stars the inimitable Charles Laughton, (Dr. Moreau – Island of Lost Souls 1932, my favorite Quasimodo in William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1939, the most lovable ghost Sir Simon in The Canterville Ghost 1944, The Paradine Case 1947, The Strange Door 1951, Witness for the Prosecution 1957, Spartacus 1960, Advise and Consent 1962 and notably–director of two films–his masterpiece Night of the Hunter and his uncredited The Man on the Eiffel Tower 1949)

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The film also stars the underrated Ella Raines (Phantom Lady 1944, Impact 1949) Dean Harens, Stanley Ridges, (Possessed 1949, The File on Thelma Jordan and No Way Out 1950) Henry Daniell , Rosalind Ivan and Molly Lamont (The Dark Corner 1946, Devil Bat’s Daughter 1946) Raymond Severn plays the delicious little urchin Merridew who works for Phillip as he tries to keep the little guy on the straight and narrow. Merridew would make the perfect name for a little tabby cat!

Charles Laughton gives one of his most subtle performances as a kindly man trapped by an abusive wife. Siodmak as usual creates a dynamic framework for this psychological thriller that is lensed in shades of darkly ominous spaces that seems to shape itself around Laugton’s comfortable face and Ella Raines intricate beauty.

from IMDb trivia – Lux Radio Theater broadcast a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie on April 9, 1945 with Charles Laughton, Ella Raines and Rosalind Ivan reprising their film roles.

Music by Frank Skinner (Blond Alibi 1946, Johnny Stool Pigeon, The Brute Man, The Spider Woman Strikes back and way more to his credit see IMDb listing) With cinematography by Paul Ivano. Who did the camera work on director Hugo Haas treasures like Strange Fascination 1952, One Girl’s Confession 1953, Hold Back Tomorrow 1955!

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And marvelous gowns and hats by Vera West. (The Wolf Man 1941, Shadow of a Doubt 1943,Flesh and Fantasy 1943, Son of Dracula & The Mad Ghoul 1943, Phantom Lady 1944,Strange Confession 1944, Murder in the Blue Room ’44, House of Frankenstein ’44, The Woman in Green 1945, Terror by Night 1946, The Cat Creeps, She-Wolf of London, Dressed to Kill, Danger Woman & Slightly Scandalous 1946.)

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In 1902 London, well respected middle class Englishman, but unhappily married shopkeeper Phillip Marshall (Charles Laughton) develops a loving and warm friendship with young and beautiful Mary Gray (Ella Raines) who’s father has recently died, leaving her down on her luck and looking for a job. Phillip Marshall is such a kind and genteel man he stops to say a kind word about his neighbor Mrs Simmon’s garden, loves his son and shows real affection. Is like a father to young Merridew. Is beloved by the community. Even when he approaches Mary, and she hasn’t yet looked up from her tear soaked hanky, thinking she’s being approached by a lecherous man in the park, “I’m not that sort” tells her, only wanting to see if she needs help.

Mary like Phillip is lonely… the first night Phillip begins to walk her home- “A cup of tea, a six penny novel and a good cry.”
Mary- “I’m afraid you’ve been looking in my window.”

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Phillip’s dreadful wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan –perfectly suited to play the emasculating harpy-she had a similar role tormenting Edward G Robinson in Scarlet Street 1945) is a reprehensible shrew who humiliates and demeans both her husband and her son (Dean Harens who had more room to act in Siodmak’s terrific noir Christmas Holiday 1944 starring a very different kind of Gene Kelly and the self-persecuting Deanna Durbin.) John is shown moving out of the house, because his horrible mother has burned some important papers of his. She got into one of her rages and before he could stop her she burned a whole weeks work.

Cora Marshall is vicious and cruel, showing no maternal feeling, caring little that her son is leaving home.

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Cora-“That’s just what young hopeful did, he’s clearing out bag and baggage that selfish ungrateful good for nothing.”
Phillip-“What did you do to him?”
Cora- “What did I do to him… that’s right put the blame on me. All I did was bring him into the world, nurse him, make myself a doormat for him to walk on!… Go on, go to him and tell him from me that when he leaves this house needn’t think he can come crawling back. Deserting his own mother!… And what do you think you’re doing now?”
Phillip- “I’m moving into John’s room.”
Cora- “Of all the indecent…we’re married aren’t we?”
Phillip (deep sigh)- “Oh we’re married all right.”
Cora –“Then how dare you! I forbid it do you hear me. I forbid you to treat me like this.”

Phillip says, “Now Cora that’s all over now that John’s gone. It’s all over and done with, do you understand me?… I’m moving out of here and there’s nothing you can do about it”
Cora- “Oh yes there is. There’s plenty I can do!”

They wrestle with his clean folded white shirts that he’s busying himself moving out of the bedroom. She tries to grab them and he finally loses his composure and yanks them away.

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Cora- “What’s got into you.. I’d like to know what’s going on in your head.”
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Phillip- “It’s much better that you shouldn’t Cora, it might frighten you…”

Saddened by his John’s departure who he loves and will miss, prompts Phillip to move into his son’s room. Cora, so bent on appearances is driven to tirades of abusiveness toward the meek and genteel Phillip. Harassing him at every turn. I might have thrown her down the stairs myself or given her one of those late night glasses of milk!

The scene with Merridew just tickles me and shows how kind, compassionate and caring Phillip is. He calls Merridew over talking to him in a quite earnest and fatherly tone, all the while you can tell he’s quite fond of the little fellow and visa versa.

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Phillip- “Merridew I have to bring a very serious matter to your attention- I regret to say there’s a shortage in your accounts-there’s a penny missing from the stamp box.”
Merridew- “It… it was for a sugar bun this morning but I’ll put it back on pay day honest Mr. Marshall”
Phillip- “And the tuppence the day before yesterday what was that for?”
Merridew- “Acid drops sir.”
Phillip- “Acid drops??? quizzically… that’s very serious. And the hay penny the day before?”
Merridew- “For the monkey with the hurdy gurdy but I’ll put it all back Saturday every last farthing. “
Phillip- “That’s what all embezzlers plan to do.”

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tears in Merridew’s voice make it quiver as the camera shows Mary listening in, she smiles and laughs at this whimsical inquisition.

Merridew- “But I’m not an embezzler.”

Phillip- “Yes, but you can get started that way. It’s the first step that counts… after that it all becomes too easy. Six pence tomorrow, half a crown the day after… then a five pound note… I know you’ll always mean to pay it back, but I’m afraid you’ll finish by paying it back in the Portland quarries”

Merridew- “Don’t send me to no quarries please Mr. Marshall (sniffling)”

Phillip- “Well not this time Merridew. Now stop sniffling and wipe your eyes.” he hands him a hanky.

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Mary has come into the shop looking for employment. When Phillip tells her there isn’t a position available he later finds her on a park bench crying. He takes her to dinner, gets her a job with a colleague and the two begin a very tender friendship.

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Phillip continues his platonic relationship with Mary, but once his wife finds out that he’s been seen supping with the young lady, he breaks it off, as he’s a gentleman who truly thought his wife would want out of a loveless marriage.

Still, Cora threatens him with scandal as well as making trouble for Mary. When Cora refuses to divorce him, worried that gossip will spread that she has failed to hold onto a husband, he is driven to the point of frustration and despair. She tells him the neighbors are all beginning to gossip about him coming in at all hours-

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Phillip- “None of that business Cora.”

Cora- “Ha! Married people’s lives is everyone’s business and I’m not going to be made of object of pity in front of my friends do you hear!I wonder what ever possessed me to tie myself up with a poor stink like you… walked through the forest and picked a crooked tree that’s what I did. A crooked fat ugly tree.”

Even after she’s been so cruel, he tries to reason with her about getting a divorce and face things honestly by admitting that they’ve never been happy together. He asks her to let him go. But she wants to punish him, because she is a bitter and cruel woman calling him immoral and indecent.

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Phillip is very decent in fact, even though there’s only been friendship between he and Mary, he breaks it off with her so as to do what’s expected of him telling Mary that he behaved badly but he was afraid that she wouldn’t want to see him again. He was sure Cora would let him go… Phillip tells Mary , “And I couldn’t let you go once I’d met you.”

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But Cora won’t be happy til she “drives them both ‘into the gutter where you belong!”

Laughton is adorable and wonderfully believable as a romantic figure because of his gentle nature.

His murderous response is more to protect Mary from Cora’s wrath, who tells him with a face like a Victorian harridan spewing a poisonous vitriol-

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“You better be afraid. As sure as the sun rises tomorrow, I’ll give her the Merry Christmas she’ll never forget”
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Paul Ivano’s brilliant camera angle frames Laughton as somewhat diminished, seemingly trapped or rather oppressed by the space around him.

And so, Phillip murders his wife. We see him grab one of his canes and assume though we don’t see him actually bashing her head in with it, that he has in fact brained her. The next morning she is found dead at the bottom of the stairs, and it is deemed an accident.

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Added to the plot’s layering of Sturm & Drang is the always wonderful scoundrel in Henry Daniell’s Gilbert Simmons, Phillip’s neighbor a stumbling drunkard who also beats his wife (Molly Lamont) Mrs Simmons and Phillip also have a very sweet relationship, one that ultimately anchors Phillip to his integrity. But I won’t reveal the outcome of the story. The miserable Gilbert Simmons also has the distinction of turning to blackmail adding to his other earthly vices.

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Amidst all these dreary, grim and dark ideas, the film still emerges as a beautiful story, partly due to Siodmak’s ability to guide suspense along it’s way with an appealing cadence. As Foster Hirsch states in his must read Film Noir-The Dark Side of the Screen, “Siodmak films like Christmas Holiday and The Killers have an extremely intricate narrative development…{…} the relative extremeness of Siodmak’s style is reflected in his obsessive characters.”

The Suspect works as a great piece of Melo-Noir mostly due to Laughton’s absolute perfection as the sympathetic, trapped gentle-man. As always he is masterful with his intonations, sharpened wit and ability to induce fellowship with the characters he’s playing… well maybe not so much with Dr. Moreau, Capt. Bligh, Judge Lord Thomas Horfield or Sire Alaine de Maledroit in The Strange Door. But he’s a lovable sort most of the time, one can’t deny.

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Charles Laughton and Margaret O’Brien in Jules Dassins’ The Canterville Ghost 1944-based on the story by Oscar Wilde

Ella Raines is just delightful as Mary. She’s such a treat to watch as you start to believe that this beautiful young woman genuinely has fallen for this older, portly yet kind hearted misfit. You find yourself hoping that he gets away with his wife’s murder, and that the two find happiness together.

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Scotland Yard Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) stalks Phillip Marshall believing he killed his wife

Phillip is staunchly pursued by a Scotland Yard Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) who has the tenacity of Columbo. Speaking of which, a poster of The Suspect appears in an episode of Columbo“How to Dial a Murder” in 1978.

LOVE FROM A STRANGER 1947

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On the darker more sinister side of these suspense yarns we find Sylvia Sidney as Cecily Harrington at the mercy of a very deranged bluebeard in John Hodiak as Manuel Cortez.

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the exquisite beauty of Sylvia Sidney

Sylvia Sidney Love From a Stranger

Directed by Richard Whorf who became more fluent in directing for television. Written for the screen by Philip MacDonald (Rebecca 1940, The Body Snatcher 1945 for Val Lewton, The Dark Past 1948, Boris Karloff’s Thriller episode The Fingers of Fear 1961, The List of Adrian Messenger 1963) based on Agatha Christie’s short story Philomel Cottage. Hair Stylist Eunice Helene King is responsible for slicking back Hodiak’s swarthy and murderously Lothario hair, he’s almost Draculian. He definitely covets his slickety hair as he shows his first sign of deranged pathology when Cecily tries to stokes his hair and he lashes out at her, telling her not to touch it.

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The marvelous costumes equip with capes, sequins and ostrich feathers are by Michael Woulfe (Blood on the Sun 1945, Macao 1952, Beware, My Lovely 1952)

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Isobel Elsom plays Auntie Loo Loo with her usual exuberance, Ann Richards is the faithful friend Mavis Wilson. Anita Sharp-Bolster as Ethel the maid (wonderfully crabby Christine in The Two Mrs Carrolls)

And again a terrific score by Hans J. Salter. This period piece is lavishly framed by Tony Gaudio (The Letter 1940, High Sierra 1941, The Man Who Came to Dinner 1942) Once the protagonist and her murderous husband honeymoon at their hideaway cottage, the lens turns the film into an almost chamber piece, becoming more claustrophobic as Manuel and Cecily begin to awaken into the revelation of his dangerous nature.

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Sylvia Sidney  plays Cecily Harrington, an unassuming English girl in Liverpool who has just won £50,000 in the Calcutta Sweepstakes which was a fortune in turn of the century England. Cecily meets Manuel Cortez (John Hodiak) when he sees her name in the newspaper next to the headline of his latest murder. He follows her then arranges to make it appear as if he’s looking to rent her flat. She is taken with this mysterious stranger and suddenly breaks off her engagement to her fiancee Nigel Lawrence (John Howard) rushing into marriage with the mysterious stranger who turns out to be a Bluebeard who is after her money.

The swarthy Manuel Cortez has already alluded the police for the murder of three women, believed to have drowned while trying to escape he has changed his appearance, darker hair no beard. Dr Gribble (Philip Tonge) who is a crime connoisseur collects journals and books, one with a drawing of him showing his beard. It also mentions his earlier crime as being in South America and New York (Hodiak’s character is given several Spanish aliases-Pedro Ferrara and Vasco Carrera)

The newlyweds spend the summer at their secret honeymoon cottage where he’s been planning to kill her and bury her body down in the cellar.

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Isobel Elsom plays Auntie Loo Loo with her usual exuberance, Ann Richards is the faithful friend Mavis Wilson.
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Manuel Cortez pretends to be looking for a flat to rent, showing up at Cecily’s door he has actually followed her from their ‘accidental’ meeting at the post

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Cortez begins to work his Bluebeard charms on Cecily
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The handsome John Howard as Cecily’s fiancee Nigel Lawrence is crushed to find her love has gone cold, as she is now entranced by the swarthy Manuel Cortez
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Neither Nigel nor Mavis trust this mysterious stranger with the slickety hair and cape
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Everyone around Cecily knows there’s something not quite right

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Auntie Loo Loo is surprised at her nieces impetuous behavior

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Ethel and billings the gardener greet the newlyweds at the cottage they’ve spirited off to.
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There’s a dark cellar with a lock on the door. That never bodes well!

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Digging the hole!
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which poisons to use, decisions decisions
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Manuel warns Cecily to stay away from his experiments in the cellar
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Auntie Loo Loo and Mavis manage to find out where the honeymoon cottage is and pay Cecily a visit to make sure she’s alright
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The couple are going away on a long voyage soon, though Manuel hasn’t shown her the tickets

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Auntie Loo Loo is worried!
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Dr Gribble- Walking over to the book shelf- “Ah criminology are you interested in criminology Mr Cortez?”
Cortez- “Yes, it’s a sort of hobby of mine doctor.”
Dr Gribble- “Well we’re fellow enthusiasts”
Cecily “Yes I think it’s a horrid morbid past time.”
Dr Gribble “But fascinating Mrs Cortez. Here’s a great favorite of mine. Criminals and their mentality. That’s great psychology… Bless my soul the latest journal of Medical Jurisprudence and the Criminal. I should have thought I was the only person within a hundred miles radius who ever so much as heard of this publication.”
Manuel Cortez-“Really I’ve subscribed to it for years”
Dr Gribble “Let’s see did I read this issue? Ah yes this is the one with the account of that South American Carrera. It’s a very interesting case.”
Manuel Cortez- “I don’t believe I’ve read it.”
Dr Gribble- “You should have. This fellow Carrera was a professional wife murderer. They caught him after he completed his third crime. Then he was drowned trying to escape.”
Manuel Cortez- “Oh yes I remember. They never found the body did they?”
Dr Gribble- “No as a matter of fact they didn’t. I don’t think there’s any real doubt he’s dead!”

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Manuel catches Cecily by the cellar door. Look his hair has finally lost control!

Love From A Stranger is perhaps the more melodramatic and Gothic of all these films I’ve talked about in this post, but perhaps the most unrewarding in terms of it’s depth. While there are some truly terrifying scenes, the queer chemistry between Sidney and Hodiak creates a distance from the narrative. It’s still truly worth watching as part of the canon of 40s suspense melodramas.

Sylvia Sidney has a certain edgy sensuality to her, that doesn’t make her performance thoroughly implausible for the story but perhaps a different actress might have brought another style of vulnerability to the role. And Hodiak has an unctuous, gritty sort of sex appeal, that made his part as a psychopath believable. He’s got intensely dark focused eyes, sharply defined features and an iron jawline that slams shut, when he’s internally scheming. Toward the end he brings it a bit over the top, but he’s sort of good at playing a surly mad dog.

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Told to read aloud from the journal of criminology- “There is no doubt at all that Vasco Carrera the last name he was known by is a truly remarkable character. He posed as a great world traveler women even those from a cultured background succumbed very quickly to his perculiar charms
possessed of a remarkable charm of manner Carrera exerted an extraordinary fascination over women”

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YOU AND ME 1938-Sidney, Sylvia and George Raft- Now that’s chemistry!

Perhaps the one issue I have with the casting is the chemistry between Sidney and Hodiak that never truly rings authentic. He’s too internally frenetic to be romantic… mysterious yes, but he’s not convincing in his wooing of Cecily. And the character of Cecily doesn’t seem to have the layers that peel innocence away, unveiling a vulnerable yet eruptive sensuality that would be unconsciously drawn to the scent of a dangerous man. That’s why Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight and Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door 1947 work so well.

John Hodiak is a puzzle for me. I’ve been trying to decide whether he’s one of the most intriguingly sexy men I’ve come across in a while or if I find him completely cold and waxen in his delivery as a leading man.

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John Hodiak and Tallulah Bankhead in Alfred Hitchcock’s marvelous floating chamber piece Lifeboat 1944

He had me going in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat 1944. I would have thrown my diamond Cartier bracelet over the bow to tumble under the tarp for a few hours with that sun kissed, salt sprayed crude adonis, sweaty, brash, unshaven -the whole deal. Just watched him in Somewhere in the Night 1946, once again, found Hodiak’s character of George Taylor compelling in his odd way of conveying vulnerable but faithful to the lure of the noir machismo. I felt sorry for a guy who can’t remember who he is or if he should just stay forgetting- in case he was a rotten human being.

But as the cunning and psychopathic lady killer in Love From A Stranger, he sort of makes my skin crawl which I supposed means he did a fabulous job of inhabiting the role of Manuel Cortez right.. Maybe he would have had better chemistry with someone like Alexis Smith or Audrey Dalton.

Now, I haven’t yet seen Basil Rathbone’s version in director Rowland V Lee’s 1937  film also known as A Night of Terror with Ann Harding -still based on the short story by Agatha Christie but set in contemporary England, Rathbone plays the intrepid type of urbane gentleman who sweeps Ann Harding off her feet and plunges her into a sudden and dangerous marriage. Where he then plots to killer her and take her money. In the earlier version, the heroine too gradually realizes that she’s in danger…

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Basil Rathbone and Ann Harding in the 1937 version of Love From a Stranger

Sylvia Sidney looks stunning as the new bride who begins to notice the strange behavior of her husband and realizes once she goes down into the cellar that Manuel is hiding something. He spends hours locked away down there preparing for the moment he will kill Cecily and has forbidden her to go down there, claiming that he’s doing experiments which are dangerous. Well that’s true, since he’s mixing poisons and digging her grave.

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This version places it back in Victorian England, perhaps due to the success of the melodramatic thrillers that were proving to be so successful in the 40s like, Rebecca, Gaslight, The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Woman in White, Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door 1947, The Two Mrs Carrolls 1947.

MOSS ROSE 1947

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I’ll apologize in advance for the poor quality of my screen capturs. The only print of the film I have is in bad shape, but I hope they give you the general gist of my usual visual narrative.

Directed by Gregory Ratoff (Intermezzo: A Love Story 1939, Black Magic, Oscar Wilde 1960) Adapted to the screen by Niven Busch, Jules Furthman (Nightmare Alley ’47, The Big Sleep ’46 , Gene Markey and Tom Reed from the novel The Crime of Laura Saurelle.- Written by Joseph Shearing (So Evil My Love)

Starring the wonderful Peggy Cummins as dance hall girl Belle Adair.

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Look at that face! The wonderful Peggy Cummins
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Courtesy of Doctor Macros high quality photos- Rhys Williams, Peggy Cummins & Vincent Price
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Courtesy of Doctor Macros High Quality photos- Vincent Price, Rhys Williams, Victor Mature and Ethel Barrymore
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Courtesy of Doctor Macro’s High Quality photos Peggy Cummins and Victor Mature

The fabulous cast includes the great Ethel Barrymore as Lady Margaret Drego the grande dame mother to Michael Drego (Victor Mature), the adorable Peggy Cummins (Welsh actress Curse of the Demon 1957, Gun Crazy 1950) In Moss Rose she plays Belle Adair/Rose Lynton.  Vincent Price in a supporting role as Police Inspector R. Clinner.

The film also co stars the lovely Margo Woode  (Phyllis in Somewhere in the Night 1946) as Daisy Arrow, George Zucco as the butler-Craxton and Rhys Williams as Deputy Inspector Evans and Patricia Medina as Audrey Ashton, Michael’s bride to be.

Music composed by David Buttolph (Kiss of Death 1947,House of Wax 1953), and directed by Alfred Newman. With cinematography by Joseph MacDonald (The Sand Pebbles 1966, My Darling Clementine 1946, Viva Zapata! 1952 and of course Walk on the Wild Side 1962)

Art direction by Richard Day and Mark-Lee Kirk, set design Paul S. Fox and Thomas Little. Costumes by René Hubert (Lifeboat 1944, The Song of Bernadette 1943) portray splendidly, the Victorian atmosphere the story is set in.

The film is told through the use of flashback and voice-over, in which Belle is sitting on a train, relating the story to us, while looking out the window in silhouette. The flashback places us on the eerie fog soaked streets of London. Cummin’s born in Wales, does a marvelous cockney accent which comes across as authentic as she flings around plucky phrases with ease.

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The dark Michael Drego waits outside Daisy’s window. The swarthy Lothario is having an affair with the beautiful young chorus girl while he’s engaged to society girl Audrey Ashley

Mature plays the dark and menacing Lothario Michael Drego, a womanizing scoundrel. I loved him as the ruggedly moralizing cop in Siodmak’s noir gem Cry of the City 1948. In Moss Rose, he’s good at playing a smarmy mama’s boy. But, someone has murdered Michael Drego’s object of affection-Daisy Arrow, the chorus girl he was having an affair with, while engaged to a high society gal. Near the victim’s body has left behind a bible open to a passage draped with one dried moss rose.

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Belle is late to rehearsal, the stage manager gives her a hard time

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Margo Woode plays the doomed Daisy Arrow
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Belle tries to convince Daisy to come and join her for a cup of tea after work. But she’s waiting for Drego to pick her up in his carriage
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Belle catches Drego coming out of Daisy’s room. She tries to catch sight of him as he flees down the stairs

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When music hall dancer Belle Adair’s (Peggy Cummins) makes the gruesome discovery of her friend Daisy murdered in her bed, she thinks Michael Drego might be the killer having spotted him leaving her friend’s room approaching him on the stairs as he flees that Sunday morning. According to the police, Daisy had been drugged and then either smothered or strangled.

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Inspector R. Clinner. and Deputy Inspector Evans are surprised to hear the other house mate say she looked at the bible page next to the victim’s body.
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Belle sits in her room and in voice-over we hear her thoughts- “Why would anybody want to murder Daisy Arrow?”
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Belle is told she can find Drego in the hotel. She sees him sitting down to tea with his mother Lady Margaret and fiancee Audrey
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Ethel Barrymore and Patricia Medina

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A very well done shot of Drego’s (Mature) reflection in the window. A very noir style of framing

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Belle remarks-“We always seem to meet in hallways don’t we Mr. Drego”

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As he tries to shake brave little Belle loose he pokes a hornets nest-“We’re not discussing blackmail Mr. Drego, we’re discussing Murder!”

Belle sets out to blackmail Drego not for money but for the chance to live as a ‘lady’ at his country estate, getting a taste of high society life. She approaches him threatening to go to the police if he doesn’t do what she asks. To avoid the embarrassment of his carousing with a chorus girl when he is set to marry the upper class Audrey Ashton (Medina) he eventually agrees to take Belle home with him.

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At first he dismisses her. Then he is called into the police for questioning, and Police Inspector R. Clinner (Price) doesn’t like Drego’s story, believing he is involved in Daisy’s murder, he tells him he will be keeping him on the list of suspects in the murder investigation. Mature’s brooding Drego is unctuous and uncomfortably crafty.

When Michael Drego is brought in questioning, he’s also brought there for Belle to make a positive identification for Clinner. She is outside the door listening in order to identify at first his voice. She works very hard to be evasive. Drego is told to say something random instead of what Belle heard the night Daisy got into the carriage with her mystery man. When Belle is brought in to make an eye witness identification she purposefully holds back knowing Drego.

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He takes the opportunity to speak a line that is an answer to Belle’s extortion request. Letting her know that he will meet her terms. Especially since Clinner has been grilling him so subtly yet fierce in that very layered performance that Vincent Price always delivers, Drego doesn’t need Belle turning him in. He agrees to meet with her at a museum.

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Cummins does a great job as a cockney gal, a rough diamond with a gutsy sweetness, but boy the part that was waiting for her was Annie Laurie Starr in Gun Crazy 1950 the film she would command three years later.

At the estate is Michael’s girl Audrey (Patricia Medina) who is waiting to marry her fiancée. Also there is his imposing old dowager mother Lady Margaret Drego (Ethel Barrymore.)

This interesting British set piece rife with Gothic overtones and shades of noir, is a good hybrid of the two often converging genres. An atmospheric Victorian England filled with fog and an air of mystery and moss roses made to convey an eerie melancholy that bloom out of season in the greenhouse overseen by Lady Margaret and her gardener.

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Adding to the sense of openness to the narrative is cinematographer MacDonald (amongst the few films I’ve already listed he also lensed Niagra, and Pickup on South Street) MacDonald had a sense of how to capture open spaces with quite a sense of realism, creating a beautiful atmosphere of vast mystery. Not sacrificing the story’s mood, which might have been photographed with a more claustrophobic eye. I’m a big fan of MacDonald’s work as he seems to be able to capture conflict and inner struggle while transplanting onto a spacious and unfenced screen. Moss Rose could still be considered an ‘Old Dark House’ thriller, also turning into a bit of a chamber piece once Belle and Michael arrive at Drego Manor, where the narrative pulls itself inward.

Ethel Barrymore is as usual a Grande Dame and Vincent Price though used briefly in the film is intensely urbane and whimsical as always.

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When Belle arrives at the country estate at first she invokes Michael Drego’s contempt as he tells her to stop saying “My word” after everything he says. She is introduced to Lady Margaret and Audrey. Lady Margaret gives her a good once over, remarking about her skin tone, having first told her to wash her face! Also telling Belle that she has good bones, as Belle spins around for inspection.

Belle now using the name Rose Lynton starts to fit in well as Audrey tries to hold her jealousy at bay. The first sign of something not quite right at home is when Belle strays innocently into Michael’s boyhood room filled with childhood memorabilia, Belle stumble’s onto Lady Margaret’s secret shrine to her little boy and his mother’s unholy worship.

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Lady Margaret enters the room with a fury in her face. “How dare you come into this room!”
Belle/Rose –“I’m sorry the door was unlocked… did I do something wrong?”
Lady Margaret –“You’re the first person who’s been into this room except myself… for a great many years” her eyebrows arched while Belle looks bewildered- “Is it the room of someone who’s dead?”
Lady Margaret tells her softly, “It’s Michael’s room when he was small.”

Belle looks at a photograph of Michael’s father. Lady Margaret tells her that he had taken Michael away from her…

When he was only a little boy then., “The next time I saw him he was a grown man. This room is just as it was when he left. I’ve kept it.. his toys, everything. Just as it was. Don’t touch anything.”

Belle very respectfully says, “I’m sorry”

Lady Margaret –“That’s why I never let anyone in here. Even the servants. I knew when that little boy went away that day. He’d never come back.”

Belle asks, “You come here every day?”

Lady Margaret- “Every day. You think that’s foolish don’t you?”
Belle’s eyes sparkle with sincerity, “No… it’s beautiful.”

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No one knows about the room, not even Michael. The servants think she has a great treasure, that she comes to count every day like a miser. Lady Margaret adds, “They’re not far off the mark as usual” She asks Belle/Rose to keep her confidence. Lady Margaret leads Belle/Rose out of the room and shares with her that there’s nothing like a small secret to bring two people closer together.

As predicted Belle and Michael start to become drawn to each other. The already determined Scotland Yard inspector and avid horticulture enthusiast Police Inspector R. Clinner (Vincent Price) Clinner who hasn’t taken Drego off his list of suspects is vehemently investigating the murder of the Belle’s friend Daisy (Margo Woode) Price continues to portray the Inspector as elegantly intuitive and urbane- as usual. While not playing the anti-hero in the film, he makes a perfectly plausible Scotland Yard sleuth.

Joseph Shearing wrote novels based on actual murder cases,. Moss Rose is based upon an 1873 murder of a prostitute named Buswell, which was never solved.

Moss Rose has the requisite brooding and mysterious ambiance of any decent thriller and of course anything that Vincent Price or Ethel Barrymore appear in, is worth watching!

Like many people who probably stumbled onto Peggy Cummins from Gun Crazy as the quirky and sexy petite blonde full lips and naivety appeal. In Moss Rose, she turns in a great performance as the spunky cockney music hall dancer who manages to show a vulnerability as a young outsider in a world of social class.

THE SIGN OF THE RAM 1948

The Sign of the Ram

Directed by John Sturges (Mystery Street 1950, Bad Day at Black Rock 1955) written for the screen by Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps (1935), The Man Who Knew Too Much ’34 & ’56) and based on the novel by Margaret Ferguson.

The Sign of the Ram stars Susan Peters  (Oscar nominated for her role as Kitty in Random Harvest 1942) as Leah St. Aubyn, Alexander Knox  as Mallory St. Aubyn, Phyllis Thaxter as Sherida Binyon, Peggy Ann Garner as Christine St. Aubyn-

Peggy Ann Garner a young Jane Eyre
Peggy Ann Garner- a young Jane Eyre 1943

Ron Randell as Dr. Simon Crowdy, Dame May Whitty as Clara Brastock, Allene Roberts as Jane St. Aubyn, Ross Ford, as Logan St. Aubyn and Diana Douglas as Catherine Woolton.

With a the perfect melodramatic score that’s darkly sweeping is by ubiquitous composer Hans J. Salter  (You have to see his impressive IMDb list of credits… there’s just too many to list here)

Cinematography by Burnett Guffey (All the King’s Men 1949, From Here to Eternity 1953, Birdman of Alcatraz 1962, Bonnie and Clyde 1967) Guffey’s eye for detail adds to the film’s beautiful composition. With art direction by Sturges Carne and Stephen Goosson and marvelous set direction by Wilbur Menefee and Frank Tuttle. (From Here to Eternity 1953, The Cain Mutiny 1954, Elmer Gantry 1960, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 1967)

The Sign of the Ram displays stunning craftsmanship and an eye for detail that could be found in many of these psychological thriller/noir hybrids of the 1940s. The film’s atmosphere is brooding & sinister. Predominately shot at the gloomy fog shrouded manor house by the sea, it creates a sense of claustrophobic repression befitting a classical 40s psychological thriller.

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The film opens with Logan driving Sherida along the seas side- he tells her “That’s Cornwall all over… kind and then cruel.”  It’s a statement that foretells the nature of Leah in a nutshell.

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Ross Ford as Logan St. Aubyn and Phyllis Thaxter as Mallory St. Aubyn’s new secretary Sherida Binyon on their way to meet the family

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Peggy Ann Garner as the youngest Christine remarks at how beautiful Sherida is. Christine is an odd, distant and dreamy sort of child
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Sherida comes in from looking at the wavy Cornwell coast, and finds Leah in a wheel chair. No one had told her about the accident.

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There’s excellent use of dark shadowy labyrinthian interiors and the mysterious motivations of the central character. Lots of symbolism in the form of shots o’plenty of turbulent waves crashing against the rocks, think Clash by Night! representing the inner conflicts amidst the foggy mists and storms.

The ever present lighthouse that casts the screen, first into a radiant illumination then turns the next frame into a darker shade of itself. Again hinting at the vibrant and enthusiastic mask that Leah wears, obscuring the shadows that lurk in Leah’s mind and heart.

the lighthouse shines brightly on Leah at first then casts her in shadow as it sweeps the turbulent Cornish sea

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The main story is centered around the wheelchair bound stepmother Leah St. Aubyn (Susan Peters) of an English family living on the Cornwall coast of England. At first we are sympathetic to the beautiful and tragic Leah, injured while swimming with her step children. Slowly she designs to manipulate everyone around her, as her lovely facade wears away, and she reveals herself to be a coldly calculating and vicious woman.

Susan Peters does a superb job of playing a pretty menace, beset with an inner anguish who begins to create dangerous obstacles for her family, as her lovely outer demeanor masks the threatening domination she begins to wield. This is Susan Peters return to acting after the hunting accident that led to her paralysis. As Leah, she’s very composed and never ventures into the realm of the hysterical. The Sign of the Ram was the last film she made. She died four years later.

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At first appearing the perfect wife, mother and determined wheelchair bound writer, who’s husband is clueless thinking she hates to blow her own trumpet. Leah begins to disclose herself to be jealous of the beautiful and vibrant young people she is surrounded by, she grows increasingly more resentful and scheming. While her pathology is never quite spelled out for us, it is evident that she blames her step children for her paralysis, as she saved Logan and Jane from drowning when they are pulled into an undertow at a cove, while she herself emerges from the water hitting her body against the rocks, breaking her back.

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Mallory tells Sherida that Leah held Logan up until he could get there, but by the time he arrived she had been swept under and smashed against the rocks..

Perhaps even prior to her accident, it is possible that she is in fact might have always been a ruthless and cunning murderess, as she was once friends with Mallory’s first wife who died mysteriously. Leah keeps a photograph of the beautiful women whom she used to be ‘great friends’ with, as she tells Sherida.

There is a question as to whether Leah had something to do with Mallory’s first wife Rosanna’s death. It is hinted at but is never revealed in the plot. Leah acts as a martyr, marrying her dead friend’s husband on a year after she had died, then acting as if she has taken on the righteous gratification of caring for the dead woman’s children.

Looking at Rosanna’s photo oddly, ” Of course two of the children aren’t mine. In a way they are. Cause I gave them life-just as much as their mother did.”

It’s in Leah’s facial expression. The way she pauses and in that quiet whispering tone, lives the secret of her brewing resentment and ire. She sacrificed her life in a way to save Mallory’s children from drowning.
It’s the way she tells Sherida that she has something more important than life, she has ‘contentment‘-

She means resentment & derangement. Leah has hyper congenial and buoyant charm that is pathological… But the camera show us- it’s in her eyes. Peters conveys her conflict well.

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Leah begins to write a poem, her long fingernails hold the pen, “Once I was questing too, trying to find that sweet contentment. seemed so hard to gain. Then I found it. Found my peace of mind in Mallory, Logan Christine and Jane.”

But once Leah finishes scrawling the saccharine words, Sherida walks in holding one of Mallory’s greenhouse flowers and Leah’s eyes turn momentarily wild. She rips the poem in half! This scene shows how precarious and unstable Leah’s attachment is to her family…

From her wheelchair she seethes as everyone else around her find their own fulfillment, fall in love and live their lives while she is literally stuck. The oldest Jane wants to marry young and handsome doctor Simon Crowdy (Ron Randall), Logan has proposed to Catherine and Leah begins to spread her poison around. She wants to hang onto the things that keep her happy and content, which is controlling her husband Mallory and the children.

At first, Leah is very good at disguising her machinations but behind the facade of nurturing motherhood and civility lurks a dangerous mind. She writes soppy poems for a London newspaper the Sunday Messenger- Leah comments to Sherida “They’re dreadful poems horribly sentimental. As clawing as strawberry jam piled on Devonshire cream.

Using the pseudonym Faith Hope (of all things) her writing conveys an optimism that is ironic for the narrative.. All the while she is a cunning and calculating head case afflicted with an edgy disquiet, as her beauty hides her cruelty.

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Susan Peters use of her hands in order to compensate for her immobility is almost diabolically and beautifully expressed. Her hands a constant mechanism of expression, puts her in the light of a mythical serpent-like enchantress who holds sway over her family. In particular Peggy Ann Garner as the adolescent innocent Christine is so mesmerized by Leah, her devotion becomes a skewed kind of worship.

Alexander Knox plays her stodgy husband Mallory. And one of my favorite unsung actresses, Phyllis Thaxter once again gets to play the side woman, Mallory’s secretary/companion who stoicly acts as a witness.

Eldest step-daughter Jane wants desperately to marry Simon and young couple Catherine Woolton (Diana Douglas) and Logan St Aubry (Ross Ford) who are anxious to get married, naive and inexperienced are at the mercy of Leah’s conniving. Allene Roberts plays Jane St Aubry and the fabulous Dame May Whitty is Clara who’s always dropping over for tea, a disagreeable gossip who sows the seeds of suspicion with her meddlesome innuendo.

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Clara instigates trouble with Leah about Mallory’s new young and attractive secretary- “Very pleasant young person. I only hope she remains so…{…} I wouldn’t be so awfully happy to have such a pretty girl in my house” Clara tells her Mallory may be susceptible. The old biddy also gives Leah a dig about children being adopted as are hardly the same thing as being truly her own.

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It doesn’t help matters that young Christine has an over-dependent attachment to Leah, filling her head like asking if she likes Sherida and that she’s heard strange noises in the house-What ever could she mean by that?

This sets Leah off on a malicious course, beyond controlling the lives of her step children, and being suspicious of her husband’s relationship with Sherida. Leah’s true sinister nature and cynicism moves her and her family into treacherous territory.

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Leah plays piano for the family (Susan Peters actually played piano in real life)
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Logans girl Catherine arrives at the house
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Leah begins to torment Jane about her relationship with Simon
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Simon confronts Leah about her meddling with his relationship with Jane
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Leah starts to sound a little darker in her tone. Christine is not used to her sounding so less determined.

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Mallory and Sherida spend a day at the beach
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Clara comes by for tea once again to spread her poisonous gossip

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Jane watches Logan dance with his wife to be… Catherine

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Jane tells her brother Logan “just don’t let Leah talked to Catherine… on this side of the wedding at least”

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Mallory’s suit is wet, but I’m not gonna tell you why
I have contentment-
“I HAVE CONTENTMENT” ( I mean resentment… or do I mean derangement?)

THAT’S ALL FOLKS!!!

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This has been a very enjoyable post for me, discovering these wonderfully obscure gems from the 40s Suspense genre. I hope you’ll get a chance to either see them yourselves, or drop me a note and tell me your thoughts if you’ve already ventured through them already… As always it’s been a THRILL!- Your ever lovin’ MonsterGirl saying STAY OUT OF PERIL til the next time!

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