Episode review: Columbo A Matter of Honor

Columbo A Matter of Honor opening titles

Columbo was enjoying a little sojourn south of the border on 1st February 1976, hanging out with legendary matador Luis Montoya in A Matter of Honor.

Featuring no less a talent than Ricardo Montalban as the villainous bullfighter, how will the Lieutenant fare on foreign soil this time round, four years after the London-sized debacle that was Dagger of the Mind?

Or to put it another way, is this a prize bull of an episode, or a pathetic wannabe matador destined to be gored to death? Let’s wet our muleta, down a bottle of mescal and don our comedy sombreros to find out…

Honor cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Luis Montoya: Ricardo Montalban
Comandante Emilio Sanchez: Pedro Armendariz Jr
Curro Rangel: A. Martinez
Hector Rangel: Robert Carricart
Nina Montoya: Maria Grimm
Miguel Hernandez: Emilio Fernandez
Jaime Delgado: Enrique Lucero
Directed by: Ted Post
Written by: Brad Ratnitz
Score by: Bernardo Segáll
Notable location: Montoya ranch, Hotel Hacienda Vista Hermosa, San Jose, Mexico

Episode synopsis: Columbo A Matter of Honor

Wannabe matador Curro Rangel lies in hospital after being badly gored by prize bull, Marinaro, the previous day. Back at the ranch where it all happened, legendary ex-matador Luis Montoya gives his workforce the day off and approaches Curro’s father, Hector (his long-time assistant), to let him know that he will kill the bull to prevent Curro risking his life against it in the ring again. To do so, he’ll need Hector’s help.

Columbo Luis Montoya A Matter of Honor
Just what is Don Luis Montoya trying to hide?

The relationship between the two is at odds since they dragged Curro (rhymes with ‘burro‘ – coincidence?) out of the bullring the day before. Hector has packed his bags and tells Montoya he’s leaving because ‘everything is different now’. We won’t find out what he means until the end of the episode, but the old boy seems to be bearing a grudge. He does, however, reluctantly agree to assist his boss one last time.

Now in the ring together, Montoya waits until Hector turns away, draws a dart gun and pops a cap, literally, in Hector’s ass. He’s only used a tiny drop of tranquilliser in it, though, leaving Hector woozy and shambling but just about operational. He’d need to be on his A Game for what’s coming though, as Montoya releases Marinaro from his pen. The giant bull makes short work of poor Hector.

Cut to a street scene in a Mexican town. A holidaying Columbo has a low-speed fender bender with a taxi cab causing commotion on the streets. The cabbie pretends to have broken his neck, and the by-standers are howling for Columbo to hand over ‘mucho dinero’ as a result. A bemused Lieutenant can’t believe it. “We were going four miles an hour,” he says in an attempt to defuse the situation.

Fender bender 2
Columbo’s dodgy driving skillz get him into trouble again

The police get involved and before you know it Columbo’s car is impounded and he’s summoned to see Comandante Emilio Sanchez. Columbo fears he’s about to be arrested, but no. Sanchez just wants to meet the famous LA cop who solved the murder on the cruise ship a year before (in Troubled Waters). Columbo was in all the papers, and Sanchez is delighted to make his acquaintance.

As the two talk, Sanchez receives a radio call to check out the death of Rangel at the Montoya ranch. He asks Columbo to join him, and when the Lieutenant demurs hints that he’ll speed up the return of the car if he will help on the case. Needing the car to get back to LA for a family do, Columbo has little choice but to agree.

Montoya gives an icy reception to Columbo, barely acknowledging him until he starts to ask questions about Montoya’s version of events. According to Montoya, Hector was due to drive him to a speaking engagement in San Diego, only to pull out last minute to ‘work on the books’. Looks like he instead chose to face the bull, alone, for the sake of his son.

This confuses Columbo. Why would an employee of Montoya’s decide to try to kill such a valuable asset without permission? Marinaro was worth at least $8000 after all. He gets short shrift. “How can you judge the behaviour of a man who almost lost his only son,” Montoya coolly responds.

Sanchez and Montoya head off to see the body while Columbo looks around. True to form, he uncovers a clue when eyeing Montoya’s 1931 convertible Cadillac. Taking a seat behind the wheel he comments how much of a physical work out it would be to drive a car as large and heavy as this. The needlessly muscular car washer agrees.

Turns out that it requires too much muscle for Montoya since a bull gored his leg years before. Hector always drove it for him. Interesting, then, that Montoya had asked for his other car, a hard-top 1972 Ford LTD, to be washed and waxed the day before so he could drive himself to his speaking engagement.

Columbo Matter of Honor Cadillac
Apparently only gents with Herculean physiques can handle the Cadillac

Rejoining Sanchez and Montoya in the bullring, Columbo eyes the muleta found with Hector’s body. It’s in pristine condition and shows no sign of damage. This surprises Columbo given the gored state of Hector’s corpse. But there’s more, as the detective finds a shard of wood buried in the sand. It’s part of a pick, says Montoya, something used to wound bulls and test the bravery of cows (what?). It’s probably been there a couple of weeks.

Later that day, Columbo is dining with Sanchez and  his wife. Mrs Columbo has been sent off to LA by bus while her husband waits for his car to be returned. Conversation naturally turns towards the death of Hector and Columbo raises the notion that it could have been a homicide with the bull used as a murder weapon. He even suggests that Montoya might have done it, much to the incredulity of Sanchez.

The Mexican officer has fallen for Montoya’s interpretation of events. Hector’s honour demanded he try to kill the bull to protect his son. That’s the matador’s way. But Columbo ain’t convinced. If the car washer was asked to prep the hard-top car for Montoya’s use at noon on the day of Hector’s death, how did Montoya know he’d need it? By his own admission, he was expecting Hector to drive him in the Cadillac until moments before they were due to leave.

Sanchez starts to wake up and smell the coffee. “If there’s a crime here I want to get to the bottom of it,” he says. “Better yet, I want you to get to the bottom of it.” Montoya is such a legend in Mexico that Sanchez wants Columbo to carry the can if the investigation goes awry. We can see that Sanchez is a wily one himself, and an excellent foil to the good Lieutenant.

In search of a motive for the killing, Columbo returns to Montoya HQ, where the matador is welcoming home his daughter. He questions walking stereotype Miguel, the only employee who remained on the ranch at the time of Hector’s death. Columbo learns that Montoya sent Miguel to a pasture far from the bullring, and also armed him with a bottle of mescal. As a result, the old rascal had a pleasant afternoon swigging in the sunshine. Convenient!

Columbo Matter of Honor
Under NO circumstances is Miguel a stereotypical Mexican. Got that?

Columbo tails Miguel to the tack room, where he’s been assigned to clear Hector’s locker. There they find a suitcase of Hector’s that’s already been packed. But who packed it? No one knows. The Lieutenant also learns about picks. They’re big and heavy – not a bit like the shard of wood he found in the bullring. That’s because the wood Columbo has is from a lance, not a pick at all. And lances are used to herd cattle, not kill bulls, so they’re a lot lighter.

This is a key clue for Columbo and gives him further reason to suspect Montoya, who failed to identify the wood as a lance. This is accentuated when he notes that Hector’s lance is missing from its rack. Montoya, new on the scene, says it’s likely lost in a field and downplays its significance, but Columbo’s case is only getting stronger. Further damning evidence lies in Hector’s medical report, where doctors have noted a needle mark on his bum. Columbo recommends Sanchez request an autopsy because of it.

Columbo next goes to visit Curro at hospital, where he’s being fawned over by Montoya’s daughter, Nina. Columbo grills the fluffy haired hopeful about his goring by Marinaro. The lad was knocked out cold, co can’t confirm many details but believes what he’d been told that Montoya distracted the bull while Hector dragged him free.

Columbo A Martinez
Curro Rangel: the wimpiest matador in all of Meheeco

Did Hector have his lance with him? Yes, he was on the way to check out the herd and always had his lance. But why did he use it on the bull if he was the one dragging Curro away? He doesn’t know. He also has no idea why his dad might have packed his belongings. He had no vacation planned. He’d only pack if he was fired or he quit, and those things would never happen. Would they…?

Anyway, Columbo is now staggering under weight of evidence and admits to Sanchez that he has a crazy notion as to why Montoya would murder Hector, but he doesn’t think anyone will believe him. Quite what this notion is remains secret for now as Columbo heads to Montoya’s place (again) to seek final clues.

For one thing, he finds that Montoya has ready access to tranquillisers, so could easily have drugged Hector to make him sluggish enough to be easily slain. Columbo also tricks Montoya into letting him cast an eye over his finance books, which Hector was supposedly working on on the day of his death. He uncovers the clincher: Hector finished work on the books for the month three days before he was killed – and Montoya signed them off.

“If Hector finished the books three days before he was killed, then why didn’t you question him when he said he wanted to stay behind to work on the books?” Columbo asks “You must have known he had no intention of working on the books.”

Columbo A Matter of Honor
Columbo plays Montoya like a fiddle to get a glimpse of his books

Montoya finally loses his cool. “I don’t appreciate this little war of nerves you are conducting, Columbo,” he seethes. “I am Luis Montoya! And you are in my country! If you understood the first thing about bullfighting, you would not question Hector’s death!”

Columbo keeps digging. How can Hector’s packed bags be explained? He was planning to move from his current room into the main house, Montoya responds. Gee isn’t it funny that nobody knew about that, Columbo wonders. Cue another Montoya down-dressing: “I’m sorry, Lieutenant. I have tried to be gracious. I have answered all your questions. My courtesy has been rewarded with accusation. I must ask you to leave my house and not return.” So there!

Knowing that he has to return to LA imminently, Columbo looks set to have leave the investigation in Sanchez’s hands. But a visit to the cop’s home creates his lightbulb moment. Sanchez’s children are playing at matador and bull. It’s windy, so they wet the muleta to stop it blowing in the wind – just like a real matador would.

Columbo remembers the weather report for the day of Hector’s death. Heavy winds came up around the ranch at 5pm – around the time Montoya said Hector must have fought Marinaro. An experienced fighter like Hector would therefore have wet the cape to prevent it blowing around and endangering his own life. But there were no watermarks on the cape!

So Columbo sets up his sting operation to outsmart Montoya for good. Drafting in Curro, he gets the young upstart to enter the bullring to kill Marinaro and avenge his father’s death. Montoya enters the ring to talk Curro out of his suicidal mission – only for the whelp to dash away and order the bull pen be opened!

Columbo Luis Montoya
The legend of Montoya dies a feeble death under the gaze of Marinaro

Marinaro thunders out and makes a beeline for Curro, who bolts behind a partition. Montoya, meanwhile, caught out in the middle of the ring, is rooted to the spot with terror – stunning the onlookers, who revere him for his legendary courage and poise. As the angry bull charges towards the frozen Montoya, men leap out to distract the beast with fluttering capes and lure him away to be caged. His life is no longer in jeopardy, but Montoya’s legacy and legend is now in tatters.

Columbo enters the ring to confront Montoya, who is armed with his matador’s sword. It looks for a moment as if he’ll strike Columbo down with it, but instead he folds the muleta and hands it and the sword to the detective as a mark of respect before allowing himself to be driven away by the police.

Explaining it all to Sanchez, Columbo lets him know that Montoya had frozen just like that on the day Curro was gored. It was Hector who saved Curro, not Montoya, and the matador’s vanity and pride meant he couldn’t allow any man to know of his weakness and live. Columbo also delights Sanchez by revealing that it was his children playing matadors in the garden that essentially cracked the case.

Columbo hands over the muleta and sword to Sanchez and the two men share a warm, congratulatory handshake as credits roll…

Put it there, hombre!

A Matter of Honor‘s best moment: the police bromance

It’s not a single scene, but rather an episode-long love-in in which the bonds of respect and friendship between Columbo and Sanchez naturally and enjoyably grow.

Columbo is the more dominant figure throughout, mentoring Sanchez and providing the inspiration and guidance he needs to first accept Montoya’s guilt and then play an active support role in closing the case.

Columbo A Matter of Honor

Instead of a lazy and corrupt stereotype, Sanchez is a good-natured, honest family man, who is keen to do his duty and learn from the best. He’s not unlike Columbo in many ways, and certainly wily enough to keep the Lieutenant around long enough to help him make the arrest that will have the whole of Mexico talking.

It’s an impressive performance from Pedro Armendáriz Jr, who gives us one of the most likable and believable support stars from the entire series. It’s a toss up between him and John Payne’s Ned Diamond from Forgotten Lady for the title of Season 5’s best non-killer guest star. And for once, Columbo interacts with a police counterpart who’s not a bungling oaf. Winning!

My opinion on A Matter of Honor

I’ve said it before and will say it again: Columbo as a show doesn’t fare well when trying to deal with foreign cultures. The cliche-tastic, stiff-upper-lipped Brits in Dagger of the Mind are a case in point. The shady traditionalist Arab baddie in A Case of Immunity is another. So could an episode set in Mexico and focusing on the honour of bullfighting buck the trend? Spoiler alert: No it couldn’t.

Columbo Matter of Honor Miguel
Booze-loving Mexican stereotype? Check…

Awash with Mexican stereotypes (drunks, trumpet bands, fakers and cheats), anachronistic ideals and a primitive clash of cultures, A Matter of Honor feels more like it belongs in the 1920s than an era when man has walked on the moon. Its premise is too far fetched and poorly sketched out for even the late, great Ricardo Montalban to salvage. And that’s such a shame.

Since viewing the Wrath of Khan and Naked Gun in the 1980s I’ve been a big admirer of Montalban. Although galaxies apart in those two examples, one thing you get with him is intelligent, brooding menace and a sense that he would end an enemy’s life for two copper coins without feeling a shred of remorse.

Blessed with those qualities, Montalban should have been one of the series’ best ever killers. And while he’s still good in this, his battle of wills with Columbo never really ignites and his supposedly legendary matador goes out with a whimper in what is one of the 70s series’ most anti-climactic gotchas.

A Matter of Honor feels more like it belongs in the 1920s than an era when man has walked on the moon.

I’m aware of just how much pressure TV writers were (and still are) under to produce the goods in a timely manner. The viewer backlash to the final series of Game of Thrones is the most recent high-profile example. When it came to 70s’ Columbo, on many occasions scripts and story lines were still being polished and worked on when filming was already underway – something that drove Peter Falk crazy. Matter of Honor feels like just such an episode. Indeed I’d go so far as to say I think it should have had a major re-write and structural overhaul.

My chief bugbear is the finale. The reveal of Montoya’s frailty and fear is poorly done. I get that it’s supposed to be a jaw-dropping revelation for the on-lookers and audience at home, but my reaction to it has always been (and remains) ‘so  what?’

The problem is that it wasn’t telegraphed. I honestly think that Montoya’s initial lapse on the day Curro was gored should have been shown to the viewer upfront to allow us to make sense of the grudge Hector is holding against him. And these scenes were filmed, because we see them in confused flashback from Curro’s hospital bed at the start.

Columbo Ricardo Montalban
Montalban: let down by the story, LOVED by the wardrobe dept

Instead, it seems like the writers were trying to be too clever and contrive a means for Columbo to live up to his legendary status in Mexico by seeing into the very soul of the killer in a way that no one else could. Unfortunately none of it rings true – and the ridiculous set-piece conclusion, in which Columbo genuinely endangers the life of his chief suspect, has no grounding in reality and isn’t justified by the evidence.

Don’t get me wrong. Columbo is five steps ahead of Sanchez and has amassed enough circumstantial evidence to be confident that Montoya is guilty of murder by bull. But even with a splintered lance, a pin prick in the victim’s bum and holes galore in Montoya’s alibi, the deductive leap Columbo makes to be so certain that Montoya froze in the ring on the day Curro was injured is a massive stretch.

You know what it reminds me of? The flashy reveals made by Sherlock Holmes in such adventures as The Six Napoleons, The Valley of Fear and The Hound of the Baskervilles. A showman, Holmes is so confident in his mental acuity that he refuses to share crucial details of his case until the dramatic reveal. He then explains to gawking onlookers exactly how he reached his conclusions.

That works for Holmes, but it’s not Columbo’s way. And pitching Matter of Honor like this damages it. I watch Columbo to see how he cracks perfect murders based on what I myself see unfold on screen. Hiding Montoya’s critical weakness until the end seems like a bit of a cheat, as if the writers couldn’t find a plausible way of explaining Columbo’s deductive wizardry.

This fault is accentuated by the feebleness of the gotcha scene. Yes, Montoya freezes in the ring with and witnesses see it, but he could always say he was standing still to prevent attracting the bull’s attention because his leg had seized up due to the exertions of saving Curro days earlier. No one could dispute it. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak, etc, etc… His honour would remain intact.

Columbo Ricardo Montalban A Matter of Honor
Montoya didn’t get the warrior’s ending his character deserved

And even if Montoya did freeze on that first occasion with only Hector to witness it, would a man of his stature allow it to happen again in front of so many others? I don’t buy it. The vain Don Luis Montoya would rather die than show such legacy-tarnishing weakness in public. It doesn’t ring true for who he is – similar to the way Bo Williamson meekly surrenders to Elliott Markham in Blueprint for Murder, when in reality such a character would fight tooth and nail to survive.

Looking at Season 5 as a whole, perhaps the writers justified the move by tying it in with the over-arching theme that there’s more going in each episode than initially meets the eye. Who could have predicted that Montoya would wimp out the way he did? What a stunner! On paper, maybe, but in reality the limp delivery means the gambit didn’t pay off. Ho-hum.

We ought also to discuss the crime itself, and Montoya’s avalanche of errors that made it so easy for Columbo to suspect him. Ordering his ‘other car’ to be prepared so he could drive himself to San Diego when Hector always drives him everywhere was surely the most basic oversight a killer’s made since Dr Cahill pointlessly left a burnt cigar match at the crime scene in Mind Over Mayhem.

Montoya’s avalanche of errors made it so easy for Columbo to suspect him.

His carelessness in failing to identify the splintered lance (claiming it to be a pick) – one of the fundamental building blocks of his trade – was also a poor move, and reminiscent of Colonel Rumford’s inability to identify the cannon cleaning rag in By Dawn’s Early Light. Not only that, but his lies about Hector wanting to work on the books were so easily disproved that his cheeks ought to have been stinging with shame. In fact the way Montoya covered his tracks throughout was dismal.

In defence of Montoya (and the writers), much of this can be forgiven because the Don believed that his status, allied with presumed half-hearted police investigations, would cause him no trouble. His word is law, right? And in fairness, who could predict that a holidaying super sleuth would be drafted in to play the key role in solving the mystery?

What this ultimately means is that Montalban never got the killer his stature and abilities deserved. Sure, he has some good lines to deliver as he becomes increasingly weary of Columbo’s insinuations, but the confrontation never sizzles as it ought to. Personally I’d rather have seen Montalban cast as a less stereotypical killer based in LA.

Columbo A Matter of Honor
Although tempted to run Columbo through, Montoya sensibly decided against making a bad situation worse

Still, regular readers will know I’m a lover not a (bull) fighter when it comes to Columbo, so what positives can we take from A Matter of Honor? Well as detailed earlier, the relationship between Sanchez and Columbo is really strong. The way their camaraderie grows feels authentic – it’s very well written and the performances are top rate, making their burgeoning friendship the most compelling aspect of the episode.

Speaking of which, who’s noticed the Columbo character development we’re seeing in Season 5? In Identity Crisis, the Lieutenant was a much more dominant force with his fellow officers than we’ve seen in the past. He took control of the crime scene and was much less meandering than usual in his investigations. That trait is ramped up here as Columbo is the man in charge – even though he’s well outside his area of jurisdiction.

Here he’s a straight-talking mentor to Sanchez. He shares his insights freely (save for the ‘Montoya fear’ stuff) and directs his opposite number to the right courses of action that he’ll need to follow to crack the case. The bumbling cop that even his fellow officers in LA under-appreciate is nowhere to be seen. This Columbo has serious leadership credentials and is a far cry from the lone wolf we see in Seasons 1-4. And actually I don’t mind it at all, as Falk convincingly portrays another aspect of Columbo’s personality.

This Columbo we see here has serious leadership credentials and is a far cry from the lone wolf we know from Seasons 1-4.

Columbo is also far more direct with Montoya than he is with the average killer, being absolutely unphased by the matador’s reputation and absolutely unafraid to challenge him on his own turf. This will increasingly become the series norm, and it could well be that the last we’ve seen of the unassuming and seemingly inept Lieutenant was in Case of Immunity two episodes earlier. Time will tell.

Another success in the script is the way Columbo is drawn into the case. Having him investigating a murder while on holiday could have felt rather gratuitous, but I think it was handled well – especially the way Sanchez keeps him keen by promising to speed up the release of his impounded car. And it was nice to hear the events of Troubled Waters being referenced, and that the Lieutenant’s press coverage has made him a bit of a hero to the local law enforcers.

That aside, I’m struggling to come up with too many more positives. The supporting cast is adequate, but beyond the main trio of Falk, Montalban and Armendáriz there’s not much character depth. Even A Martinez (of Longmire and General Hospital fame) as Curro, the wronged party, isn’t at all interesting. And we have yet another episode in which there’s no significant female character. Montoya’s daughter, Nina, has almost no part to play – other than trilling ‘Currrrrrrrrrrrrro‘ over and over at increasing volume. It’s hardly inspiring viewing for the senoritas in the audience.

Columbo Nina Montoya
Nina Montoya excelled at screaming “Currrrrrrro”, but little else

Who knows, maybe this episode resonates more strongly with bullfighting buffs? Frankly, with my own knowledge of the sport being non-existent, I found a lot of the terminology and clues hard to follow – particularly the picks and lances stuff, which became tedious. And would the heavy onus given to honour really have been so prevalent in the 1970s? If you know better than I do about such matters, please sing out in the comments section. Perhaps something’s been lost in translation.

In conclusion, A Matter of Honor could have been an interesting departure had it done a more plausible job of showing Columbo locking horns with (pun intended, I assure you) and getting inside the head of the killer. Instead it’s a misstep with one of the least satisfying pay-offs of the entire series, and an episode that proves – again – that nothing quite beats seeing the Lieutenant fighting crime in his own back yard.

Did you know?

Columbo Japan

Columbo investigated crimes on the high seas (Troubled Waters), in London (Dagger of the Mind) and here in Mexico – but if the network had had its way the good Lieutenant would also have had a Japanese passport stamp in order to cash in on his popularity in the far east.

Quite what the concepts were to make this happen are unknown, but the idea was flouted sometime in the early 70s. It was, however, quashed by Peter Falk himself who had been unhappy at the ‘gimmicky’ nature of Dagger of the Mind and wanted to avoid a repeat performance. It’s probably just as well…

How I rate ’em

A Matter of Honor is one of the least inspiring 70s episodes. I place it even below Short Fuse, due to that one’s superior gotcha. However, it’s certainly not the worst. While it’s nestling pretty low right now, if you’re a fan of it please take heart and be reassured that even below-average Columbo is still very much worth watching when compared to almost all other TV ever made.

Missed any of my other episode reviews? Then catch ’em via the links below.

  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Publish or Perish
  3. Double Shock
  4. Murder by the Book
  5. Negative Reaction
  6. A Friend in Deed
  7. Death Lends a Hand
  8. A Stitch in Crime
  9. Double Exposure
  10. Lady in Waiting
  11. Troubled Waters
  12. Any Old Port in a Storm
  13. Prescription: Murder —– A-List ends here—
  14. A Deadly State of Mind
  15. An Exercise in Fatality
  16. Identity Crisis
  17. Swan Song
  18. The Most Crucial Game
  19. Etude in Black
  20. By Dawn’s Early Light
  21. Candidate for Crime
  22. Greenhouse Jungle
  23. Playback
  24. Forgotten Lady
  25. Requiem for a Falling Star
  26. Blueprint for Murder
  27. Ransom for a Dead Man 
  28. A Case of Immunity —– B-List ends here——
  29. Dead Weight
  30. The Most Dangerous Match
  31. Lovely but Lethal ———-C-List ends here—-
  32. Short Fuse
  33. A Matter of Honor
  34. Mind Over Mayhem
  35. Dagger of the Mind

That’s a wrap, muchachos. I’m going to have a lie down in the southern pasture with a bottle of mescal. Remember to let me know your views on A Matter of Honor below. Am I being too hard on it? Or have I hit the bullseye (pun, again, intentional)?

Season 5 heads to safer territory in our next outing – the truly magical Now You See Him, starring Jack Cassidy. You won’t want to miss it! Until then, adios

For details on the locations used in this episode, visit the Ultimate Columbo Locations Map!

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Columbo Matter of Honor
Columbo’s bid to bring Marinaro home as a companion for Dog sadly never got past border control
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