Episode review: Columbo Make Me a Perfect Murder

Columbo Make me a perfect murder opening titles

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, or so the saying goes. And that premise was put to the test in the third episode of Columbo‘s seventh season, Make Me a Perfect Murder.

Starring Trish Van Devere as murderous TV executive Kay Freestone, and boasting a supporting cast jam-packed with talent, viewers the world over were surely champing at the bit to wrap their eyes around it.

But is Make Me a Perfect Murder a sure-fire ratings hit, or a dismal flop certain to lead to bungling TV executives being given their marching orders? Let’s rewind to 25th February, 1978 and find out…

Columbo Make Me a Perfect Murder cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Kay Freestone: Trish Van Devere
Mark McAndrews: Laurence Luckinbill
Frank Flanagan: Patrick O’Neal
Walter Mearhead: James McEachin
Valerie Kirk: Lainie Kazan
Luther: Ron Rifkin
Jonathan: Kip Gilman
Sergeant Burke: Jerome Guardino
TV repairman: Bruce Kirby
Dog: As himself
Written by: Robert Blees
Directed by: James Frawley
Score by: Patrick Williams
Significant locations: CNC Network HQ (3944 Lankershim Blvd, Studio City, LA); Mark McAndrews beach house (26646 Latigo Shore Dr, Malibu)

Episode synopsis: Columbo Make Me a Perfect Murder

Columbo Kay Freestone
DON’T you DARE mess with Kay Freestone!
PS – The TV behind her weighed in at 30 tonnes

When TV exec Mark McAndrews gets promoted to head up the CNC network’s East Coast operations, he has a nasty surprise for his brilliant Executive Assistant (and secret lover) Kay Freestone.

Not only is he not taking her to New York with him, he’s also not going to put her forward to replace him as CNC’s West Coast head honcho. In his own patronising words: “I can’t give you the West Coast, babe.” Why? Because although she’s great at what she does, he believes she doesn’t make decisions, but takes guesses – and is too big a risk to fill his shoes.

Kay, naturally, is hopping mad and doesn’t hide it, but Mark retains his cool. “You wanna sue me? Shoot me? That make you feel better?” he asks, whipping out a gun from a drawer. “Right through the heart. Make me a perfect murder, babe.”

In a final (and poor) attempt to sweeten the pill, he reveals a peace offering: he’s bought Kay the new Mercedes she’s had her eye on and has personalised it just for her. “The licence plate says K#1,” he says. “Well that’s a comment from the management.”

Boy, this love turned sour quickly, didn’t it Mark?

Such mansplaining hardens Kay’s heart further against Mark. She pinches his gun and it’s not long before this ambitious dame has cooked up an equally ambitious and high-risk revenge plan.

During an exec screening of a new and violent TV movie she has masterminded (named The Professional), Kay takes her place in the projection booth alongside super-fly projectionist Walter – ostensibly to ensure he doesn’t foul things up for her, but really so her murderous scheme can be put into practice.

Sending Walter off on a low-level errand, Kay has a nerve-shredding four minutes in which to sneak to Mark’s office, slay him, and get back to the projection booth to change the reel. Any delays will blow her cover completely and she’ll be behind bars before you can say “Make me a perfect murder, babe.”

Monitoring her progress with a tape recorded countdown, Kay gets up to Mark’s office without being noticed. He is snoozing on his executive couch but looks up as she enters – just in time to see her produce a gun and pop a cap in his treacherous heart. Better cancel that New York trip, eh Mark?

Mark’s ladyish gasp was almost as loud as the gunshot!

Kay now faces a desperate race to get back to the booth in time – and it’s far from plain sailing. Although she successfully stashes the murder weapon on the elevator roof, her route is agonisingly blocked by a dawdling security guard who’s taking far too much interest in a Playboy centrefold as she lurks in the shadows, itching to get moving.

The guard blunders off just in time, allowing Kay to race back to the booth to make the reel change with a cliche-tastic second to spare. As Walter returns to the booth, the only evidence of Kay’s ‘perfect murder’ is the cotton editing glove she was wearing, which she hastily flung to the floor. Moments later the screening is called off after word of Mark’s slaying reaches the execs. What a whirlwind!

We next encounter Kay the following morning as the police investigation is in full swing. She’s summoned to Mark’s office where she encounters Lieutenant Columbo lying prone on the couch, Mark’s reading glasses on the top of his head. He asks Kay to pretend to be pointing a gun at him in an attempt to test his theory that Mark knew the killer because he didn’t put his glasses on.

Despite threats made to the station by activists, Columbo is also convinced the killing was an inside job because of the building’s top security. But everyone’s whereabouts are accounted for at the time of the murder, so it’s a terrific puzzle. Columbo also happens to be on the scene to hear CNC’s ‘big boss’ Frank Flanagan ask Kay to take over Mark’s duties – in the short term at least. Could this promotion provide a hint of a motive?

Columbo next questions our mate Walter, who’s down in the projection booth working on an intricate model ship. The detective spots the discarded glove on the floor and pockets it, claiming he’s going to give it to his movie-loving nephew. Kay appears at the booth and Columbo tails her to her next challenge: calming an errant performer who’s running scared ahead of the next day’s live show.

Columbo James McEachin
Walter Mearhead: hands down the coolest projectionist of all time

Here we see Kay at her best: a compassionate and caring friend, who is able to turn around a difficult situation and persuade reluctant former child song-and-dance star Valerie Kirk to return to the sound stage and basically get her sh*t together. The amazing turnaround in Valerie’s attitude is noted by the show’s director. “How about walking on water?” he suggests when Kay quips what her next task will be.

Jaded by her exertions, Kay makes a pilgrimage to the family home where she grew up. It’s now nothing more than a derelict shack but if she hoped to be alone, she’s to be disappointed. Columbo is there waiting for her after a tip-off from Kay’s secretary – and he’s in the mood to talk.

Over a pleasant chat (and a back rub for the Lieutenant!), Kay reveals that she doesn’t believe Mark would have promoted her to the west coast top job. But she pours water on the notion that she might have killed Mark to get behind his desk. “I don’t think people kill just for a job,” replies Columbo. “Either there was no motive at all, like in these crazy kind of murders that you read about in the newspaper, or there was a very good motive.”

As long as Kay’s relationship with Mark was strictly professional, Columbo says he has no reason to suspect her. She was in the projection booth, after all. The detective also questions Kay about a slip of paper found in Mark’s office. It has the letter K on it, as well as a series of numbers. We viewers know it’s Mercedes model numbers, but Columbo is kept in the dark after Kay remains tight lipped.

The next day is a big day for both hunter and hunted. Columbo finds out a critical clue from projection ace Walter. On the night of the killing, when he returned to the booth from his errand, Walter was disgusted to see the main protagonist in the TV movie being screened blow his own brains out. This will provide Columbo with a light bulb moment later on. On a visit to Mark’s beach house, the Lieutenant is also on hand to pick up a dry cleaning delivery – a woman’s jacket! Maybe Mark had a love interest…

Valerie’s Saturday night look was a raging success!

Kay, meanwhile, has BIG trouble on her hands. Valerie has gone AWOL just hours ahead of the live show – and when Kay tracks her down she finds a hot mess of a woman high on booze and pills. There’s no way Valerie can perform, so Kay has to pull a swift one and arrange for The Professional to be dropped into its place on the schedule at short notice. It’s the right length, but the subject matter is a liiiiiiitle different.

Columbo was one viewer hoping to catch the Valerie Kirk Show – so much so that he heads to a TV repair shop to pick up his broken set out of hours. The surly repairman is just finishing the job but alerts Columbo that The Professional is airing instead. The Lieutenant is just in time to see the scene where a guy blows his own brains out – and it’s the trigger he needs to start making a solid case against Kay.

He confronts her that night in her office. He’s traced the woman’s blazer that was delivered to Mark’s home. It was tailored specifically for Kay. She has no choice but to come clean about their romantic attachment, claiming it was all kept on the down low to avoid network angst. Columbo has more questions, but Kay has another fire to put out at a delayed filming shoot so the two head for the lift.

It’s there that Kay notices the tell-tale silhouette of a gun – visible clear as day through the frosted elevator roof panel. Ditching Columbo at the front door, she returns to the lift and tries repeatedly to reach the gun, her desperation palpable before she finally succeeds. The offending weapon is subsequently flung down a drain, but only after Kay receives a further shock: her Mercedes has been delivered to CNC HQ. Denying any knowledge of it, she drives off into the night to get the shoot back on track.

Columbo Kay Freestone
Not sure who’s more tense here: Kay, or me having to watch it!

Her night’s going to get worse there. Frank Flanagan tracks her down – and he ain’t happy about Valerie’s blowout, or Kay’s decision to play The Professional instead. Its ratings were dire – she’s wasted an expensive picture. He’s also heard that Kay was planning to move into Mark’s office. “Why not? The office comes with the job,” she retorts. “But you don’t, Kay,” is his soul-crushing response. He’ll give her until the end of the month to find a new job.

Following this bombshell, the last person Kay needs to show up is Columbo, but show up he does – and he’s there to make an arrest. His case against Kay is complete, and it’s a very strong one.

He’s found out about the Mercedes Mark bought for Kay. It looks very much like a parting gift to a spurned lover. Based on Walter’s earlier testimony, he’s also figured out that Kay diddled with the projector’s footage counter on the night of the killing to buy her enough time to commit murder while still appearing to be in the booth.

He’s gathered even more damning evidence, too. The glove he took from the floor of the projection booth has gunpowder on it. And as for the gun itself? That’s the piece de resistance. Columbo reveals that police found the actual murder weapon that afternoon and replaced it on the roof of the elevator with another.

Columbo Make Me a Perfect Murder
Columbo: now appearing in TECHNICOLOR

He shows Kay footage of the gun being placed – right before she and he took their elevator ride to the lobby. He then shows further footage of the elevator panel right after Kay had exited the lift later. The gun had gone – and only Kay could have done it.

Down but not yet out, Kay puts on a determined front. “I’ll fight. I’ll survive. I might even win,” she says pragmatically before surrendering to Columbo as credits roll…

Best bit: the final countdown

I repeat, DO NOT MESS with Kay Freestone…

Shown in glorious real-time, Kay’s four-minute mission to slay lover Mark and race back to the projection booth is televisual tension at its very best.

The cool, androgynous calmness of Kay’s countdown voice on the tape offers a terrific contrast to the stressful and hectic nature of her mission – never more so than when the dithering security guard (Columbo favourite Mike Lally) blocks her path as he eyes a dirty magazine centrefold.

The pressure is almost unbearable – for the viewer as well as Kay – and we, like her, can breathe a sigh of relief when she finally makes it back to the booth. A brilliant scene, this is one of the best, most exciting murders of any Columbo episode.

My view on Make Me a Perfect Murder

A serious study in the corrupting influence of ambition and power, Make Me a Perfect Murder is a real countermeasure to the lightheartedness of season 7 openers Try & Catch Me and Murder Under Glass – and is a highly impressive addition to the series.

Columbo Make Me a Perfect Murder Kay Freestone
There’s some serious volume going on in Kay’s hair!

Columbo is back in TV land not quite 18 months after the Ward Fowler case in Fade in to Murder, but this time he’s viewing things from the network perspective giving this episode a very different flavour. Make Me a Perfect Murder is all about serious business carried out by serious executives in a serious manner, clubbing it in with the likes of A Friend in Deed and By Dawn’s Early Light as one of the series’ most straight-faced adventures.

As a rule I like my Columbo episodes to pack in a few good gags, but the sober treatment here seems spot on. Kay Freestone exists in a high-pressure world that demands excellence and punishes mistakes. What little humour there is here is largely limited to the Columbo’s neck injury and subsequent recovery, and is gentle enough not to dull the edge of the intrigue.

As Kay Freestone, Trish Van Devere is a revelation. A woman succeeding in a man’s world, she’s tough as teak, fearless and pragmatic while reserving genuine affection for those dear to her (i.e. Valerie Kirk). The writing gives us a fully-realised character and Van Devere brings her to life superbly. As female Columbo villains go, she’s right up at the top table.

Despite a lack of remorse for her actions, Kay remains a sympathetic figure to the audience throughout. She’s carelessly cast away by callous lover Mark, who’s condescending dismissal of her from his life has the viewer firmly on her side. Her gentle treatment of Valerie also marks her out as someone with a genuinely good heart, making Flanagan’s ruthless jettisoning of her services another gigantic crushing blow.

The worst thing for Kay is finding out that everything Mark told her about her limitations was correct. She was foolish in following her gut instinct in a failed attempt to get Valerie to perform in a family-friendly live show against the judgement of others, but she followed this up with a desperate gamble in choosing to fill the gap in the schedule with a gritty and violent spy thriller. And as Flanagan dismissed her, Kay can’t have helped but hear Mark’s ‘you don’t take decisions – you make guesses’ rebuke floating around in her head.

Columbo Patrick O'Neal
Come on Frank, give a gal a chance…

Still, these power-broking men that have harnessed her strength and talents should also take their share of the blame. A bit of better mentoring from Mark on how to approach critical decision making would have been good for everyone. Instead, he seems to have pigeon-holed her as an expert in putting out fires in an approach that can only hold her back while elevating his own status. Damn men!

As Columbo killers go, Kay is under more continual stress than just about anyone I can think of. Her job, her love-life, her friends all seem dead-set on hurting her. Her act of murder is set against a supremely tight deadline that, if missed, would absolutely doom her, while her attempts to retrieve the gun from the elevator lift are so tense that the viewer’s heart fairly thumps along as her struggles intensify.

No wonder, then, that Kay appears to be unravelling in the control booth at episode’s end as Columbo appears to wrap up the case. And if you’re anything like me, when she regains her composure and tells the Lieutenant that she’ll fight on, and that perhaps she’ll win, I’m absolutely rooting for her. Columbo has a strong case against her, but I like to think she gets off on a technicality in court and goes on to great things in her TV career, masterminding the downfall of CNC from a rival network.

“Falk dials it right down here to deliver his best performance of the season so far.”

As an aside, another wonderful thing about Kay is her sense of style. Her clothing, her enormously thick 70s’ hair, and her strength of mind all help her stand out as one of Columbo’s most kick-ass women. It’s fair to say she’s stolenn a rather large slice of my heart.

It helps that Van Devere’s believable performance is off-set by a much more restrained turn from Peter Falk. If you’ve read my review of previous episode Murder Under Glass, you’ll know that I was less than enamoured by the theatrical high-jinks notable in his performance there, which I found borderline infuriating. He dials it right down here to deliver his best performance of the season so far – and it’s a very welcome return to form.

As befits the tone of the episode, Columbo is playing things straight here. He’s attentive and focused, shrewd and amiable but never silly. Even his struggles with his neck injury are nicely underplayed and there are plenty of opportunities for the two leads to build a natural rapport given the oodles of screen time they share.

Mrs Columbo filed for divorce minutes later…

As has become a theme of the series since Richard Alan Simmons took over production duties at the end of season 6, there’s an excellent scene where Columbo and Kay get the chance to really gain a better understanding of the other – on this occasion at the run-down shack where Kay grew up.

The detective is able to literally and figuratively see just where the high-flying exec has come from as the two share honest and interesting insights about their lives, while Kay realises the fundamental differences between the two. “You’re a very special man, Lieutenant,” she says. “You accept things as they are. I try to change them.”

Whether or not this exchange adds fuel to Columbo’s suspicions isn’t clear, but an investigator as wily as he is can likely infer that Kay doesn’t wait for opportunities to present themselves – she makes them and takes them for herself. Could that include murder? At this stage, I believe he certainly thinks so, making this another really good scene.

Elsewhere, the episode makes the most of a great cast which, on paper, is as strong as any in the entire series. Laurence Luckinbill does a fine job in a few minutes of screen-time as Mark McAndrews to get viewers fully off-side, while his stern, God-like boss Frank Flanagan is given all the authority we could ask for by Patrick O’Neal, here making his second Columbo appearance after starring as murderer Elliott Markham in season 1’s Blueprint for Murder.

I’m a big fan of James McEachin, so was delighted to see him pop up for his own second Columbo outing, this time as projectionist Walter. It’s not a big role, but it’s well handled and again makes me lament the fact that McEachin was never cast as a Columbo killer. I think he’d have been awesome as the black murderer the show never had. What a missed opportunity!

Columbo Valerie Kirk
I’d love to know the backstory to what’s going on between these two!

Finally, special praise to Lainie Kazan, who was just fabulous as the fragile Valerie Kirk in a couple of fleeting scenes. A Broadway star herself in her early career, Kazan was superbly cast in a role that apes the troubled demise of Judy Garland, her lack of self-esteem and vulnerability to the temptation of booze and pills making her a pathetic figure.

Valerie and Kay’s relationship is an intriguing – not to mention under-cooked – one. This whole sub-plot serves to highlight just why Kay was ultimately unsuitable for the job she craved, but it also raises major unanswered questions. Why did Kay have such faith in someone she knows had substance abuse issues? And exactly what type of relationship do they have?

Clearly it’s a deep and meaningful one. Some viewers even believe they may have been lovers – a very daring thought for the time. Whatever the truth the viewer is left to interpret things for themselves, but there’s certainly a lot more going on than meets the eye, adding to the episode’s intrigue and the depth of Kay’s character.

So far, so good. But there are inevitably weaknesses in any Columbo outing and Make Me a Perfect Murder is no different. For starters, the motive for murder is a pretty flimsy one. Yes, Kay has been jilted and treated with contempt by her lover – but is this enough to driver her to homicide?

The character as written is as determined and practical as they come. I don’t see her committing murder over this. I see her quitting the network, joining a rival, excelling and proving that git Mark McAndrews wrong, although admittedly this wouldn’t make for great television.

Kay makes a schoolgirl error in flinging the incriminating glove away

The murder scene, as detailed above, is superb, but I feel that Kay flinging the glove on the floor of the booth was far too convenient a way of delivering a crucial clue to Columbo. Anyone who’s watched any murder mystery (as a network exec would’ve done zillions of times) would know that a glove would pick up gunpowder residue. Sure, she needed to whip it off before Walter noticed, but wouldn’t you then discreetly pick it up and dispose of it at the first opportunity? It’s such an amateur error.

Columbo also makes an erroneous observation that Walter wouldn’t have left the glove on the floor because of the immaculate condition he kept the booth in. If that was the case, why didn’t Walter spot the glove himself and dispose of it? His very act of not tidying up the glove disproves Columbo’s hypothesis that he keeps the booth in immaculate condition!

“Kay flinging the glove on the floor of the booth was far too convenient a way of delivering a crucial clue to Columbo.”

Granted, this is a minor gripe but I’m sure you can see where I’m coming from: Columbo ought to earn his clues through sound police work. This vital evidence is given to him far too easily. Without it, it would be very tough to convict. Oy vey

Staying on the subject of clues, when he first meets Kay the Lieutenant is fixated with the idea that Mark must have known his killer because he didn’t need to put his bifocals on. A more plausible suggestion to my mind was that Mark was simply asleep with his glasses on his head. He was stretched out on the sofa, so why wouldn’t police assume he was having a kip? Again, it’s an example of Columbo’s focus being too easily narrowed.

Columbo Make Me a Perfect Murder
On yer feet, idle lump!

If those sins are forgivable, the episode’s biggest failure is that pesky longer running time, which means Make Me a Perfect Murder is packed with filler and, running at 100 minutes in length, is far too flabby for its own good. Regular readers will know that this is a familiar complaint of mine, but this episode is damaged more than most by the extra running time. Indeed, I’d pair it with Candidate for Crime as a good episode that could have been great if it had moved a bit quicker.

Whether it’s a drawn out, hushed conversation between Columbo and his police sergeant, unnecessary exposition about how projectionists know when to change reels (we’ve seen Double Exposure, ya know!), or Kay’s overlong button-bashing meltdown as we reach the conclusion, there’s a lot that could have been cut without damaging the story. Even Columbo’s car-crash and whiplash woes were added to bump up the running time and I could have easily lived without all that.

The worst example of padding in Make Me a Perfect Murder may even be the worst example of padding in the entire 70s’ run when we see Columbo tinkering with the controls inside the technical booth. All the neck-braced Lieutenant does is push buttons, stare at patterns on a screen and look pleased with himself for more than two minutes, which, I can promise you, feels more like two years. Most fans hate the scene and if you can’t recall it, view it below with caution

These imperfections take the edge off what is an otherwise excellent episode. The core of the mystery is well-written, the pay-off satisfying and there are some lovely directorial touches courtesy of James Frawley, here helming his second of six Columbo episodes, after opening his account with Try & Catch Me two episodes earlier. Frawley even appears on screen as the suicidal spy in Kay’s star-crossed picture The Professional.

It’s also well worth paying heed to Patrick Williams’ sensational score, which is one of the very best of the classic era. Williams scored every episode of season 7 except Murder Under Glass, and would return to do five more in the 80s and 90s. His work here is as good as anything you’ll hear on the big or small screen, and does a great deal in enhancing the episode’s unique atmosphere.

To sum it all up, Make Me a Perfect Murder makes for a compelling Columbo adventure. Like Kay Freestone, it has a lot of the goods required to make it in the cut-throat televisual world. But, and again like Kay, it falls just short of being the best in the business. A perfect murder? Maybe not, but a very diverting piece to factor into your schedule the next time Valerie Kirk pulls out of a live show…

Did you know?

A baseless myth exists that George C. Scott (Trish Van Devere’s husband of the time) appears in this episode as the TV technician Columbo speaks to up in the studio booth. This is, however, baloney! Make Me a Perfect Murder is a Scott-free zone!

Columbo George C Scott
Myth quashed: under no circumstances is George C. Scott in this episode!

For unknown reasons, Scott was previously credited on IMDB as appearing in this episode, but even Van Devere herself has scotched the rumour so if you hear of a fellow fan claiming that Georgie Boy is in this episode, please re-educate them ASAP.

As can be seen from the above picture, the two are very different fellas, with the uncredited technician actually played by John Furlong, a bit-part actor with dozens of film and TV credits on shows such as The Rockford Files, Dallas and Murder, She Wrote.

Make Me a Perfect Murder is also notable in that it’s one of the few 70s’ episodes in which Columbo appears before the murder – this time in the very opening scene as his car prang produces his whiplash injury.

The other 70s episodes in this exclusive club are Greenhouse Jungle, Troubled Waters, Candidate for Crime and A Case of Immunity. Columbo also appears before the victim actually dies in Prescription: Murder and The Most Dangerous Match.

How I rate ’em

Hampered slightly by the usual concerns about padding out the longer running time, Make Me a Perfect Murder remains an excellent Columbo episode and one that gives us one of the series’ most intriguing killers in Kay Freestone. As it is, it falls just short of my A-List, but a faster paced, 75-minute version could have been a good few spots higher.

Check out any of my previous reviews via the links below.

  1. The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
  2. Suitable for Framing
  3. Publish or Perish
  4. Double Shock
  5. Murder by the Book
  6. Negative Reaction
  7. A Friend in Deed
  8. Try & Catch Me
  9. Death Lends a Hand
  10. A Stitch in Crime
  11. Now You See Him
  12. Double Exposure
  13. Lady in Waiting
  14. Troubled Waters
  15. Any Old Port in a Storm
  16. Prescription: Murder 
  17. A Deadly State of Mind —B-List starts here—
  18. An Exercise in Fatality
  19. Make Me a Perfect Murder
  20. Identity Crisis
  21. Swan Song
  22. The Most Crucial Game
  23. Etude in Black
  24. By Dawn’s Early Light
  25. Candidate for Crime
  26. Greenhouse Jungle
  27. Playback
  28. Forgotten Lady
  29. Requiem for a Falling Star
  30. Blueprint for Murder
  31. Fade in to Murder
  32. Ransom for a Dead Man
  33. Murder Under Glass —C-List starts here—
  34. A Case of Immunity
  35. Dead Weight
  36. The Most Dangerous Match
  37. Lovely but Lethal 
  38. Short Fuse ———D-List starts here—-
  39. A Matter of Honor
  40. Mind Over Mayhem
  41. Old Fashioned Murder
  42. Dagger of the Mind
  43. Last Salute to the Commodore —Z-List starts here
Award-winning stuff? Not far off…

As always I’d love to hear your views on this episode, which I believe is a popular one with many fans. What are its thrilling highs and devastating lows? And how do you rate Trish Van Devere as a killer?

Our next outing (expected in early 2020) is How to Dial a Murder, the penultimate episode of the classic era in which Columbo risks life and limb to bring down a homicidal movie fanatic who uses killer dogs to do his dirty work. See you then…

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Columbo HB Haggerty
I don’t know about you, but I prefer my masseuse to have the touch of an angel, not the touch of a circus strongman
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