North by Northwest

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North by Northwest
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Ernest Lehman
Starring Cary Grant
Eva Marie Saint
James Mason
Jessie Royce Landis
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Cinematography Robert Burks
Edited by George Tomasini
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • July 28, 1959 (1959-07-28)
Running time
136 minutes
Country United States
Budget $4,326,000[1]
Box office $9.8 million[1]

North by Northwest is a 1959 American spy thriller film, made in Technicolor and VistaVision, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason. The screenplay was by Ernest Lehman, who wanted to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures".[2]

North by Northwest is a tale of mistaken identity, with an innocent man pursued across the United States by agents of a mysterious organization trying to prevent him from blocking their plan to smuggle out microfilm that contains government secrets.

This is one of several Hitchcock films that features a music score by Bernard Herrmann and a memorable opening title sequence by graphic designer Saul Bass. This film is generally cited as the first to feature extended use of kinetic typography in its opening credits.[3]

North by Northwest is now regarded among the essential Hitchcock pictures and is often listed as one of the greatest films of all time.[4][5][6] It was selected in 1995 for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress, as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


Advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for George Kaplan and kidnapped by Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein), who take him to the Long Island estate of Lester Townsend (Philip Ober). He is interrogated by a man he assumes to be Townsend, but who is actually spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Vandamm's henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) intends to get rid of Thornhill once they finish questioning him.

Thornhill is forced to drink bourbon, but he manages to escape a staged driving accident. He is unable to persuade the authorities, or even his mother, to believe his account of the events, especially after a woman at Townsend's home (Josephine Hutchinson) tells police he got drunk at her dinner party; she also identifies Townsend as a United Nations diplomat.

Thornhill and his mother go to Kaplan's hotel room, where Thornhill answers the phone; the caller is one of Vandamm's henchmen. Avoiding recapture, Thornhill goes to the U.N. General Assembly building to seek Townsend, but finds that the diplomat (Philip Ober) is not the man he previously met. Valerian throws a knife that hits Townsend in the back. He falls dead into Thornhill's arms. Without thinking, Thornhill removes the knife, making it appear that he is the killer, and he is forced to flee.

File:North by Northwest movie trailer screenshot (18).jpg
Thornhill (Grant) on the run, attempting to travel incognito.

Knowing that Kaplan has a reservation at a Chicago hotel the next day, Thornhill sneaks onto the 20th Century Limited. He meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who hides Thornhill from policemen searching the train. Unknown to Thornhill, Eve is working with Vandamm and Leonard, who are in another compartment with Valerian. In Chicago, Kendall tells Thornhill she has arranged a meeting with Kaplan.

File:North by Northwest movie trailer screenshot (8).jpg
Thornhill (Grant) stopping a truck while being attacked by the crop-duster plane. (Screenshot from the film trailer.)

Thornhill travels by bus to an isolated crossroads. A crop duster dives toward Thornhill, narrowly missing him. He hides in a cornfield after the assailants fire at him with an automatic weapon, but the airplane dusts it with pesticide, forcing him out. He steps in front of a speeding tank truck, which stops barely in time. The airplane crashes into the tanker and Thornhill escapes to Kaplan's hotel in Chicago.

Learning that Kaplan had checked out before Kendall claimed to have talked to him over the phone, Thornhill goes to Kendall's room. While he is cleaning up, she leaves. From the impression of a message written on a notepad, he learns her destination: an art auction. There he finds Vandamm, Leonard and Kendall. Vandamm purchases a Purépecha statue and departs. Thornhill tries to follow, only to find the exits covered by Valerian and Leonard. Trapped, he places nonsensical bids so that the police will be called to escort him away. Thornhill identifies himself as the fugitive wanted for Townsend's murder and demands to be jailed, but the arresting officers clandestinely take him to the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) instead. The Professor reveals that Kaplan does not exist. He was invented to distract Vandamm from the real government agent: Kendall. As he has inadvertently put Kendall's life in danger, Thornhill agrees to help maintain her cover.

At the Mount Rushmore visitor center, Thornhill poses as Kaplan to negotiate Vandamm's turnover of Kendall for her prosecution as a spy. The deal is derailed when "Kaplan" confronts Kendall; she fires a handgun (later revealed to have been loaded with blanks) at him and flees. Paramedics load Thornhill in an ambulance then take him to a forest where he gets out of the ambulance uninjured. Thornhill and Kendall have a romantic goodbye in the forest, but Thornhill discovers she must not only return undercover, but go with Vandamm and Leonard on a plane to rendezvous "over there". The Professor has his driver stop Thornhill from preventing Kendall from returning, but Thornhill evades the Professor's custody and finds Vandamm's lair to rescue Kendall.

At Vandamm's house, Thornhill overhears that the sculpture holds microfilm and learns that Leonard has discovered that Kendall's gun was loaded with blanks when Leonard reveals the fact to Vandamm. Vandamm implies that he will kill Kendall during the flight. Thornhill is able to inform Kendall that they plan to kill her, but he's captured. As Vandamm and Kendall are boarding the plane, Thornhill's sudden escape from the house provides a distraction during which Kendall takes the sculpture and runs to him. Thornhill and Kendall attempt to flee, but they realize they are on top of Mount Rushmore and begin to climb down the mountain sculpture, pursued by Valerian and Leonard. Thornhill fights Valerian, who falls from the cliff, but Leonard pushes Kendall over the side. While Thornhill is holding onto Kendall and the cliff face, Leonard stomps on his hand. Leonard is killed by a gunshot from a park ranger in a group including the Professor and the captured Vandamm.

Later, Thornhill invites Kendall, as the new Mrs. Thornhill, onto the upper berth of a train that then enters a tunnel.


Hitchcock's cameo appearances are a signature occurrence in most of his films. In North by Northwest, he is seen getting a bus door slammed in his face, literally just as his credit is appearing on the screen.[10] There has been some speculation as to whether he made one of his rare second appearances, this time at around the 44-minute mark in drag.[11]

MGM wanted Cyd Charisse for the role played by Eva Marie Saint. Hitchcock stood by his choice.[12]


John Russell Taylor's official biography of Hitchcock, Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978), suggests that the story originated after a spell of writer's block during the scripting of another film project:

Alfred Hitchcock had agreed to do a film for MGM, and they had chosen an adaptation of the novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes. Composer Bernard Herrmann had recommended that Hitchcock work with his friend Ernest Lehman. After a couple of weeks, Lehman offered to quit saying he didn't know what to do with the story. Hitchcock told him they got along great together and they would just write something else. Lehman said that he wanted to make the ultimate Hitchcock film. Hitchcock thought for a moment then said he had always wanted to do a chase across Mount Rushmore.

Lehman and Hitchcock spitballed more ideas: a murder at the United Nations Headquarters; a murder at a car plant in Detroit; a final showdown in Alaska. Eventually they settled on the U.N. murder for the opening and the chase across Mount Rushmore for the climax.

For the central idea, Hitchcock remembered something an American journalist had told him about spies creating a fake agent as a decoy. Perhaps their hero could be mistaken for this fictitious agent and end up on the run. They bought the idea from the journalist for $10,000.

Lehman would sometimes repeat this story himself, as in the documentary Destination Hitchcock that accompanied the 2001 DVD release of the film. In his 2000 book Which Lie Did I Tell?, screenwriter William Goldman, commenting on the film, insists that it was Lehman who created North by Northwest and that many of Hitchcock's ideas were not used. Hitchcock had the idea of the hero being stranded in the middle of nowhere, but suggested the villains try to kill him with a tornado.[13] Lehman responded, "but they're trying to kill him. How are they going to work up a cyclone?" Then, as he told an interviewer; "I just can't tell you who said what to whom, but somewhere during that afternoon, the cyclone in the sky became the crop-duster plane."[13]

Cary Grant in North by Northwest

In fact, Hitchcock had been working on the story for nearly nine years prior to meeting Lehman. The "American journalist" who had the idea that influenced the director was Otis C. Guernsey, a respected reporter who was inspired by a true story during World War II when a couple of British secretaries created a fictitious agent and watched as the Germans wasted time following him around. Guernsey turned his idea into a story about an American traveling salesman who travels to the Middle East and is mistaken for a fictitious agent, becoming "saddled with a romantic and dangerous identity." Guernsey admitted that his treatment was full of "corn" and "lacking logic." He urged Hitchcock to do what he liked with the story. Hitchcock bought the sixty pages for $10,000.

Hitchcock often told journalists of an idea he had about Cary Grant hiding out from the villains inside Abraham Lincoln's nose and being given away when he sneezes. He speculated that the film could be called "The Man in Lincoln's Nose" (Lehman's version is that it was "The Man on Lincoln's Nose"[14]) or even "The Man who Sneezed in Lincoln's Nose," though he probably felt the latter was insulting to his adopted America. Hitchcock sat on the idea, waiting for the right screenwriter to develop it. At one stage "The Man in Lincoln's Nose" was touted as a collaboration with John Michael Hayes. When Lehman came on board, the traveling salesman – which had previously been suited to James Stewart – was adapted to a Madison Avenue advertising executive, a position which Lehman had formerly held. In an interview in the book Screenwriters on Screenwriting (1995), Lehman stated that he had already written much of the screenplay before coming up with critical elements of the climax.[15]


This was the only Hitchcock film released by MGM. It is currently owned by Turner Entertainment – since 1996 a division of Warner Bros. – which owns the pre-1986 MGM library.

Production costs on North by Northwest were seriously escalated when a delay in filming put Cary Grant into the penalty phase of his contract, resulting in an additional $5,000 per day in fees for the actor, before shooting even began.[16]


The United Nations Headquarters is the site of a scene in the film

At Hitchcock's insistence, the film was made in Paramount's VistaVision widescreen process, making it one of only two VistaVision films made at MGM (the other was High Society.)[17]

The car chase scene in which Thornhill is drunkenly careering along the edge of cliffs high above the ocean, supposedly on Long Island, was actually shot on the California coast, and in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, according to DVD audio commentary.

The cropduster sequence, meant to take place in northern Indiana, was shot on location on Garces Highway (155) near the towns of Wasco and Delano, north of Bakersfield in Kern County, California (Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found.).[18] Years later, in a show at the Pompidou Center called "Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences", an aerial shot of Grant in the cornfield, with a "road cutting straight through the cornrows to the edge of the screen", was said to draw on Léon Spilliaert's "Le Paquebot ou L'Estran", which features "alternating strips of sand and ocean blue bands stretch[ed] to the edge of the canvas."[19]

The aircraft seen flying in the scene is a Naval Aircraft Factory N3N Canary, a World War II Navy pilot trainer sometimes converted for cropdusting.[20] The aircraft that hits the truck and explodes is a wartime Stearman (Boeing Model 75) trainer. Like its N3N lookalike, many were used for agricultural purposes through the 1970s. The plane was piloted by Bob Coe, a local cropduster from Wasco.[21] Hitchcock placed replicas of square Indiana highway signs in the scene. In an extensive list of "1001 Greatest Movie Moments" of all time, the British film magazine Empire in its August 2009 issue ranked the cropduster scene as the best.[22]

Set design

The house at the end of the film was not real. Hitchcock asked the set designers to make the set resemble a house by Frank Lloyd Wright, the most popular architect in America at the time, using the materials, form and interiors associated with him.[23] The set was built in Culver City, where MGM's studios were located. House exteriors were matte paintings.[24]


Grant in the trailer

A panel of fashion experts convened by GQ in 2006 said the gray suit worn by Cary Grant throughout almost the entire film was the best suit in film history, and the most influential on men's style, stating that it has since been copied for Tom Cruise's character in Collateral and Ben Affleck's character in Paycheck.[25] This sentiment has been echoed by writer Todd McEwen, who called it "gorgeous," and wrote a short story "Cary Grant's Suit" which recounts the film's plot from the viewpoint of the suit.[26] There is some disagreement as to who tailored the suit; according to Vanity Fair magazine, it was Norton & Sons of London,[27] although according to The Independent it was Quintino of Beverly Hills.[28]

Eva Marie Saint's wardrobe for the film was originally entirely chosen by MGM. Hitchcock disliked MGM's selections and the actress and director went to Bergdorf Goodman in New York to select what she would wear.[29]

Editing and post-production

In François Truffaut's book-length interview, Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967), Hitchcock said that MGM wanted North by Northwest cut by 15 minutes so the film's length would run under two hours. Hitchcock had his agent check his contract, learned that he had absolute control over the final cut, and refused.[30]

One of Eva Marie Saint's lines in the dining-car seduction scene was redubbed. She originally said "I never make love on an empty stomach", but it was changed in post-production to "I never discuss love on an empty stomach", as the censors considered the original version too risqué.[31]


The trailer for North by Northwest features Hitchcock presenting himself as the owner of Alfred Hitchcock Travel Agency and telling the viewer he has made a motion picture to advertise these wonderful vacation stops.[32]

The world premiere took place at the San Sebastián Film Festival.[citation needed]


Time magazine called the film "smoothly troweled and thoroughly entertaining."[33] A. H. Weiler of The New York Times made it a "Critic's Pick" and said it was the "year's most scenic, intriguing and merriest chase"; Weiler complimented the two leads:

Cary Grant, a veteran member of the Hitchcock acting varsity, was never more at home than in this role of the advertising-man-on-the-lam. He handles the grimaces, the surprised look, the quick smile, ... and all the derring-do with professional aplomb and grace, In casting Eva Marie Saint as his romantic vis-à-vis, Mr. Hitchcock has plumbed some talents not shown by the actress heretofore. Although she is seemingly a hard, designing type, she also emerges both the sweet heroine and a glamorous charmer.[34]

Box office

During its two-week run at Radio City Music Hall, the film grossed $404,056, setting a record in that theater's non-holiday gross.[35]

According to MGM records the film earned $5,740,000 in the US and Canada and $4.1 million elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $837,000.[1]

The London edition of Time Out magazine, reviewing the film nearly a half-century after its initial release, commented:

Fifty years on, you could say that Hitchcock's sleek, wry, paranoid thriller caught the zeitgeist perfectly: Cold War shadiness, secret agents of power, urbane modernism, the ant-like bustle of city life, and a hint of dread behind the sharp suits of affluence. Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill, the film's sharply dressed ad exec who is sucked into a vortex of mistaken identity, certainly wouldn't be out of place in Mad Men. But there's nothing dated about this perfect storm of talent, from Hitchcock and Grant to writer Ernest Lehman (Sweet Smell of Success), co-stars James Mason and Eva Marie Saint, composer Bernard Herrmann and even designer Saul Bass, whose opening-credits sequence still manages to send a shiver down the spine.[36]

Author and journalist Nick Clooney praised Lehman's original story and sophisticated dialogue, calling the film "certainly Alfred Hitchcock's most stylish thriller, if not his best".[37]

North by Northwest currently holds a 100% approval rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 61 reviews. The site's consensus calls the film "Gripping, suspenseful and visually iconic" and claims it "laid the groundwork for countless action thrillers to follow".[38]

The film ranks at number 98 in Empire magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time.[39] The Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay No. 21 on its list of 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written.[40] It is ranked the 40th greatest American film by the American Film Institute.[41]

Themes and motifs

Hitchcock planned the film as a change of pace after his dark romantic thriller Vertigo a year earlier. In his book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967) with François Truffaut, Hitchcock said that he wanted to do "something fun, light-hearted, and generally free of the symbolism permeating his other movies."[42] Writer Ernest Lehman has also mocked those who look for symbolism in the film.[43] Despite its popular appeal, the film is considered to be a masterpiece for its themes of deception, mistaken identity, and moral relativism in the Cold War era.

The title North by Northwest is a subject of debate. Many have seen it[citation needed] as having been taken from a line ("I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw") in Hamlet, a work also concerned with the shifty nature of reality.[44] Hitchcock noted, in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in 1963, "It's a fantasy. The whole film is epitomized in the title—there is no such thing as north-by-northwest on the compass."[45] ("Northwest by north", however, is one of 32 points of the compass.) Lehman states that he used a working title for the film of "In a Northwesterly Direction," because the film's action was to begin in New York and climax in Alaska.[14] Then the head of the story department at MGM suggested "North by Northwest," but this was still to be a working title.[14] Other titles were considered, including "The Man on Lincoln's Nose," but "North by Northwest" was kept because, according to Lehman, "We never did find a [better] title."[14] The Northwest Airlines reference in the film plays on the title.

The film's plot involves a "MacGuffin", a term popularized by Hitchcock: a physical object that everyone in the film is chasing but which has no deep relationship to the plot. Late in North by Northwest, it emerges that the spies are attempting to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets out of the country. They have been trying to kill Thornhill, whom they believe to be the agent on their trail, 'George Kaplan'.

Sign near Mt. Rushmore

North by Northwest has been referred to as "the first James Bond film"[46] due to its similarities with splashily colorful settings, secret agents, and an elegant, daring, wisecracking leading man opposite a sinister yet strangely charming villain. The crop duster scene inspired the helicopter chase in From Russia with Love.[47]

The film's final shot – that of the train speeding into a tunnel during a romantic embrace onboard – is a famous bit of self-conscious Freudian symbolism reflecting Hitchcock's mischievous sense of humor. In the book Hitchcock / Truffaut (p. 107–108), Hitchcock called it a "phallic symbol... probably one of the most impudent shots I ever made."

Home media

North by Northwest was released on the Blu-ray Disc format in the United States on November 3, 2009 by Warner Bros. with a 1080p VC-1 encoding.[48][49] This release is a special 50th anniversary edition. A 50th anniversary edition on DVD was also released by Warner Bros.[50]


North by Northwest was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Film Editing (George Tomasini), Best Production Design (William A. Horning, Robert F. Boyle, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, Frank McKelvy), and Best Original Screenplay (Ernest Lehman) at the 32nd Academy Awards ceremony.[51] Two of the three awards went instead to Ben-Hur, and the other went to Pillow Talk. The film also won a 1960 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay, for Lehman.

In 1995, North by Northwest was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

In June 2008, the AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten" – the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres – after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. North by Northwest was acknowledged as the seventh-best film in the mystery genre.[52]

American Film Institute recognition[52]


The film's title is reported to have been the influence for the name of the popular annual live music festival South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, started in 1987, with the name idea coming from Louis Black, editor and co-founder of the local alternative weekly The Austin Chronicle, as a play on the Hitchcock film title.[53]

The third episode of the Doctor Who serial "The Deadly Assassin" includes an homage to North by Northwest, when the Doctor, who like Hitchcock's hero is falsely accused of a politically motivated murder, is attacked by gunfire from a biplane piloted by one of his enemy's henchmen.[54]

See also


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  2. Jaynes, Barbara Grant; Trachtenberg, Robert (2004). "Cary Grant: A Class Apart". Burbank, California: Turner Classic Movies.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. The Kinetic Typography Engine
  8. See "Malcolm Atterbury" entry at Turner Classic Movies website:
  9. See "John Berardino" entry at Turner Classic Movies website:
  10. "Alfred Hitchcock's Movie Cameos: North by Northwest (1959)". Empire magazine. Retrieved 17 February 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Matthew Moore (15 August 2008). "Did Alfred Hitchcock make a secret cameo appearance in drag?". The Daily Telegraph.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Spoto, Donald (1999). The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Da Capo. p. 405. ISBN 0-306-80932-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. 13.0 13.1 John Brady, "The craft of the screenwriter", 1981. Page 202
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 John Brady, "The craft of the screenwriter", 1981. Page 201
  15. Engel, Joel (1995). Screenwriters on Screen-Writing: The Best in the Business Discuss Their Craft. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 978-0786880577.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. p. 405. ISBN 0-316-80723-0
  17. Hart, Martin. "The Development of VistaVision: Paramount Marches to a Different Drummer". The American WideScreen Museum. Retrieved 4 December 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "North by Northwest Cropdusting scene". Google. 2009-08-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "The Fine Art of Fear". Time. July 9, 2001. Retrieved 2012-02-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. The Yellow Peril: N3N, Laverne Hoestenbach, "The Dispatch", Winter 1992
  21. The Bakersfield Californian, Wasco man had Hitchcock movie role, 11/Oct/2007 Archived January 13, 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  22. "1001 Greatest Movie Moments". Empire. London, England: 89–113.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> The cropduster scene was ranked number one with a full-page explanation and stills from the movie.
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  26. Cary Grant's Suit, Todd McEwen, Granta, Summer 2006
  27. It’s the Hitch in Hitchcock, Jim Windolf, Vanity Fair, March 2008
  28. Fashion: Suits they are a-changin, Glenn Waldron, The Independent, January 28, 2008
  29. Stated in the film's "Making of".
  30. Truffaut, François (1985). Hitchcock (Revised Edition). New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 251. ISBN 0-671-52601-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Roman, James (2009). Bigger than Blockbusters: Movies That Defined America. Westport, CT: Greenwood. p. 93. ISBN 978-0-313-33995-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. DVD Extras- Original Trailer
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  35. "Box Office: For the Books". Time. August 31, 1959. Retrieved 2010-08-25. Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall, riding the crest of the boom, reported its own record, a two-week non-holiday gross of $404,056, for Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, well over the total of runner-up High Society.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  42. Hitchcock was not above inserting a Freudian joke as the last shot (which, notably, made it past contemporary censors).
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  44. Act II, Scene ii. Hamlet thus hints to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his friends, that his madness is only an act to protect himself while he gathers information on his father's murder.
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External links