Archive for the 'Film Noir' Category

Nightmare Alley

nightmarealleyCopyright litigation kept Nightmare Alley (1947) out of circulation and generally unavailable for home viewing until a much-heralded DVD release in 2005. Since then, its reputation has grown from cult favorite to film noir classic. Running nearly two hours with a generous budget and A-list cast, Nightmare Alley is an anomaly for its genre (defined by crime novelist James Ellroy, in his introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century, as “cheap novels and cheap films about cheap people”). Swashbuckling matinee idol Tyrone Power leveraged his stardom to lobby for the starring role as carny con artist Stanton Carlisle, whose sole redemptive quality is his genuine bafflement—“I wonder why I’m like that?”—as to why he’s compelled again and again to act on his most ruthless instincts. The sexual heat generated between Tyrone Power and the film’s three supporting actresses is combustible and gives Nightmare Alley its strongest jolt of noir cred: ripe-to-bursting Joan Blondell as sideshow mentalist Zeena; Coleen Gray as Molly, a.k.a. Electra, scandalous to county sheriffs because of the tin-foil two-piece she wears in her sparks-a-flying electric-chair act; and, higher up the social ladder where Stanton longs to dwell, the movie’s femme fatale, Lilith (Helen Walker), a crooked psychotherapist to the wealthy.


Tyrone Power & Joan Blondell in Nightmare Alley.

Even with a prestige director in Edmund Goulding, and lurid expressionistic lighting by cinematographer Lee Garmes, Nightmare Alley was not a success. Tyrone Power subsequently returned to more conventional roles, which is a shame, because he’s clearly enjoying himself here, especially in the opening carnival scenes, all working-class T-shirt and chewing-gum and an oil-drum’s worth of pomade slicking his hair. In his early thirties at the time, Power initially seems beyond the ideal age for the role of Stan Carlisle, who is a youthful twenty-one in the first half of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. The actor’s full-on commitment to the role, however, sells the characterization as handily as Stan’s doggedly mastered sleight-of-hand scarf and coin tricks. Power doesn’t evince a comparable set of skills in later scenes that are actually keyed closer to the actor’s age. Stan’s descent into alcoholism feels abrupt and unconvincing, in spite of our having been tipped off and conditioned to expect it. We’re meant to see parallels both to the drunken carny shill Pete Krumbein (played with aching pathos by veteran stage and silent film actor Ian Keith), whose death Stan inadvertently brings about earlier in the film, and the specter of the sideshow geek that so forcefully haunts the novel and the movie.


1949 paperback edition of Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. Cover art: James Avati.

The geek is a severely alcoholic freak-show performer who earns his daily allotment of booze by savagely biting off the heads of live chickens for the amusement of wide-eyed rubes. Nightmare Alley never for a moment lets us forget the addiction-addled beast that presumably resides within each of us. The geek’s frenzied delirium tremens screams echo subliminally on the soundtrack as if erupting from Stan’s unconscious during several doom-laden moments throughout the movie. Alcohol unleashes monsters in Nightmare Alley. No amount of psychological insight is adequate to quelling or even comprehending our primal depravity. Psychotherapy, like telepathy and spiritualism, is exposed here as just another con game for exploiting human weakness.

William Lindsay Gresham’s novel doesn’t waste its breath suggesting that alcoholic Pete Krumbein might have benefited from taking “the cure,” a plot point added to the movie by ace screenwriter Jules Furthman in all likelihood to soften the story’s cynicism. For every pulled punch in the script adaptation of Gresham’s still shockingly grim novel (Nick Tosches, in his 2010 intro to the reissued book, goes as far as to suggest that Gresham may have been binge drinking while writing it), there is often a compensating layer of irony or ambiguity. At the film’s finish, where viewers usually note a more hopeful outcome than in the novel, our worst expectations are momentarily overturned by a glimmer of rescue—or is it enabling?—in the downward spiral of Stan’s now nightmarish life. In our guts we all know what’s in store for Stanton Carlisle. His fate was sealed the moment he first set eyes on the geek.

Cat People(s): 2 Anniversaries

By Bob Wake

I. Cat People (1942)

The original Cat People (1942), directed by Jacques Tourneur, is both an acknowledged classic of suggestive horror and one of the most famous Hollywood B-movies of all time. First in a series of low-budget RKO fright films produced by Val Lewton, Cat People became a surprise hit that saved the studio from near-bankruptcy following the failure of two iconic films that in their day were costly flops—Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)—directed by the mercurial boy-genius, Orson Welles. Lewton, while unpretentious by Wellesian standards, was no less hungry to make movies.

Cannily, Lewton found a creative path within the system by working fast and cheap. (And finding an economical use for abandoned sets like the ornate staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons that shows up in Cat People.) He’d been a deadline-driven journalist and pulp novelist. And before being offered his own production unit at RKO studios, Lewton worked his way up at MGM as an ambitious story editor and researcher. Cat People’s disquieting atmosphere of Old World otherness combined with New World dislocation can be traced in part to the European backgrounds of Lewton, born in 1904 in what is now Ukraine, and Tourneur, born the same year in France. The film evokes a haunted American melting pot of primitive mythologies and new-fangled superstitions (i.e., psychoanalysis) ill-equipped for securing one’s safety or survival in a modern impersonal cityscape. It should come as no surprise that after working with Val Lewton, director Jacques Tourneur (along with Cat People cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca) went on to make the influential film noir, Out of the Past (1947), which helped define the genre as doom-laden and populated with psychologically crippled outsiders and social misfits.

Cat People’s Irena Dubrovna (played by French actress Simone Simon) is an aspiring fashion designer of Serbian heritage living in New York City. Introspective and melancholic, she believes herself descended from a devil-worshipping were-leopard who survived an Eastern European witch-hunting pogrom in the 16th century. Irena finds herself drawn to the caged leopard in the Central Park Zoo. Her impromptu marriage to a marine engineer (Kent Smith) remains unconsummated because Irena fears that her own unleashed passion will destroy her husband just like, it’s implied, her mother may have killed Irena’s father in a sexual frenzy when Irena was conceived.

Val Lewton wrote a short story, “The Bagheeta,” published some 12 years earlier in Weird Tales magazine, about medieval villagers hunting a black leopard believed to be a were-beast capable of transforming itself into a beautiful woman of taunting, deadly sensuality. Which is to say, a kind of origin myth for Cat People’s folkloric equating of arousal with bestiality and bloodlust. The screenplay is credited to DeWitt Bodeen, although Lewton contributed heavily to its thematic construction and rewriting. Biographer Edmund G. Bansak, in his book Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career, points to passages in “The Bagheeta,” such as the following, that clearly presage Cat People’s distinctive conjuring of fear and eroticized anxiety through the unseen:

Again he rode through the wood. Again he peered right and left for some sign of the beast, fearful always of seeing golden eyes glow at him from the pitch blackness of the night. Every rustle of the wind, every mouse that scampered on its way, flooded his heart with fear, and filled his eyes with the lithe, black bulk of the Bagheeta, stalking toward him on noiseless paws. With all his heart he wished that the beast would materialize, stand before him, allow him opportunities to slash and thrust and ward. Anything, even deep wounds, would be better than this dreadful uncertainty, this darkness haunted by the dark form of the were-beast.

Simone Simon in Cat People (1942).

Simone Simon’s complex portrayal of shapeshifter Irena Dubrovna is sympathetic in a manner not unlike that of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s bewildered lycanthropist Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1940), which had been a recent entry in the long line of lavish Universal studio horror hits that RKO wanted Val Lewton to replicate at a fraction of the cost. No time-consuming elaborate monster make-up for Simone Simon. Instead, characters are stalked by … something. Branches rustle. Shadows loom. Sinister growls echo from the locker room of an indoor swimming pool. Paw prints in the park appear to segue into high-heel shoe indentations.

Concerns that Lewton may have gone too far in substituting shadows and sound effects for in-your-face literal scares caused studio bosses to insist that a leopard be shown during the climactic mauling death of the psychotherapist (Tom Conway) who sexually assaults Irena in his office. Nevertheless, the film’s most frightening jump-in-your-seat moment—still effective 70 years later—is the oft-copied sudden lurching into the film frame of a city bus with its air-brakes hissing.

II. Cat People (1982)

The cult status of Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake of Cat People rests largely on a couple of tangential aspects of the production. First, the David Bowie/Giorgio Moroder theme song, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” endures as a great Bowie track and gained further pop culture permanence with Quentin Tarantino’s wildly effective use of the song in a climactic sequence of Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Second, director Paul Schrader’s cocaine-fueled obsession with the film’s star, Nastassja Kinski, as recounted in Peter Biskind’s guilty-pleasure history of 1970s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, rivals the stories of Alfred Hitchcock’s creepy abuse of Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds (1963). Schrader shot more nudity of Kinski than the actress was comfortable with. He then spitefully added much of it to the film in retaliation for Kinski quitting their turbulant relationship during production. After finishing the movie, she fled to Paris with Schrader in pursuit. Kinski reportedly told him: “Paul, I always fuck my directors. And with you it was difficult.”

The 1982 Cat People relocates the story to contemporary New Orleans, where Kinski’s character Irena Gallier arrives at the film’s opening to be reunited with her brother—a shapeshifting minister played with menacing brio by Malcolm McDowell—whom she hasn’t seen since childhood. Unfortunately, before we meet Kinski and McDowell, we’re treated to a turgid 6-minute prologue of cat people “mythology.” The film never really finds an effective juxtapositional tone between its gruesome modern-day tale of sexual violence and the primal symbolism of the prologue (and a later scene set in the same blood-red dreamscape). A not dissimilar film from the same era, Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), found a way to integrate this kind of Jung-on-acid material so that the border between waking reality and the unconscious seemed radically porous.

There are compensatory pleasures to be found in Schrader’s Cat People, to be sure, beginning with its high-toned production design and sensational cast. In addition to Kinski and McDowell, there’s John Heard’s shy zoologist whose obsession with Irena brings out his inner fetishist; Annette O’Toole as Heard’s spurned love interest; Ruby Dee as McDowell’s Creole housekeeper; and Ed Begley, Jr. as the affable zoo-employee sidekick whose arm is graphically torn off in a memorable blood-spurting shock moment.

Nastassja Kinski & Malcolm McDowell in Cat People (1982).

Paul Schrader’s films have suffered somewhat unfairly in their critical reception over the years because his reputation as the brilliant screenwriter of two classic Martin Scorsese films—Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980)—has raised unfulfilled and probably unreasonable expectations for his own directorial efforts. Cat People was not a box office success. This resulted in Schrader being pushed out of studio-financed work and toward the rocky shoals of independent filmmaking. (He has grabbed a lot of attention and raised some eyebrows for his latest project, The Canyons, a Kickstarter-funded mock-exploitation film due out next year, with a script by Bret Easton Ellis and starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen.)

Further complicating any clear-eyed appraisals of Schrader’s work is his vaunted renown as a trenchant film critic in his own right, in particular as the author of Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, a remarkable examination of the “Holy” in the filmmaking styles of the three European directors addressed in the book title. The study grew out of a thesis written at UCLA Film School, where Schrader received an MA after studying theology at Calvin College. He’d fallen under the spell and personal mentorship of famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. Because Schrader’s intellectual background precedes him, film scholars have sometimes been misled in their desire to find deeper layers of philosophical intent to his movies. (To which one wishes to add: Good luck deconstructing The Canyons.)

Summer of the Cinetherapist

My story “Summer of the Cinetherapist” was a runner-up in the 2011 Wisconsin People & Ideas short story contest and subsequently appeared in Rosebud Magazine (Autumn 2011). Now it’s a CBR Press ebook single. And for a limited time it’s a free download from Amazon. (Otherwise, 99 cents.) I’ve outfitted the text with a handful of public domain film stills courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Curious fact: While films and publicity photos typically fall under copyright law, pre-1964 movie trailers often don’t, nor do trailer screenshots. Wikimedia, to my surprise and delight, has public domain trailer screenshots from movies that are integral to “Summer of the Cinetherapist,” such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Mildred Pierce, and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Voilà: an illustrated edition of “Summer of the Cinetherapist.” Enjoy!

Pynchon Speaks …

It’s confirmed. The voiceover on the video trailer for Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, the noirish Inherent Vice, is the reclusive author himself. Reading in character as Doc Sportello, the novel’s private-eye protagonist, he has the same laid-back doper’s cadence as Jeff Bridges’ “the Dude” from The Big Lebowski. Pynchon is still cool at seventy-two. Reviews of Inherent Vice have been mixed. (“Feels more like a Classic Comics version of a Pynchon novel than like the thing itself,” says Kakutani in the New York Times.) Nevertheless, Will Blythe’s thoughtful online review at The Second Pass has me wanting to pick up the novel sooner rather than later. (Blythe’s verdict: “Inherent Vice, an act of minor Pynchon, is still major enough.”)

The Friends of Eddie Coyle


Robert Mitchum

Versatile British film director Peter Yates gave Steve McQueen one of his defining roles as a laconic steely-nerved San Francisco cop in Bullitt (1968). Yates did something similar for an aging Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), a film finally getting a long-overdue and much-anticipated DVD release. Rather than a signature role for an emerging superstar, the part of hardluck hood and Boston mob gunrunner Eddie Coyle is low-key and unassuming, ideally suited to Mitchum’s disaffected persona. Disaffection was Mitchum’s stock-in-trade, reflecting a kind of no-bullshit post-WWII cynicism and emotional guardedness. In his fifties when Eddie Coyle was made, Mitchum’s sagging jowls seem finally to have caught up with the smartass defeatism behind his jaded line readings. He appears in only a quarter of the film, but it’s a great performance that haunts the story even when he’s off screen. Call it a disappearing act. Mitchum disappears in the role and the role disappears in the movie, dimming in the end to darkness like a burnt-out taillight on a ’68 Ford Galaxie.

George V. Higgins’s 1970 novel—a stunning debut for the author, a former journalist and attorney who died in 1999 at 59—has only improved with age, a must-read for fans of the movie. Find a copy of the 2000 paperback reissue with Elmore Leonard’s introduction, in which he states flat-out that The Friends of Eddie Coyle is “the best crime novel ever written.” It’s also first-rate literary fiction. (One of the chapters originally appeared in the North American Review.) Higgins didn’t much care for being pigeonholed as a genre writer, as he discusses in his still relevant and useful 1990 writer’s manual, On Writing:

Regardless of whether you relish the prospect, every reader who encounters your prose, whether amateur (your friends and family) or professional (heartless editors if you’re unlucky, brilliantly insightful editors if you are blessed), with the first sentence will automatically commence the process of categorizing it, subjectively determining—often if not usually quite erroneously—where it belongs in the stream of current writing (I learned this the hard way: my first published book was categorized as a “hard-boiled detective story”—it was not—and most of the others since have been critically rated by reference to the same ill-chosen scale, thus neatly deflecting the general reader—the reader I have in mind—while deceitfully luring the crime-story addict. This leaves many in the first group cruelly deprived of acquaintance with my genius, many in the second group feeling themselves meanly bilked, and me with much smaller royalty checks than I would prefer to receive).

Higgins relied heavily on dialogue, seemingly naturalistic yet stylized wiseguy lingo, in a manner that would influence not only Elmore Leonard, but also David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino (who borrowed the name “Jackie Brown” from a character in Eddie Coyle).

Soundings: John Lehman

Recorded exclusively for Coffee Spew, here’s Wisconsin poet John Lehman reading from his work. First, from Acting Lessons (Parallel Press, 2008), a film noir reverie:

Things More Distant Than They Appear / John Lehman

Let’s say that you had just two choices. The first, to leave
Rick’s Club, walk the six blocks down to your girl’s place
and apologize. The second, to stay and finish your drink.
The entranceway—stark, mail on the floor, broken buzzer
and unlocked door—with a little Scotch, takes on a movie
musical glow. A set where you tap dance up the staircase
into the arms of someone who is young and silken-robed.
In fact, the place is shabby. One, two, three stories of fried
onion smell. Then, of course her apartment door is locked
and at this time of night, why would she answer anybody’s
knock? So, it would be back to Rick’s anyway, right? No,
not quite, because you see the door is inexplicably ajar,
though all is dark inside. Now there are two more choices:
to call out “hello”—the only sensible thing to do—or push
the door open and, very quietly step within, the idea being
that you’ll make your way to her room, kneel beside her
bed and whisper your affection in her delicate ear as she
dreamily awakes. In you go, for this is the night of fools,
feeling furniture with your toes stealthily as a cat. Each
step takes days, each day is a week. Your lifetime passes
as you breathe through the doorway to her bed which is
—What did you expect?—empty. All you know for sure,
is that you’re tired and drunk and sad. You want to tumble
on top of that bed for a minute’s rest. You do, and dream
that you are back at Rick’s, and this time she comes in.
She puts her fingers to your lips; there’s no need for you to
speak. “My place or yours,” she smiles and since you already
smell the lavender candles of her room and feel the softness
of her pillows on your cheek, there are no choices, anymore.
But you’re not in her dreams, like she’s in yours. You don’t
need to leave Rick’s to discover that. So you sit and listen
to Chet Baker’s trumpet on the jukebox, to remember and forget.


Next, from Dogs Dream of Running (Salmon Run Press, 2001), an affectionate encounter with the late, great author:

John Updike Spills the Beans Riding through New Jersey / John Lehman

It was about this same time of year. We
were driving through a rural New Jersey
night, the wife of a Princeton Italian pro-
fessor, Tom Kennedy and me. She had
organized a day for us to conduct writing
workshops and now after the culminating
event, a lecture by the legendary John
Updike, we were headed to a reception
at the house of a dean. “Wasn’t Updike
something?” we all asked, remembering
the eloquence of his extemporaneous
words as they blended seamlessly with
excerpts which he read, like some vast
swelling on a literary sea, to raise us, not
to truth or beauty, but to a profound, new
level of sleep. Tom admitted to nodding
off several times and I to once awakening
with a start. Even our hostess could not
deny, “with the warmth, the lights, the ‘oh
so busy’ day …” But now how deliciously
refreshed we were, ready over cocktails
and hors d’oeuvres to impress each other,
all over again, with cleverness and wit.

Later, in the Cadillac en route to the motel,
we three were joined by the man himself.
He proved humble in a way the successful
are humble, dismissing their genius, though
mindful the rest of us be sure to disagree.
A lanky man slightly bending an enormous
head, he said, “I couldn’t help but notice
there was one person who … fell asleep.”
Was that the engine or his rising voice that
roared? He continued, “All I could think of
was how I might rouse this poor soul in the
third row from her stuporous dreams.” At this
pronoun Tom and I exhaled, and our driver
let us know, from where she was sitting
in the wings she didn’t see anything. “Well,”
he sighed, “that reminds me of when T.S.
Eliot came to Yale. We had waited hours
in line to hear him speak. Student seats
were high in the balcony and amidst the
rising radiator heat …” And here the courtly
Updike chortled to himself, like a spent
wave tickling the sand on a distant beach.
“Can you imagine,” he said, “I fell asleep.”

Hangover Square


Laird Cregar in Hangover Square (1945)

Wisconsin winters are a leveling force. Ground zero. Then there’s thirteen degrees below ground zero. Like today. The choice is clear: you can watch yourself go nuts, or, better still, you can watch a superb new DVD about a schizophrenic composer and let the guy in the movie go nuts. Hangover Square (1945) was the last film to star Laird Cregar, one of Hollywood’s great forgotten talents. He died, age 28 (or 31; his date of birth has been given variously as 1913 or 1916), while the movie was in postproduction. Weighing some 300 pounds in earlier roles, Cregar put himself on a crash diet (i.e., amphetamines) that resulted not only in his losing 80 pounds for Hangover Square but also brought on a stomach disorder, hospitalization, and finally a heart attack. hangover5Typecast once too often as an overweight psychopath, he yearned to unleash his inner matinee idol. Whether or not the sexually conflicted Cregar might have transformed himself into a proto-Montgomery Clift is anyone’s guess, but there’s no disputing the fact that few actors before or since have played an overweight psychopath with such soulful, wrenching menace and pathos. Film noir fans know him as the disturbed Inspector Ed Cornell in I Wake Up Screaming (1941). Horror buffs know his Jack the Ripper in The Lodger (1944). But nothing compares with Hangover Square. Cregar is George Harvey Bone, a frustrated composer of serious music (whose dissonant “Concerto Macabre” for piano and orchestra was written for the movie by Hitchcock’s great film composer Bernard Herrmann). The story is set in fog-shrouded turn of the century London, a backlot cost-cutting decision that allowed for using the sets left over from The Lodger.

Linda Darnell

Linda Darnell

The psychotic sad sack Mr. Bone falls under the spell of a femme fatale music hall singer played by Linda Darnell. He also suffers blackouts that send him on murderous rampages, killing cats and antique dealers and anyone else who ticks him off. Hangover Square boasts at least two bravura sequences: Bone’s hauling a corpse up a ladder to the top of a massive Guy Fawkes Night bonfire, and the climactic performance of the Concerto Macabre with Bone madly pounding away at the piano with the concert hall engulfed in flames. It’s a potent metaphor for the artist’s imagination and the thin line between creativity and self-destruction. An inferno guaranteed to keep you toasty on the coldest of winter nights.

Noir or Noir Not?

This is a golden age for film noir on DVD. One of the latest and long-awaited treats is Road House (1948). Looks terrific, especially Jefty’s, the neon-lit roadhouse/bowling alley where much of the action takes place, an elaborate dreamscape of a studio set. The digitally sharp black and white is certainly superior to the VHS copy I taped off of AMC years ago (a broadcast dated July 2, 1993). There are purists, such as Dave Kehr, who don’t feel Road House qualifies as film noir. (See David Denby’s definition quoted in an earlier Coffee Spew post: “violent, saturnine, dark-city crime narratives driven by strongly motivated characters.”) He’s probably right. Road House is more of a love-triangle melodrama with precious little psychological probing of its stock characters.

Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm, Ida Lupino, and Richard Widmark in a publicity pose for “Road House”

And yet there are noirish touches throughout. Certainly Ida Lupino’s character, hardluck lounge singer Lily Stevens with her lit cigarette notching burn marks on the pianotop, would be at home in any of the nightclubs found in classic noirs like Gilda (1946), They Live by Night (1948), or In a Lonely Place (1950). Then there’s Richard Widmark. His performance as Jefty Robbins—whose improbable third-act freakout seems designed to reprise the giggling psychopath that the actor played to great acclaim the previous year in Kiss of Death—gives Road House its strongest dose of noir cred. But, yeah, this flick is pushing its luck. I found it less satisfying than I remembered.

Do I recommend it? Heck yes! Ida Lupino at 34 is ravishing. Sure, her singing is pretty bad—as Celeste Holm accurately mentions at one point in the movie—but its her own voice, she refused to be dubbed, and it fits the character to a tee. Be sure to watch Road House a second time with the commentary track by Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan. Really gets fun about halfway through when Muller starts pouring drinks.

Otto Focus

Simmons & Mitchum in "Angel Face"

Simmons & Mitchum in Angel Face (1953).

As regards classic 1940s and 50s film noir, David Denby said it best in his recent New Yorker profile of director Otto Preminger:

So many pictures now are bloated with unnecessary spectacle and backstory that the economy and decisiveness of the noirs—violent, saturnine, dark-city crime narratives driven by strongly motivated characters—seems more miraculous than ever.

Preminger’s best-known noir is Laura (1944), but cognoscenti and coffee spewers alike prefer Angel Face (1953), starring Jean Simmons as femme fatale and Robert Mitchum as unsuspecting chump. Should you watch Angel Face on DVD, don’t miss the commentary by Eddie Muller.


Recall: A Short Story

Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism

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Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

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