Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 969

Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: February 18, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 120 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

English Mono LPCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 Kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles:  English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.98 Mbps

Notes: This release also includes 2 disc DVD set. Warner Brothers has also given the film a DVD release. However, this Criterion edition is the only version available on Blu-ray.

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“I had offered Gary Cooper the Joel McCrea part in Foreign Correspondent. I had a terrible job casting the thriller-suspense films in America, because over here this kind of story was looked on as second-rate. In England, they’re part of the literature, and I had no trouble casting Donat or anybody else there. Here I ran into it all the time until Cary, who’s really English. Afterward, Cooper said, ‘Well, I should have done that, shouldn’t I?’ Of course I don’t think it was Cooper himself. I think the people around him advised him against it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

It isn’t surprising that Alfred Hitchcock decided to make a film that contained anti-neutrality sentiment. Shortly after his voyage to America; London was bombed and Hitchcock worried about the safety his family. He even tried to convince his Mother to join him in America.

David O. Selznick was famous for loaning out his contracted talent for a hefty profit and decided to do so when Walter Wanger requested the services of his star director. Wanger had bought the rights to Vincent Sheean’s memoir Personal History and he wanted Hitchcock to bring the book to the screen. Hitchcock used only the basic idea of the book and constructed an original screenplay (with Alma Reville, Joan Harrison, and Charles Bennett) that can really only claim to be inspired by Sheean’s memoir.

The resulting production can only be described as “extravagant.”

“With Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock hoped to advance his American career. When Selznick loaned him to Walter Wanger in late November 1939, both producers apparently contemplated a twelve week schedule. Hitchcock consistently exaggerated his speed and may well have promised to develop the script in only three or four weeks [and] shoot it in eight or nine. A lax supervisor, Wanger gave the reins to Hitchcock and let the production take its course. Three months later, the screenplay remained unfinished and pre-production expenses had begun to soar. According to press releases, nearly six hundred craftsmen and technicians worked on Foreign Correspondent, many of them building the enormous sets. Hitchcock supervised construction of a three-story windmill, an Amsterdam city square, an airplane interior, and a mock-up of London’s Waterloo Station. A replica of the Clipper ran $47,000, and the director’s subtle lighting effects required a special relay system from the cameraman to the gaffer. By June 1940, costs approached a reported 1.5 million and would finally tower over those of Rebecca.

‘As soon as I was working for someone I wasn’t under contract to,’ Hitchcock later said, ‘the supervision was lessened.’ Selznick understood the consequences. Although Hitchcock’s assignment to Wanger ultimately lasted thirty weeks and brought his employer a $54,000 gross profit, Selznick grew concerned about the picture’s long schedule. United Artists had accused Wanger of inadequately controlling his operation and broken with him; through ‘improper supervision,’ Dan O’Shea told Selznick, Wanger had now made Hitchcock appear ‘an exceedingly slow director.’ Production manager Ray Klune confirmed the point: Hollywood had begun to gossip that the quality of Foreign Correspondent only barely justified its cost. As Selznick realized, unchecked extravagance would make Hitchcock difficult to handle and even more difficult to lend.

Hitchcock returned from Wanger with a fresh taste of independence…”

– Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood)

Hitchcock’s extravagance paid off for Wanger, even if it was a thorn in Selznick’s side. Audiences and critics both raved about the film. Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception:

“They say that the current heroes of Americans, young and old, are the foreign correspondents, those dashing chaps who presumably hop all over Europe, Asia, Africa and points between, hobnobbing with influential persons, catching wars on the wing and rushing madly every few minutes to cable home the latest hot news. If such is the case, then Walter Wanger’s own special Foreign Correspondent, which arrived at the Rivoli last night, should be the particular favorite of a great many wonder-eyed folk. For into it Director Alfred Hitchcock, whose unmistakable stamp the picture bears, has packed about as much romantic action, melodramatic hullabaloo, comical diversion and illusion of momentous consequence as the liveliest imagination could conceive.

Never, we venture to suspect, has there been an American news scout abroad who got himself so fantastically involved in international monkey-shines as does Mr. Hitchcock’s bewitched and bewildered Joel McCrea. And never, we know for a fact, has Mr. Hitchcock let his flip fancy roam with such wild and reckless abandon as he does in the present case. Instead of a young reporter covering Europe methodically for his sheet, Mr. Hitchcock is giving us a picture of Europe—or, at least, a small but extremely sinister sub-sector of same—doing its most devious best to cover and destroy Mr. McCrea. And although this does not abuse the romantic conception of a correspondent’s career it does make for some oddly exciting and highly improbable shenanigans.

Improbable? Well, after all, no one expects probability in a Hitchcock picture. The secret of the fellow’s success is his command of the least expected [and] his use of the explosive surprise which often verges upon the absurd. Usually he manages to keep things moving with such fascinating rapidity that he never goes over the edge, but this time he comes perilously close. With the news-hawk hopelessly entangled in a monstrous spy plot, beyond his control or even his comprehension; with Mr. Hitchcock trotting out some rather obvious old tricks of suspense and diabolically piling on the trouble, the patron is likely to suspect that his leg is being deliberately pulled. Even Mr. McCrea, in a desperate moment, yelps helplessly, ‘The one thing everybody forgets is that I’m a reporter!’

Obviously, it is unfair to reveal the plot of a Hitchcock picture. So the most we can tell you about this one is that it casts a young police reporter, sent to Europe in August, 1939, because his publisher believes ‘a crime is hatching over there,’ right bang in the middle of a big ‘fifth column’ plot in London; sets him legging after a kidnapped Dutch statesman and in turn brings the Nazi agents down on him. There is much flesh-creepy business, much genuinely comical by-play and a generous interlarding of romance. And it reaches a fantastic climax on the wing of a shell-wrecked transatlantic plane in mid-ocean. Some story!

No one but Hitchcock would dare to whip up a picture like this and for those who can take their sensationalism without batting a skeptical eye it should be high-geared entertainment. The cast is uniformly good, especially in the minor roles, and some of the photographic sequences are excellent—especially one in an old Dutch windmill. Only Robert Benchley, who plays a broken-down bowler-and-cane type of London correspondent, tends too heavily toward travesty—just a shade too heavily. And that is the lone inclination which Foreign Correspondent could most becomingly do without.” –Bosley Crowther (The New York Times, August 28, 1940)

His derogatory commentary about Robert Benchley’s performance seems unfair and does not extend to most of the other reviews written on the film.

One wonders what Selznick thought when he heard about the film’s various Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, B&W Art Direction, and Special Effects). The film would be in direct competition with Rebecca (which was produced by Selznick)! Whatever his reaction may have been, it was soon remedied when Rebecca took home the golden statue.

While many of the propaganda films from this era have aged awkwardly, Hitchcock’s thriller still manages to engage modern audiences. Donald Spoto shares this opinion and elaborates:

“…Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent has best withstood the years, and even after just one viewing, the picture clearly reveals concerns beyond its concluding propaganda statement (tacked on by producer Walter Wanger). Charles Bennett’s and Joan Harrison’s screenplay is adventurous and entertaining, and the brilliant production design by William Cameron Menzies made for a film of astonishing visual complexity. In its meticulous structure, its disarming humor and its multi-leveled humanity, Foreign Correspondent remains without a doubt a Hitchcock Masterwork.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Foreign Correspondent is not as well known as other Hitchcock films, but this should not be interpreted as a sign of inferiority. The film is thoroughly enjoyable and contains some amazing sequences that stand amongst director’s most iconic set pieces.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has always packaged their discs in an attractive manner, but this release is one of their most beautiful presentations to date. The box features a spectacular cover illustration designed by Patrick Leger (and designed by F. Ron Miller). A booklet is also included and features an essay by James Naremore that is entitled “The Windmills of War.”

Box Set Art 5

Box Set Art 1

Box Set Art 2

Box Set Art 4

The menus are attractive and are in the same style as other Criterion titles and features music and ambiance from the film.

Menu 1

Everything about this release is presented with an elegance that is sure to delight cinemaphiles. This is by far the best presentation that any Hitchcock film has ever received on Blu-ray (so far).

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Foreign Correspondent is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:37.1. On widescreen televisions black bars will appear on the left and right hand sides of the image to maintain the proper screen format. This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices warps, and jitter were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, and flicker.” –The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s meticulous work on this transfer has paid off. To say that this 1080P transfer is a step above the previous Warner Brothers release (available on DVD) is a bit of an understatement. Much of the damage evident in the older release has miraculously disappeared and there is more information on all four sides of the frame due to the accurate 1:37.1 aspect ratio. The picture clarity is superb and contrast is beautifully rendered. One notices details and textures that haven’t been evident on any previous home video format.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” –The Criterion Collection

The sound quality has also been notably improved over the previous Warner Brothers release of the film. The disc’s uncompressed Mono mix sounds extremely clean and one must strain to hear a slight amount of hiss, which is really the only freckle on the face of this track.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Dick Cavett Show – (1:02:06)

Dick Cavett Show Logo

In 1972, Alfred Hitchcock was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show and the resulting interview is one of the most entertaining and informative television interviews with the director that this reviewer has ever seen. It is nice to finally see it featured on home video.

Dick Cavett Show Screenshot

Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent – (18:57)

Special effects expert, Craig Barron provides an extremely in-depth analysis of the special features included in the film. Viewers are not only told but are also shown how the various effects were achieved.

Hollywood Propaganda and World War II – (25:19)

Mark Harris discusses the background of propaganda films and elaborates on the political atmosphere that surrounded their creation. He also gives a rather detailed account of the origins and production of Foreign Correspondent. It is a very compelling addition to the disc and should delight fans of the film.

Theatrical Trailer – (2:23)

This trailer for Foreign Correspondent is one of the more interesting trailers from the era.

Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors

One of the more interesting and unusual items on this disc is this1942 Life magazine “photo-drama” by Alfred Hitchcock. Life explained the essay in a short letter to their readers:

LIFE ESSAY - BTS

“From Stephen Early, [White House press] secretary to President Roosevelt, recently came the suggestions that LIFE tell a picture story of wartime rumors and the damage they are liable to do. In accordance with this request, the editors asked Alfred Hitchcock, famed Hollywood movie director, to produce such a story, with LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon as his cameraman. When Mr. Hitchcock graciously agreed, a script was prepared, the director picked his characters from the ranks of movie professionals and LIFE’s Los Angeles staff, and shooting commenced in Hollywood.

Have You Heard? is the result of their cooperation in photo-dramatization. A simply sexless story, it shows how patriotic but talkative Americans pass along information, true or false, until finally deadly damage is done to their country’s war effort. One false rumor is silenced by a man who later is unwittingly responsible for starting a true rumor which ends in a great catastrophe. Moral: Keep your mouth shut.” –Life Magazine

The director even makes one of his cameo appearances!

 LIFE ESSAY - Hitchcock CAMEO

This is an extremely interesting addition to the disc that adds an incredible amount of value.

1946 Radio Adaptation of Foreign Correspondent – (25:07)

Joseph Cotton stars in this interesting radio adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film. The story has been gutted like a fish and restructured to accommodate the much shorter length of the radio program, but this is an interesting companion piece to the film.

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Final Words:

Criterion deserves to be thanked and congratulated for their wonderful efforts. This release goes beyond offering a great transfer of a great film. It also contains one of the most impressive supplemental packages available on any Hitchcock related Blu-ray release. The included 2-disc DVD set is also a very welcome addition to this package.

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The Criterion Collection’s Foreign Correspondent page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/27692-foreign-correspondent

Review by: Devon Powell

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Blu-ray Review: The Trouble with Harry

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: 02/Jul/2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 99 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (24bit, 48kHz)

Alternate Audio: 2.0 French Mono DTS (24bit, 48 kHz)

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Notes: This title has had at least two DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

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“I didn’t change [the novel] very much. To my taste, the humor is quite rich. One of the best lines is when old Edmund Gwenn is dragging the body along for the first time and a woman comes up to him on the hill and says, “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?” To me that’s terribly funny; that’s the spirit of the whole story. I’ve always been interested in establishing a contrast, in going against the traditional and in breaking away from clichés. With Harry, I took melodrama out of the pitch-black night and brought it into the sunshine. It’s if I set up a murder alongside a rustling brook and spilled a drop of blood in the clear water. These contrasts establish a counterpoint; they elevate the commonplace in life to a higher level.”  – Alfred Hitchcock

The Trouble With Harry was a very troubled production. Hitchcock decided to shoot the film on location, but the weather never cooperated and the acoustics in the gymnasium (where the sets were built) created unusable sound. The problems seemed to elevate when an overhead bracket supporting the enormous VistaVision camera broke and it came crashing down, nearly crushing the director. The camera merely swiped Hitchcock’s shoulder, but one of the crew members was injured in the incident. When the  production fell behind schedule, Hitchcock was forced to move his production back to the more predictable confines of the Hollywood studio.

However, the production wasn’t completely cursed. The film gods were smiling on Hitchcock when it came time to cast the picture. The casting of Shirley MacLaine seems to have been divine providence:

“…I would learn to dance and eventually become a chorus girl and understudy to Carol Haney in the Broadway musical, The Pajama Game…

Unknown to me, there were two men in the audience of that Pajama Game performance that would change my life forever; Hal Wallis (the Hollywood producer who discovered Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis), and Doc Ericson (a representative for the legendary director, Alfred Hitchcock).

Here I was – a nineteen year old chorus girl, with no acting experience, [and] Hitchcock put me in a room with Mildred Natwick, Edmund Gwenn and John Forsythe. These were the premiere actors on Broadway and now were my co-stars. We were together during the first reading and having no previous experience, I just read it instinctively. When we were finished, Hitch, in his quirky sense of humor, said, ‘You have the guts of a bank robber.’ Because of Hitch’s reputation, I knew I had the job!

I was scared, but curious, and yearned for the learning experience as I joined the film crew in Vermont. I have fond memories of all the cast. In the beginning John Forsythe tolerated me as an amateur, but then realized I had an instinct for acting and started to appreciate this gift. I learned so much from all of them.

Hitchcock was a connoisseur of food and had great knowledge in this area. We shot in Vermont because the hotel we stayed in, The Lodge, was famous for the best food in Stowe, Vermont. He liked the leaves of Vermont, but he really appreciated the food. There was always plenty on the set and I ate all of it because it was free. In my days as a chorus girl I hadn’t had much to eat. I existed on graham crackers and peanut butter. When I began the picture I was svelte and lithe, but by the time I buried Harry for the last time, the head of the studio called me… I think the word was blimp.

Hitch had a mind-tease code that kept you alert. One morning he came waddling toward me, eyes twinkling, roly-poly stomach well out in the lead.

‘Pleasant period following death.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Genuine chopper, old girl, genuine chopper.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘And after your first line – dog’s feet.’

Finally, Hitch explained his version of cockney rhyming slang:

Good mourning. (Pleasant period following death)

Real-Axe. (Genuine chopper)

After you start your first line, paws. (Dog’s feet)

What a mind. I have the greatest appreciation for this mystery-meister who gave me the freedom of artistic expression, to seek and learn from some of the best. Hitch, wherever you are, I love you and will see you again…”Shirley MacLaine

A star was born. MacLaine went on to be one of Hollywood’s most beloved leading ladies, but never appeared in another Hitchcock film. However, the production also marked the beginning of the director’s working relationship with Bernard Herrmann and the composer would go on to score all of the director’s films through Marnie. Music scholar, Robert Barnett, called the composer’s score a milestone in his career:

“It was his first Hitchcock outing. The music itself (or elements of it) may be familiar under another title. When Herrmann was in the studio for Phase Four Decca in 1968 he fashioned a concert piece from it and called it ‘A Portrait of Hitch.’ He did this because he felt that this music reflected Hitch’s dry and diabolic sense of humor…

…The orchestral specification is modest: double wind, four horns, harp and strings. As was his usual custom he uses the orchestra in smaller groupings selecting a color from his palette to match mood and image.

The music he wrote for the film exposes veins and arteries of winning freshness. Not one of the forty tracks is poor or misjudged. Herrmann gives every sign of having been totally immersed in lyricism and of enjoying every moment of it…” -The Bernard Herrmann Society

Unfortunately, the film wasn’t very successful at the box office. Alfred Hitchcock speculated that the film was improperly marketed to the public.

“I think The Trouble with Harry needed special handling. It wouldn’t have failed commercially if the people in the distribution organization had known what to do with the picture; but it got into the assembly line and that was that.”  – Alfred Hitchcock

This might very well be the case. In an article about Jerry Pickman (a publicist at Paramount), Pickman admits that he didn’t think that the studio would be able to market the film.

“Hitchcock wanted to make a picture called The Trouble with Harry. He had a little girl named Shirley MacLaine– ‘I never heard of her,’ said the studio head–and an old man, Edmund Gwenn, and it was going to cost $800,000. We all shook our heads, the answer was no. Well, every morning I would have the studio send me a capsule of all the announcements they made to the press. They would give me a summary, and the next morning I see they announced The Trouble with Harry. I was a little annoyed but I wasn’t going to go down and challenge the president of the company…

… Balaban walked in, had his lunch, and as he walked around he said, ‘Is something bothering you? You didn’t say hello to me.’ I said, ‘I’m annoyed, Barney. Why did we have the meeting yesterday? We decided not to make the picture and the studio wired this morning saying we’re going ahead with it. If you changed it, why didn’t you tell us?’ He said, ‘I was too embarrassed. After we all said no, the studio head called back and said, ‘Barney, I can’t tell Hitchcock no, because he gave us To Catch a Thief and Rear Window. I haven’t got the courage to say no to him, so I told him we were going to make the picture.’ And that’s how the picture was made. That was how the company was run.” -Jerry Pickman

It has been written that The Trouble with Harry nearly ruined Hitchcock’s career, but this is not the case at all. It is more accurate to say that the film was simply ignored. Critical reception wasn’t particularly complimentary, but it certainly wasn’t hostile. Bosley Crowther’s review was typical of the critical reception towards the film:

“…It is not a particularly witty or clever script that John Michael Hayes has put together from a novel by Jack Trevor Story, nor does Mr. Hitchcock’s direction make it spin. The pace is leisurely, almost sluggish, and the humor frequently is strained. The whimsy inclines to be pretentious, such as Miss Natwick’s cheery reply to Mr. Gwenn’s expressed hope that her father’s death was peaceful: “He was caught in a threshing machine.” Or again, when the two are out exhuming the freshly buried corpse, she says, ‘After we’ve dug him up, we’ll go back to my place and I’ll make you some hot chocolate.’” – The New York Times (October 18, 1955)

Today, this seems like an unfair analysis. A recent review published in The Guardian labeled the film a “masterpiece.” I disagree with this statement, but the film is certainly on par with other comedies of the period and better than most of them. It stands out as a decidedly unusual film in the director’s canon and has earned the admiration that it now receives from cinemaphiles.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

collection page

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork.

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s 1080P transfer of The Trouble with Harry is really surprisingly beautiful. Robert Burks’ autumn landscapes are vivid and accurate and viewers will see detail and clarity never before observed on any previous home video format. Contrast is perfectly rendered with deep black levels and the source print is nearly immaculate. While grain is certainly apparent, this is inherent in the film’s celluloid source and contributes to a more cinematic experience. It is actually rather difficult to find something to complain about.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

I suppose that some might complain about the lack of a 5.1 mix, but the 2.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio is accurate and a vast improvement over those included on previous home video releases. There is no perceptible hiss present and the track seems to be free from other annoying signs of age as well. Dialogue is consistent and always intelligible and Bernard Herrmann’s music has more room to breath due to the lossless nature of this track. For one to expect anything better than this seems rather unreasonable.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

All of the supplementary materials from the DVD releases have been ported over to this Blu-ray disc.

The Trouble with Harry Isn’t Over – (SD) – (32 minutes)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary on the making of The Trouble With Harry is a delightful look into the making of this often overlooked film. John Forsythe, John Michael Hayes, Herbert Coleman, Patricia Hitchcock, and Steven Smith (Bernard Herrmann’s Biographer) discuss the production.

Production Photographs – (SD)

This photo gallery plays by itself as a sort of slide show, but there is the option of skipping to the next photo.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

The trouble with the “Theatrical Trailer” on this disc is that it is not an actual Trailer. It is merely a promo for the VHS release of the film. This is a shame. It would have been interesting to see how Paramount chose to market this unique film.

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Final Words:

The Trouble with Harry has been given an amazing Blu-ray release. I would recommend adding it to your collection.

 Review by: Devon Powell