Bond Wardrobe Review 16: Licence to Kill (1989)

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Licence to Dress for the 1980s

James Bond: Timothy Dalton
Director: John Glen
Costume designer: Jodie Tillen
Tailoring: Stefano Ricci and Universal Studios tailor shop

Overview

Licence to Kill was a big shakeup from The Living Daylights. Though Timothy Dalton and director John Glen both returned again, the film’s production moved from Pinewood Studios in the UK to Mexico and the United States. American Jodie Tillen was hired as the costume designer, and her modern American sensibilities took the costumes in a new direction.

Bond’s wardrobe in the previous four films never delved deeply into the fashions of the 1980s. Alongside the relaxed trendy fashions was a revival of more traditional styles in the 1980s, and until Licence to Kill Bond had followed this revival. However, in Licence to Kill James Bond dressed as much for the 1980s as Roger Moore had dressed for the 1970s.

Both 1970s and 1980s fashion trends are about excess, but in different ways. The 1970s was about stylistic excess while the 1980s was more about clothes being oversized for a slouchier, relaxed look. Neither trend partiuclarly speaks to the character of James Bond, but Bond also needs to look current. The original versions of the character were never overly concerned with fashion trends, and while Bond appreciates luxury, he’s not a man of excess.

While Jodie Tillen did a good job of making James Bond look current to the late 1980s, it was a tremendous departure from what Bond wore before. To me, it looks like Bond lost his luggage filled with his usual English bespoke clothes when travelling to Key West and had to purchase new clothes in America.

Formal Wear

For the film’s pre-title sequence, Bond is outfitted in morning dress as the best man at Felix Leiter’s wedding. The morning dress lacks the sophistication of his similar outfit in A View to a Kill, but this is because he’s attending an American wedding with hired clothes. And since Bond was travelling overseas to this wedding, it’s unlikely he had any say in selecting the wedding attire. Felix, his bride Della or Sharkey would be to blame.

The morning dress that Bond wears was very typical for American weddings in the 1980s, thus the costume choice is perfect for the occasion and setting. But it’s too ordinary for costume in a Bond film. A wedding in Bond film needs to look a little more glamourous and particularly not like a typical middle class American wedding. The pleated-front wing-collar shirt, the clip-on cravat—with a visible hook—and a morning coat and waistcoat in clashing shades of grey are disappointing. However, the light grey top hat from London’s Lock & Co. is an item worthy of Bond.

Bond has the look of luxury in his dinner suit in Licence to Kill. The excess is on display with not only a very full fit but also with the large shoulders, the wide low-gorge lapels and details like a fancy silk braid down the trouser legs.

According to an auction at Christie’s in 2022, a Stefano Ricci dinner suit was purchased for Timothy Dalton at Battaglia in Beverly Hills, and it served as the model for four other dinner suits that would be made for Timothy Dalton. According to an interview that Peter Brooker conducted with Jodie Tillen for our book From Tailors with Love: An Evolution of Menswear Through the Bond Films, the tailoring for Dalton was done at the Universal Studios tailor shop. They would likely be the ones who made the four other dinner suits.

The dinner suit loses some points for the excessively low button stance and for having two buttons on the front. Tradition says that a single-breasted dinner jacket should have only one button, and James Bond has taken on the responsibility of keeping black tie traditions alive. He makes this mistake again in Spectre. The gorge is also extremely low, and like the button stance gives this dinner suit a distinctly dated 1980s style.

While wing-collar dress shirts were very trendy in the late 1980s, Tillen made a good choice by putting Bond in his standard turn-down collar shirt. The shirt takes black onyx studs, which marks the first time Bond wears studs and the only time Bond wears black studs, but it’s a traditional style so I don’t find it objectionable.

The narrow batwing bow tie that Sean Connery wears in his 1960s Bond films makes a welcome return. This is the second time Bond wears a cummerbund, and like the first in Diamonds Are Forever it again serves to conceal a gadget. Incorporating Bond’s gear into his clothes is a superb way to costume him. Stylishly classic white moire silk braces, likely made by Albert Thurston, make their first appearance on James Bond.

Lounge Suits and Jackets

The Universal Studios tailor shop made two suits for Timothy Dalton in the same style as the dinner suit. The suits appear to be well made, but the style is a fashionable one of the era. While it’s as trendy as Roger Moore’s wide-lapelled, flared-trouser suits, the fit doesn’t have the care that would be appropriate for a fastidious naval man like James Bond. The full cut, wide shoulders, low gorge and low button stance are taken to the extremes. The trousers have triple reverse pleats for extra fullness.

This amounts to suits that do not drape neatly and suits that do not move well with the body. While the suits don’t look so good, they aren’t entirely unflattering on Timothy Dalton. Dalton’s slight build benefits from wearing fuller clothes. However, the extreme fullness makes the character look sloppy. Sloppiness doesn’t work for Bond.

Bond’s two suits in the film are a charcoal pinhead and a dark blue pinhead. Both are in a tropical weight for comfort in the hot locales. The cloth choices are very Bondian and have some interest thanks to the pinhead pattern. The charcoal suit isn’t the most stylish choice for Key West, but Bond wears it because he’s supposed to be flying to Istanbul. The dark blue suit helps Bond fit in with the suited drug dealer at Franz Sanchez’s base.

Both suit choices work well for their respective purposes, but I feel that they are both too dark for the locations. Either suit could have been replaced with a mid grey suit to help Bond look better in his surroundings, not compromise the character and still make complete sense in the situations. The only benefit of the dark suits is that they match the dark tone of the film.

The shirts with the suits, in blue and white, respectively, are a disappointment. The collar points are too short and end up unflattering and lacking the presence Bond needs. The shirts have pockets, which make the shirts look cheap and too American for Bond. Bond otherwise never wears pockets on his shirts with suits.

Both suits are formal business suits that demand a tie, but Bond forgoes the tie. The tradition of the tie is very important to Bond, even today. If it’s too hot for him to wear a tie in Key West, it’s also too hot for him to be wearing a business suit that demands a tie. When he’s in his blue suit at Sanchez’s base, other men are wearing ties with their suits. There’s no reason for Bond to not be wearing a tie. A tie could have added more drama on the conveyor belt. In either case, it would have been reasonable for Bond to start the two suits with a tie only to see him remove his tie.

Bond wears black moccasins with his suits, a shoe that’s both very 1980s and very Fleming, making it an excellent choice.

Bond is dressed in suits for the most important moments in the film. The first suit comes when Bond discovers Felix Leiter after maimed and the second one takes Bond through the film’s climax. Bond wearing suit for the film’s climax is something we hadn’t previously seen in any of the more action-oriented finales. Tillen’s choices to put Bond in suits for the most important moments in the film is inspired. She understands how important the suit is to James Bond.

Casual Attire

The casual attire is the strongest part of the wardrobe. The trendy oversized fits work better in the casual settings than they do in tailoring, but they still let down most of these looks. The trousers all have double or triple reverse pleats, which were in fashion at the time but are not as neatly tailored as we’d normally expect from Bond. The pocketed shirts and plethora of navy clothes succeed in giving the casual outfits a Fleming feel, albeit updated for America in the 1980s.

The casual wardrobe cleverly reuses clothes in various combinations in creating ten different outfits, bringing a realism to the wardrobe. Bond has packed his suitcase for Florida, and possibly for Istanbul as well, so thankfully he’s able to wear the same clothes or the same kinds of clothes in Isthmus.

His first casual outfit introduces a lightweight navy Teba jacket that he would wear throughout a number of Key West scenes. The Teba is an unstructured Spanish jacket with aristocratic associations, so it’s not a bad choice for Bond. Bond’s jacket takes the place of a windcheater and looks more sophisticated. Like all of Bond’s clothes in the film, it is oversized and would look better if Dalton wore a smaller size. He pairs it with dark blue trousers and what appears to be a black shirt, though it’s difficult to know for sure if it’s black or dark navy because the scene is so dark. The all-dark look suits Bond and the scene, but the dark shirt clashes with the other blue clothes and would have been better replaced with one in a lighter shade of navy that matches the jacket and trousers.

The Teba returns for the next outfit for when Bond resigns for MI6. The shirt is replaced with a lightweight white shirt with two flapped patch pockets, and the trousers are replaced with khaki trousers. The shoes are navy espadrilles. This is one of the most wearable casual looks in the film and in a neater fit could look extremely Bondian and still look superb today. I can easily picture Fleming’s Bond wearing the shirt.

Next Bond wears a black wetsuit when he sneaks onto the Wavekrest and steals $5 million. This is a practical and Bondian outfit, and it stands out by being the only fitted look in the whole film. A baggy wetsuit just wouldn’t work, even in 1989.

When Bond breaks into Felix Leiter’s home, he combines two of his previous looks. He wears the navy Teba jacket with the dark blue trousers and the white shirt. The mixing and matching of different looks is a practical one, particularly when travelling. I find this to be the most inspiring aspect of the film’s wardrobe.

Bond wears a similar outfit of the navy Teba and dark blue trousers when meeting Pam Bouvier at the Barrelhead bar, but this time he wears a mid blue cotton broadcloth shirt with two patch pockets on the front. While this is a low-contrast look, it is far more successful than the dark shirt he wears with the same outfit earlier in the film.

When Bond arrives in Isthmus, he is wearing a dark navy shirt with two chest pockets. The yoke extends down the front to the pockets, where it acts like a large pocket flap that closes with buttons. Bond keeps a pair of sunglasses in his left breast pocket. He again wears dark blue trousers in a couple shades lighter than the shirt, which may be the same trousers as before. Without a jacket, the fullness of the shirt is overwhelming but adds to Dalton’s presence. In a neater fit, this would be a shirt that Ian Fleming and his Bond would wear.

Bond awakens in Sanchez’s home wearing a beautiful set of black striped pyjamas. These belong to Sanchez, so they’re undoubtedly high quality, but they also look superb on Timothy Dalton. This is one area where a full fit makes sense, but the fit is not overly full and is flattering on Dalton. The pyjamas are classically styled, making this one of the few outfits from the film that would still work well today unchanged.

In a brief scene at the bank, Bond wears a khaki two-pocket shirt with khaki trousers, likely the same trousers that he wears in Key West. The tone-on-tone look is classically Bondian, and in khaki it recalls Roger Moore’s safari outfits. The khaki looks superb in this scene and gives a nice change of pace compared to the dark looks. I wish this outfit was used more.

To disguise himself amongst the henchmen aboard the Wavekrest, Bond wears a royal blue t-shirt and dark blue trousers, again possibly the same dark blue trousers that he wears earlier. Because it’s a disguise the outfit can be excused, but the oversized t-shirt is the most unflattering look of the film. The henchmen don’t wear t-shirts this big, so there was no reason Bond had to.

Bond changes out of the t-shirt and into dark button-front shirt with two pockets. This could possibly be the same shirt that he wears in the first casual outfit. He puts on a dark cap as a disguise when piloting a boat. This outfit is hardly seen and doesn’t make much impact.

Other Characters

Franz Sanchez, played by Robert Davi, is a beautifully costumed villain. He dresses deep into 1980s trends, and, unlike with Bond, the excess of the fashions perfectly suits the character. Jodie Tillen is most famous for establishing the style for Miami Vice in 1984, and Sanchez’s style has the most in common with the Miami Vice look, but he’s still dressed as his own character.

His white double-breasted dinner jacket with a black shirt marks him as the opposite of Bond and is appropriately flashy in its style. The pink shirt and grey trousers he wears at his villa look perfectly relaxed and stylish. His tan suit and blue shirt for the finale looks like something Pierce Brosnan’s Bond wore have worn for the same scene. Here it makes Sanchez stand out amongst everyone else, as a Bond villain should.

Well Done, James

If there’s one significant improvement over the clothes in The Living Daylights it’s that many of the clothes in Licence to Kill are better quality and made to standards more appropriate for the character of James Bond. They may not look like bespoke clothes from England, but they don’t look inexpensive either. Despite Bond being a civil servant, he spends a considerable amount of money on luxury items, including his clothes. While Ian Fleming wrote little detail about Bond’s clothes, he emphasized the quality material his clothes were made from. The dinner suit in Licence to Kill, while not in a completely traditional style, is up to Bond’s quality standards.

The wardrobe did well by putting Bond in dark blue frequently in the film. Dalton himself said that he said that Tillen tried to put him in pastels, but he requested that Bond wear navy. He also wears a bit of tan, grey and white in the film, which are all classically Bondian colours.

Not Perfected Yet

The fits are the biggest issue with costumes in Licence to Kill. Though the fits are on perfectly on trend for 1989, they are at odds with the character of James Bond. Fit should always come first, and when the fit isn’t good, it lets down everything else.

Bond doesn’t wear a necktie at all in this film. It would have been nice to see him wear one, even if he had to take it off for an action sequence—something he rarely does. By wearing dark worsted suits without a tie, the outfits look incomplete. This is the only film where Bond doesn’t wear a necktie—only a dress cravat and a bow tie. There was opportunity for the tie to make an appearance. A Fleming-esque black silk knitted would have been perfect with the Key West suit.

The lack of British styles in this film means that Bond doesn’t get a chance to dress fully as Bond. The wardrobe looks too American or Italian-American. Even when Roger Moore wore Italian suits for two films, he still wears British shirts, British uniforms and other British styles. Because Licence to Kill was made almost entirely in North America, it’s understandable why Bond dresses American. Sourcing English clothes in America was not easy at the time. Italian style was also much more popular than British style in America at the time, so that’s why Bond’s clothes have an Italian edge to them.

Verdict

Licence to Kill has one of the more disappointing wardrobes of the Bond series. 1980s fashion trends can be held responsible for much of it, particularly the fit. The oversized fit of every outfit may have been popular at the time, but the fit isn’t right for James Bond.

While many of Bond’s outfits make sense in the context of the film—which is the most important aspect of successful costume design—some of them are too realistic and mundane. The costumes are appropriate for the typical action hero of the time, but they don’t look like James Bond outfits. That said, they don’t look entirely inappropriate for Bond either. The amount of navy blue throughout the wardrobe helps tremendously.

The morning dress and the oversized blue t-shirt are the weakest looks in the film, but there are logical explanations for both. Other than those two looks, nothing is terrible. The concepts are good for all of the outfits, but the execution lacks the classic Bond panache. Inspiration and aspiration have always been defining aspects of James Bond’s style, and Licence to Kill‘s wardrobe lacks these elements. This wardrobe is undoubtedly successful in updating Bond’s look for the times and in attiring him appropriately and realistically for all of his situations, but I ultimately find that it lacks the specific look that Bond needs.

Overall, I have found myself appreciating this wardrobe more in this reevaluation, but I find it difficult to get past the oversized fits and the lack of British styles.

Rating: 4/10

Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Leave your comments below.

23 COMMENTS

  1. That ‘baggy’ Harrington-styled Teba jacket + blue jeans is a look I wish Dalton’s Bond (or for that matter ANY Bond), had utilized more. It’s casual, not particularly elegant but very subtle as ‘civilian disguise’ and the navy colour appropriately reflects Bond’s maritime heritage as well as being a very practical for-action garment. I wish it had been an actual British Harrington (not the ribbed hem + cuffs ‘Baracuta’ version though, just the straight-hemmed iteration), with the Tartan lining for the occasional flash of red! Maybe finish off the look with some black Danner lace ups . . .

    Perfect low-key Bondian look!

  2. I think you may possibly be too kind. This is, with DAF, my least favourite Bond film, and the wardrobe doesn’t help.

    Re the tie, I’d make this observation: for a man who gets into fights, a tie is not a good idea. It may be heretical to say this, but maybe a clip-on would be the practical option for Bond…

  3. I, too, like the mix and match aspects of the costumes. If all pieces were purchased one (or maybe two) sizes smaller and he’d had a necktie then there’s a good chance we’d all be celebrating this wardrobe as one of the most realistic and well executed of the series. As it is, though, it falls short.

  4. Yeah not surprised as in a previous ranking you rated this one as the worst in terms of styling and I agree.
    One unrelated question I have is what shirt style is more versatile: a double pocket chambray style shirt like the medium blue one Bond wears or a single pocket shirt with no front placket and a one piece collar?

    • It depends on the one-piece collar. A lido collar can be dressed up under a jacket or worn more casually, while a camp collar doesn’t work so well under a jacket. I’d say a lido-collar shirt is the most versatile, then a chambray shirt like what Connery wears in Never Say Never Again, and then a camp-collar shirt.

  5. Dalton was a good Bond with a great amount of screen presence. Truly the closet to Fleming’s Bond that ever got on the screen. However, his clothes are uniformly disappointing and I think you are generous to award 4. Looking forward to substantial sartorial improvement with Brosnan.

  6. Good observation about how Bond mixes and matches his casual garments. As great as the suits in “From Russia with Love” are, it’s kind of hard to believe Bond would bring five different gray suits (at least one of which would probably be too warm for Istanbul) for one mission. Not to mention the immaculately tailored clothes that seem to just be waiting for Bond whenever he arrives at a new location in “Quantum of Solace.”

  7. Dalton is in dire need of a hairpiece too.

    This was my favourite film in the series as a kid, but watching on TV broadcast or VHS hides some of the imperfections of the production. Only when I bought the Ultimate Edition on DVD (2006 I believe) that I began to notice how chep the movie looked. A very long episode of Miami Vice. The suiting is excellent, but the lack of tie and ultra baggy fit ruins everything. I can live with the two formal outfits because they are probably rental. Still… these films should never be too realistic; either Satlzman or Broccoli said something like “put the money on the screen”, meaning everything shot should be superb, made with the best materials available (a real watch, not a prop, and tailored expensive suits).

    The Rolex Submariner (Date version here) makes a welcome return. Seiko looks too cheap for Bond, apart from the chrono in AVtaK. The steel Heuer diver in the previous film, if anyone believes Dell Deaton’s unproven claims, could not be seem em The Living Daylights, but I find it was also too cheap and a copycat of the original Submariner.

  8. 5/10 is my score. I did like the outfit with the blue shirt. What you said about fits and shoes agreed on. And the tux could be better fitting. The wedding suit looked like a cheap rental and the Wavekrest outfit would be better if the shirt wasn’t so large.

  9. Excellent review Matt I look forward to these every week – one of my favourite Bond films – but I don’t really care for the styling.

  10. For full disclosure I always liked LTK and thought it a big improvement over TLD which I’ve been told was originally conceived with Moore still in mind. The two girls are a big improvement over useless Cara Milovy. This all despite my belief that Bond films are best when they are setting trends rather than following them, and just as LALD jumped on blaxploitation and TMWTGG jumped on martial arts, this one was a clear redux of Miami Vice. Dalton definitely deserves some credit for sticking to his guns and avoiding pastels.

    In one of the Bond commentary books they wrote that this film was a bust from the opening scene as Bond is in a cheap looking morning suit flapping his wings like a turkey as he was being lowered from the helicopter. I think this was harsh. The ill chosen wedding suit is clearly a matching rental, and the ‘turkey flapping’ was merely Bond signaling to Felix to keep lowering steadily.

    I thought you were being somewhat kind in the commentary Matt, expecting the usual lambasting that this film’s costuming deserves, but despite that you then then gave a low score. I’d have scored it higher for intent if not for execution – maybe a 5 or 6. I think there’s a fairly strong consensus among most of us that the fit of the clothes was a big disappointment. Moore’s acceding to the worst excesses of seventies fashions looked dreadful but at least the clothes were tailored to fit. Dalton’s threads here look equally dated to the eighties but lack in fit too. I also think his hair looked unBondian and bad, especially the grease back when tuxed up for the casino.

    I detest teba jackets along with chore coats – just a crap excuse to not wear a blazer. I also hate pockets on shirts when suited up but I do kinda like the slightly military double pocketed casual shirts although I don’t own any myself. This was a good choice for Dalton and again (broken record!) would have looked better more fitted but that’s how it was in the eighties I was there!

    We can only guess what direction for better or worse the series would have taken if Dalton had stayed on but it turned out OK eventually after a long wait.

    • The fit is the main reason why the score is as low as it is. The low score may have been more expected had I lambasted the fit of every outfit, but if I did that this review would have been a rather dull read. The styling of many of the outfits was off as well, being far too removed from English bespoke clothes. The suits in Daniel Craig’s last three films had equally poor fits, but at least the styling was better. Even there, I’ll happily deduct points for single vents on everything, a dinner jacket with two buttons and tab-collar shirts.

    • Haha along with the obvious sausage skin fit of many DC suits, you just listed three of my main dislikes of his tailoring. Add to that his constant posing at awards shows etc with his hands in his pockets. My Mam always told me as a kid that this was bad manners and even if he didn’t have such a traditional mother he should have the self awareness to examine the evidence and see how crap it looks!

  11. Seems fair, but I would have lower the score with one point because of the lousy haircut. Look at this picture – it looks like a birds nest or something. https://www.bondsuits.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/licence-to-kill-khaki-shirt-still.jpg And then suddenly in the casino scene his hair is brushed…

    Kind of weird as well that Dalton thought these clothes were fine considering his interview and the comments “I think fashion is a con” and “makes them (people in general) spend an awful lot of money looking probably in a way that doesn’t ultimately suit them”.

  12. Definitely agree with the low score here and with Dalton’s awful haircut which isn’t the least flattering to him. Between this and Craig’s bodyguard haircut in Skyfall, I think it’s a tie. Not only poor Dalton looks to be drowning in his own suits, but even his hair seems to want to go into his way as well…
    I don’t agree with the luxurious feeling though. The dress shirts look particularly cheap, and the suits seem to be made of regular 100% wool, with a subtle pattern and oversized fit : I don’t see anything luxurious here. Some TLD suits looked more high end to me actually, like the herringbone suit, thr flannel suit in Bratislava and the checked sports coat. The first dinner suit in TLD still looks much more the part than a 2-button, notch lapel dinner suit. And the casual outfits, despite a good color scheme, could have had a little variety. The casual shirts and blousons look either cheap, or generic.
    However, what I appreciate in this movie, despite the lack of elegance, is that after 20 minutes or so I just put it out of my mind and was just focused on the plot because of Dalton’s intense interpretation. I quite enjoyed the movie despite having not seeing it in many years and reading most negative comments in between.
    Finally I think the costume designer deserves to be praised for dressing the villain and the girls pretty stylishly. Carey Lowell suits and outfits in general are just terrific.

  13. You know you’re in trouble when the wet suit is the most Bondian suit in the whole movie!

    From starting the decade with a wardrobe which was one of Bond’s best ever (and we’re here to talk about the wardrobe rather than Bonds we liked or disliked) we plumb the depths to Bonds worst wardrobe ever until that point. When I saw the clothing in this movie in 1988 I hated it and I still do. 4/10 is very generous but you were being balanced and I do see your points Matt.

    I agree with Le Chiffre regarding the suiting in this movie and how the wardrobe in TLD although it was a bit of a mish mash, looked superior. This is the pits in terms of quality and I also fail to see anything luxurious about it. The argument presented for the morning suit abomination is that Bond was attending the wedding of his friend who’s American and the movie was set in the US etc etc. The bottom line is, this situation wouldn’t have arises with any of the three previous Bonds. The script would have been written differently and in such a way that this wouldn’t have arisen. It’s as simple as that. Their wardrobes would have been adapted to suit Bond not the reverse. Why on earth were the suits produced by Universal Studios??? The movie was originally to have been set in China with filming both there on location and in Pinewood but this was changed and fairly late in the day too. What suits would we have had had they filmed in their original choice of location? Whatever the reason they are vile looking garments without any redeeming features which should never have found their way in to Bonds wardrobe. The absence of a tie when other characters in these scenes were wearing one and Bond chose to be the poorest dressed man in the room was also unforgivable and I can’t help feel this was Dalton’s input. The shirts look bargain basement; like something to be bought in a multi pack in a chain store. The dinner suit with its 2 button and low gorge is also dreadful. Sean’s dinner suits in DAF didn’t follow tradition but they still looked like top drawer British tailoring. As you point out and considering their popularity at the time, it’s lucky Dalton didn’t opt for the vile wing collar shirt for completeness.

    None of this should have happened and I remember, after the long hiatius, breathing a sigh of relief to learn Dalton and his lousy had departed and being very pleased with Pierce’s announcement as Bond and the polished wardrobe which we associate with the cinematic Bond had returned.

  14. The ratings from this series thus far, for those keeping track…

    Dr No – 9/10
    FRWL – 9/10
    GF – 10/10
    TB – 10/10
    YOLT – 6/10
    OHMSS – 8/10
    DAF – 6/10
    LALD – 7/10
    TMWTGG – 8/10
    TSWLM – 5/10
    MR – 6/10
    FYOE – 9/10
    Octopussy – 7/10
    AVTAK – 8/10
    TLD – 6/10
    LTK – 4/10

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