Welcome back to BCB After Dark: the warm spot on a cold night for night owls, early risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. Please let us take your hat and coat. Warm your hands by the fire. We’ve saved you a prime table. Sit down and make yourself at home. Bring your own beverage.
BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon.
I think we’ve dealt enough with the big Arizona Fall League title won by the Mesa Solar Sox this week. I know a few prime prospects are playing in the Dominican Winter League, such as Alexander Canario, Kevin Made and Eury Ramos, but otherwise, baseball is done for the 2021 calendar year. So we’ll have plenty of time to talk jazz and movies around here. Let’s hope there is still a Hot Stove as well.
Last week I asked you who should win the National League MVP. We knew that the winner would be announced shortly after the poll went live, and of course we now know that Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper won his second Most Valuable Player Award. As far as your vote went, 50 percent of you agreed that Harper was the NL MVP. Another 41 percent thought Nationals outfielder Juan Soto deserved the award and nine percent voted for Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.
One other announcement for tonight. Normally I do a big BCB After Dark on Monday night/Tuesday morning. Then I do a brief one the next night and then close the week with a medium-sized one on Wednesday night/Thursday morning. But because of the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, the Wednesday night/Thursday morning one will be really short and the one tomorrow night will be a bit longer.
Here’s the part where I talk about jazz and movies. You’re free to skip to the baseball poll question at the bottom of you’d like. You won’t hurt my feelings.
In honor of tonight’s film Laura, I’m presenting a jazz version of the theme song from that movie. “Laura,” written by David Raskin with lyrics added on later by Johnny Mercer, has been a jazz standard ever since it came out in 1944. It’s been recorded by Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald and others. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) But tonight’s version is a live one starring the great saxophonist Dexter Gordon.
So here is “Laura,” with Hank Jones on piano, Gene Ramsey on bass and Gus Johnson on drums from a 1979 jazz festival in the Netherlands.
Laura, the 1944 film directed by Otto Preminger, is considered to be a classic of film noir, despite it not being very noir-y. It has a murder and a hard-boiled police detective, but Preminger doesn’t employ many of the standard tropes of noir such as a moral ambiguity highlighted by the use of shadows. It really comes across as more of a murder-mystery plot with a huge twist mid-film. But where the film is really shines is through some terrific performances from the supporting cast: Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson and a pre-horror icon Vincent Price.
Laura is the story of a woman, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), who was murdered before the film even starts. We learn that she opened the door one Friday evening and was blasted in the face with a shotgun. Police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is assigned the case. He investigates the murder scene. Laura’s apartment has a huge, glamorous painted portrait of her which dominates not only the entire room, but the film we are watching as well. The portrait becomes a point of obsession for McPherson.
McPherson starts by speaking with Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) about the murder. Lydecker is someone that we don’t really have in America anymore—a newspaper columnist, a radio personality, a man of letters and a general all-around celebrity who has become quite wealthy by offering his erudite opinions on the matters of the day. Supposedly he was based on Alexander Woollcott, whom the title character in The Man Who Came To Dinner was also based on. (Woollcott died the year before this film was made. Good thing for him.)
The first part of the film is Laura’s life in flashback, mostly narrated by Lydecker. Laura was a young advertising executive who one day mustered up the courage to interrupt the much-older Lydecker’s lunch at the Algonquin Hotel to ask him to endorse a product. Lydecker rudely dismisses her and threatens to write in his column why he never writes with a pen, let alone the one that Laura wants him to endorse.
But later that day, Lydecker, charmed by Laura’s beauty and grace in the face of his withering insults, shows up at Laura’s ad agency to apologize. He also agrees to endorse the pen for her. This starts a relationship between Laura and Lydecker in which Waldo serves as Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. He teaches her how to walk, how to talk and how to dress in the latest fashions. He introduces her to the members of his rich and powerful social circle. She then uses these contacts and the skills he has taught her to rise to the top of her ad agency.
I’m going to summarize the rest of the plot here and fair warning, there’s a major plot twist coming up. So if you’re planning to watch the film and don’t want to be spoiled, just let me repeat that you’ve been warned.
Spoilers for a 77-year old film to follow:
Lydecker is much older than Laura, and it’s clear that she sees him only as a mentor and not as a potential lover. Younger men come to court Laura, but every time they get close to her, Lydecker uses his power and influence to chase them off, either within his social circle or through his newspaper and radio appearances. But one young man, a formerly-wealthy but now-impoverished playboy from Kentucky, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), is not so easily dissuaded. Eventually Shelby and Laura are engaged to be married, a marriage that Waldo Lydecker clearly believes is beneath his Laura. Also, even though Shelby is engaged to marry Laura, Lydecker correctly believes that Shelby hasn’t given up his other girlfriends.
There are three main suspects in the murder of Laura. The first is Lydecker, and Lydecker clearly states in the beginning of the film that he would be insulted were he not considered a suspect. His ego demands it. The second suspect is Shelby, who is clearly worried but not very distraught about his fiancée’s death. The final suspect is Shelby’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), a shallow and catty society woman who readily admits that she’s in love with her own nephew.
The early leading suspect in the murder is Shelby. His is strangely not distraught by her murder and acts increasingly nervously. Lydecker then reveals that Laura had been planning to go away for the weekend to think over whether or not she wanted to go through with her marriage to Shelby.
As McPherson investigates Laura’s murder, he becomes increasingly mesmerized by that portrait of the beautiful Laura and the stories about her style and grace. He reads through her letters and touches her things. He’s falling in love with a dead woman, and Lydecker eventually calls him out on it.
Alone in Laura’s apartment, McPherson unprofessionally helps himself to Laura’s liquor and falls asleep in one of her chairs. And here’s where the plot twist comes in the form of Laura herself! McPherson is awakened by the supposedly-dead Laura walking in the front door of her own apartment! Laura hadn’t been murdered at all. Instead, the murdered woman was a model named Diane Redfern who not only looked like Laura, but was wearing Laura’s clothes when she was killed. Shelby had secretly been seeing Diane on the side and he had taken her to Laura’s apartment for a secret rendezvous while Laura was out of town. Laura is now a suspect in her own murder! Or at least the murder of Diane Redfern, who everyone until now thought was Laura.
The rest of the film consists of McPherson confronting the various suspects. Shelby had known all along that it was actually Diane who was dead, since he was in a back room of the apartment when the shooting happened. That’s why he wasn’t distraught about Laura’s death. He also failed to call the police about the murder, as then he’d have to reveal his affair with Diane. Shelby also believed that Laura herself was the murderer, and his nervous behavior was his trying to come up with a solution that would protect her from the police.
Lydecker, for his part, faints when he sees the still-living Laura.
Laura becomes the main suspect as there are a few holes in her story about being gone for the entire weekend. She reveals that she had planned to cancel the wedding to Shelby, but now that this whole murder stuff has come down, she’s willing to marry him again. Is Shelby blackmailing her into marriage? Is Laura trying to use spousal privilege so as to not let Shelby testify against her?
McPherson interrogates Laura at police headquarters and clears her. (Why? Beats me.) Laura, McPherson and Lydecker go to Laura’s apartment where Lydecker berates McPherson again and then exits. But he stays in the hallway, listening near the door. After Lydecker leaves the apartment, McPherson finds the murder weapon hidden inside of her grandfather clock. (Really? No one looked there before? New York’s finest were on the case, no doubt.) Then McPherson, careful to use a towel so as to not getting any fingerprints on the murder weapon, puts the shotgun back where he found it and says someone will come by tomorrow to pick it up. You can’t make this stuff up. Well, someone did, I guess.
McPherson leaves and Lydecker sneaks back into the apartment using the side door. He grabs the shotgun (helpfully stashed right where he left it) and confronts Laura. McPherson checks with the cops he’d left outside the apartment who tell him that Lydecker had never left. McPherson rushes back in. Meanwhile, Laura pushes Lydecker’s shotgun out of her face and makes a run for it. The cops burst in, shoot Lydecker dead with the shotgun in his hands, and Laura and McPherson kiss. Not only did McPherson solve the crime, he won the love of the murdered victim.
If you skipped the spoilers, let me tell you that the plot of Laura makes no sense. McPherson may have solved the crime, but he would have been kicked out of the force for massive breaches of procedure. It’s not just the bizarre decision to leave the murder weapon where he found it and then leave the scene and promise to have someone from the force pick it up the next day. He starts the investigation by letting one of the prime suspects in the murder, Lydecker, tag along with him to interrogate other suspects. There’s also the whole part about him falling in love with the dead girl.
The twist, which I won’t repeat for those who skipped the spoilers, is portrayed so as to make the audience believe that it was all a dream. That keeps us, the audience, as confused and off-guard as the characters were. I completely expected McPherson to wake up from his dream and for the plot to return to where it left off before the twist.
Dana Andrews was a relative unknown at this point in his career, although he had turned in a strong permanence in a supporting role in The Ox-Bow Incident the year before. However well-thought of that movie is today, The Ox-Bow Incident was a commercial flop when it came out. In Laura, Andrews plays McPherson as a pretty one-note character. He spits out dialogue in a stereotypical noir even-toned snarl, even when he’s swooning over Laura.
Gene Tierney as Laura isn’t much better, but she’s not given a whole heck of a lot to work with, considering she’s dead through most of the picture. She’s the ingenue at the beginning of the film and much of her dialogue is shown as coming from Lydecker’s idealized point of view.
But Clifton Webb makes Laura almost all by himself in what was the Broadway actor’s first big film role. He’d appeared in some silent pictures and one 17-minute talkie, but he hadn’t appeared in a feature film in almost 20 years. (In some older sources, you’ll see Laura credited as Webb’s first film. His previous films are now all considered lost, so it is the first one you can actually still see.)
Webb’s portrays Waldo Lydecker as a man of incredible intelligence and a strong ego. Thirty years later, he would’ve been the perfect Columbo villain. His obsession with Laura is quite believable even though there is pretty much nothing in Lydecker to indicate that he’s heterosexual. (Webb himself was gay, although he never came out in his lifetime.) Lydecker clearly sees Laura as an extension of himself. She was his creation, and he considered none of the men who were interested in her to be worthy of him. Webb’s portrayal of Lydecker, a combination of aristocratic bearing, razor wit and massive ego, is the highlight of the picture. Webb got an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the film and he clearly deserved it. He deserved to win, but 1945 was the year that the treacly Bing Crosby/Barry Fitzgerald musical Going My Way swept the Oscars.
Another surprise in this film is Vincent Price, playing Shelby Carpenter. It’s hard to separate Price from the Master of Horror persona that he would develop later, but in Laura, he’s a young man playing a debonair bachelor with more than a bit of a con man in him. His odd behavior realistically calls attention to himself as a suspect, but makes terrific sense later when we discover what Price is actually hiding. Watching Price in Laura allows you to see an entirely different career for him where he was a romantic leading man with just a touch of the sinister, rather than someone who was just all sinister.
Judith Anderson also does a strong job as the high society hanger-on Ann Treadwell, although the film never really spends enough time with her to make her a serious candidate to be the murderer. Ann does admit that she’s capable of killing, even when she denies having done it. Most of her lines are delivered with a dash of poison. She’s completely believable as someone self-centered and hedonistic enough to commit some low-level incest with Shelby.
Laura was a box office smash in 1944, thanks in part to the theme song written by David Raskin, which was a huge hit. The fact that Tierney was a big star helped too. Preminger’s tight direction keeps the nonsensical plot moving along quickly—which is important so that the audience doesn’t have time to realize what balderdash it is. Preminger also wasn’t a director inclined to a lot of showy presentation or edgy camera angles. What he did like to do was to push the limits of the censors with the material, and Laura does that. The scene where Lydecker crawls out of his bathtub and appears naked in front of McPherson (with only a magazine hiding his private parts) is one example. It’s also another example of how Lydecker does not come across as heterosexual to anyone who can see through the tricks that filmmakers used to get around the Hays Code.
Here’s the opening scene from Laura. You can see Clifton Webb climbing out of the bathtub.
Tomorrow, I’ll have a little something to say about the making of Laura, because that’s also a fascinating tale. But overall, Laura is worth watching as long as you watch the performances and the direction and avoid thinking about the nonsensical plot.
Welcome back to everyone who skipped the jazz and the movie.
Tonight I’m going to ask you about a rumor about free agent pitcher Steven Matz. Matz reportedly wants to sign with a new team this week and the Cubs are listed as one of the seven or eight teams who are interested in signing the left-hander.
Matz is not top-of-the-rotation material, but he was a solid back-end starter for the Mets at the end of the last decade. However, he had an awful abbreviated season in Queens in 2020 and was traded to the Blue Jays at the end of January. In Dunedin/Buffalo/Toronto, Matz had the best season of his career, going 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA in 150 2⁄3 innings.
Matz is an interesting left-hander in that while he’s not a soft-tosser, he doesn’t miss a ton of bats. But he is terrific at inducing grounders and he doesn’t walk many batters either. And he did strike out 144 batters last year, so it’s not like he can’t get a “K” when he needs one.
So I’m asking two questions tonight. The first is “Should the Cubs sign Steven Matz?” With so many teams bidding for his services, he’s not going to be a bargain. However, I think we can be pretty confident that any deal he signs would be in the two- to three-year range. The Blue Jays declined to give Matz a qualifying offer, so that means that they didn’t expect him to get more than $18.4 million on the open market. It also means there’s no loss of a draft pick attached to signing Matz.
The second question is “Will the Cubs sign Steven Matz?” Matz reportedly wants to sign this week, so it’s possible that he will have already picked a team by the time you see this. He seems to be a pitcher that wants to have a new team before any lockout, so I don’t see his decision stretching out much past Wednesday, or Friday at the latest.
So should the Cubs sign Steven Matz?
Should the Cubs sign Steven Matz?
Now will the Cubs sign Steven Matz?
Will the Cubs sign Steven Matz?
Thank you again for stopping by. Someone will bring you your hat and coat. Please tip your waitstaff. Drive home safely. I hope we see you again tomorrow night with another edition of BCB After Dark.