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BCB After Dark: The center of the problem

The nightclub for night owls, early-risers and Cubs fans abroad asks who is the best Cubs center fielder of the expansion era.

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Welcome back to BCB After Dark: The exclusive nightclub for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. So glad you could join us again this week. We’ve waived the cover charge for you. Be sure to check your hat and coat. Please tip your waitstaff.

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.

Last time I asked you two questions, one on movies and one in our continuing series of the best players at each position for the Cubs since 1962. As far as the movie question goes, 37% of you said you planned to go back and see movies in theaters sometime this summer. Another 14% said you’re already going to the movies, so that’s 51% that will be back before Labor Day. Then there were 26% of you who said that you just don’t go to movies in the theaters and I completely understand that. For some people in some situations, it can be a lot more effort than it is worth. There have been times in my life that that has been true.

Then I asked you who was the greatest starting pitcher for the Cubs since 1962 and the answer was Ferguson Jenkins in a landslide. Fergie got 67% of the vote and second place was Greg Maddux with 13%. Every candidate got at least one vote, however.

Here’s the part where I discuss jazz and movies. Those of you who want to skip to the baseball poll question at the end are free to do so now. You won’t hurt my feelings.

I’ve avoided the classic Miles Davis album Bitches Brew from 1970 for two reasons. One is that it’s a bit loud and atonal for the “late night” vibe that I’m shooting for and the other reason is that I feel totally unprepared to discuss what is probably the most controversial album in jazz. Many feel it’s a masterpiece. Others feel it’s a rambling mess and a sell-out by Davis. I’ve felt both views are correct at different times.

Bitches Brew is the album where “Miles Goes Electric.” While it wasn’t the first “Fusion” recording or even Miles’s first fusion LP (that is, a merging of electric rock and jazz), it was the one that made the genre mainstream. And to be honest, Davis’s primary motivation for this change in style was that he saw how much money rock musicians were making in the late-sixties and he wanted some of that money for himself. (It worked. Bitches Brew sold about four times what his previous records had sold.)

But we lost keyboardist Chick Corea back in February, and he was a member of Davis’s band that recorded Bitches Brew. He also went on to be one of the most successful and influential jazz fusion performers in his own right. So I thought that I’d give you a selection from Bitches Brew and let you make up your own mind.

So here’s a live performance of Miles Davis and his band playing “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” [VIDEO] in Copenhagen in 1969 before the release of the actual album. Listen and see what you think.

I decided to treat myself over the weekend with a re-watching of one of my absolute favorite movies of all-time, director Bully Wilder’s Double Indemnity from 1944. This is nearly a perfect movie in my mind. OK, Barbara Stanwyck’s blonde wig is a huge misstep, but other than that, it’s nearly perfect.

Double Indemnity may seem a bit clichéd today, but that’s many because so many of the elements of it have been copied by lesser films. It’s classic film noir, a femme fatale with murder in her heart cons a sucker into her web, only the sucker really doesn’t need much conning because his heart is nearly as black as hers.

Double Indemnity is based on a novella by James M. Cain, who also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and I reviewed the movie version of that film earlier this year. Postman was a best-seller, but the movie rights to it were owned by MGM, so Paramount bought Double Indemnity in a hope of also cashing in on the pulp crime novel craze. Both stories were reportedly based on the case of Ruth Snyder, whose murder trial was attended by Cain as a reporter and was one of the biggest scandals of the 1920s.

Both films had a great deal of trouble getting approval from the Hays Office (the morality board of the Motion Picture Association) for years because of their combination of infidelity and murder. Eventually, Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett came up with a version that won approval and Paramount quickly worked on getting an adaption made.

Brackett eventually decided he didn’t want his name attached to this sordid tale and bowed out of co-writing the script. Wilder pressed on without him and tried to hire Cain to co-write the film, but Cain was busy working on a different movie for a different studio. Someone recommended to Wilder the mystery novelist Raymond Chandler, who was the man behind the Phillip Marlowe novels. But he’d never worked on a movie before.

Chandler agreed to do it and told Wilder he needed at least a week to write the script. Since scripts for a major movie like this one normally took at least two months, Wilder was dumbfounded but let Chandler do his thing. Chandler came back a week later with a script that was completely unfocused and un-filmable. Wilder realized two things: That Chandler had no idea how to write a movie script but that Chandler could write dialogue better than almost anyone else. So the two of them spent the next few months yelling at each other and turning out a script for the film together.

And oh what a script it was. Take the confession at the beginning of the movie:

Walter Neff to Barton Keyes, Claims Manager, Los Angeles, July 16, 1938. Dear Keyes: I suppose you’ll call this a confession when you hear it. Well, I don’t like the word “confession.” I just want to set you right about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against your nose. You think you’re such a hot potato as a Claims Manager; such a wolf on a phony claim. Maybe you are. But let’s take a look at that Dietrichson claim, Accident and Double Indemnity. You were pretty good in there for a while, Keyes. You said it wasn’t an accident. Check. You said it wasn’t suicide. Check. You said it was murder. Check. You thought you had it cold, didn’t you? All wrapped up in tissue paper with pink ribbons around it. It was perfect - except it wasn’t, because you made one mistake. Just one little mistake. When it came to picking the killer, you picked the wrong guy. You want to know who killed Dietrichson? Hold tight to that cheap cigar of yours, Keyes. I killed Dietrichson - me, Walter Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars-- until a while ago, that is. Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?

By framing the entire movie as a confession, Wilder allows Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to narrate the film and thus gives a spot for Chandler’s blunt-force prose to come off more naturally.

(As an aside, early in the film Chandler appears as an extra reading a book outside of Neff’s office. Other than a short clip from a home movie, it’s the only known video footage of the great detective novelist.)

After getting Chandler to co-write the script, he had to cast the movie. Once again, Wilder ran into the issue that the subject matter made most actors run away from it. Barbara Stanwyck was one of the biggest actresses in Hollywood at the time and she had played criminals before, such as in The Lady Eve, that I wrote about earlier. But they were good-natured criminals and she had never played anyone with as black a heart as Phyllis Dietrichson. Wilder asked her if she was “a mouse or an actress” and essentially dared her to take the part.

Casting Neff was a bigger problem. Wilder had gotten turned down by nearly every leading man in Hollywood before finally asking MacMurray, who was known for musicals and lightweight comedies at the time. MacMurray insisted he was the wrong man for the part but Wilder convinced him otherwise. What MacMurray didn’t know was that Wilder was desperate for anyone at that point. But Wilder was right. MacMurray is terrific in the part of a slick-talking insurance salesman who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else but is actually the chump of this story.

About that quote where Neff says he did it for the money and the woman? That’s not quite true. One of the main reasons he did the crime was to prove he was smarter than his friend and co-worker Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who is the man at the insurance company who investigates fraud. Robinson is an early version of Lt. Columbo in this movie. Neff and Dietrichson seem to have committed the perfect crime, but Keyes keeps finding little things that don’t make sense and he just won’t let it go.

The cinematography from John F. Seitz deserves a special mention. Seitz invents a lot of techniques in Double Indemnity that would become common in the film noir genre. The use of odd angles and shadows are everywhere, giving every scene a foreboding look. But most famously, Seitz has lighting from the sides coming through venetian blinds, which gives the image of prison bars coming across MacMurray and Stanwyck. Seitz used “fake dust” to give light between the shadows a grainy look. It’s a gorgeous film. On top of that, Chandler scouted out several “authentic” Los Angeles locations to shoot in, such as Mexican restaurant on Olivera Street.

I’m not going to go into the plot of the movie other than what is confessed to in the opening scene. Neff meets Dietrichson while checking in on her husband’s car insurance. She makes her entrance wearing nothing but a towel and he’s quickly mesmerized by her beauty and her ankle bracelet. Dietrichson seduces Neff into a plan to sell her husband accident insurance and then kill him for the money. The plan seemingly goes off without a hitch, but quickly the two discover that everything starts to fall apart.

As I said, Double Indemnity is one of my favorite films of all time. I really can’t find much fault in it other than Stanwyck’s cheap-looking wig (which even Wilder admitted was a mistake) and a minor change from the book near the end of the story to get it past the Hayes Office. It’s also one of the first post-Code Hollywood films to tell the story of a murder from the criminal’s point of view, which would become a common convention in the years to come.

Here’s the end of the scene where Neff first meets Phyllis. [VIDEO] It’s a great example of Chandler’s dialogue that convinced Wilder that he was worth keeping on the project.

“How could I have known that murder sometimes smells of honeysuckle?”

Welcome back to those of you who skip the jazz and film, although you missed me gushing over one of my favorite movies.

Today we’re continuing our voting on the all-time best Cubs at different positions in the expansion era. Today’s topic is center field, which is the real black hole of the Cubs over the past 60 years. Everyone has always harped on the Cubs inability to find a third baseman between Ron Santo and Aramis Ramirez, but in actually, the Cubs have really not had a regular center fielder to take over the position for more than a few seasons.

If you didn’t already know that, you’ll realize that when I give you the candidates. These are the best Cubs center fielders since 1962.

Adolfo Phillips (1966-1969) Phillips had a couple of good seasons with the Cubs, but he was a sensitive soul who was absolutely the wrong type of player to play for Leo Durocher, who eventually ran him out of town. He might have made a difference in the pennant race had he not been traded early in the 1969 season.

Rick Monday (1972-1976) Monday, along with Bill Madlock, was one of the best hitters on some pretty terrible Cubs teams in the early to mid-seventies. The numbers say he was a pretty bad defensive player, although he did save that flag in Los Angeles that day. He got dealt to Los Angeles when the dawn of free agency made good veteran players expensive.

Bob Dernier (1984-1987) A key player on the 1984 NL East title team, but he was pretty bad the rest of his time in Chicago. He had half a good but injury-filled season in 1987 before leaving as a free agent.

Corey Patterson (2000-2005) Now viewed as a great disappointment, Patterson had a solid MLB career as a fourth outfielder. Of course, you hope for more than a fourth outfielder out of the third pick in the draft. Patterson was having a breakout season in 2003 until an ACL injury ended his season early. He had a solid comeback in 2004 but his bat disappeared in 2005 and he was dealt to the Orioles in the off-season.

Marlon Byrd (2010-2012) The first Cubs center fielder of the expansion era to make an All-Star team when he made the 2010 squad. Had a decent 2011 season as well. With the club heading to 100 losses in 2012, he got dealt in April to the Red Sox for Michael Bowden and Hunter Cervenka, who didn’t make the majors until after the Cubs released him.

Dexter Fowler (2015-2016) Made the All-Star team in 2016 and hit a leadoff home run in Game 7 of the World Series. A fan favorite, but he only spent two years in Chicago.

Albert Almora Jr. (2016-2020) Had two good but not great seasons with the Cubs after he took over for Fowler in 2017 and it looked like the Cubs had finally solved their center field problem for a while. But then he stopped hitting in 2019 and has never recovered. He also scored the biggest run in Cubs history as a pinch-runner.


Who is the greatest Cubs center fielder since 1962?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Adolfo Phillips
    (7 votes)
  • 18%
    Rick Monday
    (30 votes)
  • 10%
    Bob Dernier
    (18 votes)
  • 5%
    Corey Patterson
    (9 votes)
  • 3%
    Marlon Byrd
    (6 votes)
  • 55%
    Dexter Fowler
    (91 votes)
  • 1%
    Albert Almora Jr.
    (3 votes)
164 votes total Vote Now

See you again tomorrow night with a much shorter version of BCB After Dark.