It’s Wednesday night here at BCB After Dark: the swingin’ dive for night owls, early risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. It looks nasty out there, so it’s a good thing that we’re open, dry and warm. Come on in out of the rain and snow. We can check your hat and coat for you. Dress code is casual. There are still a few tables available. 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.
Last evening I asked you how many home runs Cubs outfielder Seiya Suzuki will hit in 2023. You are all believers in Seiya because 94 percent of you think that he will hit 20 or more home runs this season. But the winning vote was 25 to 29 home runs with 41 percent. In second place was 20 to 24 with 39 percent. So it seems like most of you think he’ll hit somewhere around 25 home runs this season.
This is only tangentially related to the Cubs, but the United States Women’s National Team won the SheBelieves Cup earlier this evening with a 2-1 victory over Brazil. In that game, Mallory Swanson scored in her sixth-straight game and notched her seventh goal of 2023. Mallory’s new husband, of course, is Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson. If Dansby can play half as well as Mal is playing this year, it’s going to be a great season for the Cubs.
Here’s the part where I talk about jazz and movies. You’re free to skip ahead to the baseball question at the end. You won’t hurt my feelings.
Tonight’s performance is the recording of a live online broadcast by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington from this past August. The four songs she performs here are from her New Standards Vol. 1 album which came out last fall. That album is part of a process started by Carrington when she realized that almost none of the songs that make up what we consider jazz “standards” were written by women. So she went about collecting great pieces of music composed by women to try to correct that imbalance. All four songs performed here were written by women, as are all the performers.
This features Carrington on drums, Kris Davis on keyboards, Linda May Han Oh on bass, Milena Casada on flugelhorn (Not trumpet! As Carrington corrects herself), Veronica Leahy on alto sax and flute and Devon Gates singing. I find the fourth and final song to be especially lovely.
You voted in the BCB Winter Noir Classic semifinal between The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Sam Spade and Humphrey Bogart were not to be denied as The Maltese Falcon advanced to the finals with 74 percent of the vote.
So tonight we have the other semifinal between two films directed by Billy Wilder. The first is Double Indemnity (1944) and the second one is Sunset Boulevard (1950). Both are tales of the dark side of Los Angeles, the true home of noir, in my opinion. LA has this reputation of sun and celebrity and the Beach Boys, but it was also the home of Mickey Cohen, William H. Parker and the Black Dahlia murder.
Here’s what I wrote previously about Double Indemnity.
Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder. Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson.
Wilder cast two well-loved actors, MacMurray and Stanwyck, and had them play a pair of amoral murderers. (Robinson, who became famous playing gangsters, plays the honest person in the film.) Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, the second wife of a rich mining executive who seduces insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) into a plot to kill her husband for the insurance money. But she doesn’t have to work too hard at it because Neff relishes the idea of pulling one over on his good friend Barton Keyes (Robinson), who works as a fraud investigator and believes that there’s never an insurance scam that gets past him. All three actors are never better than they are in this film.
The script for Double Indemnity crackles with some of the best dialog in noir, thanks to Wilder and novelist Raymond Chandler, who makes a cameo appearance in the film. Lines like “I killed him for the money and a woman. And I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman” set the tone for all noirs to come. Also “Who’d you think I was anyway? The guy that walks into a good-looking dame’s front parlour and says, ‘Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands… you got one that’s been around too long? One you’d like to turn into a little hard cash?’”
Double Indemnity also benefits from some terrific cinematography from John Seitz, who also later worked with Wilder on Sunset Boulevard. I’d say that the look of the film is classic noir, but it’s Seitz and Wilder on Double Indemnity that helped to create that classic look. (Certainly they took a bit from John Huston and The Maltese Falcon.)
This is also one of the rare films from this period when both of the lead characters, Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, are just awful people. Yet MacMurray and Stanwyck are so good that . . . well, we don’t actually end up rooting for them but we do become invested in their story. Stanwyck didn’t want to play such a horrible woman as Phyllis, but Wilder baited her into taking the part by asking her “Are you a mouse or an actress?” She thanked him later.
To add just a bit, if The Maltese Falcon was the film that started what we now call noir, Double Indemnity was the film that turned noir from niche to mainstream.
Films from the Golden Age of Hollywood don’t come more sordid than Double Indemnity. Chandler was actually recruited to co-write the script with Wilder because his normal screenwriting partner at the time Charles Brackett, found the whole subject matter so distasteful that he refuse to work on it. Wilder found working with the alcoholic Chandler so difficult that he chose The Lost Weekend, a film about an alcoholic writer, as his next project. But Wilder never considered firing Chandler because what they were producing together (when Chandler could actually work) was just too good.
Here’s the very first scene of Double Indemnity where Neff confesses to the entire crime and begins to narrate the film. It has that line about the money and the woman in it.
And here is what I wrote previously on Sunset Boulevard.
Sunset Boulevard. Directed by Billy Wilder. Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Nancy Olson.
There is nothing that Hollywood loves more than a good movie about Hollywood. They prefer movies about the uplifting power of the cinema, but they like a dark tale too. In Sunset Boulevard, director Billy Wilder (who also co-wrote the script with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.) created one of the blackest visions of Hollywood ever made.
Sunset Boulevard is a picture that could have gone wrong in so many places. Instead, in the talented hands of silent film star Gloria Swanson, Norma Desmond became one of the most memorable characters in the history of film.
Norma Desmond is a 50-year-old forgotten has-been silent film star who lives in a old, dusty mansion on Sunset Boulevard that was purchased when she was still young and famous. William Holden is Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who’s in the process of having his car repossessed and being evicted from his apartment for non-payment of rent. While fleeing the repo men, Joe ends up driving into what he thinks is an abandoned mansion but is, in fact, Norma’s place. Norma soon sees the young, attractive Joe as her ticket back to stardom, as well as a potential lover. Joe is both repulsed and fascinated by the faded screen queen. He tries to push her away, but he also realizes her money could make his problems go away. Joe’s desire to stay in Hollywood outweighs his moral objections to taking advantage of this older, half-crazy woman.
Norma Desmond became the archetype of the star who is disposed of when she is no longer young and useful to the movie moguls. Stardom was a drug to Norma and she’s still willing to do anything to get her next fix. Swanson carefully plays Norma on the very edge of sanity throughout the film, always performing for the cameras even though they are no longer there. At least until the end, when her character goes full-bore crazy. But Norma has enough lucid moments that, like Joe, we feel sympathy and an attraction to her. Any aging actress, heck, any aging person, can relate to Norma’s desire to still be seen as beautiful and desirable. But Norma is also manipulative and delusional enough that we know that we should stay away from her, even if Joe can’t.
Did I mention that Joe is dead at the start of Sunset Boulevard and that he’s narrating the story from beyond the grave? Yeah, this film could have gone so wrong and didn’t.
As you might imagine, Wilder had trouble casting Norma as no actress wanted to be associated with a character who was an older, delusional has-been. Finally Wilder asked director George Cukor for advice and he recommended Swanson, who hadn’t been in a picture for about a decade at that point. Swanson didn’t want to do it either, but Cukor told her that this would be the picture she’d be forever remembered for. He wasn’t lying.
The one person who doesn’t stay away from Norma is her personal valet Max von Mayerling, played by director Erich von Stroheim as a thinly-veiled version of himself had his career gone in a different direction. Max’s loyalty to Norma is touching and is a sign that there once had to be something truly good about her. He also has some secrets that makes his own (and Norma’s) story even more poignant. Roger Ebert wrote that the real love story in this film is between Norma and Max.
(At one point in Sunset Boulevard, Norma watches a film, starring a younger Swanson, that was directed by Stroheim but he never finished it because Swanson was unhappy and had Stroheim fired. Like Max, Stroheim still stands here with his temperamental star.)
Wilder could have shot the film in color, but instead chose black-and-white to give it more of a noir feel. He also gave cinematographer John F. Seitz free rein to shoot Norma’s mansion as dusty and gloomy as possible. They may call California a land of sunshine, but in Sunset Boulevard, it’s nothing but clouds and shadows.
Of course, Sunset Boulevard is also famous for its screenplay. There are several memorable quotes—almost all coming out of the mouth of Norma—but there are two that are so famous that even people who have never seen the movie know them. The first is at the beginning of the film—“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And the other one is at the end when Norma says “All right, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.”
Wilder, who started as a screenwriter and as a director, always put the script first. He’d written (or co-wrote) the script he was directing anyway. As such, he always relied on his collaborators to do their own thing. One thing I wanted to mention is that in Norma’s first scene, Joe interrupts the funeral she’s having for her chimpanzee. When cinematographer John F. Seitz asked Wilder how he wanted the scene shot, Wilder replied “You know, the usual monkey-funeral sequence.” Hilarious, but indicative of how Wilder trusted his collaborators.
That last paragraph on Wilder in Sunset Boulevard applies to Double Indemnity too. Both of these films use the same narrative device of someone who got shot narrating the film from the beginning. The difference is that Joe is already dead at the start of the film and Walter is just almost dead.
Here’s the famous end of Sunset Boulevard. Obviously there’s a spoiler warning here.
Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard
This poll is closed
Either way, Billy Wilder is going to win. You have until Monday evening to vote. Then one of these two movies will face off against The Maltese Falcon in the finals. I’m going to be a bit sad when this is all over next week.
Welcome back to all of you who skip the music and movies.
We are just 13 days away from the start of the fifth World Baseball Classic. It’s been a long wait as it was supposed to be played in 2021. I don’t need to tell you why it was delayed two years.
Now you’ve had plenty of time to get ready for the WBC, but if you’re like most people, you’ve put off all your WBC shopping until the last minute. But tonight, we’re going to offer you a free (imaginary) WBC cap for you to wear throughout the tournament. All you have to do is tell us which one you want.
So look over the selection here.
We’re offering you any (imaginary) cap you want. You can pick one because that’s the team you’re cheering for or just because you think it’s the best-looking cap. You don’t actually even need a reason. Just pick a cap.
I actually have a Netherlands WBC cap from a previous tournament. It has a much different design than this year’s model. I may have to upgrade.
Which WBC cap do you want the wear?
This poll is closed
And of course, you can explain your reasoning in the comments. Or give us your second choice.
Thank you to everyone who stopped by this evening and this week. You’ve brightened our day and I hope we’ve brightened yours. Please stay warm and dry out there. Get home safely. Tip your waitstaff. And join us again next week for more BCB After Dark.