We’re open again here at BCB After Dark: the hippest hangout for night owls, early risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. Come on in out of the chill air. Things are warm in here. Friends, new and old, are all welcome. There’s no cover charge. We still have a few good 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 week, I asked you how many games will the Cubs win in 2024? I was a bit surprised at how optimistic you all were, as 48 percent thought the Cubs would win between 85 and 89 games. Another 29 percent said the Cubs would win between 80 and 84. Only 11 percent of you thought the Cubs would fail to win 80 games.
Here’s the part where I put the music and the movies. Those of you who skip that can do so now. You wont hurt my feelings.
I guess it’s time for Mardi Gras, which means we should feature jazz from its birthplace, New Orleans. But instead of giving you the stuff you’ve already heard a million times—When the Saints Go Marching In, Jambalaya (On the Bayou), Jock-A-Mo (Iko Iko)—I thought I’d try something that merges the modern with the traditional.
So tonight we’re featuring one of those NPR Tiny Desk concerts. This one is from 2017 with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who merge traditional Dixieland with bop and funk. The one thing is, however, that the Dirty Dozen Brass Band currently only has seven members. Which isn’t a dozen. But the performers tonight are Roger Lewis on baritone sax, Gregory Davis on trumpet, Kevin Harris on tenor sax, Efrem Towns on trumpet, Kirk Joseph on sousaphone, Julian Addison on drums and Takeshi Shimmura on guitar.
You voted in the BCB WInter Western Classic quarterfinals and you picked John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) over Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent. There were no wrong answers in this one. I would have voted for High Noon had I been needed to break the tie, but both films were worthy of moving on to the semifinals.
You also seem to really love the work of John Ford, and I can understand that. As Orson Welles famously replied when asked who his favorite directors were: “I prefer the work of the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” Well, you are in luck because there is another John Ford movie on tap for tonight. And this one is the one that, along with The Grapes of Wrath, is generally considered his best. It’s The Searchers (1956), and it’s our number-one seed.
Facing off against The Searchers is a film that many, but not everyone, considers to be the best film of the great Italian director Sergio Leone’s career, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). They are both outstanding, if quite different, films. They are both a lot darker than a lot of the Westerns that we’ve voted on. The Searchers features John Wayne as a racist anti-hero with a questionable past (that we never quite find out about) on a deadly mission to kill his own niece. And it’s Natalie Wood, to boot! Once Upon a Time in the West features Henry Fonda as a sadistic, cold blooded killer and Charles Bronson and Jason Robards as two violent and flawed characters. But at least we get Claudia Cardinale.
As always I’m not going to write a new essay for each round of the competition. But I did say a few new things about the two films already. And last time, I forgot to mention that the sixties British Invasion band The Searchers (“Needles and Pins”) also got their name from this movie.
Our autotagging program once again picked up “Texas Rangers” from The Searchers essay. I’m leaving it in there, just because the image of Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Adolis Garcia riding around on horseback in a John Ford picture is a fun one to have. And hey, if you buy into Craig Calcaterra’s belief that Dane Dunning is actually a down-on-his-luck B-movie star from the fifties, then The Searchers could have been his big break.
The Searchers. (1956) #1 seed. Directed by John Ford. Starring John Wayne, Jeffey Hunter and Vera Miles.
The Searchers is bookended by two of the most famous shots in American cinema. The movie starts in a darkened screen when a woman opens a door, revealing a glorious, Technicolor VistaVision shot of John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley of Northern Arizona, here standing in for West Texas. The film closes the same way, with the the door framing John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards standing in front of the same door in front of Monument Valley. This time, the door closes on him and the screen goes black.
Whether or not you like The Searchers—and the film has plenty of critics—it’s hard to argue against it being one of the most influential films of all time. The basic theme of a man obsessed to the point of madness on an epic quest may have been lifted from Moby Dick. In turn, director Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver is, in many ways, The Searchers set in contemporary New York. The scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle’s home on Tatooine is burned down is a direct lift from The Searchers. Heck, the Buddy Holly hit “That’ll Be the Day” was lifted from the line that Wayne’s character utters repeatedly throughout The Searchers.
By 1956, director John Ford was starting to question the basic story that had been told since the birth of the Republic about the settlement of America. What if the white people aren’t the good guys? The Searchers is far too thematically ambiguous to come down on one side or the other of that question. I don’t think Ford was ready to answer that question in 1956. But he certainly is starting to question the basic racism that fueled the genocide of the Native Americans, as well as the cycle of revenge that leads to nothing but death and destruction.
But The Searchers is not a piece of agitprop propaganda. Far from it. It’s an epic tale of a man obsessed, driven by his demons in a years-long quest for revenge that he hopes will culminate in the murder his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood). Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate officer who, three years after the war ended, has never accepted the South’s defeat. He returns to the farm of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy), sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and their two daughters Debbie (Natalie’s younger sister Lana Wood playing the young Debbie) and Lucy (Pippa Scott).
Ford makes it clear from the beginning that Ethan is not the heroic character that Wayne traditionally played. Beyond not accepting the defeat of the Confederacy, he seems to have made a suspicious amount of money in the three years since, for which he offers no explanation. Ethan also clearly has a thing for his sister-in-law and her, in turn, for him. While the film leaves it at that, there has been much speculation about their relationship from film scholars in the decades since.
But what most marks Ethan as a man of questionable character is his overwhelming racism. Aaron’s family has adopted Martin (Hunter), an orphan of 1/8th Native American blood. That one Indian great-grandfather is enough for Ethan to think Martin is of questionable character and loyalty, even though he has given zero reasons for anyone to think that he’s anything but a fine, upstanding young man who loves his adopted family.
When the cattle owned by a neighbor are stolen, men of the settlement and the Texas Rangers go out to look for them. It turns out that the stolen cattle was a ruse by a Comanche named “Scar,” who leads a raiding party to kill Ethan’s brother and sister-in-law while the men are out looking for the cattle. The two young girls have been abducted. The party goes off to find them.
Eventually along the way, Ethan reveals that he’s found the body of the older Lucy, raped and murdered by her Comanche abductors. But they have reason to believe that the younger Debbie is still alive, forced into a marriage with Scar.
This starts a five-year quest for Ethan to find Debbie. But Ethan’s plan isn’t to rescue Debbie but to kill her. Because Ethan believes that after a few years living with the Comanche, Debbie has likely gone “full native” and in his mind, it’s better for a blood relative of his to be dead than living as a Comanche bride. Martin goes along with Ethan’s quest because he’s determined to keep Ethan from murdering his little sister. He leaves behind his fiancée Laurie (Miles) in order to save his sister’s life.
So yeah, this is a dark picture. Ford, probably correctly, felt that audiences in 1956 weren’t ready to handle that unfiltered, so he puts in some more light-hearted storylines, such as when Martin finds himself accidentally married to an Indian girl. There’s also that unrequited romance between Martin and Laurie that doesn’t serve a lot of purpose other than to take a break from the grim reality of Ethan and Martin’s quest. Ford also softens the ending, which should finish with either Ethan killing Debbie or Martin killing Ethan. Would the film be better without these touches? Probably, but I don’t think audiences would have accepted the film without them. One test screening and Warner Brothers would have rejected a film like that outright.
The Searchers is also a gloriously beautiful film with cinematography by Winton C. Hoch. Ethan and Martin travel through not just Monument Valley, but also in other picturesque areas of the West.
The racism at the heart of the film is also the heart of the controversy of the movie. Knowing what I know about John Ford, I have no doubt that he has little sympathy for Ethan’s hatred of the Indians, even in 1956. (I’m not so sure about Wayne, although it has been said that every good actor thinks they’re the hero of their film, no matter what part they play.) Audiences are supposed to sympathize with Ethan’s quest for revenge and the loss that he feels about the murder of his family, but even there, it is revealed that Scar attacked the homestead in revenge for the death of his two brothers at the hands of white settlers. But Scar is portrayed as even worse than Ethan. The major theme of The Searchers is how the cycle of revenge destroys not only the victims, but also the souls of the perpetrators.
Audiences are supposed to feel uncomfortable cheering for a hero like Ethan who is so flawed and so filled with evil intentions. But where the critics of The Searchers make their point is that is not clear that audiences, either of the fifties or today, are actually bothered by Ethan’s racism. On top of that, by casting an actor that audiences are predisposed to accept as heroic like Wayne, The Searchers risks making the racism look heroic as well. But Ford knew audiences of the time would only accept so much criticism of the prevailing narrative of the settling of the West. It’s also not clear that Ford himself was fulling willing to give up those heroic narratives at this point either. Ethan and Martin aren’t the only searchers here. Ford, and we as an audience, are supposed to be searching for answers as well.
Many have said that as Ethan Edwards, Wayne turns in his greatest performance. This is a complicated man who has that John Wayne charm and is loyal and generous. He certainly loves his family. But his blinding racism leads him to believe that the murder of his niece would be an act of love.
As a little bonus, here’s director Martin Scorsese talking about seeing The Searchers and its influence on Taxi Driver.
And here’s the trailer for The Searchers.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), #8 seed. Directed by Sergio Leone. Starring Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Charles Bronson.
After directing the “Dollars Trilogy,” also known as the “Man With No Name Trilogy” with Clint Eastwood, Italian director Sergio Leone had no interest in doing any more Westerns. The movie he wanted to make next was what eventually became Once Upon A Time in America in 1984. But the “Dollars Trilogy” was a huge hit and Hollywood was calling. They wanted him to do another Western and were offering him a lot of money. They also made promises that he could make in America next. So Leone relented and enlisted Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci to come up with a story that was a meditation about the relationship of the Western to the actual Old West, Once Upon A Time in the West.
Once Upon a Time in the West stars Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain, a former New Orleans prostitute who is now the new bride of a widower with a small piece of land in the Arizona desert. But before she can get reach the ranch, the man and his three kids are all ruthlessly murdered by Frank (Henry Fonda) and his men. Frank takes care after the murder to plant evidence that ties to the killings to a rival outlaw gang led by Cheyenne (Jason Robards).
Before any of this happens in the film, three of Frank’s men meet a mysterious harmonica-playing stranger (Charles Bronson) at the train station. They have the following exchange:
Harmonica: Did you bring a horse for me?
Snaky: Well. . .Looks like we’re . . .looks like we’re shy one horse.
Harmonica: You brought two too many.
At which point all four men draw. All four men are shot, but only Harmonica comes out of the duel alive.
Unlike “The Man With No Name Trilogy,” where Clint Eastwood’s characters actually have names in all three movies, Bronson’s character in Once Upon A Time in the West is never given a name. He’s referred to as “Harmonica” in the script, but when he’s asked his name, he gives the names of men previously murdered by Frank. We don’t discover Harmonica’s motivations—or even whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy—until late in the movie.
The big question in Once Upon a Time in the West is why would Frank (or anyone, for that matter) murder this small family living in the middle of nowhere? In the case of Frank, Leone worked against type to cast the traditional “good guy” Henry Fonda as a cold, psychopathic killer. Fonda had to be convinced by his good friend Eli Wallach, from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, to take the part. Even then, he went out and got brown contact lenses so he could better play the villain. Leone told him to take them out. He wanted the audience to stare into Fonda’s deep blue eyes before Frank gunned down a child.
That’s a common theme in Leone films: contrast. The contrast when an extreme wide shot that then gets replaced with an extreme close-up. Or the contrast between quiet and loud. Or what we’re expecting out of a Western and what he’s putting on the screen. Leone did this in the “Dollars Trilogy,” but he takes it to another level in Once Upon a Time. At one point, the entire screen gets taken up by nothing but a closeup of Charles Bronson’s eyes.
Once Upon a Time in the West plays with our expectations of a Western. A scene at a train station echoes a similar one in High Noon, but whereas the station in High Noon is a clean wooden building with decorative trim, the one in Once Upon a Time in the West has clearly been slapped together with old wood that was found lying around. (Literally true. They used old wood that Orson Welles had recently used in filming Chimes at Midnight.) In fact, the whole town looks incomplete and like it could fall apart at any moment.
The film is full of little twisted homages to classic Westerns. (Johnny Guitar is a big one as well—but with a harmonica instead of a guitar.) But Leone played one homage straight. While most of the film was shot in Italy and Spain, like his previous films, Leone couldn’t resist having Claudia Cardinale’s trip to the ranch go along the same route in Arizona’s Monument Valley that John Ford used in Stagecoach. It’s a beautiful scene.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a symphony of violence. There are lots of slow, quiet moments where not much happens. The only sound you hear is the creaking of doors or footsteps. But then it will explode into a loud, graphic violence. Some people have criticized the film for this and Paramount cut about 20 minutes of it from the original American release. But those slow periods are part of the fabric of the story. As proof, the film was a box office bomb in the US and a big hit with the full version in Europe.
As far as the symphony goes, you can’t mention Once Upon a Time in the West without mentioning the Ennio Morricone musical score. The score that Morricone did for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly gets all the attention, but his score for Once Upon a Time is just as great. The major characters all get their own leitmotif, announcing their presence.
Since I showed an extra video on The Searchers, it’s only fair that I show an extra video on Once Upon a Time in the West. Here’s Henry Fonda on The Dick Cavett Show talking about playing the villain in the movie. The part where Fonda starts talking about Once Upon A Time starts at around the three-minute mark.
And here’s the trailer for Once Upon a Time in the West.
And now vote:
The Searchers or Once Upon a Time in the West?
Once Upon a Time in the West
You have until Wednesday evening to vote. Both films are available for rent. Once Upon a Time in the West can also be streamed on Showtime.
Next up, we have our semifinals. The winner of this vote will take on director Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948). Red River can be seen on MGM+ and on Tubi and Pluto with ads.
Welcome back to everyone who skips the music and the movies.
I know that Al has the Cody Bellinger beat down cold with his daily Cody Bellinger watch. But it seems to be a big topic of conversation around here, so I’m going to take a stab at it.
Tonights question is regardless of which team he signs with, how big a contract do you expect Cody Bellinger to get? It’s been clear for some time that the Cubs are not willing to go into the $200 million range for Bellinger and neither is any other team, because he would have signed by now if they had. But just how much will he end up signing for?
At the beginning of the winter, Tim Britton of The Athletic predicted that Bellinger would get six years and $162 million. Ken Rosenthal, also of The Athletic, mentioned today that Britton’s predictions have been pretty accurate. Sort of. I checked and his predictions for the top and bottom end of the market have been pretty good. But in the middle range, he massively overestimated how much Jeimer Candelario would get and underestimated how much Jung Ho Lee would get. He nailed Shōta Imanaga’s contract almost exactly, except he obviously couldn’t predict all the weird options the Cubs put in.
Over at Fangraphs, Ben Clemens predicted that Bellinger would sign for six years for $150 million. So that’s going to be our approximate baseline. Do you think that Bellinger’s final total contract will be between $145 million and $165 million? Higher? Lower? Obviously if you think Bellinger is going to sign a short-term deal and try to go back on the market next year or the year after, then it’s going to be a lot less than $150 million. If you think he’s going to sign with someone other than the Cubs, then it certainly could be a lot more than $165 million. Heck, even the Cubs might go a little bit over that.
How much money will Cody Bellinger’s final contract be worth?
Over $165 million
Between $145 and $165 million
Less than $145 million.
Thank you so much for stopping by. We love to have company in the evening. Please get home safely. Stay warm. Tip your waitstaff. And join us again tomorrow for more BCB After Dark.