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Leigh Brackett, The Tiger Among Us

I prefer Leigh Brackett's science fiction to her crime fiction, but she was no slouch at the latter and wrote quite a bit of it. Most famously, of course, she worked on the screenplay for The Big Sleep (1946), along with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman. The Tiger Among Us, published in 1957, was her fourth novel in the genre. (In my previous bout of Brackett, I wrote about the third, An Eye for an Eye.)

The Tiger Among Us is concerned with juvenile delinquency, which I believe was all the rage in 1957. It's the first person story of Walter Sherris -- an ordinary man who is attacked for no reason by a group of middle class boys led by a handscome psycho named Chuck. The cops are hamstrung in their ability to do anything about the assault, so Walter starts investigating on his own initiative.

This has been described as an early vigilante novel, but it really doesn't feel like one, especially in contrast to something like The Big Heat (novel in 1952, film in 1953). Walter is angry about what happened to him, but he's not obsessive. He's not out of control. His anger and desire for revenge runs hot and cold. One of the strange tangents of the novel is his wife's reaction to the crime, which is a much a test of her as it is of him. Walter also works pretty closely with the over-worked cop, Koleski. He buys a gun, but Brackett is realistic in her assessment of how difficult it is for the average person to kill cold-bloodedly.

The resolution of the story is fairly conventional, but it travels some interesting territory to get there. The suburban life of Walter and his wife is held up as normal and admirable, but whether consciously or not (she wrote some critical stories about suburban life in her science fiction), Brackett portrays it as a somewhat empty, sterile affair that is specifically something the delinquent boys are trying to escape. Brackett also takes Walter into the underbelly of the small Midwestern town where the story is set, delving delicately into the racism and poverty to be found there. Even with the conventional ending and accompanying moral lecture, there's a bracing (and sympathetic) depiction of middle class money at work to salvage the reputation of the criminal boys, and Walter is left with "a curious feeling of defeat" that feels curiously satisfying.

The novel was filmed in 1962 as 13 West Street, with Alan Ladd as Walter and Rod Steiger as Koleski, but it doesn't seem to have much of a reputation. I'd love to see it.

I've now read all but three of Brackett's novels -- the three rarest: Stranger at Home (a 1946 crime novel ghost-written for, of all people, the actor George Sanders); Rio Bravo (the novelization of the 1959 Western directed by Howard Hawks); and Silent Partner (her fifth and final crime novel, published in 1969 and never reprinted). The completist in my thinks I should track those down. We'll see how dedicated I actually am.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 29th, 2012 07:37 pm (UTC)
If you get your hands on a copy of Rio Bravo I'd be excited to read it as well. Rio Bravo and it's three close siblings are my favorite Howard Hawks/John Wayne movies of all time. I've watched them all multiple times and I love comparing the different ways Hawks handled such similar characters, themes and plot points.
Sep. 29th, 2012 07:39 pm (UTC)
This is Jack Bell BTW. LJ keeps forgetting I'm logged in today.
Sep. 29th, 2012 08:23 pm (UTC)
One interesting thing about the novelization is that it's never been reprinted since 1959. The old paperback is the only edition, as far as I can tell. There seem to be plenty of copies available, although they aren't particularly cheap.

Brackett is pretty funny in interviews on the subject of having to write the same movie three times, although I think the third time (El Dorado) she was only asked to come in and make some changes to a screenplay somebody else had written.
Oct. 1st, 2012 01:48 am (UTC)
She was GoH at a Denver con I went to in the late 70s. Her big news was that she'd been engaged to write a sequel to STAR WARS. They showed THE BIG SLEEP at the con, and she talked about it. One of the best GoH talks I ever saw! Faulkner phoned it in from Mississippi or wherever he was. She said that Bogart and Bacall made up some of their scenes (like one where they're on the phone bullshitting the police).

Also at the con, they showed Red Skelton's Guzzler's Gin sketch from Ziegfield Follies (or whatever movie it was in), and all weekend, everybody was going "Smoooooth!"
Oct. 1st, 2012 03:30 am (UTC)
Okay, wait, Bob Tucker got "Smoooooooth" from Red Skelton?!!!
Oct. 1st, 2012 03:57 am (UTC)
I don't know, but I never heard it before that con, and I heard plenty of it after. Maybe Gordon Garb would know if it was current before that or not — he was at the con. Ed Bryant, too. Not sure if Fred Pohl was at that one or not (and I'm not certain if it was a MileHiCon or PenultiCon).

Everybody (not me: I didn't drink then) was smoothing with whiskey, though one Denver fan devilishly brought in a gin bottle for the purpose: being true to the source, no doubt.
Oct. 1st, 2012 03:32 pm (UTC)
See exchange with kim_huett below. I never knewed that!
Oct. 1st, 2012 11:54 am (UTC)
I suggest you watch this Randy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al2xOOTMmLo This is Red Skelton redoing his 1943 Guzzler's Gin skit. If the 1943 version is anything like that then I would definitely vote for Tucker having borrowed smoooooth from Red Skelton. It's the way Red says it that convinced me.
Oct. 1st, 2012 03:31 pm (UTC)
Haven't had a chance to watch this yet, but some googling found this from Bill Warren in a memorial to Bob Tucker: 'Yes, Bob's "smoooooooth" (it requires more than two O's, though I'm not sure what the Official Tally is) did come from Red Skelton's "Guzzler's Gin" routine. A later variation was Lucille Ball's drop-deal hilarious "Vitameatavegamin" routine.'

Learn something new every day, by gum.
Oct. 1st, 2012 03:39 pm (UTC)
From Dick and Leah Zeldes Smith's Spirits of Things Past [PDF], April 2001:

smooth or smoooth or even smooooooth vi. To engage in a drinking ceremony: The leader takes a sip from a bottle of bourbon, puts his hand in the air, and passes it to the next person, who does the same. Everyone keeps his hand raised until the bottle comes back to the leader,
who takes another sip, at which time the whole company shouts “Smoooth!” while swinging their arms down in front of them in a wide curve.

Bob Tucker of Illinois is the originator and perennial leader of this ceremony, which he began using at cons in the early 1950s. “I stole the Smooth routine from Red Skelton in a movie,” the 1948 MGM musical Ziegfield Follies, he said. “Skelton had only a cameo role; he appeared for about three to five minutes selling ‘Guzzlers Gin’ in a TV commercial. At the end of the commercial he is half drunk and sitting on the floor; he looks up at the camera, swings his arm and cries, ‘Drink Guzzlers Gin — it's smooth!’ ”

When Tucker isn’t present, the ceremony is performed in his honor. The increasingly hard-to find Beam’s Choice bourbon (green label) is the proper Tuckerish tipple, but other beverages can be substituted in an emergency.
Oct. 1st, 2012 04:07 pm (UTC)
Early 50s! Makes sense. Eminently imitable behavior — good thing it wasn't a movie where Red Skelton whacks himself with a cinder block. The inane verses he reads are memorable too:


Algy saw a bear.
The bear saw Algy.
The bear was bulgy.
The bulge was Algy."


I bought my wife some garters
At the five and ten.
She gave them to her mother.
That's the last I'll see of them!"
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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