The Great Screenwriters: Part 3 – Leigh Brackett

By Martin Keady · February 23, 2016

Almost everything about Leigh Brackett was uncertain, ambiguous and even androgynous, beginning with her name, which many people (including the legendary director Howard Hawks) initially took to be that of a man.  That sense of uncertainty and ambiguity extended to her career.  She first made her name as one of the few female stars of science fiction’s first “golden age” (in America in the 1940s and 1950s), producing an extraordinary number of short stories, novellas and novels, but is probably better remembered today as a screenwriter rather than as a writer of prose.  Ultimately, perhaps, even her status as a “great screenwriter” is arguable, in that she only ever wrote or co-wrote a total of 11 films in more than three decades.  However, given that four of those 11 films were classics – The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye and The Empire Strikes Back – her enduring importance as a screenwriter (and especially as a female screenwriter) is surely undeniable.

Brackett was born in California in 1915 and always claimed that she was “birthed” as an author at the age of eight when she read one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars-set novels, The Gods of Mars.  Burroughs, of course, was the creator of Tarzan, but at the same time that he was depicting a man growing up among the apes (and ultimately preferring their society to that of his fellow men), he was also writing another series about an earthling, John Carter, who was mysteriously transported to Mars to take part in a series of extraordinary gladiatorial contests.  (The 2012 Disney screen adaptation, John Carter, starring the marvellously monickered but ultimately untalented Taylor Kitsch, was one of the biggest-budget flops of recent years.)  There is something very appropriate about Brackett’s first literary hero being Burroughs, a writer whose work straddled very different genres (from jungle novels to science fiction), given that she also demonstrated remarkable versatility as a writer.

Brackett first began publishing her own sci-fi stories when she was in her early twenties, and became one of the regular contributors to such classic “space fiction” magazines as “Astounding Science Fiction” and “Planet Stories”.  However, like most American writers in the great age of noir, she also wrote crime fiction, with her first novel, No Good for a Corpse, being published in 1944.  She later admitted that she was directly influenced by the king (and virtual creator) of the genre, Raymond Chandler.  What is astonishing is that within two years she would be helping to adapt Chandler’s greatest work, The Big Sleep, for the big screen.

Legend, myth and Hollywood hagiography has it that Howard Hawks first came across Leigh Brackett’s work in 1945 when he was on one of his regular “pulp-buying” exercises, whereby he would visit LA book stores to buy up any crime novel that caught his eye.  (Supposedly, one of Brackett’s friends, who worked in such a book store, added No Good for a Corpse to Hawks’s pile of purchases when he wasn’t looking.)  Hawks, who had already established himself as probably the greatest Hollywood director of the 30s and early 40s, with such classics as Scarface, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, was so taken by Brackett’s tough, muscular style (particularly the “salty dialogue” that the LA Times would later declare was a trademark of her scriptwriting) that he supposedly asked his secretary to call “this guy Brackett” to get him involved in his forthcoming feature, a much-anticipated adaptation of The Big Sleep.

The Big Sleep is one of the most mythical Hollywood movies, and not just for being the greatest vehicle for the fabled “Bogey and Bacall” on-screen chemistry.  It is just as remarkable for the off-screen chemistry of perhaps the finest writing team ever assembled for any movie.  The source material, of course, came from Raymond Chandler, who wrote the original novel and was continually consulted by Hawks during filming (most famously when he replied to a Hawks telegram inquiring whether the chauffeur had killed himself or been murdered by saying, “I don’t know either”).  But Chandler was not one of the three screenwriters who adapted the book for the screen.  They were William Faulkner, a great novelist himself, of course, as the author of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying; Jules Firthman, a regular Hawks collaborator and a superb screenwriter (the great film critic, Mark Cousins, is particularly effusive about Furthman’s abilities); and little ol’ and comparatively unknown Leigh Brackett.  The fact that Brackett could hold her own among such stellar company (and most importantly retain that all-important screenwriting credit) is surely the finest testament to her ability as a writer for cinema.

The Big Sleep may have had the greatest number of great writers involved in its creation of any film, but that is not to say that it all makes sense.  As Chandler’s admission in his telegram suggests, its labyrinthine structure is not completely comprehensible.  But that is more than forgivable because of the aforementioned Bogart-Bacall chemistry (particularly in the famous “horseracing” sequence, where the two trade double and even single entendres while supposedly discussing what they look for in a horse rather than a stablemate), and the overall creation of a sense of the sheer seediness of LA between the wars.  That theme that has been endlessly explored ever since, particularly in the two great neo-noirs of the early 1970s, Chinatown and The Long Goodbye, which was an updating of The Big Sleep to the hippy age and for which director Robert Altman deliberately sought out Brackett to add her own unique sense of “classic noir”. But more on neo-noir later.

After the success of The Big Sleep, Brackett’s science fiction (her first and ultimately greatest love) flourished and she did not write or co-write another screenplay for more than a decade, especially after she married another writer, Edmond Hamilton, and relocated to Ohio.  But she returned to the big screen with a bang in 1959, by co-writing another Hawks classic, and this one a Western, Rio Bravo.

Brackett had written sci-fi and “cri-fi” (crime fiction) throughout her career, but she had never published or even written a Western story until Hawks again approached her and Furthman to help adapt B.H. McCampbell’s short story about a tough-guy sheriff who confronts the brother of a powerful rancher in order to help out his permanently drunk deputy.  Of course, on screen the sheriff and the deputy were played by John Wayne (in one of his late great western roles) and Dean Martin (in certainly his greatest dramatic screen role and arguably his most autobiographical screen role full-stop) respectively, with Ricky Nelson, the Justin Bieber of the day, playing their young sidekick and providing the film’s theme tune.  Routinely regarded as one of the great Westerns, and recently rediscovered by a new audience after Quentin Tarantino’s expressions of admiration for it, Rio Bravo demonstrated conclusively that Brackett could write Westerns as well as Detective movies.

Thereafter, Brackett wrote many Western stories, for TV and the movies, notably El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), both directed by Hawks, both starring Wayne and both essentially reworkings of the Rio Bravo “Brave Sheriff and Unreliable Deputy in Trouble” story.  However, Rio Lobo was Hawks’s final film and when he retired from the film industry, Brackett had lost her cinematic father figure.  Fortunately for her, she was soon to hook up with another master-director, Robert Altman, when he reworked The Big Sleep as “The Big Sleaze”, aka The Long Goodbye.

On The Long Goodbye (1973), Brackett was finally credited as the sole screenwriter on a movie and consequently it is the best movie to judge her screenwriting ability by.  On her earlier films, as with any co-written scripts, it can be impossible to tell which writer wrote which lines, but The Long Goodbye was as much her baby as Altman’s, wryly remaking Bogey’s ur-Marlowe as a stoner Marlowe played by Elliott Gould.  In numerous superb sequences, notably the famous “Coke bottle scene”, where a gangster brutally smashes a Coke bottle across his girlfriend’s face (Altman said that it was so the gangster could get her attention and so he could get the audience’s attention), Brackett’s skills as a screenwriter – her famously “salty dialogue”, her creation of fine male and female characters and, perhaps most importantly, her ability to fill in some of the plot-holes in both the original novel and the first Hawks film – are beautifully evident.

Altman had said that he wanted his Marlowe to be a “Rip Van Marlowe”, who had almost fallen asleep in a booze or drug-fuelled binge at the end of the 1940s and woken up more than 20 years later to find that Hollywood, LA and indeed the whole world had completely changed, even if he (and his values) hadn’t.  To fulfil that aim, and realise his new vision of the classic LA detective, there was really only one person he could have turned to, and that was Leigh Brackett.

One of Brackett’s most remarkable gifts as a screenwriter was her ability to choose great, or at least good, projects.  She was the embodiment of the William Goldman dictum, set out in his classic insider account of Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade, that a screenwriter should always write things other than screenplays (novels, plays, whatever), so as not to lose their sanity in the greenlit/ungreenlit world of Hollywood.  Brackett, who had always remained principally a writer of science fiction stories and novels, so much so that she was known as “The Queen of the Space Opera”, was always able to pick and choose the film projects she worked on (a luxury that is obviously denied to most screenwriters).

For her final film, “The Queen of the Space Opera” collaborated with “the King of Science Fiction Cinema”, George Lucas.  After the entirely unexpected success of Star Wars in 1977, Lucas followed Altman’s lead and asked Brackett to write the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, presumably looking, like Altman before him, for a little of her classic Hollywood magic.  What followed was perhaps the most contentious screenplay since Citizen Kane. Just as fans and critics (including the great Pauline Kael) have argued about whether Kane was essentially the creation of its director, Orson Welles, or its screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, so debate has raged about the origins of Empire

Brackett died in 1978, two years before Empire was released, and consequently was unable (even if she had been willing) to explain her own contribution to the greatest of the Star Wars films.  (Empire remains so even now, with The Force Awakens being almost a remake of the first two Star Wars movies, albeit with infinitely better SFX.)  Some critics argue that Brackett mapped out the original story of Empire; others maintain that Lucas junked her original script and completely rewrote it.  The debate may well never be resolved, especially given that the only surviving copies of her original script are kept from public eye in a library and Lucas’s own archives.

Whatever her precise contribution to the Empire story, it is impossible not to imagine that Brackett helped to create the uniquely dark world of Empire, which makes it not so much Star Wars as Noir Wars.  Planets that are really giant monsters; oedipal conflicts with lightsabres; and wonderful wise-cracking along the lines of “I love you/I know” were all trademarks of the worlds that she had helped to create for nearly 40 years, both in her own sci-fi stories and her classic detective and western screenplays.

The ambiguity in Leigh Brackett’s name (“that guy Brackett”) and her career (as a short story writer who wrote or co-wrote four classic movies) ultimately extends to her legacy.  She is not nearly as well-known as she should be (to this day, there has never been a biography of her) but that is not to diminish her status as one of the greatest Hollywood screenwriters, and arguably the greatest Hollywood female screenwriter.