Playing at your local drive-in: The films of Richard Bernstein

When Wyott Ordung put together what became his magnum opus of independent filmmaking, the eccentric but interesting WALK THE DARK STREET (1956), he had some help in the form of two associate producers on the project, Tom Michaels and Richard Bernstein. WALK THE DARK STREET is, according to the IMDB, Michaels' only movie credit, but Bernstein built upon the experience to launch a brief but involving career as a writer-producer, climaxing with two 1960s releases in the popular fields of horror and westerns, TERRIFIED and THE GUN HAWK.

Since an earlier and much lengthier blog of mine focused on Ordung (1922-2005), his career as an actor, writer, producer and director, it occurred to me, as I stumbled onto his name on other films, that Bernstein's contributions were rather interesting. While Ordung boasted only a few more credits after WALK THE DARK STREET, Bernstein was busier, even if his Hollywood career closed as quickly as his collaborator's.

Bernstein (1922-1983) rode the crest of the low-budget exploitation rush of the mid-to-late '50s where independent producers provided movies for the bottom half of the double feature bill as the major studios expended more resources on bigger and better product. The need for inexpensive filler flicks inspired the formation of American International Pictures, Crown International, Howco International, Woolner Brothers and other concerns specializing in horror, science fiction, juvenile delinquency and topical pictures, while young tyros like Ordung and Bernstein sensed opportunity and seized their day, with varying results.

Little information appears available about Bernstein's background prior to his name appearing on the credits on WALK THE DARK STREET, although a 1955 Billboard blurb lists a Richard Bernstein as working with a television program packager in the development of a new show, possibly for consumption by Los Angeles stations or in syndication. Nevertheless, WALK THE DARK STREET provided a vehicle of experience for a number of people such as himself looking to get into the movie business.

An offbeat variation on Richard Connell's famous 1924 short story "The Most Dangerous Game," officially filmed three times up to that point (including 1956's RUN FOR THE SUN) and greatly imitated, WALK THE DARK STREET focused on a big-game hunter (Chuck Connors) and a Korean War veteran (Don Ross) who agree to stalk each other through a section of L.A. with unusual rifles designed by Connors. The hunt, set up on a bet, is supposed to be non-fatal, but the unhinged Connors plans to bump off his rival, whom he blames for his younger brother's combat death.

Memorable for its use of locations and Connors' creepy performance, WALK THE DARK STREET overcame most if not all of  its rock-bottom budget limitations and became a quirky late-night television entry. Failing to achieve a widespread distribution, WALK THE DARK STREET was also an early home video issue when, lying in the public domain, it was picked up for the burgeoning market and continues to be a favorite on streaming channels. Bernstein's name on the film certainly didn't hurt his career and it put him in contact with actress Regina Gleason, WALK THE DARK STREET's leading lady, whose striking appearance would be featured in two of his productions.

Bernstein next surfaced as screenwriter and associate producer (with Byron Roberts) on FROM HELL IT CAME, released Aug. 25, 1957, by Allied Artists in an attempt to crack the growing hybrid of new-fangled science fiction with traditional horror elements coming into the exploitation field.

Bernstein's script has a group of U.S. scientists, led by Tod Andrews and Tina Carver, checking fallout from nuclear testing in the Pacific on a nearby island. The residual radiation is enough to transform a young leader (Gregg Palmer) of the hostile people inhabiting the island into a monster when he's murdered by treacherous natives and buried beneath a cursed tree. The tree, sporting a scowling countenance and surprising mobility, uproots itself, starts laying waste to the population and is stopped when hero Andrews shoots a bullseye into the knife one of the victims drove into the tree's hide before expiring.

Ridiculed over the years for its tree creature that, despite its fearsome features inspired more laughs than thrills, FROM HELL IT CAME is not the worst of its kind but comes pretty close despite some interesting ideas and the efforts of the cast to deliver the their lines with straight faces. Director Dan Milner, a film editor (whose brother Jack produced), had a promising start with his initial effort outside the cutting room, PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES (1956), issued by American Releasing Corp. just prior to the company changing its name to American International. It, too, had a goofy-looking monster, but also a somber mood to complement the grim doings.

FROM HELL IT CAME pointed to not only to the economic nature of producing such films to strike while the iron was hot, but also to the impoverished production values and reliance on stereotypes that the speed of filming created. (For an in-depth and nicely pun-filled critique, please reference FORGOTTEN HORRORS VOL. 7: FAMISHED MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, by Michael H. Price, John Wooley and Jan Alan Henderson, Cremo Studios, 2015). After its initial run, FROM HELL IT CAME reached more audiences when AA packaged its '50s sci-fi/horrors, like THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN (1956) and  ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957), for TV consumption.

Linking with an executive producer named Richard B. Duckett, Bernstein co-authored and co-produced (with George W. Waters) a change-of-pace piece in TANK BATTALION, issued by AIP in July 1958. A standard but not uninteresting drama of the Korean Conflict, TANK BATTALION centered on the crew of an armored vehicle (Don Kelly, Frank Gorshin and Edward G. Robinson Jr.) in war and in love with a pair of nurses (Marjorie Hellen and Regina Gleason) and a native entertainer (Barbara Luna). The climax finds our heroes in their disabled tank and under fire from the enemy, frustrating their attempts to escape and summon reinforcements.

Director Sherman A. Rose stages the story efficiently, and the concluding sequence in a barren valley (familiar movie location Bronson Canyon again pressed into service) serves to emphasize the soldiers' isolation as they withstand attack from entrenched North Korean forces. Even the romantic portions of the film play well thanks to the acting values, particularly those demonstrated by Gleason as a worldly-wise angel of mercy. Also effective are the performances offered by Kelly and Hellen, both to undergo name changes after TANK BATTALION's release. Kelly became Don O'Kelly and enjoyed a busy career in film and TV before his October 1966 death from stomach cancer at 42. Hellen is better-known as Leslie Parrish, who offered excellent characterizations in LIL' ABNER (1959), PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER (1961) and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) in addition to carving a side career as a social and environmental activist.

Like his contemporary Don Rickles, Gorshin was cast in dramatic roles before achieving success as a comedian (and terrific impressionist) and acquitted himself well in TANK BATTALION, as does Robinson Jr. in an on-again and mostly off-again acting career cut short by his February 1974 death at 41, one year after his famous father's passing.

Bernstein, Waters and Duckett joined forces for their next endeavor, SPEED CRAZY, set in the world of auto racing, issued by AA on June 28, 1959. Bernstein and Waters' script, which Bernstein produced, involves itinerant racer Nick Barrow (Brett Halsey) who suffers from the title addiction. He winds up stealing a car, and cornered at a race site, he manages to flee and leads his pursuers on a wild chase along a mountain road, a la HIGH SIERRA (1941).

The 75-minute feature was directed by William J. Hole Jr., who had a hand in some of AIP's similarly-themed fast-car dualers of the time; his best-known effort, though, was the 1961 supernatural thriller THE DEVIL'S HAND for Crown International. Regina Gleason offered her usual compelling performance as SPEED CRAZY's secondary female lead, as did Yvonne Lime and Baynes Barron, FROM HELL IT CAME's villainous native chieftain. On the verge of a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, Halsey commands attention as the film's anti-hero; the likable actor alternated as villains and heroes for AIP, AA and on television before hitting the big time in Fox's glossy version of THE BEST OF EVERYTHING in 1959.

While SPEED CRAZY fit the bill for drive-in thrills (for completists, the title song cut by cast member Slick Slavin is available via Google), the trio's next effort was considerably more serious in tone, even if its inspiration came from a stronger movie about capital punishment. In some respects, WHY MUST I DIE? comes across as a pale carbon of Robert Wise's I WANT TO LIVE! (1958), which earned lead Susan Hayward the Best Actress Oscar for that year, but only because it offered a fictional story in place of the more celebrated, Joseph L. Mankiewicz-produced film's basis in truth.

I WANT TO LIVE! told the story of Barbara Graham (Hayward), a good-time girl implicated in the murder of an elderly woman during a break-in at the victim's residence. Despite herculean efforts to support her innocence and almost unbelievable twists of fate that worked against her, Graham died in the gas chamber at California's San Quentin State Prison in June 1955. Her story and the film raised questions about the rush to execution, a subject still under debate when Bernstein scripted WHY MUST I DIE? (with additional dialogue by Herbert G. Luft).

His protagonist, Lois King (Terry Moore) tries to shake off the criminal background provided by her father (Orville Sherman) and earn some fame and respectability as a night club singer. This she achieves, but a fatal after-hours shooting of a club manager by hardened criminal Dottie Manson (Debra Paget) is mistakenly pinned on Lois, who is in turn tried and sentenced to death. The efforts of her attorney Adler (Bert Freed), an anti-capital punishment advocate, eventually expose Dottie's role in the killing, leading to a suspenseful if downbeat wrap-up as Lois enters the death chamber.

Distributed in June 1960, WHY MUST I DIE? was an unusual offering from AIP, whose success since its founding in 1954 prompted founders James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff to upgrade the company's image. While not as highly charged as I WANT TO LIVE!, WHY MUST I DIE? builds its own dramatic tension and a palpable air of doom over its 86-minute running time that can be attributed to its veteran director, Roy Del Ruth.

Duckett, Bernstein and Waters invested well in Del Ruth, once the second-highest paid director in Hollywood. Having helmed some of Warner Bros. biggest movies of the early sound era, Del Ruth had retrenched and came to this project after working on the science fiction/monster flick THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE (1959), his first cinematic directorial assignment in five years. He skillfully guided leads Moore and Paget, two higher-profile actors than Bernstein was used to employing, through their paces while Freed, usually cast either as a grim villain or cop (can anyone who's seen him in it ever forget his alien-possessed police chief in 1953's INVADERS FROM MARS?), responding well to the opportunity at playing a more sympathetic part. WHY MUST I DIE? proved to be Del Ruth's final picture; he died the following year at 67.

It was also the last collaboration Bernstein had with Duckett and Waters as Bernstein began looking around for classier projects in which to invest time and money. A SPEED CRAZY had its place in U.S. cinema but even exploitation filmmakers were looking for a better image as the '60s dawned. The old forbidden fruit idea was still there as the central attraction, but surrounding it with added production value, name actors looking for work (and simultaneously hoping nobody who mattered would go see it) and a promotional campaign more sophisticated than a carny pitch were occupying the minds of such hopefuls as Tony Anthony, Saul Swimmer and Peter Gayle when they created the juvenile delinquency drama FORCE OF IMPULSE (1961).

Bernstein is listed as a collaborator on the screenplay of this Miami-shot feature along with star and co-producer Anthony, director Swimmer and Francis Swann (Gayle also co-produced). The story is pure drive-in fare, but with enough of a difference to set it apart from the typical J.D. flicks of the period. In this case, Anthony portrays a high school athlete in love with a classmate (Teri Hope) from an upper-class background, filling him with frustration at his lower-case position in life. This prompts him to pull a supermarket robbery with all of the consequences one can imagine taking place.

Distributed by both Sutton and Astor pictures late in the year of its release, FORCE OF IMPULSE benefited from the location shooting, the sincerity of its lead and in larger supporting roles, the presence of Robert Alda and J. Carrol Naish. Anthony (born 1935) soon after landed in Italy as the star of spaghetti westerns, originating the roles of The Stranger during the latter '60s and the one-shot BLINDMAN in 1971, the latter in collaboration with his friend Swimmer. Anthony's Italian-made adventure flicks COMIN' AT YA! (1981) and TREASURE OF FOUR CROWNS (1983) are partly credited with fueling the revival of the 3-D gimmick in movies in the early '80s.

When Bernstein's name reappeared on the screen, it was as writer and producer of TERRIFIED, a horror thriller that's justly earned a reputation in the decades since its release by Crown International on May 1, 1963. For his second attempt in the fright genre, Bernstein moved light years past FROM HELL IT CAME with a simple tale of a mad killer who scares his victims to death, most often by luring them to an abandoned western ghost town, burying them alive but still able to watch, the better to either die of fright or lose their minds.

The madman is doing just that in a pre-credits sequence, setting the tone for the film. Indeed, the sight of the masked villain, chuckling at his misdeeds and asking the youth (Robert Towers) he's putting in a cement shroud if he knows him looks ahead to the slasher movie subgenre that spawned the HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH franchises of the late '70s and through the '80s.

The rest of TERRIFIED, directed by another old pro of the studio system, Lew Landers, and beautifully shot by Curt Fetters after years of working on Ziv-produced TV shows (I LED THREE LIVES, HIGHWAY PATROL, SEA HUNT, etc.), follows a more deliberate and restrained path as a college student (broodingly played by Rod Lauren), researching a term paper on fear and human response, puts himself in harm's way with the nut job, whose identity is kept hidden until he confesses his infatuation with the kidnapped heroine (Tracy Olsen).

Although more clearly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960), TERRIFIED retains a sense of unease even when the pace of its 85 minutes occasionally lags. Shot in 1962, Bernstein produced in collaboration with longtime art director Rudi Feld, with whom Bernstein crossed paths on TANK BATTALION. Oddly enough, TERRIFIED was again a final endeavor for its busy director as Landers, who filmed Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff during the glory days at Universal in the mid-'30s, met an untimely death on Dec. 16, 1962. He was 61.

The next Bernstein-Feld production, THE GUN HAWK, was distributed by AA on Aug. 28, 1963, was not only the longest (92 minutes) of Bernstein's efforts but also the first in color. The producers looked to the still-popular field of westerns with a tale of a gunslinger (Rory Calhoun) who flees to an outlaw sanctuary after killing two brothers for bullying an elderly town drunk (John Litel) -- who was the gunman's father. The sheriff (Rod Cameron) decides to go where no lawman has gone before and force a reckoning with Calhoun.

Edward Ludwig, a veteran of horse operas and a few John Wayne vehicles, directed in a straightforward manner in what became his final feature film (although he lived until 1982), focusing on the conflicts faced by the thoughtfully-written roles in Jo Heims' script (from a story by Bernstein and Max Steeder) enacted by Calhoun and Cameron. Calhoun also has an aspiring contender for his reputation with a gun in Rod Lauren (1940-2007), the fading pop singer then at the pinnacle of his brief film career. (In addition to TERRIFIED and THE GUN HAWK, Lauren appeared in three other movies released in '63). Calhoun and Cameron, backed by a sympathetic performance by Ruta Lee as the hideut's overseer, were nearing the end of their western movie careers but provided strong characterizations to boost the picture.

Handsomely put together, THE GUN HAWK was the final Bern-Feld (as their collaboration was called) production and Bernstein's last cinematic effort. Unlike others in the exploitation field, he went out on a high note with the comparative excellence of THE GUN HAWK. His career as a producer and writer may have begun in the ragged circumstances of WALK THE DARK STREET, but achieved a certain respectability only a few years later that some of his contemporaries, who eventually drifted out of the business due to lack of opportunity and money, could have only envied.

Still, one wonders if Bernstein himself wished for more longevity as a producer, perhaps in partnership with European filmmakers at a time when westerns and horror films shot overseas were being more commonly seen around the U.S. (and later on TV), or sensed it was time to do something else with his time and talent. Whatever the reason for his departure from the Hollywood scene, Richard Bernstein left behind some winners, a few clinkers and a lot of entertainment for the movie market he targeted.


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