Late in the summer of 2019, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, probably best known for his work with Martin Ritt on Paris Blues (1961) and The Front (1976) and with Sidney Lumet on Fail Safe (1964), turned one hundred. To mark the occasion, his good friend of thirty years, novelist Walter Mosley, interviewed him for Literary Hub. “In all my adult life,” wrote Mosley, “I have never met a more intelligent, loving, sensitive, questioning, heroic man.”
Bernstein, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 101, grew up in Brooklyn among left-leaning Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Early on, as a teen during the Depression, he developed a sense that “the system was out of whack,” as he told Camera in the Sun editor Christian Niedan in 2013. “There was something wrong there that was fundamental . . . And then, of course, there was anti-fascism. There was the rise of Hitler, and there was the Spanish [Civil] War. Those were formative things for me particularly.” He joined the Young Communist League while attending Dartmouth, where the lifelong movie fanatic landed his first job as a writer, reviewing films for the college newspaper.
It wasn’t long before he was placing short stories in the New Yorker, and when he was drafted in 1941, he began sending dispatches to the magazine from Sicily, Egypt, and Iran. As a correspondent for the Army journal Yank, he famously trekked for seven days through the mountains of German-occupied Yugoslavia to find Marshal Josep Broz and conduct the first interview with the man who would become known to the world as Tito, the independently minded head of the Yugoslav republic from 1953 until his death in 1980.
Back home from the war, Bernstein became a staff writer for the New Yorker, but Hollywood was where he really wanted to be. In 1947, he signed a ten-week contract with writer, producer, and director Robert Rossen and began turning in uncredited work on All the King’s Men, Rossen’s 1949 adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel about the rise of a charismatic populist politician in the Deep South. Interviewed for the 1997 collection Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 60s, edited by Patrick McGilligan, Bernstein was asked about what he picked up from Rossen. “I learned about moving a story in terms of action,” he said. At one point, “Rossen was trying to figure out how to tell the audience that the Huey Long character was not just a marvelous idealist. He wrote a scene—he didn’t like it; it was too wordy. Then he came up with some idea of a scene with no dialogue, where Broderick Crawford is eating a piece of chicken as people are extolling him—cutting to him and his indifferent reaction—so that we know that he’s not buying any of it. Things like that—visual detail, not dialogue—I learned that from Rossen.”
Scott Foundas profiled Bernstein for Variety in 2014, and he spoke with screenwriter Matthew Robbins (The Sugarland Express). “When Walter was hitting his stride as a professional writer in the ’40s and ‘50s,” Robbins said, “they didn’t have such a category of movies as ‘character-driven dramas,’ which has become a genre designation in today’s marketplace. Back in those days, no movies could be taken seriously unless they were character-driven. That was the source of his understanding and his talent, and it still is.”
In 1950, at the height of the McCarthy era, the right-wing journal Counterattack issued Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, a collection of over 150 names of entertainment professionals, including Bernstein’s. Overnight, he’d become unofficially but quite effectively blacklisted. In New York, he, director Abraham Polonsky, and screenwriter Arnold Manoff “formed a kind of group, the three of us, trying to get fronts and helping each other get work,” Bernstein recalled. “You think of that period as being such an awful period, and it was. But within that,” he added, there was a “sense of friendship and helping each other.”
The three of them wrote for television series such as Danger and You Are There when the medium was still young, and as Bernstein told Christian Niedan, there was an excitement in the air “because you felt you were part of something new that was being created. It wasn’t the theater, and it wasn’t movies. It was this bastard form, really.” When producers called in the writers for meetings, Bernstein sent in a front, usually an old friend of his brother’s who “kind of liked the whole idea of going up to story conferences—the playacting part of it.”
Sidney Lumet was the first director to insist that Bernstein be credited for a screenplay, specifically, for That Kind of Woman, a 1959 drama starring Sophia Loren and Tab Hunter. “Yes, not a very good movie,” Bernstein admitted to Niedan, “but it was a great time. That was the first job I had in ten years—first open job that is, under my own name.” Bernstein and Lumet’s Cold War thriller Fail Safe, in which a technical error threatens to inadvertently launch a thermonuclear confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, offers what Bilge Ebiri calls a “countervailing humanism” when compared to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which also hit theaters in 1964.
Bernstein’s first collaboration with Martin Ritt was Paris Blues, starring Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as jazz musicians in the City of Light. The film is marked by a “well-intentioned, often starchy nobility,” wrote Melissa Anderson for Artforum in 2014. “But puncturing the film’s earnestness—a burden that fell upon Poitier to carry, as he had to do in so many of his films from the 1950s and ’60s—are moments of saucy, slinky mischief.” Bernstein and Ritt’s The Molly Maguires (1970), based on the clash between Irish-American miners and mine owners in Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century, is “one of the most uncompromised politically-themed pictures to come out of Hollywood,” writes Glenn Kenny in his remembrance of the screenwriter, and Bernstein told Walter Mosley that it was the film of which he was most proud.
Ritt, too, had been blacklisted, and when he and Bernstein began working on The Front, the story of a restaurant cashier and small-time bookie who becomes the public face of a blacklisted television writer, the studios weren’t having it—until they turned it into a comedy and brought in Woody Allen to star. The Front is “a beautifully distilled piece of dramatic writing filmed with resolute dispatch and passion by Ritt,” writes Glenn Kenny. Bernstein recaptured the period twenty years later in his 1996 book Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist.
The Front gave Bernstein a taste for comedy, and the following year, he wrote an adaptation of Dan Jenkins’s very ’70s-era send-up of professional football, Semi-Tough, directed by Michael Ritchie and starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, and Jill Clayburgh. In 1980, he directed his first and only feature, Little Miss Marker, a remake of the 1934 pre-Code comedy starring Walter Matthau, Julie Andrews, and Tony Curtis.
Bernstein carried on working well into his nineties, teaching screenwriting at NYU and creating the television miniseries Hidden in 2011. When Walter Mosley asked him what he thought his greatest accomplishment might be, he answered, “Holding onto my socialism, standing up for what I believed. I think I did that okay.”
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