The Bootleg Files: The Search for Bridey Murphy

BOOTLEG FILES 643: “The Search for Bridey Murphy” (1956 drama starring Louis Hayward and Teresa Wright).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A film that fell through the cracks.


The name Morey Bernstein may not resonate with most people today, but back in 1956 he created a global sensation as the author of a book called “The Search for Bridey Murphy.” Bernstein was not a professional writer – he was the manager of a plumbing and mining supply company in Pueblo, Colorado, but his interest in hypnotism led him on an adventure that changed how the Western world considered the concept of reincarnation.

In his book “The Search for Bridey Murphy,” Bernstein detailed a series of hypnotism sessions he conducted with a woman who he identified as Ruth Simmons. Bernstein initially took the hypnotized Simmons in a regressive journey to her earliest years – and then, to his amazement, took her even further back to a hitherto unknown previous existence in early 19th century Ireland as a woman named Bridey Murphy. Simmons, who had never been to Ireland, recalled her past life as Bridey Murphy in a thick Irish brogue and offered in-depth details on the various aspects of her life on the Emerald Isle.

“The Search for Bridey Murphy” became an immediate hit upon publication, topping the best-seller list for 26 weeks. The book was translated into 30 languages and made a major impact around the world, thanks in large part to a virulent condemnation by many Christian clergy who were appalled by its advocacy of reincarnation. Paramount Pictures snatched up the film rights and assigned its big screen adaptation to Noel Langley, the South African-born writer/director best known for co-authoring the screenplay for “The Wizard of Oz.”

Unfortunately for all parties involved, something went very wrong between the publication of Bernstein’s book and the release of the film version. We’ll get to that later. First, let’s consider the film.

Paramount’s production was obviously a rush job, and this was apparent in the cheap-looking production – a black-and-white affair whose crummy sets and dull cinematography was magnified by the widescreen VistaVision format. Paramount was confident enough that the book’s cred could sell the film, so it cast the decidedly non-stellar Louis Hayward as Bernstein and Teresa Wright as Simmons – two good actors, to be certain, but both were a decade past their respective primes as film stars.

“The Search for Bridey Murphy” opens with Hayward’s Bernstein speaking directly to the camera on a soundstage where the film’s title is plastered on the back of sets. This strange introduction is supposed to give the impression that we’re watching a documentary. Bernstein first encounters the concept during a cocktail party hypnotism demonstration by an uncouth guest. After setting out to research the topic, which includes an encounter with disciples of the legendary mystic Edgar Cayce, Bernstein is ready to start hypnotizing people. But it his surprisingly effective hypnotism of a friend’s wife into a past-life regression that brings forth Bridey Murphy, and Bernstein believes he has stumbled upon a monumental discovery.

Alas, the hypnotism sessions make “The Search for Bridey Murphy” one of the most visually tedious films of the 1950s. Much of the investigation into Simmons’ supposed past life is framed in static shots with Wright lying closed-eyed on a couch while Hayward grills her on the details of Bridey Murphy’s world. The film goes into several flashbacks via gauzy silent scenes meant to evoke 19th century Ireland, including periods when the deceased Bridey wanders about as a ghost to her loved ones – but these sequences rarely feel authentic. Even worse, these dialogue-free flashbacks are burdened with endless narration by Hayward and Wright, and it doesn’t help that Wright gives the most bogus Irish brogue imaginable when discussing Bridey Murphy’s life. Hayward’s Bernstein also talks constantly across the soundtrack to describe his inner angst in stumbling around this realm – it is hard to recall another Hollywood production where there was so much annoying wall-to-wall narration.

In the latter stretch of the film, when Bernstein’s book is being prepared for publication, his publisher demands that he get further confirmation on the details of Bridey Murphy’s life. This leads to one final hypnotism session to seek out the specifics of Bridey’s life and death, and it concludes with a last-second melodrama when Bernstein is unable to release Simmons from her trance.

But the scene with the publisher demanding more evidence was, itself, a last-second CYA moment for this vehicle. After Bernstein’s book was published, journalists embarked on a concentrated effort to affirm the Bridey Murphy story. The resulting investigation made a shamble of Bernstein’s findings: not only was there no evidence from historical records in Ireland that Bridey Murphy ever existed, but it was discovered that the subject of Bernstein’s hypnotism (her real name was Virginia Tighe) knew an Irish immigrant named Bridey Murphy Corkell when Tighe was child growing up in Chicago. Skeptics of Bernstein’s book wondered if Tighe had mixed her childhood memories of the gregarious Irish neighbor’s anecdotes into a jumbled fantasy created while under a hypnotic spell. Or, in scientific terms, whether this was just as case of cryptomnesia, which takes place when a forgotten memory emerges without being recognized by the subject experiencing the recollection.

While public acceptance of reincarnation continued to grow over the years, the film version of “The Search for Bridey Murphy” seemed to shrink from sight. Over the years, it occasionally emerged on late-night television, and a VHS video of the title was released in 1998, but to date there has never been a DVD or Blu-ray presentation.

A decent copy of “The Search for Bridey Murphy” can be found on YouTube, which may satisfy those with an interest in reincarnation and hypnosis. Otherwise, those viewing this not-special flick may find themselves getting sleepy … getting sleepier … with their eyelids getting heavy …

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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