Bert Shefter was a prime member of Hollywood's second tier of film composers. Although never as celebrated or widely recognized as such stars in the field as Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa, or Max Steiner, he was fully employed in film music, with over 70 scores to his credit amassed in a period of 25 years, from 1950 through 1975. He spent many of the prime years of his career teamed with Paul Sawtell, his longtime friend and collaborator.
Born in Russia at the turn-of-the-century, his family emigrated to America soon after. Shefter showed an early aptitude for music and trained as a concert pianist. During the early '30s, he was teamed with future renowned composer Morton Gould in a duo-piano act, and among their other works together, the two arranged and published a two-piano version of Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee.
Shefter first came to movies in 1950, when he wrote the music for One Too Many (1951), an exploitation film produced by the legendary Kroger Babb and directed by Erle C. Kenton. Soon after, he was working for Robert L. Lippert's Lippert Pictures as a composer on the musical Holiday Rhythm (1950). His next few films were all within the orbit of Lippert's studio, generally low-budget films that were forgotten as soon as they'd run through their distribution cycles. In 1951, however, Shefter was hired to write the score for Joseph Losey's remake of Fritz Lang's M. The movie wasn't highly regarded critically, but it was seen and figured in serious film histories of both Lang and Losey. He spent the next half-decade writing scores principally for Lippert's productions, broken up by the occasional big-budget release such as Nunnally Johnson's brilliant, dark espionage thriller Night People (1954), made for 20th Century Fox and starring Gregory Peck and Broderick Crawford. He wrote music for every kind of mainstream genre film, from war movies to Westerns. Shefter continued to perform as a pianist when he wasn't engaged in film work, and it was during a 1957 engagement in Las Vegas that he met Paul Sawtell, a fellow composer -- the two soon discovered that both their work and their way of working were surprisingly compatible with each other. They became collaborators beginning with The Black Scorpion (1957), one of the lesser giant monster movies of the 1950s -- the story actually represented a good idea for a film, but the low budget and the poor special effects in many scenes marred the picture; no one could complain about the music, however, which was as wild and wooly as the action and showed none of the seams that the model work and animation did. Sawtell and Shefter became the composers of choice for budget-conscious producers over the next few years, by virtue of the speed with which they worked and the quality that they delivered. This was especially true in the field of science fiction -- their music for Kronos (1957), It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958), The Fly (1958), and Return of the Fly (1959), in particular, was some of the most memorable within the genre during the late '50s.
At the end of the 1950s, Sawtell and Shefter began an association with producer Irwin Allen, starting with The Big Circus (1959) and continuing through Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and The Lost World (1961). Their skills fit together so well that they could write music (and good music) almost three times faster than the norm for a single composer; Shefter proclaimed they were capable of delivering the score to a 90-minute movie in a week. Much of their music was highly memorable, such as the score they wrote for the science fiction-thriller Kronos (1957).