The Honeymoon Killers

(USA - 1970)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco, Mary Jane Higby, Doris Roberts
Genre: Crime/Drama/Romance
Director: Leonard Kastle
Screenplay: Leonard Kastle
Cinematography: Oliver Wood
Composer: selections from Gustav Mahler
Runtime: 115 minutes

Occasionally some good comes from an overrated bad movie; someone is so disgusted by the unwarranted heaps of praise bestowed on a turkey they riposte with an actual quality alternative. Opera composer Leonard Kastle took issue with historically inaccurate Bonnie & Clyde for casting pinup idols and romanticizing their violent crime spree as the non-conformist rebellion of young lovers. The violence was stylized to add to the aesthetically pleasing fantasy where the killers were glamorized to the point they came off as martyrs. Kastle removed all the gloss and glitz, basing his true crime film on Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) and Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco). The “Lonely Hearts Killers” were a plumper and an oily charmer who used personal ads to prey on lonely old ladies with money, none of which where honored to have been robbed by the duo.

Oliver Wood’s stark realistic photography purposely avoids dramatic angles and close-ups. Using mostly natural light, this grainy black and white with some instances of poor sound looks like a documentary. The film is never gratuitous, yet despite being largely bloodless and employing no special effects the two depicted murders were so disturbing they were cut from the UK release until Kastle won an appeal. If the film seems sleazy it’s because Kastle shows the murders to be wicked and grotesque, like his killers, rather than some kind of glorious thrill ride worthy of adulation. Since the murders were unplanned, sloppiness derives from their spontaneity. As in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, the killing goes on for an excruciating length of time because humans rarely cooperate and die in a brisk and tidy manner. The cinema verite style makes it that much more unsettling than even Hitchcock’s version, imagine Albert Maysles doing a snuff film.

Violence is only a very minor part of this tale of desperate lonely people. Honeymoon Killers is actually about love, a desperate kind bred from being shunned for so long. Martha’s problem isn’t lack of attention; it’s that Ray is the only one whose attention does anything for her. Everyone else just annoys her. Now that Martha has finally found someone she clings to him to the point of regularly threatening/attempting suicide. Ray doesn’t love Martha nearly as much, but he doesn’t want her life on his conscience. The lovers may be incompatible, if nothing else their timing is always off so one’s attempts to seduce the other goes unidentified. Sex may follower murder, but one is not the stimulus for the other.

The duo get no kicks out of their work, but Ray isn’t willing to get the money they need to live together in an honest way or let Martha try to support them. Martha’s desperate need for Ray’s attentions leads to their murders because she’s unwilling to share Ray long enough to complete their schemes, even though they are designed to take a day or two. Ray’s scam is essentially being a bought husband, except he takes the money and runs. If Martha could have dealt with Ray’s desperate victims for a little while they probably would never have had to kill. She is an anchor in the schemes because can’t bear any sign of affection between Ray and his intended, who obviously has been without a man for a while or she wouldn’t resort to trying to purchase a permanent one.

The ordinary gross losers do have a genuine contempt for their pitiable victims, perhaps because they aren’t so different from themselves. They are vulnerable and so lonely they’ll believe or do anything. Outside of Ray, who plays the pleaser getting you to let your guard down so he can do whatever he wants behind your back, all the characters are incredibly annoying.

Everyone’s desperation surfaces as some form of infantilism. They are so pitiable the film often plays as a black comedy. It’s hard not to laugh at how naive the marks are. I mean, Martha and Ray very obviously aren’t even the same nationality, yet the victims are so desperate for company they are hardly even put off by Martha’s unmasked contempt for them much less her incestual looking relationship with her “brother”, who she’s always cloying at and trying to control. The victims seem like blithering idiots, but it’s mostly that they are so overjoyed someone is actually paying attention they blind themselves to some very obvious red flags.

Kastle chooses irony over violence, with scenes like the bride to be singing “America the Beautiful” in the tub while her new family is in the next room robbing her. It’s never good to be a lonely aging lady with money looking for love in the movies, but Kastle shows them to be hypocritical. They trap themselves, for instance, because they believe in puritanical values enough to need a husband to claim as their upcoming baby’s father, but obviously not enough to go along with no sex out of wedlock. Kastle tries so hard not to judge Martha & Ray, but by focusing on them and simply giving their point of view it sometimes seems like their victims deserve to die. Kastle is completely unsentimental, so the audience can see similar flaws and neediness in Martha & Ray even if they can’t see it themselves. The film is often and somewhat rightly compared to low budget gem Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but the big difference is John McNaughton is most interested in scaring you to death by depicting the random acts of his heartless outcast killer whereas Kastle depicts how the fragile side of everyone's humanity can create a chain of events that results in murder.

The acting may not always be good, but everyone is believable in their parts. Kastle doesn’t cast anyone with sex appeal, mostly he uses ordinary old housewives (before they got so desperate they became indistinguishable from washed up whores). Shirley Stoler is big in every regard, giving Martha a dominant overbearing personality. She steals the show with her abrasive character that does nothing but complain and confront. Lo Bianco is good looking, but he regularly plays older since Martha has Ray going after women she hopes are too old to be interested in sex. His slippery as a snake personality is a turn off though he can be a real charmer and makes a genuine effort to get along with everyone and give the widows something for the money he’s about to lift, even if not what they want.

Kastle wanted to call the film Dear Martha to focus on the love aspect as well as their method of securing their marks, but gave in to the lurid title when no one wanted to distribute the film. Despite being the anti Bonnie & Clyde, the more obvious comparison is to a purposely lurid titled work In Cold Blood. Not only are both black and white documentary style true crimes, but they feature characters with no violent intent whose personalities create a deadly dynamic that winds up resulting in slaughter. As much as we’d like to write off their aberrant behavior as psychosis, their main problem is they don’t have enough money to be together. Ray is a schemer and Martha is a caretaker turned jealous girlfriend. The film shows how easy it is to sink deeper and deeper without realizing it, until suddenly you’ve passed the point of no return. And then you continue because what else can you do?

Martin Scorsese was the original director, and a few of his scenes are in the finished product, but his perfectionism wasn’t doable for the $150,000 budget. Kastle claims Scorsese wasted most of a day trying to light a beer can in a bush. A distraught Scorsese thought he’d never direct again after he got canned 10 days in. Donald Volkman took over, but wasn’t ambitious enough, and really didn’t direct again. Producer Kastle finally gook over himself. He surprisingly doesn’t compose his own music, but makes eerie use of Mahler to add to the dark mood. Like Electra Glide in Blue director James William Guercio, Kastle returned to the music business after directing one 1970’s cult favorite. Unlike Arthur Penn, at least both hit their Target.




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