Monday, March 8, 2010
The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
The Honeymoon Killers is a 1970 American film written and directed by Leonard Kastle, and starring Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco. It tells the story of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, the notorious "Lonely Hearts Killers" who murdered at least 12 women in the 1940s. The soundtrack is a selection from the works of Gustav Mahler.
Martha Beck is a sullen, overweight nurse who lives in a southern town with her elderly mother. To help her find a man, Martha's friend Bunny writes to a "lonely hearts" service, which results in a letter from Ray Fernandez of New York City. Overcoming her initial resistance, Martha corresponds with Ray. He visits Martha and seduces her. Later, Ray sends Martha a letter ending their "relationship" and Martha calls him, threatening to kill herself because she cannot live without him.
Moved by her devotion, Ray asks Martha to visit him in New York. There, Ray reveals that he is a con man who corresponds with lonely women with the intent to seduce and swindle them. Martha still proclaims her love for Ray, however, and she accompanies him as he moves from woman to woman. Posing as his sister, Martha can barely contain her jealousy as she watches Ray romance other women, though Ray promises her that he will never sleep with them. Ray marries a pregnant woman, Myrtle Young, and Martha gives her a fatal dose of pills after Myrtle aggressively attempts to sleep with Ray.
Martha and Ray move onto their next target, and Martha attempts to drown herself after catching Ray in a compromising position. To placate her, Ray buys Martha a house in the suburbs; however, their attempt at living as a "normal" couple fails, and they resume their criminal activities. Ray, under the alias "Charles Martin," becomes engaged to the elderly Janet Fay and takes her to the house he shares with Martha. Janet entrusts Ray with a check for $10,000, but she becomes suspicious of the couple. When Janet tries to contact her family, Ray and Martha hit her in the head with a hammer and strangle her to death. Her body is buried in the cellar.
Martha and Ray then spend several weeks living with the widowed Delphine Dowling and her young daughter. Delphine confides in Martha, hoping that she will help convince Ray to marry her as soon as possible because she is pregnant with Ray's child. Furious, Martha attempts to kill Delphine when her daughter enters the room with Ray. Ray shoots Delphine in the head and Martha drowns her daughter in the cellar. Ray tells Martha that they'll move onto another woman, reaffirming his promise never to betray Martha with one of his marks. Realizing that Ray will never stop lying to her, Martha calls the police and calmly waits for them to arrive.
The epilogue takes place four months later, with Martha and Ray in jail and awaiting trial. Martha receives a letter from Ray in which he tells her that, despite everything, she is the only woman he ever loved. Titles on the screen then conclude the story, saying that Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez were executed on March 8, 1951.
The film was the first for producer Warren Steibel (known as the producer of television's Firing Line), writer/director Leonard Kastle (known as a composer), cinematographer Oliver Wood, and Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco (both stage actors).. A wealthy friend of Steibel, Leon Levy, suggested to Steibel that he make a film, and gave Steibel $150,000, the amount that Steibel suggested it would cost. After deciding the film would be about the "The Lonely Hearts Killers", Steibel asked Kastle, his roommate, to do some research on the subject; financial limitations led Steibel to ask his friend to write the screenplay.
Steibel hired Martin Scorsese to direct, but Scorsese was fired for working too slowly; a few scenes he did were included in the final film. Industrial film-maker Donald Volkman took over, but lasted only two weeks. Kastle then steped in as director for the last four weeks of principal photography.
Budgetary constraints meant that actors did their own hair and makeup, and special effects were not fancy. In a scene in which Martha bludgeons an old woman with a hammer, "condoms containing glycerine and red dye were affixed to the head of the victim with plaster of Paris. The hammer, a balsa-wood prop, had a pin at the end. When the pin pricked the condoms, the blood began to flow."
The film was initially marketed as an exploitation film; it "performed weakly" at the U.S. box office in spite of critical praise. For example, Variety magazine said it was "made with care, authenticity and attention to detail." Its "modest financial success" in Britain and France probably meant that its financial backer recouped his investment.
Francois Truffaut called it his "favorite American film."
When Criterion Collection released a restored DVD edition of the film, The A.V. Club review ends by noting the film's "nauseous mixture of laughs and shocks, and the fact that real passion drives Kastle's characters even when they plot against each other, is what makes The Honeymoon Killers such an enduring one-off. It works, as Gary Giddins argues in the liner notes to this beautifully restored DVD edition, as the perfect product of the same anxious, permissive age that produced Waters, Night Of The Living Dead, and blaxploitation. But it holds up just as well as a weirdly timeless love story with a body count."
Although inspired by true events and uses the real names of the "The Lonely Hearts Killers", contrary to what the opening credits states, the film takes substantial liberties with the historical record, including how Fernandez and Beck actually met. The film does not disclose that Beck was divorced with two children whom she sent back to Florida on Fernandez's orders. Nor does it mention Fernandez's wives and children. In addition, the assertion that Beck called the police contradicts accounts of the case.
1.^ William Grimes (Tuesday, October 20, 1992). "Behind the Filming of 'The Honeymoon Killers'". The New York Times.
2.^ The Honeymoon Killers a January 1, 1969 review from Variety magazine
3.^ Essay on the film by Gary Giddins from Criterion Collection
4.^ The Honeymoon Killers (DVD), a July 14, 2003 review by Keith Phipps for The A.V. Club