The Honeymoon Killers (1969)
Dir. Leonard Kastle
Starring: Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco, Doris Roberts,
Dortha Duckworth, Marilyn Chris, Barbara Cason,
Mary Jane Higby, Kip McArdle, Mary Breen
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Though one wishes to imagine the movie Martin Scorsese might have made from Leonard Kastle's screenplay of The Honeymoon Killers, it's probably best left unimagined. Scorsese was quickly fired by the producer for being too pokey on the shoestring $150K budget, whereupon Kastle was selected to replace him.
What remains is still one of the most mouthwateringly lurid films of the 20th century. Not that Kastle's approach to this take on the true-crime drama of the "lonelyhearts killers" was exploitative, but it derives its layers of scum quite honestly due to the realistic, monochrome and almost documentary-like approach to the material. Yet, in spite of the neo-realist flavour infusing the picture, Kastle also bathes the material in a perverse romanticism and we get, first and foremost, a love story - albeit one in which its lovers are psychopaths.
Spring boarding from events which originally took place during the post-war years of the 40s and setting them in the 60s when the film was shot, we're told the tale of Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler), a morbidly obese nurse from Mobile, Alabama who meets the sexy, charming conman Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) from a lonely hearts club correspondence. Long before internet dating sites, those in need of love would write good, old fashioned love letters to each other via clubs which advertised their services in sleazy "women's" magazines and tabloid newspapers.
The flowery correspondence twixt the two leads Ray to make a trip down to Mobile from New York. Martha lives with her dementia-addled mother (Dortha Duckworth) and has only one real friend, the libidinous Bunny. Ray has come to dupe Martha into emptying her bank account, but instead, he falls madly in love with her, and she with him.
Eventually he reveals his "business" to Martha and the two of them carry on as lovers, but pose as brother and sister, which makes them an ideal team to perpetrate fraud upon lonely spinsters. In no time, however, simple fraud turns to murder and the pair begin to kill their victims. Committing murder seems to spark their libidos even more. After Martha gruesomely, brutally and repeatedly smashes a seventy year old woman's head to a pulp with a hammer, the two retire to the boudoir as Ray, hard-on raging, orders Martha to keep the lights on. "I want to make love," he coos.
Their love knows no bounds, it seems. However, the scams they're perpetrating often place Ray in positions where the "lonely hearts" are demanding sex from him. Worse yet, Ray even seems attracted to some of the women which only causes Martha to become both jealous and even more brutally murderous.
It's only a matter of time until they're caught and as in the real-life case, both of them are put to death in Sing Sing Prison's electric chairs. Kastle, as writer and director, never lets up on the romantic connection between Ray and Martha. Sacrifices are made for love and in spite of the horrific nature of their crimes, the film actually moves us during its final moments. In fact, we're moved quite deeply.
One of the interesting aspects of creating a borderline melodrama of this love is the brilliant notion to use Gustav Mahler's alternately heart-wrenching and sweetly beautiful 6th Symphony as the only score. Written by Mahler during a period of considerable strife in his marriage to Alma Mahler, the work has often been referred to as "The Death of Love" symphony. What makes it work so beautifully is that it needs to convey deep love in order to detail the death of love and used as score in The Honeymoon Killers, it carries us along with as much joyous emotion as it does with its disturbing, dissonant riffs.
There isn't a performance in the film that ever seems out of place. but ultimately, it's Stoler (she played the concentration camp commandant in Lina Wertmuler's Seven Beauties) and Lo Bianco (oft cast as a gangster and cop who transcended the cliches he was forced to inhabit and delivered the brilliantly complex performance in Larry Cohen's God Told Me To) who both keep our eyes glued to the screen. In another time and place, these two render performances that would at least have garnered major nominations and possibly even awards, but in 1969, were relegated to a few decent critical notices and little else.
There have, of course, been a number of film versions of this story, but none of them have the power of Kastle's version to both horrify and move us. It's an extraordinary work and one which continues to live on as a genuine classic.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
The Honeymoon Killers is available on a gorgeously transferred Criterion Collection Blu-Ray which comes complete with an all new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a detailed interview with writer-director Leonard Kastle from 2003, interviews with actors Tony Lo Bianco and Marilyn Chris and editor Stan Warnow and a genuinely great new video essay, “Dear Martha . . . ,” by writer Scott Christianson, author of "Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House". Feel free to order the film directly from the Amazon links below and contribute to the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner: