The Honeymoon Killers

Director: Leonard Kastle
Screenplay: Leonard Kastle
Stars: Shirley Stoler (Martha Beck), Tony Lo Bianco (Raymond Fernandez), Mary Jane Higby (Janet Fay), Doris Roberts (Bunny), Kip McArdle (Delphine Downing), Marilyn Chris (Myrtle Young), Dortha Duckworth (Mother), Barbara Cason (Evelyn Long), Ann Harris (Doris)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1969
Country: U.S.
The Honeymoon Killers Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The Honeymoon KillersOne of the reasons Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers developed into a cult classic in the decades following its theatrical release is because watching it with distanced irony is the only way not to be sucked into its truly disturbing account of the activities of two sociopaths in the late 1940s. Stark almost to a fault, the film is based on the true story of Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck (nicknamed “The Lonely Hearts Killers” by the tabloids), an oddball couple who, from February 1948 to February 1949, murdered a lot of people and were eventually executed in Sing Sing in 1951.

The jaunty ad line for Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967)—“They’re young … they’re in love … and they kill people”—fits The Honeymoon Killers quite well, except that it willfully disposes of all the giddy humor, style, and romance that elevated Bonnie and Clyde’s exploits to the status of modern myth. Shot in black-and-white in a visual style that emulates a documentary aesthetic, The Honeymoon Killers depicts crime and violence as a moral vacuum that draws in the narcissistic and the pathetic without ever moralizing or preaching. The fact that it is often quite funny is surprisingly in line with the film’s overall tone, as fact all too often trumps fiction in the weirdness department.

Tony Lo Bianco plays Ray Fernandez, an itinerant con man whose specialty is finding women through lonely hearts club listings, marrying them, and them fleecing them for everything they have. His would-be next victim is Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler), a 200-pound and extremely miserable nurse who turns out to be more morally misguided than he is. With constantly narrowed eyes and a plump face that somehow constricts into a skeletal mask of menace, Shirley embodies Beck as a deeply damaged woman who is so desperate for love that she is willing to do anything—anything—to keep Ray. Ray’s love for Shirley is just as bizarre, as it seems to be based on the fact that she not only matches his moral vacuity, but trumps it. He’s attracted to her malevolence, maybe because he senses it’s all for him.

Shirley joins Ray’s con game, although she turns out to be as much of a hindrance as help because her borderline-insane jealousy constantly threatens to undermine their charade as brother and sister. Throughout the film, they work their way through a series of spinsters and widows, each of which has her own sad nuances. Doris Acker (Ann Harris) is a lonely schoolteacher; Myrtle Young (Marilyn Chris) is pregnant and just wants a man to help her take care of her soon-to-be-born child; and Janet Fay (Mary Jane Higby) is an annoying widow who chirps about how “cuuute” everything is and insists on taking her cheap-art Jesus prints with her everywhere. The only thing these and the other women have in common is that they’re desperate and they have money; the latter is what Ray and Shirley want, the former is what they exploit in order to get it.

Some of these women emerge from Ray and Shirley’s ruse with only their money lost. Many others wind up dead, and it is the film’s violence that is one of its most striking qualities. At times, the violence is brutally depicted without flinching, as when Shirley takes a hammer to Janet Fay’s head and then she and Ray work together to strangle her with panty hose. At other times, it is left off-screen, as when Shirley takes a young child down to the cellar to kill her, and we hear the sounds of the murder while watching an extreme close-up of the mother’s eyes. The violence is never balletic, or poetic, or any of the other words used to describe the new depictions of violence flooding movie screens in the late 1960s. It is relentless and cruel and ugly, much like the film’s protagonists.

Yet, despite their villainy, Ray and Shirley remain strangely sympathetic characters, even when they’re at their worst. Perhaps it is because we sense just how pathetic they are that we are willing to understand—if not agree with or forgive—the atrocities they commit. At times, their behavior is so disgusting, as when Ray wants to make love with Shirley immediately after murdering a woman, that it’s hard to imagine looking at them in another scene, yet we do. Perhaps after so much romanticizing of crime in the movies, we’ve come to expect a sense of attachment to even the most morally repulsive criminals. It’s hardwired into our experience.

That doesn’t mean that first- (and only) time writer/director Leonard Kastle doesn’t do everything in his power to keep us from romanticizing the eponymous killers. His casting of Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler is dead-on, particularly if you’ve seen pictures of the real-life Ray and Martha. Lo Bianco has just the right amount of drippy-sleazy charm that you believe he could convince so many women to marry him, but he still retains an aura of repulsiveness. As noted earlier, Stoler channels real fury in Martha, particularly when she’s at her most jealous. She radiates off the screen because we believe she’s a woman capable of anything, which is, of course, the most frightening thing of all.

The Honeymoon Killers Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Video interview with writer/director Leonard Kastle from 2003
  • Love Letters, interview program by Robert Fischer featuring actors Tony Lo Biano and Marilyn Chris and editor Stan Warnow
  • “Dear Martha ...”, video essay by writer Scott Christianson
  • Trailer
  • Essay by Gary Giddins
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 29, 2015

    When Criterion released The Honeymoon Killers on DVD in 2003, it was something of an event since the film had been fairly difficult to find on home video for many years. Twelve years later, Criterion has done one better by replacing the previous transfer, which was taken from a 35mm fine-grain print, and replaced it with a new 4K digital restoration made from the original camera negative. Even more so than before, the image is crisp and extremely well-detailed, with solid black levels and fine gradations of gray. Digital restoration has removed all signs of age and wear, some of which had been apparent on the DVD, leaving it virtually flawless. The sound is reproduced in its original monaural glory, and the fact that the dialogue sounds a bit muffled at times and some of the postproduction recording sounds hollow has more to do with the original recording than with the digitally restored transfer, which was made at 24-bit from the 35mm magentic track.
    Criterion’s 2003 DVD edition of The Honeymoon Killers included several supplements, most of which have been retained here. First there is a 30-minute in-depth video interview with writer/director Leonard Kastle by film historian Robert Fischer, which is particularly poignant since Kastle passed away in 2011 (The Honeymoon Killers was the only film he made). Also included from the DVD, albeit in altered form, is an essay on the real-life “Lonely Hearts Killers” titled “Dear Martha ...” by Scott Christianson, author of Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House. On the DVD it was a static essay and you had to click through pages; on the Blu-ray it has been adapted into a 22-minute video essay where we hear, rather than read, Christianson’s words while looking at photographs of Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, their trial, and the various crime scenes, as well as all kinds of ephemera, ranging from newspaper clippings, to letters, to official papers and death certificates. The only thing dropped from the DVD are biographies of the cast and crew by film historian Bruce Eder, but really, with all the information available on the Internet, those will hardly be missed. Anyway, Criterion has seen fit to add something new: Love Letters, a new 25-minute restrospective interview program by Fischer that features actors Tony Lo Biano and Marilyn Chris and editor Stan Warnow discussing their work on the film.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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