The Honeymoon Killers: Broken Promises

On Film / Essays — Sep 28, 2015
The Honeymoon Killers

Rarely has schizophrenia been closer to the surface of American cinema than in the transitional period of 1968–71. Hollywood had just abandoned its censorship code after nearly thirty-five years, and the behemoth studios were heaving and rattling into oblivion or an afterlife of distribution and free-agency. Tectonic cultural shifts atomized the audience, as legendary directors faltered, stars faded, and producers hustled T&A for art’s sake. The public was subjected to a diet of historical pageants, John Wayne, and elephantine musicals, along with thumb-suckers about wayward youth, corrupt cops, bygone wars as substitutes for the one in progress, and a future ruled by monoliths or apes. From the audience’s perspective, choosing a movie was like joining a political party: Paint Your Wagon or The Wild Bunch, Love Story or Midnight Cowboy, The Green Berets or Five Easy Pieces?

At the same time, a bonanza of eccentric independent films—photographed in the soon-to-be-obsolete shadowplay of black and white—boldly rivaled European, Asian, and Mexican cinema in the dominions of realism, violence, horror, and sex. Most successful was John Cassavetes’s Faces, a triumph of the autonomous glamour-free cinema. Less respectable but more influential were George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which resuscitated an anemic genre; John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs, made to “glorify carnage and mayhem for laughs”; Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the launchpad for blaxploitation; and, most mysteriously and perhaps most enduringly, Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969)—the anti–Bonnie and Clyde true-crime tabloid shocker. Here you will find no glitz, sex appeal, fiddle music, or Aesopian moral about the dehumanization of violence. Instead, you will be treated to a display of irate humor and voyeuristic mischief as two sociopaths and their deluded victims live and die by the axiom “He (or she) who cons last cons best.”

Based closely on the yearlong bilk-and-murder spree of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, the Maggie and Jiggs of serial killers, this is one angry film, derisive of its characters and audience. It depicts a tawdry America floundering in subterfuge amid flag-waving, songs, and holidays. Consider the matchless grotesquerie of the first “Lonely Hearts” captive, Doris (Ann Harris), pitifully middle-aged and naked in her bath, bellowing “America” and waving her sponge with patriotic fervor—while the groom and his accomplice rifle her belongings. Doris, at least, is spared her life, though the film spares her nothing else. Janet Fay (a superb characterization by the radio veteran Mary Jane Higby) succumbs to one of the longest and grisliest deaths this side of Torn Curtain. But by then the film has already disposed of her humanity, mining for laughter her penny-pinching deceits and Jesus icons, defying the most saintly among us to forswear thoughts of homicide every time she chirps, “Innat cuuuute?”

Of course, Martha and Ray aren’t among the most saintly. Yet in the seedy moral tableau of The Honeymoon Killers, we are encouraged to roll our eyes in solidarity with them—that is, until Martha raises the hammer or, drawing on her nursing background, helpfully offers a tourniquet, by which time we (like Janet) are begging for a mercy that the filmmakers (like Martha and Ray) have no intention of providing.

Watching and rewatching The Honeymoon Killers (originally titled Dear Martha) is like boarding a roller coaster: it rouses and deflates you in the same way every time. You’re not sure you really want to do it again, but who can resist the thrill of confronting one’s own moral ambivalence? Compulsively diverting, it’s a movie that taunts you for having a good time. But that’s the way it is in this particular territory. The Honeymoon Killers is frequently placed in a lineage of films about criminal couples, from the romanticized They Live by Night (1948) to the overwrought Natural Born Killers (1994). But it has closer ties to films about a particular finicky breed of serial killers who prey upon lonely women.

Filmmakers almost always treat these predators with humor, as though rich elderly women who search for love deserve a sorry fate—the very argument Joseph Cotten makes as the Merry Widow killer in Hitchcock’s droll Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Usually the widows are merely fleeced: with sophisticated repartee, as in Trouble in Paradise (1932), or crass giggles, as in Bedtime Story (1964), or amusing pathos, as in Paper Moon (1973). Yet Cotten’s lethal prototype, the twentieth-century Bluebeard, Henri Désiré Landru, generates slapstick homicide in Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and wry fatalities in Claude Chabrol’s Landru (1963). True to form, Kastle offers one-liners that Tony Lo Bianco’s meticulously imagined Ray plays like a violin, grandly informing Martha that he could never live off a woman, or complaining of a victim, “Christ almighty, I’m earning my four thousand tonight!” He makes a sonata of “I remind her of the late and lamented Mr. Fay when they were married; she doesn’t seem to realize how long ago that must have been,” and manages to get a laugh every time he says the magic words Valley Stream. The high-pitched “mommy” voice he uses to calm his besotted wives, however, is downright chilling.

Much of the humor is visual, notably Ray’s pretend seduction of Martha’s mom, his ass wriggling across the screen, or Martha—played by Shirley Stoler with a wily mixture of infinite hurt and infinite disdain—eating. There’s a lot of desperate sex or near sex, but the real eroticism occurs between Martha and a pretzel (she sighs with contentment), Martha and a box of chocolates (she is recumbent, as if battered by orgasms), Martha and a cookie (she bites into it as a reward for getting Janet to admit that she’s got the dough). Other shots stay in the mind because they are terrifying, none more so than the sequence ending with the murder of Delphine Downing (Kip McArdle) and her little girl, Rainelle (Mary Breen): the ruthlessly close focus on the mother’s drugged eyes, the off-camera scream after Martha takes the daughter to the cellar, the camera panning back as Ray cringes at the ghastly sounds.

So who was Leonard Kastle, and how did he come to make so accomplished a first and only feature? The idea began with TV producer Warren Steibel (Firing Line), who remembered the extensive newspaper coverage accorded the “Lonely Hearts” killers. Martha and Ray had freely roamed the land from February 1948 through February 1949, and ended up in Sing Sing’s electric chair in 1951. Steibel asked Kastle to research the story and devise a treatment. Neither man had ever worked in film. Kastle, then a thirty- nine-year-old composer, was known for his opera about the Mormons, Deseret, which had debuted on NBC in 1961; he later wrote The Pariahs, an opera about the sinking of the whale ship Essex. Hiring Stoler and Lo Bianco was, obviously, a masterstroke, and so, one would have thought, was Kastle and Steibel’s initial choice to direct: the young, eager Martin Scorsese. Yet the pair felt that Scorsese was wasting their time and money on irrelevant shots, and in the stormy environment that developed, he was dismissed after ten days.

Stoler said that Scorsese filmed the two setups for the opening hospital scene, something Kastle disputed. Whoever shot them, it’s interesting to note how characteristic they are of Scorsese’s mature style. Each is a long master shot without inserts, the first a receding pan that picks up Martha with a slight zoom and follows her toward the site of the unexplained explosion, the second a mobile survey of the room as Martha dresses down the staff. That shot ends with a sharp transition, presumably by Kastle, who soon took command of the film, to Martha’s foot, kicking a child’s wagon from her path. No one questions Scorsese’s participation in the lakeshore scene where Martha nearly drowns; it marked the beginning of the shoot, and Stoler insisted that the fear she displays is genuine.

Nor does anyone dispute that it was under Kastle’s direction that the picture’s astonishingly unvarnished lead performances developed. All acting aspires to truth, but only rarely does it attain the kind of uncooked vérité seen here. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are a chilling pair in Double Indemnity, but not for a moment do we forget that they are familiars cocooned in glossy Hollywood starlight. Not Stoler and Lo Bianco, whose characters live in hell and make hell palpable. Raised in Brooklyn by immigrant parents, they suffuse Martha and Ray with a closely observed pathology born of alien resentment. Stoler was a forty-year-old veteran of small theater companies when she made her film debut in The Honeymoon Killers. Only Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (1975) gave her a part nearly as good—though she must have been something playing the widow Charlotte opposite Donald Sutherland’s Humbert in Edward Albee’s disastrous 1981 Broadway adaptation of Lolita. Adept at making much out of little, she consistently worked in film and TV until shortly before her death in 1999. The prolific Lo Bianco had a few turns on Broadway and in television before, at thirty-four, he got his breakthrough role as Ray Fernandez. He would go on to play dozens of tough guys with multiple vowels in their last names, in such films as The French Connection (1971), The Seven-Ups (1973), F.I.S.T. (1978), and Nixon (1995). He created recurring characters in five TV series, won acclaim and prizes for his work in the 1983 revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, and toured in a one-man show about Fiorello La Guardia. Yet along with Stoller and Kastle, his film work peaked at the beginning.

The seeming assurance of Kastle’s debut was greatly aided by cameraman Oliver Wood, who helped him realize his ideas and figured out how to work with available light; after a long hiatus, Wood went on to shoot several big-budget Hollywood movies. One of the most widely noted of the visual conceits they devised resulted from Kastle’s idea for surprise blackouts when Martha and Ray turn off the lights in their respective rooms. Kastle credited Wood for the film’s semi-newsreel look; between the naturalistic gray light and the director’s claustrophobic interiors, the picture resembles the approach of such late-sixties documentaries as the Maysleses and Charlotte Zwerin’s Salesman and Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies. The uneven, echoey sound adds to the effect, although the bad dubbing in a few scenes detracts from it.

It’s a minor miracle that a filmmaker with no previous experience could bring all the pieces together, from the performances to the realistically bare set design to a score made up entirely of excerpts from Mahler, which punctuate the film with gloomy alarums. At the heart of a work whose fans have included Michelangelo Antonioni and François Truffaut is Kastle’s clever script, the blueprint for a film that is convincing, inven- tive, efficient (note the montage of letters that bring Martha and Ray together), and, in most respects, historically accurate. It deviates from the facts in eliminating Martha’s children, whom she abandoned to go off with Ray, and the police, who caught the couple after receiving a tip, reportedly from Delphine’s father-in-law. Kastle preferred the classical symmetry of an ending in which the couple does what comes naturally—trying out one last con on each other. The Honeymoon Killers doesn’t give a damn about crime, punishment, or rehabilitation. It sets its sights on loving and lying, and its cri de coeur occurs when the insanely jealous Martha finds Ray canoodling with a mark and bawls, “You promised!”

This essay is a revised version of one that appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2003 DVD edition of The Honeymoon Killers.