Sunday, September 27, 2015


How long before we get a modern retelling of The Honeymoon Killers based off Tinder? Though I’d put money that Law & Order: SVU has already done it, the dating app and similarly focused websites are the digital equivalent of the “Lonely Hearts” services that gave hustler Ray Fernandez and his lover Martha Beck a handy list of potential victims for Ray’s gigolo con, a scheme that eventually gave way to murder.

It’s this true crime tale that inspired The Honeymoon Killers, a 1969 indie written and directed by Leonard Kastle. It was his first and only feature.

In the movie, Tony Lo Bianco plays Ray, a Spanish playboy who woos desperate women by mail, luring them into trysts and sometimes marriage in an effort to trick them into giving him money. When he targets Martha (Shirley Stoler), an overweight nurse with a bad attitude, he misses the mark--she doesn’t have any money--but still gets more than he bargained for. Martha falls hard for Ray, so much so that she threatens suicide if he won’t come back to her and doesn’t even bat an eyelash when he tells her the truth about his lifestyle. He likely hoped that it would scare her off, but it only ties her to him more. Martha becomes Ray’s partner, posing as his overbearing sister and tagging along for his seductions. This turns out to be as bad an idea as it sounds. Martha is jealous of Ray showing affection to other women, and she’d rather sink the con than let him sleep with the targets. Her insecurity causes an escalation in their criminal behavior, with a few of the hook-ups ultimately ending in murder.

The Honeymoon Killers adheres to a rough aesthetic. Scenes are short and choppy, the acting has a stiff naturalism, and Kastle’s documentary-like film style is more functional than facile. Whether this is by design or a necessity of budget is probably something that can be argued. For a musical composer, Kastle lacks rhythm when it comes to film directing. Still, one can draw an interesting line between The Honeymoon Killers and, decades later, the Jason Bourne movies. They share a director of photography in Oliver Wood. This was only his second film, but there is a level of groundwork being done here for that on-the-street, in-the-moment visual style that helped make those Matt Damon vehicles so compelling. The immediacy can be unsettling. As the audience, we are, in essence, a silent participant, sitting in the room with the deadly lovers as they prepare to pull off their terrible deeds. As bystanders, there are times when we could almost reach out or speak up and stop Martha’s anger from bubbling over.

Because it’s a slow bubbling. The momentum wouldn’t be hard to reverse. Unlike the film noirs the movie is often compared to, there is no sense of the inevitable in The Honeymoon Killers. Fate can be changed. One victim escapes when she smartly realizes that there is something wrong about the brother/sister relationship of her would-be suitor and his alleged sibling. (It’s one of Wood’s artier shots, with the spurned lonely heart walking away in the foreground, her back to the kissing pair on the beach down below, almost like a third wheel in the classic Burt Lancaster/Deborah Karr mashing in From Here to Eternity.) When the first intentional murder finally does happen, it’s to the movie’s most annoying character, a nattering cheapskate played by Mary Jane Higby. Her persistent chatter almost makes us beg to see her killed, and Kastle strangely withholds the cathartic pleasure by making the murder clumsy and uncomfortable. He’s denying us any vicarious release--not unlike the way Martha keeps preventing Ray from realizing his sexual conquests.

Despite straddling the line between old Hollywood and the innovation of 1970s American filmmaking, The Honeymoon Killers doesn’t overdo it when it comes to taking advantage of the broadened standards. Most of its salaciousness is left to the imagination, more whispered than shouted, in keeping with the gossipy scandal-sheet sensation that the real Ray and Martha caused. Even their lovemaking is mostly implied, despite reports of the pair’s voracious appetites. Again, it’s the uglier details that Kastle spends his freedoms on. Like the pregnancy of Martha’s last victim and Martha’s cold solution for the problem.

Shirley Stoler is by far the strongest performer in the film, and of the two main characters, Martha is also the most interesting. Ray’s pathology is rather predictable and all on the surface; Martha is the true conniver. She’ll do anything to keep Ray. Desperation makes her inventive. Like everyone else in this movie, however, Martha is consistently denied satisfaction. It’s what compels her to kill, and ultimately what pushes her over the edge and inspires her to bring everything crashing down. It’s perfect, then, that the last shot of The Honeymoon Killers, a graceful pull out,  features Martha alone, with Ray as a distant correspondent, the two right back where they began.

Though Criterion released The Honeymoon Killers in 2003, the new edition boasts a considerable picture upgrade, as well as some small additions to the DVD package. Namely, some added interviews with Tony Lo Bianco, actress Marilyn Chris (she played Martha and Ray’s first victim), and editor Stan Warnow. Old extras are carried over to this edition, minus the text biographies and press book reproduction.

The above screengrabs are taken from the 2003 standard-definition release.

The movie was provided by Criterion for review.

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