THE HONEYMOON KILLERS
Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Shirley Stoler, Tony
Director: Leonard Kastle
Audio: English monaural
Video: Black & white, 1.85:1 widescreen
Features: Leonard Kastle interview, “Dear Martha...” illustrative essay, cast biographies, trailer
Length: 107 minutes
Release Date: July 22, 2003
“He’s the nicest beau you’ve ever had, Martha.”
Film *** ˝
People will do anything for love. Crimes of passion might encompass everything from petty vandalism to assault & battery or, worst of all, even murder. In the annals of American crime, there have been innumerable such crimes but few more tragic or bizarre than those committed in the late 1940’s by Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez.
Martha Beck was the common-law wife of an incorrigible but seductive lowlife named Ray Fernandez. She was overweight and bitter, trapped in an unhappy adult life and psychologically scarred from a childhood history of sexual and physical abuse. In Ray Fernandez, she thought she had found her salvation, but in truth she had only fallen in love with a petty criminal who made his living by stealing from unsuspecting and needy women, such as herself. Rather than shun him, the lovesick Martha instead became a willing accomplice in Ray’s criminal enterprises, the most horrific of which would lead to a series of gruesome murders in 1949. These “Lonely Hearts Killers” were eventually caught, tried, and convicted, although public outrage (and morbid interest) continued to dog the couple until their executions in 1951.
The story of Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez forms the basis for The Honeymoon Killers (1970). This independently-produced, kitchen-sink film seemingly rips its lurid tale right out of sleazy tabloid pages of yesteryear. Indeed, the film’s originally benign title, Dear Martha..., was rejected in favor of something more descriptive and sensational, something that would conjure up images of grand guignol psychological horror or something along the sinister lines of In Cold Blood or the schizophrenic Bunny Lake is Missing. And so, The Honeymoon Killers, so aptly re-named, so suggestively voyeuristic, traces the downward spiral of two improbable lovers from their initial correspondence via a lonely hearts club through their various cold-blooded slayings until their inevitable comeuppance.
In all fairness, director Leonard Kastle keeps the proceedings tasteful. Much of the violence and sex is either implied or occurs off-screen. Some details of the actual case history have been omitted or altered, and Kastle has minimized any sensationalism or gratuitous imagery in the film in order to focus on the central theme of a love so overwhelming that it ultimately destroys both lovers and all those they come into contact with. Kastle does not romanticize the feats of his immoral couple but neither does he dehumanize them. There is, perhaps, almost a poignant quality in the portrayal of Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, a sense that under different circumstances, they could have led normal lives as a contented couple.
Indeed, Martha and Ray’s love for one another is genuine and affecting. But so goes the adage, a leopard cannot change its spots. Ray Fernandez, ever greedy for money, ever lustful for more women to seduce, can no more deviate from his set ways than can Martha Beck free herself from the almost paralytic love (and its dark twin, jealousy) that continues to bind her to Ray.
In Leonard Kastle’s film, Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) is first introduced as the respectable head nurse of a hospital. But, her physical unattractiveness has condemned Martha to a life as an unloved and undesirable woman. The sad reality of her empty existence eventually compels her one day, with encouragement from a friend, to send in an application to the Aunt Carrie's Friendship Club, hunting grounds for lonely singles searching for true love. In actuality, it is a scam run by con artist Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) as a way of tracking down lonely, vulnerable women and separating them from their cash.
Soon, Martha begins a correspondence with this snake charming Latin from Manhattan. While smooth operator Ray is initially only interested in squeezing as much money as possible out of Martha, this odd couple surprisingly falls in love with one another. Martha learns the true nature of Ray’s racket but, unperturbed, she decides to accompany him as his sister while they bounce from one woman to the next on his list, arranging one faux marriage after another, all in the name of fleecing these women.
The stressful nature of this perpetual con game eventually begins to affect Martha, who grows increasingly jealous of Ray’s attentions toward other women. She distrusts him for his chain of broken promises that the next job will be the last, that soon he will marry her. An exasperated Martha even declares that she would rather they both go to jail than share Ray with another woman. Ray’s flirtations thus become the crucial point of contention that will ultimately force Martha, after one failed con job leads to cold-blooded murder, to choose between her love for Ray and the remnants of her own conscience.
The Honeymoon Killers remains Leonard Kastle’s only film directorial credit to date. Like Terrence Malick’s similarly-themed Badlands, Kastle’s film is a very impressive debut that forgoes sensational excesses in order to dissect how emotional turmoil or need can compel a loving couple to commit such acts of atrocity. The Honeymoon Killers is not an uplifting film, nor it is particularly titillating. It is, however, a triumphant display of low-budget independent filmmaking at its finest.
The Honeymoon Killers is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The stark black & white photography (in additional to the harsh audio quality) lends this film a documentary feel. The transfer was created from a 35mm fine grain print, and for a low budget indie, the film looks quite good.
Audio * ˝
The monaural audio track has been cleaned up to reduce clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle. Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6 is prominently featured on the film’s score. However, the music does sound warped, and dialogue possesses a hollow, echoing tonality. I recommend using the optional English subtitles.
Features ** ˝
The menu screens for The Honeymoon Killers are highly stylized to resemble newspaper advertisements. How very imaginative!
In a 2003 interview (29 min.), composer-turned-director Leonard Kastle reminisces about the production of his film. Among the anecdotes, Kastle bemusedly recalls the casting process, the staging of the murders, and production difficulties which eventually forced him to replace a young Martin Scorsese as the film’s director.
"Dear Martha..." is a multi-media essay by Scott Christianson that provides background history into the lives and times of the real Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez. The article includes official documents, handwritten notes, photos, and newspaper clippings which all trace the forensic evidence and trail of blood left behind in this infamous “Lonely Hearts Killers” case right up to the electric chair.
Lastly, among the promotional extras are a lurid trailer, cast and crew biographies, and a glimpse at the film's original press book.
Off the disc, the only other bonus extra is a package insert that provides cast and production credits along with an essay about the film by Gary Giddins, critic for the Village Voice. The essay describes a movie industry in transition in the late 1960’s and how this changing atmosphere allowed for the emergence of challenging, independent films such as The Honeymoon Killers.
The Honeymoon Killers is the anti-Bonnie & Clyde in its stark, black & white “cinéma vérité” approach to chronicling the lives of probably the century's worst serial-killing couple, Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez.