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THE HONEYMOON KILLERS
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco, Mary Jane Higby, Doris Roberts, Marilyn Chris
Director: Leonard Kastle
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 107 Minutes
Release Date: September 29, 2015

Mama! I’m not your little girl!”

Film ***

The Honeymoon Killers, released in 1969, is an interesting gem of a film for many reasons. As far as real life crime docudramas go, it’s certainly one of the most effective ever made. It’s also the first and, to this day, only film by its writer/director, Leonard Kastle, who seemed motivated to make a much more realistic version of Bonnie and Clyde, a film he admittedly didn’t like so much.

Inspired by the Lonely Hearts murders, the film almost plays like raw news footage in capturing two mismatched lovers on a killing spree. This is thanks in large part to the black and white photography and camera work that helps place the viewer in a fly-on-the-wall like manner. Another effective approach was the use of actors that were not just unknown, but looked natural and un-Hollywood like.

The story begins with Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler), a robust sized nurse who lives with her elderly mother, and very unhappily. Added to this, she’s not very social and thus has been single her entire life. This causes her friend, Bunny (Doris Roberts), to persuade Martha to place an ad in a friendship club (basically how single people met before the days of online dating).

As a result, Martha has found a frequent contact in Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco). They begin to exchange letters quite frequently. Very soon, they meet in person, but all doesn’t go so well when Ray splits after asking to borrow some money from her. In a strange turn of events, Ray agrees to meet up with her one more time after apparently attempting suicide.

Martha then soon discovers Ray actual occupation, which is that of a gigolo. However, instead of being disgusted with him, she sees an opportunity. She insists on hitting the road with him, posing as his sister, and aid in the robbing of his female customers, which he gladly goes along with.

Things soon escalate, though. Along the way, Martha’s inevitable jealousy towards Ray and his flirtatious nature with his clients lead to murder. Much to his surprise, Ray is turned on by this and before you know it, the two are on a killing spree.

None of the murders in the movie are very graphic, though they might come off so by 1969 standards. But one implied murder will send a chill down your spine. I know I had to collect myself for a few minutes after it happened.

The movie, which at one point was going to be directed by none other by then unknown Martin Scorsese, is carried by the strong performances of its two lead actors. Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco are naturally believable in their roles. Stoler, in particular, is amazingly strong as the psychologically tortured Martha, not to mention very attractive in an unconventional way (I loved one scene that captures her in a swimsuit, which boldly shows a type of beauty we never get to see in movies).

Though it may not have the encompassing power and effect of a film like Natural Born Killers, this is a riveting and unique little film. The extreme low budget worked in giving it an ultra authentic feel. The real mystery, though, is why director Leonard Kastle decided not to make another film following such a good and impressive debut.

Video ***1/2

Criterion works their unsurpassable magic yet again for this Blu-ray release. Restored by way of a 4K transfer, the black and white picture provides an even more authentic feel to the film. Black levels are pitch perfect, and any print damaged that may have existed before is nowhere to be found. About as good a transfer as one could hope for film made the way it was.

Audio **1/2

The mono mix delivers about as good as you can expect with a dialogue driven piece with this much age. Spoken words are heard quite well, and clarity as well as all around balance with audio surroundings is at a good enough level.

Features ***

Included on this Criterion Blu-ray is an intriguing and revealing interview with writer/director Leonard Kastle, as well as “Love Letters”, an in depth interview special featuring actors Tony Lo Bianco and Marilyn Chris as well as editor Stan Warnow. There’s also a video essay titled “Dear Martha…” by writer Scott Christianson, a Trailer, and an insert featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins.

Summary:

If you’re a sucker for real life crime stories reflected on film, then you owe it to yourself to check out The Honeymoon Killers, which is really one of a kind. Criterion’s Blu-ray release marks as good a time as ever to discover it!

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