THE HONEYMOON KILLERS
Perhaps the ultimate true crime movie, a 1969 dramatization of the crimes of the 1940s-era Lonely Hearts Killers that’s as garish and horrific, not to mention superbly acted and absorbing, as anyone could possibly desire.
THE HONEYMOON KILLERS’ troubled production history has been well documented. An ultra-low budgeter, it began as the second feature directed by Martin Scorsese, who was fired a week into filming (some of the footage he shot, including the lakeside scenes, is included in the final cut). This threw the production into turmoil, with the film’s screenwriter Leonard Kastle stepping in to direct his first and, it would turn out, only feature.
The “Lonely Hearts Killers” Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck were a suave Latino con man and an overweight nurse who in 1949 were convicted of three murders (they are alleged to have committed around 20 in total) and executed two years later. The two found their victims, women all, through Lonely Hearts ads in newspapers, leading to Fernandez marrying the women and Beck, posing as his sister, helping to steal their money--and murdering several of them.
Several movies were based on the case, including LONELY HEART BANDITS (1950), DEEP CRIMSON (1996), LONELY HEARTS (2006) and ALLELUIA (2014). THE HONEYMOON KILERS is far and away the best of the bunch.
1947: Martha Beck is an overweight nurse with an attitude. Through a mail order dating service she meets Raymond Fernandez, a suave Latino who charms both Martha and her aging mother. The next day Raymond leaves with a sizeable loan from Martha, and she quickly learns she’s been duped. Martha tracks down Raymond, who reveals that he’s a conman who makes his “living” by seducing and then robbing lonely women. Thoroughly besotted, Martha elects to leave her mother and join Raymond on his crime spree, posing as his sister.
Their first victim is a schoolteacher who Ray marries and Martha robs. The woman discovers the theft and confronts Martha, who throws her out of her and Ray’s house. Next Ray marries a saucy southerner of whom Martha is immediately jealous. Following a fight Martha gives the woman a handful of pills, and the next morning her corpse is found aboard a Greyhound bus.
The killing marks the beginning of a new, much scarier phase of Ray and Martha’s relationship. This is evident with their next victim, a musician who nearly marries Ray but (it’s implied) has second thoughts after Martha goes into a jealous rage--and gives the woman a glimpse of the true nature of Martha and Raymond’s relationship.
Next they target a sixtyish widow who Raymond views as his "big score." Ray gets her to sign over her fortune to him and then, when the woman grows suspicious, Martha beats her nearly to death with a hammer, and finishes her off via a makeshift garrote. They bury the woman in the basement of their house, and then move on to their next and final victims.
These are a single mother and her young daughter. All seems to be well with them until the woman tells Martha that Ray has impregnated her, causing the already unhinged Martha to snap entirely…
THE HONEYMOON KILLERS’ opening scenes are distractingly cheap and amateurish in look and feel, but it doesn’t take long for this gritty and realistic yet deeply quirky film to grab hold. It’s a rare example of a movie whose low budget enhances rather than detracts from it: the harsh, grainy black and white cinematography, muffled sound recording (which often makes understanding the dialogue quite a chore) and recordings of Gustave Mahler symphonies that provide the music score are integral to the sensational, quasi-campy effect--it plays like the pages of TRUE DETECTIVE magazine come to life.
Yet there’s an undeniable skill to the film’s construction, which segues effortlessly from a serio-comic drama to something much darker, and is never less than completely absorbing. The horrific suspense scenes of the final third, particularly the agonizingly prolonged hammer killing, are Hitchcock-worthy examples of gripping cinema.
It’s also a rare example of a perfectly cast movie, with Tony Lo Bianco and (especially) the late Shirley Stoler registering as both scary and oddly sympathetic in the title roles. Marilyn Chris, Barbara Cason, Mary Jane Higby and Kip McArdle, as Ray and Marta’s victims, portray a wonderfully colorful and eccentric gallery of spinsters whose deaths effect the viewer in a variety of ways (some seem deserved and others senseless).
Only the silly and intrusive political overtones (such as the patriotic sloganeering of two of the Honeymoon Killers’ victims) detract from an otherwise impeccably crafted piece of unalloyed grunge.
THE HONEYMOON KILLERS
Cinerama Releasing Corporation
Director: Leonard Kastle
Producer: Warren Steibel
Screenplay: Leonard Kastle
Cinematography: Oliver Wood
Editing: Stan Warnow, Richard Brophy
Cast: Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco, Mary Jane Higby, Doris Roberts, Kip McArdle, Marilyn Chris, Dortha Duckworth, Barbara Cason, Ann Harris