At some point during my years, I developed an unexplained aversion to watching The Honeymoon Killers (1970.) Who knows, then, what finally triggered me to watch it. Whoever or whatever pulled that trigger, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Considering that it originated by unconventional means and was made during a somewhat troubled production, it’s remarkable that it’s not only as solid as it is, but also as amazing and effective. I loved it!
From what I understand, a wealthy investor named Leon Levy gave television producer Warren Steibel (Firing Line, 1966-1999) $150,000 to make a film. Steibel asked his roommate, composer Leonard Kastle, to research the true story of “The Lonely Hearts Killers” (Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck) and eventually write the screenplay. None other than Martin Scorsese was hired to direct it.
This would have been Scorsese’s second full-length feature… had he not been fired after one week. He was working too slowly and admits he was fired with good reason. He was replaced by Donald Volkman, who was then replaced by Kastle. The Honeymoon Killers would be his only theatrical feature. I don’t know how long Volkman worked on it, but since only a few of Scorsese’s scenes were used in the final film, I think we must credit Kastle for the movie’s style.
What a style it is! I’ll admit, at first it was off-putting. In stark black and white with stationary camera, it looked kind of cheap. At some point, though, my perception changed and I instead thought is looked realistic, almost like a documentary. Then, as it proceeded further and I became more and more involved in its events, it transcended into something altogether beautiful to watch.
Almost as if mirroring the events as they become crazier, the camera loosens and the cinematography by first-timer Oliver Wood, who would later be director of photography on movies like Face/Off (1997) and The Bourne Identity (2002), slowly becomes more creative. There are an increasing number of close-ups and interesting slow zooms. Also, the crisp black and white images emphasized shadows on the walls and ceilings. It mesmerized me.
The actors also mesmerized me, especially Shirley Stoler as Martha Beck. In her first scene she’s a bossy nurse at work in a Mobile, Alabama hospital. Walking home, she grumpily kicks something out of her way on the sidewalk. At home, she snacks on pretzels while her friend, Bunny (Doris Roberts), nags her about her diet. At first she’s not too happy to learn that Bunny submitted her name to a matchmaking service.
It may change your lonely life. What have you got to lose?
Before long, though, Martha is corresponding with Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco.) Their whirlwind relationship proceeds through the course of several short scenes and suddenly he’s arriving for a visit. Martha falls hard and when he eventually leaves to go home, then sends her a “Dear John” letter, she threatens suicide. He then invites her for a visit and she learns that he’s a con man, wooing and sometimes marrying women to steal their money.
Now that you know everything about me, do you still love me?
Yes, she does. She becomes his accomplice, posing as his sister as he ingratiates himself into a string of lonely, naïve women’s lives in various parts of the country. She soon loses patience with his charades, though, and turns to violence to prematurely end his relationships. At first, Martha seems to be the only one of the two with the killer instinct, but when Ray becomes “turned on” after their victims are killed, he’s the one barking orders for her to kill others.
It’s fascinating character development for both of them. Sometimes they fight and don’t act as if they really love each other. I’d say that Ray is also scamming Martha except that she has nothing for him to scam from her. It becomes a co-dependent nightmare where they exert influence over each other. This is a complex relationship. The Honeymoon Killers is no simple joyride where they recklessly go on a murder spree.
You may spend as much time as I did wondering how in the world Ray was so successful at fooling these women. There’s one scene during which we watch him in action and experience his charm at the same time as Martha. He knows what buttons to push and how to manipulate them into endorsing checks for him. It’s sad that they’re so gullible, but loneliness can be brutal. It makes these women victims, but Ray and Martha killers.
Written by Leonard Kastle
Directed by Leonard Kastle, Martin Scorsese (uncredited, one week), Donald Volkman (uncredited)
Starring Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco, Mary Jane Higby, Doris Roberts, Kip McArdle, Marilyn Chris, Dortha Duckworth, Barbara Cason
RT 107 min.
Released Feb. 4, 1970
Recorded on March, 20, 2020 on TCM
Rating 8 Possessed Children (out of 10)
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