Our review of The Honeymoon Killers (1969) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published October 21st, 2015, is also available.
Something unites them more than their love: their crimes!
Everybody lies. It's a well-established part of life. Existence in the real world is just not possible without an occasional fib or an expertly timed falsehood. In most instances they are trivial little scams, excuses to get out of an obligation or to avoid a social/personal faux pas. Rarely do they escalate into animate alter egos, entities living and breathing unto themselves. Mostly, the tall tale is told, achieves its goal, and is quickly forgotten. But lies can be like weeds, creeping along and across an individual's integrity like kudzu along a wooded Georgia backwoods. As our world has grown more cynical and demanding, the tendency to pass out the truth like candy to a hyperactive child becomes the standard and pretense takes the place of real, honest interaction. Eventually, people who leave too many of these little white wounds open to fester and rot are branded liars and cheats, members of a truly delinquent order, and yet there but for the grace of truth go almost all of us. Honestly, how would you react if friends and family, co-workers and clients, discovered some of the sordid sagas you've glossed over in favor of a grifter's smile and a conversational con job? You'd be mortified. Or maybe, you'd be proud of your dishonesty.
Raymond Fernandez was one such happy heal. During the '40s and '50s, he answered requests from lonely hearts club members (read: early versions of classified ad personals), promising them love, devotion, and romance. But in the end, he bilked them out of their nest eggs and self-esteem. That is, until the unhappy Martha came along. She made him pay for his duplicity. She pushed him over the edge, from simple gigolo to vile murderer. Passions and possessiveness may have held them together, but death sealed their fates forever. They were lovers. They were liars. And they became The Honeymoon Killers.
Facts of the Case
Martha is a sad, overweight head nurse at a local hospital. She channels her misery through a veil of contempt for all around her. That includes her mentally unbalanced mother and her nosy next-door neighbor/best friend Bunny. Hoping it will help her hefty heartsick pal, Bunny thinks it would be a "hoot" to have Martha join a lonely hearts club and receive letters from other forlorn folks. She signs her up, and after some initial resistance, the stern caregiver dives in full force. One day, a letter from a man named Raymond catches her eye. He is sincere and gentile. He expresses his emotions with eloquence and grace. After a series of correspondence, the two exchange photos and eventually Raymond travels to meet Martha. He is a suave Latin lover type. He instantly woos his plump paramour. But he then leaves abruptly, asking for a small loan to get him back home. Time passes and Bunny makes a frantic phone call to the initially nonplused Ray. Martha is threatening to kill herself and demands to see her lover again or take her own life. Relenting, a trip to New York finds Martha and Ray reunited.
And it's here where Martha learns Ray's not-so secret. He is a gigolo, a love 'em and leave 'em flimflam man who promises widows and spinsters marriage and devotion on the premise of a substantial upfront cash payment. His dozens of conquests—almost all gleaned from the lonely hearts club ads in the back of seedy pulp magazines—keep him constantly hustling for his next dollar. At first, Martha finds the whole idea disgusting. She wants Ray all for herself. But when Ray needs a means of distracting a potential mark, he introduces Martha as his "sister," and soon the couple is traveling the country fleecing sad single women out of their life savings. But Ray's eye tends to wander, and Martha feels betrayed every time he pays more attention to the victims than her. Things turn deadly as Martha and Ray find it more and more difficult to keep up the sham and collect the cash. Finally, in a house in upstate New York, Martha learns the true depths of Ray's cheating and the tragic results forever brand the couple as horrible criminals, capable of the most heinous crimes against humanity, all in the name of money, love, and lies.
No matter the cultural era or technological advances, it seems that as long as there have been lonely hearts, there have been lonely hearts clubs. Certainly in the middle part of the last century, the notion of "old maids" and the "unexpectedly spouseless" looking for love in the pages of a magazine has seemed shady at best. Computers became the next great shadchens of the sordid single scene. A few punch cards or #2 pencil answers on an application and Romeo/Juliet was just a binary code encryption away. But somewhere around 1980 the notion of a classified advertisement for personal contact gained a modicum of acceptance. In a society hell bent on avoiding Mr. Right to quickly locate Mr. Right NOW! we just assumed that if we could dump our distressed lawn mower onto some poor yutz in record time and for a nominal fee, why not our broken heart? It's part of our nature to be matched, to have someone to hold and pledge to. It's instinctual, like hunting for food or the seeking of shelter.
We are, unfortunately, a superficial race as well. Those who do not meet the proper supermodel proportions or possess buns and/or abs of steel are shooed to the side of single sexual life to wait like wallflowers at a high school dance for a possible mercy date or two. Yes, there is always the chance that a soul mate will be discovered, someone who will ignore cosmetic flaws and personality disorders and bond with a passion that will travel across the ages. But the sad fact is that most lonely people remain that way, only occasionally lifted out of their hermit like social life to experience bitter disappointment or, worse, use and abuse. The results may keep chemists and head shrinkers knee-deep in work for eons, but truth be told, the real psychosis is the society that fosters such dire wretchedness.
In the unfortunately titled The Honeymoon Killers, the psychological fallout of longing and lack of love manifests itself in acts of human depravity so shocking in their luridness, and yet so understandable in their motivation, that the film, a uniquely disturbing thriller, actually upsets us. It's a tale of lies and deception, of how desperate individuals in need of something, be it tenderness or legal tender, will do just about anything to get one or both. And add to that the idea of interpersonal double crosses, of never knowing who is playing whom for a sucker or visa versa, and you've got a dark, moody motion picture that starts off brash and then slow burns its way through an ever more disquieting series of ever more disturbing events. Seen within the media frenzy glare of our new century, with its 24 hour a day "info-tainment" coverage of the most mundane of murder cases, the calm, deliberate tone of The Honeymoon Killers could be mistaken for bland, or God forbid, boring. But like a well constructed mystery where the final reveal will provide the killer's identity and motive, this brilliantly minimal muse on the meaning and method of murder rewards those who look behind the direct exterior to dig into the deviant dirt underneath. The Honeymoon Killers is a film that relishes layered complexity, and in its characters, its direction, and its final formation, it has more to say than some pipe smoking super sleuth.
The Honeymoon Killers has the unique distinction of being one of the few cinematic examples of reverse film noir, a thriller that savors the light, not the shadows and fog of darkness. As a matter of fact, perhaps a better description for this film's mysterious mise-en-scène would be cinema blanc. The sun and the incandescent rays it showers upon the serial killing couple illuminate all aspects of their sleazy personality, offering those about to be taken and/or killed the chance to see their evil mindset in all its warped perversion. Ray is not really shrouded in ambiguity or veiled from full view. He is upfront and obvious: a true man waiting to be kept. On the outside he appears noble and good intentioned, and in writing he is all poetry and promises. But there is a profound phoniness to this Latin lover that's as noticeable as the dime store toupee he sports. The lothario game is just a job for Ray, one that keeps him constantly on the move and burrowing through bank accounts of unhappy unmarrieds. His promises are as empty as his heart. And yet he seems to fall for Martha, a woman whose passion is as massive as her waistline. Or maybe he just needs her. After years of wining and dining and deserting, maybe Martha with her possessive compulsiveness is the grounding foundation he needs. Or a necessary new accomplice, a new angle on his age old swindle.
For Martha, it seems a lonely life of solitude and desperation has turned her devious, warping her once devoted life of easing pain into a single minded fixation to wrap Ray around her fat fingers like biscuit dough over Vienna sausages. Her faked suicide succeeds in getting the seemingly un-catchable con man to stop and actually take a moment to care about someone for once. We hear a true voice of concern—or a well-rehearsed slick pitch—whenever Ray expresses his affection to the fat, friendless female. And apparently, genuine or not, it's all she needs to continue believing in herself and their relationship. But as the climate of crime and the possibility of betrayal—either legal or romantic—starts to consume Martha, she resorts to slaughter as a kind of misplaced matrimonial sacrament, a way of linking Ray to her forever. The film's centerpiece hammer murder, with its ritualistic moves and man/woman—husband/wife—bludgeoner/strangler exchange of blows, becomes a kind of weird wedding ceremony, a final reciting of the inescapable vows of complicity. There is even a sick, twisted consummation of these nauseating nuptials. As the still twitching body of the victim lies on the living room floor, Ray strips completely and walks into the bedroom. Martha asks if everything is okay. Ray says yes. He wants to make love. And thus the final bond is achieved, an irrevocable connection that can never be broken. Except by the electric chair.
It's easy to say that Martha is the truly evil being here. Ray provides moments of pleasure and is paid for it, sometimes very well, but the atrocities Martha commits are far more primal in their intent. She commits murder as a means of obligating Ray to her, a kind of permanent taboo tattoo that no action or reaction can erase. Nothing else in our society is so automatic in its condemnation, so instantaneous in its polarization as cold-blooded killing. This authority to play God, to determine who lives and who dies frightens, and strangely tantalizes us. The concept of an ever-shifting balance of power is key to The Honeymoon Killers. It establishes an outer relationship between the lover to complement and compete with their deep interpersonal one and it helps heighten the uneasy mood of the film. We understand implicitly that at any given point, either of these two strong egos can take over and dictate the demands of the relationship. It is more than just a battle of will or clash of manias. It's a war for personal acknowledgment. Ray and Martha are probably one of the few couples in screen history whose connection is based almost solely on a mutual anti-socialness. Sure, there is the glamour gun fun of Bonnie and Clyde, or the murder/suicide self abuse of Sid and Nancy, but in Martha and Ray we see such total contempt for the world and all its phony trappings that their desire to control it, to have power over its population, is not surprising. The fact that they would try and tame each other is.
Told in a straightforward, up front fashion with just a slight hint of subtext, The Honeymoon Killers embraces a neo-realistic documentary style of filmmaking so successfully that the movie feels like it's actually happening, like an overheard and secretly filmed chronicle of crime rather than a scripted series of scenes. Yet at the same time, ludicrous characters and situational touches are used to move beyond truth, to insert a level of unreality and take the movie into a kind of mental theater of the absurd. Characters break out in patriotic, jingoistic anthems as others celebrate the birth (and death) days of great political leaders. Much has been made of the right-wing/left wing dichotomy in the film, and since it was created during one of the most polarizing times in United States history, the reasons for it seem obvious. When a character takes a bath singing "America" at the top of her lungs, one can assume an upfront symbolism. What is less evident are Ray and Martha's leanings. They don't seem spurred by policy or political statement making. And unlike a film like, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there is no blatant philosophical statement being made here. The Honeymoon Killers is at its core, about deceit. It's about hiding one's true motives and means of achieving them until what is wanted is realized. Sure, it could be some veiled radical vs. establishment proclamation, but it is clearly about the destructive nature of lies and their even more caustic effect of creating jealousy and betrayal.
Since it's so subtle, so gradual in its genesis, a movie like The Honeymoon Killers needs a strong cast to sell its measured descent into the deranged. Tony LoBianco, a famous face for many years on screen and television, makes a convincing, sexy Latino lover boy. With an accent so thick it's almost racist and a manner that's half passionate, half prestidigitation, he is a wizard of wanting and a sorcerer of the single lady. He initially doesn't have violence inside himself so much as ill will for the rubes he fleeces. He hates their desperation. He condemns their hypocrisy. They may have started out wanting a companion, but in the end, they are willing to mortgage their financial security and everything they worked for just to be with him, a man they hardly know. Martha is the only one who sees through him, who understands the mothering and smothering the Hispanic he-man needs to stay in control. As embodied by the stocky yet sensual Shirley Stoler, a wholly under-appreciated and forgotten actress, Martha become parent and lover, confessor and condemner to Ray. Manipulative in her plump, pouty poses and constantly cocking an eyebrow to second guess the criminal cyclone encasing her, Stoler turns Martha into a role of reactions, of silently listening and plotting based on what she hears and sees. Sure, she has her loud and rash moments, but when she's lying in bed with Ray or watching a mark make a fool of herself, you can sense that she's several steps ahead of the game. Sadly, all she really wants is companionship. The fact that she's willing to sacrifice her life completely for it means Martha is both pathetic and unpredictable. This kind of time bomb temperament adds another level of foreboding to The Honeymoon Killers already ominous tone.
It's just too bad that Stoler didn't have a bigger career in front of the camera. Aside from an occasional bizarre turn, like playing Mrs. Steve, a certain Mr. Herman's nosy neighbor on Pee Wee's Playhouse, Shirley died without ever having achieved the kind of stardom actresses of similar stature (like Kathy Bates) get regularly. She is great in The Honeymoon Killers, giving the kind of perfect performance that today would be sought after, no matter her size.
But a much greater mystery is why writer/director Leonard Kastle has failed to work behind the lens again. As great as LoBianco and Stoler are, it's the atmospheric ambiance and mannered storytelling structure that Kastle imposes on The Honeymoon Killers that makes the movie such a successful, psychotic thriller. Kastle, a composer by profession, understands understatement better than most directors in this genre. He has complete faith in his actors and their characters, knowing that they can be far creepier and disturbing than obtuse camera angles and heavily artistic directing flourishes. Many times, Kastle creates a simple compositional two shot and lets the players simply perform. When it comes to the brutality of the couple, Kastle also uses the "less is more" approach. Crimes are committed off screen, or out of frame, relying again on the power of performance to sell the imagined terror. And it works. When he holds the camera up close, framing only the eyes of an about-to-be victim, he understands instinctively the disturbing qualities of not knowing what is going on out of shot. For a first time feature maker, Kastle shows an incredible skill and stylized visual flair. Why he never made another film is just plain difficult to comprehend.
As a true crime testament, The Honeymoon Killers more than holds its own with far more famous brethren like In Cold Blood and Badlands. Over the years, the seedy tale of Martha and Ray's murderous crime spree has mistakenly been mis-categorized as an exploitation film, probably because of the tawdry title (it was originally written as "Dear Martha…") and an ad campaign that featured Stoler and LoBianco in their underwear sharing a sensual embrace on top of a steamer trunk, which just so happens to have an arm sticking out of it. True, in its independent, single-minded desire to showcase a famous couple of homicidal maniacs, The Honeymoon Killers does share its heritage with several other examples of motion picture extremism, but this is also a film that moves carefully and quietly through its torrid, tangled web of lies and deceit, something that most genre exercises shied away from. By presenting death as the ultimate and final act of love's desperation and by utilizing a gradual buildup of dread and suspense, The Honeymoon Killers becomes the very definition of a psychological thriller, one that couches its thrills in the truly disturbed actions of the human mind. It offers us a chance to look inside the warped world of its demented lovers and tries to illustrate the destructive power of their mutual and individual lies. If the truth shall set you free, The Honeymoon Killers shows, very clearly, that lies will condemn and enslave you.
Thankfully, Criterion pulls The Honeymoon Killers up from the bottom row of obscure horror racks at local video stores to rightfully reclaim its position as a powerful work of cinematic art. The remastered 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image offered by the high caliber company is indeed magnificent. The black and white is so sharp and dramatic that, to paraphrase a perfect line of description from MST3K, the monochrome scheme of Honeymoon combined with Kastle's sense of framing means that every shot in this film looks like some historic last known photo. The transfer really captures the true crime qualities of the material and the film. It's just too bad then that the sound is so atrocious as to almost ruin the entire cinematic experience. Highly over modulated, recorded on sub-standard devices that constantly drop out voices in mid-word and without any mid-range (everything is either too low or hyper loud), you may actually have to turn on the English subtitles to fully appreciate the dialogue and dynamics between the characters. This is obviously a source material problem, but it seems that some of the effort spent on cleaning and restoring the print could have been used to gussy up the sonic environment.
As it stands, the sound is the worst thing about the disc, but along with a wonderful menu screen that functions like a set of back page ads from a lurid love magazine, we get some excellent extra content to round out the usual stellar Criterion presentation. The near 20-minute interview with director Kastle is a gem, one that functions as both a commentary and an observation about the film and its creation. Such remarkable tidbits as Martin Scorsese's connection to the film (it won't be spoiled here) and the Hollywood "re-edit" of the director's first cut make for juicy revelations. But Kastle is also convinced of his own brilliance, and occasionally acts like a self-righteous genius almost wronged by a bottom line, derivative product oriented entertainment industry. Still, he has some very valid and insightful things to say about his style and sense of cinema, and even though it's not a full length feature discussion, it's still exceptional. Equally astute is the enclosed illustrated essay by Scott Christianson. Using actual photos of Martha and Ray and describing the real story behind the then-called "Lonely Hearts Killers," the compare and contrast with the film proper, from the things left out to the ones re-enacted perfectly, is incredible. Taken with a nice set of cast and crew biographies and a well written insert essay by Gary Giddins, The Honeymoon Killers is yet another fine example of Criterion's ability to polish even the most obscure, forgotten motion picture into a commemorative time capsule.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A little more about the sound. It seems that nowadays re-releases of classic films focus solely on the visual element of a movie and forget that going to the cinema is also an aural experience. Oh sure, big budget effects films from years ago get all manner of faux 5.1 soundtrack tweaks that try to utilize all the channels, but the atrocious soundtrack of The Honeymoon Killers is just uncalled for. If stellar CDs can be made of near indecipherable phonographic elements from the turn of last century, why can't a digital redo of the terrible sonic sludge that is The Honeymoon Killers be accomplished? Is it really that hard? Does isolating the soundtrack require some manner of film technology or craft that Criterion is incapable of or unwilling to pay for? It needs to be stressed that the inability to clearly hear dialogue in this movie could have been fatal. This is a script that skimps on words, saving them for moments of most importance. To then muffle and muddle them is very unfair. In the future, studios need to be aware of the fact that, no matter the edge enhancement or color correction, if you can't comfortably hear what is going on, everything else is merely unnecessary eye candy.
The connection between lies and loneliness is understandable. People will do just about anything to avoid a life unaccompanied and truth will be bent to bring about some interpersonal resolution, be it pro or con, in favor of a coupling. The Internet has proven that deception for personal acceptance is still alive and well, with men and women tweaking pictures and profiles to hopefully attract an acceptable mate. And since our new world order is almost totally based on the bold faced fib, we simply shake our heads and laugh at the loser who'd sacrifice their dignity to talk with some lying lowlife online. But how fair is it to undermine someone's emotions that way? Isn't the disrespect of one's human need for love as heinous as deceiving them? In The Honeymoon Killers, Ray Fernandez learns that the seemingly sloppy sentiments of overweight Martha are not, for want of a better choice of words, to be taken lightly. And Martha discovers that there is a dear price to pay for buying into a world of grifts, scams, and dishonesty. The fact that both eventually resolve to give in completely to the fraud they create, both internally and externally, illustrates the destructive and overwhelming power of lies. The true terror here derives from how happy they seem at controlling and corrupting each other. The Honeymoon Killers may sound like a grimy tale of serial murderers preying on the newly married, but just like the main theme of the movie, this title also is a fraud, a means of luring the salacious minded into the theater on the hopes of seeing something seedy and startling. But The Honeymoon Killers is more than this. Much more. Honestly.
The Honeymoon Killers is found not guilty and is free to go. Both Tony LaBianco and the late great Shirley Stoler are also acquitted on all charges. Writer/director Leonard Kastle is remanded to the Cinematic Work Release program, hoping it will offer him another chance to ply his trade behind the camera. Criterion is found not guilty of providing a wonderful visual and bonus content package. But they are simultaneously found guilty of bad sound mastering and are sentenced to ten years at the RCA Little Nipper Sonic Sanitarium for a little audio accountability.
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• New Interview with Writer/Director Leonard Kastle
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