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Past Perfect: Criterion Classics - The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

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Tuesday, Dec 12, 2006


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 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 personal ads), 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, the subject of a sensational movie by writer/director Leonard Kastle.


In the story, 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 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.


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 lovers 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 wills 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.


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 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.

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