The Honeymoon Killers November 25, 2019
Tony Lo Bianco
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
hen we see Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) for the first time in 1970’s The Honeymoon Killers, we don’t initially think she’s going to be the movie's protagonist. The film opens in a hospital, with an older nurse berating a young couple working at the facility for letting a romantic liaison get in the way of the day's work. I was wont to believe at first that the couple were the eponymous criminals. (I
didn’t know anything about the movie, which is based on a true story, before I started watching it.) But then it turns out that Martha is the older nurse, and the kids are irrelevant. That the writer and director of the movie, Leonard Kastle, introduces Martha this way doesn’t seem an accident. If Martha were not the focal point of this film, arguably she’d be a bit player in another, with the young couple being the nuclei.
It’s this line of thinking that was probably part of what made the real Martha Beck’s story become such a much-discussed one some 60 years ago. She appeared so anonymous when she first made headlines — we’d expect her to be the witness to a crime more than anything — that naturally a double-take of sorts ensued once the truth was doled out and she became the star of a prurient story.
The Honeymoon Killers dramatizes the crime spree Martha Beck embarked on with her lover, Raymond Fernandez (played here by Tony Lo Bianco), in the 1940s. Their crimes were sort of Bonnie & Clyde-ish in nature, only uglier and less easy to romanticize. It’s mostly the lovers-on-the-run element that’s the consistency. At their criminal peak, Martha and Raymond would answer lonely hearts ads and then would rob and kill the unsuspecting parties. Martha would pose as Raymond’s sister, helping the deers relax in front of their hunters. Adding to the shock of the crimes was that Martha did not look the part of your typical Bonnie. Although she was in her 20s, she appeared a lot older. (This has been credited to her prematurely going through puberty.) She was stocky and plain, near-sexless and maternal — attributes that, at the time, bafflingly (it’s probably more accurate to say misogynistically) bewildered the media. The irony was that Martha wasn’t unlike the women she and Raymond would later pounce on. They too had been introduced when she herself placed a lonely hearts ad.
The Honeymoon Killers proclaims early on that it’s fact-based, as most movies featuring enough biographical content in them tend to do. But it takes so many liberties with fact that it’d be more truthful to just say it’s inspired by fact. But such isn’t that big a deal, I think, since the movie isn’t looking to be an all-out correction-cum-dramatization of the record. Then again I’m not sure what it’s aiming to do or be. The Honeymoon Killers maintains the core characteristics of a standard exploitation film — meager production values, pulp dialogue, shocks of lurid violence and sex — but it’s been made with such discernible attention to psychological detail by Kastle that at times it feels like a satire or at the least an undercutting of one. And the length Kastle spends with each of Martha and Raymond’s victims, and the muffledness with which their fates are treated, underscore the senselessness of violence in a way that seems almost a challenge to cinematic fascination with bloodletting à la Straw Dogs (1971) or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986).
The movie, with its cheapness (it’s been shot in a cheap-looking, documentary-bland black and white) and salacious storyline underlined in a catch-you-off-guard intellectual detachment, reminded me of the movies of Samuel Fuller, that filmmaker who often worked under B-movie circumstances, made movies that on the surface appeared to be ordinary B films yet routinely gave us products that tended to feel like more than that. If The Honeymoon Killers is meant to act as a “correction,” that’d likely be in reference to the humanization of Martha. But evidence shows us that if anything the tortured albeit still monstrous person we see in the feature is a milquetoast Martha Beck.
The performers are as committed to the pulpy naturalism as Kastle. The exception here is arguably Lo Bianco, whose Spanish accent is very bad. He’s been good elsewhere, but the part here could be filled in by a lot of other handsome slimeballs who showed up in B movies. Raymond seems almost beside the point, somehow. There’s a leadenness to Lo Bianco and how Kastle writes the character; he’s a caricature in a movie full of what feels like gradated people. The sincerity Stoler steeps in her portrayal of Martha, in contrast, is unsettling in a way that indicates that not a thing she does here isn’t hyper-intentional. Stoler allows us to sympathize with the woman she’s playing to a point. We feel for her loneliness and how her desperation has led her to think that a scoundrel like Raymond is worth chasing after. And though she’s the instigator in every murder the movie sees, Stoler makes it so that a part of us wonders how much of that has to do with something akin to brainwashing. But we’re resentful of Martha, too. The contradictory reaction she gets out of us is rare and thus refreshing for characters like this one. I’m not sure it would be here if Stoler’s portrayal weren’t so good. A movie villain is typically myopically detestable, but the fictional Martha’s moral murkiness evokes an internal debate, and if we’re to watch the movie with a companion, probably an external one.
The roundelay of actresses playing the victims brings out a similarly paradoxical reaction. The intuition escaping their grip is frustrating, but how might we act if in their situation, and if living inside the purview of their worlds ourselves? A particularly grueling moment in the film comes when one of the victims is in bed — just drugged by Martha — and Kastle zooms in on her wide-open and frenziedly moving eyes, wet from panicked tears. It’s a moment where the subtle greatness of the film’s cast most harmonizes with Kastle’s sneakily shrewd direction. The film is ultimately greatest when Kastle seems to most understand, and is then keenest to amplify, the greatness of his better-than-it-has-to-be ensemble.
The Honeymoon Killers was Kastle’s first movie. It was also his last. One wishes he built on it, but one also might appreciate the film as a big exhalation of a film — a rush of excellence whose excellence seems so slightly accidental and therefore flukish that you can't be so sure Kastle would be able to achieve something like it again. A-