The Honeymoon Killers

When The Honeymoon Killers began production, a young up-and-coming filmmaker named Martin Scorsese was in the director's chair. Scorsese had shown promise with his low-budget feature Who's That Knocking At My Door, and seemed like an ideal candidate to oversee this gritty true crime drama. However, producer Leonard Steibel eventually grew frustrated with Scorsese's work – not the quality of the scenes he produced, but with how much time Scorsese wasted working on getting the technical details just right. Scorsese was fired, and the film's screenwriter Leonard Kastle was given the reins.

That's the sort of story that often anchors documentaries on the making of terrible (or at least messy) films, but in this case, the end result suggests that Steibel made the right decision: The Honeymoon Killers is precisely the movie it needs to be. Part of what makes it so effective is that it's such an unfussy, no-nonsense piece of work: there's real craftsmanship here, but the movie deliberately avoids feeling too mannered. The film is almost documentary-like in the way it presents the two killers; the stark black-and-white cinematography presenting an unflattering portrait of cruelty that stands in sharp contrast to the full-color romanticism of Bonnie & Clyde (a film Kastle claimed to despise). This is the first and last movie Kastle would direct, but it was enough to secure his place as a significant filmmaker of the era.

The film is based on the true story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, a pair of lovers who became known as the “lonely hearts killers.” The film calls their case “the most shocking in American history.” It's certainly a memorable one: over the course of a mere two years, they murdered as many as twenty different women. Though a few minor details have been changed, the story told here is largely an accurate one, and the changes from reality do not exaggerate the nature of their crimes.

Martha (Shirley Stoler, Seven Beauties) is a moody, overweight nurse who lives in Mobile, Alabama. She frets about the possibility of becoming an old maid, and overeats to soothe her depression. Her best friend Bunny (Doris Roberts, Everybody Loves Raymond) attempts to aid the situation by sending an application to a “lonely hearts club” on Martha's behalf. Martha is initially offended by the gesture, but changes her tune after she receives a letter from the charming, eloquent Raymond (Tony Lo Bianco, The French Connection). They meet, they sleep together and Raymond persuades Martha to loan him some money. Then he disappears, and writes her a letter informing her that their relationship is over.

Raymond is a professional con man, and this is what he does. However, Martha isn't like his usual targets. She makes threats of suicide and guilts him into seeing her again, then persuades him into resuming a real relationship with her. Raymond is hesitant, but he's unlikely to find anyone else who's okay with who he is and what he does. Martha becomes Raymond's lover and accomplice, posing as Raymond's sister while he seduces lonely women and steals their money. Initially, it's simple thievery, but Martha's impatience, jealousy, greed and cruelty inspire Raymond to take things further. Turns out it's a whole lot easier to get away with stealing money when you go ahead and kill the person you're stealing it from.

I thought of a lot of different serial killer-themed movies while watching The Honeymoon Killers, as the movie seems to fit in several different categories at once. There's a great deal here that reminded me of Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, which told the fictional tale of a man who murdered women and took their money. However, Verdoux killed and stole to support an unsuspecting wife he rarely saw, while Raymond steals at his lover's urging. As such, it's also a part of the lovers-turned-killers genre, though the depiction of the relationship here is far less glamorous than the material offered by Bonnie & Clyde or Natural Born Killers. More than anything, it feels like a prelude to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, another documentary-style effort that regarded its murderers from a chilly distance. Still, there's a key difference: Henry regarded its characters with apathy, while The Honeymoon Killers seems to regard its characters with pure hatred.

It's obvious that Kastle loathes the people who populate this movie – not only Martha and Raymond, but the cartoonish people who foolishly attempt to aid them, the naive women who fall for their cheap tricks and the authority figures too stupid to figure out what's going on (the film more or less implies that Martha and Raymond could have gotten away with it forever if they had wanted to). It's a portrait of America as a land of cruel violence, petty selfishness and endless gullibility – just observe the scene in which one of Raymond's victims squawks out a patriotic anthem while taking a bath. She's about to take a bath, alright.

Miraculously, Kastle's obvious spite does not translate into an insufferably smug film populated by cartoon characters. As loathsome as Martha and Raymond are, every aspect of their relationship feels convincing. They're such a weird combo – the handsome, insincere smooth-talker and the psychotic, melodramatic, savage nurse – but there's a real spark in their relationship. At the very least, they're always finding new ways to spice things up. Lo Bianco's oily turn is solid (particularly when the character finds himself trapped between a rock and a hard place), but it's Roberts who ends up stealing the film with her unnervingly chilly performance. How can someone be so hot-tempered and so cold-blooded at once? Her final act of senseless violence takes place offscreen, but everything we've seen Roberts do up to that point makes it an incredibly horrifying moment.

The Honeymooon Killers struggled to find an audience when it was initially released, probably due to the fact that it was sold as a sleazy exploitation flick (there were certainly plenty of those in 1969/1970). What audiences actually got wasn't a gleefully violent piece of B-movie trash, but a sobering snapshot of a country falling apart at the seams and descending into chaos. It's a striking piece of counterpoint to the glossy, stylish treatment this sort of thing usually gets (for direct contrast, see the lame Lonely Hearts, which casts Salma Hayek and Jared Leto in the killer roles and turns them into sex symbols), and a consistently intriguing take on the true crime serial killer thriller.

The Honeymoon Killers

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 1969