Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers is a true-crime/horror/film noir masterpiece based on actual events, but its backstory is so convoluted that the making of the film is equally as engaging. Criterion’s recent reissue of the DVD brings this classic to light, reintroducing it to a new generation of movie buffs.
Leonard Kastle was not a movie man; his passion was Opera. He was a well-regarded conductor and composer who was a movie fan, and would often get into conversations with friend and partner Warren Steibel about the film Bonnie & Clyde. He disliked the film immensely; he felt the film was too pretty, too glamorous, and didn’t capture the ugly side of true crime. In these conversations, he would insist that he felt the story of Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, better known as “The Lonely Hearts Killers,” would make a better film subject.
Kastle was right. The Lonely Hearts Killers story had been a cause célèbre in the late 1940s—Fernandez, a slick-talking Spanish hustler, seduced Beck, an obese, divorced Southern mother via mail correspondence. Fernandez initially aimed to scam Beck, but the two fell in love with each other, and in the spirit of honesty, confessed to his scamming ways. Beck went along with it, and over a period of several years, they would pose as brother and sister, preying upon vulnerable wealthy older women via mail correspondence. Fernandez and Beck would murder a handful of victims—four murders are depicted in the film, though the number of actual victims could possibly number as high as twenty. Their murder trial quickly became fodder for the scandal sheets and unscrupulous newspapers, with torrid, explicit depictions of kinky sex fetishes and unbridled passion taking the spotlight. Found guilty, the pair were sentenced to death, and were executed together in 1951, Beck being one of only a handful of female serial killers in US history, as well as one of the first women to be executed by electric chair.
Their story—seemingly forgotten about by the late 1960s—was ripe for dramatization, though Kastle had no real desire or inclination to be the one to dramatize the tale himself. Providence, however, would soon change things: after a friendly conversation with his friend Leon Levy, Steibel was offered a hundred and fifty-thousand dollars to make a film. Steibel, stunned by the offer, took the loan. He approached Kastle about his long-standing idea for dramatizing the story, and after they discovered that script writers were too expensive for such a limited budget, Kastle set about writing the screenplay, as well as spending hundreds of hours in research about the case.
Thanks to the limited budget—Steibel made the offer without really knowing what typical budgets were like, tempered with a desire not to offend a generous offer by asking for too much money—the penny-pinching of the creative duo would wind up working to its advantage. A young Martin Scorsese was hired to direct, but after a week he was fired, thanks to his tendency towards spending too much time on what Kastle and Steibel felt were trivial matters. (In the bonus interview, Kastle says Scorsese spent an afternoon filming a beer bottle in a bush, which led the duo to realize he was wasting their money.) A second director was hired, but soon let go, and Kastle, who had never directed before, finished the film, which was released in 1969.
If The Honeymoon Killers contains any traces of frugality, they’re certainly not evident. Stark, dark, and disturbing, the film’s stark black-and-white photography hearkens to film noir, but serves to make the film the “Anti-Bonnie & Clyde” picture Kastle wanted—no beautiful actors or big-name stars, no bright technicolor cinematography, no multiple-take scenes sanitized for viewer palpability. The budgetary confines resulted in a good number of scenes being the only take, and if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that the lighting is almost entirely natural light, which only adds to the disturbing realism of the story.
The real power of The Honeymoon Killers comes from the performances of Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler. Neither of them had much acting experience; Bianco had been cast in minor television roles, while Stoler had never acted outside of community theater. Inexperienced they may have been, but they masterfully portray the dastardly duo. Bianco’s take on Ray Fernandez captures the sleazy unctuousness that captivated Beck, whilst Stoler wonderfully encapsulates Beck’s paranoia, obsession, and explosive temper. A physically large and imposing woman, Stoler’s Martha deftly walks the line between knowing the power she wields due to her physical size and crippling self-esteem issues that fuel a deadly insecurity. In watching the film again, one notices that Stoler is actually quieter than one thinks, and it’s in her uncomfortable pauses and stone-cold glares that her portrayal gains its strength. When she murders Janet Fay, she hits her in such a blasé manner, one can’t help but be disturbed at her ease with murder. Furthermore, the final murder scene—the killing of a young girl—is easily one of the most disturbing acts of crime portrayed in cinema. You don’t actually see the murder take place, but you do hear it—and the look on Ray’s face as he listens in makes you realize that even though he’s murdered other people, even this was too much. It is easy to shock with blood, guts, and gore—but a horror that takes place on a psychological level, one that you must imagine, is often more powerful and disturbing than gore-porn.
Adding to the appeal of The Honeymoon Killers is its singularity.. Almost all of the actors in the film never acted again; Stoler and Bianco would have modest careers—it’s only Doris Roberts, who appears briefly in the film as Beck’s next-door neighbor Bunny, would go on to acting fame in Everybody Loves Raymond— while director of photography Oliver Wood would become one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed cinematographers. Kastle would write another screenplay, but it would never be produced—which prompted him to say in the interview featured in the extra, that he never made a film that was worse than The Honeymoon Killers. He’s right, of course; with a budget and less experience than Ed Wood and Roger Corman combined, he made a film worthy of Cassavetes and Truffaut, a true Hollywood classic that four decades later has lost none of its potency.
The Honeymoon Killers is available now via Criterion.