Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) is sullen, overweight, and lonely. Desperate for affection, she joins Aunt Carrie’s Friendship Club and strikes up a correspondence with Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco), a charismatic smooth talker who could be the man of her dreams—or a degenerate con artist. Based on a shocking true story and filmed in documentary-style black and white by the confident and inspired first-time filmmaker Leonard Kastle, 'The Honeymoon Killers' is a stark portrayal of the desperate lengths to which a lonely heart will go to find true love.
The true-crime genre has long been a dominant presence in the media landscape. With many hours of programming, and even an entire cable channel, devoted to the subject, many still find the subject matter compelling. Two of the biggest stories to impact pop culture in the past couple of years were HBO's miniseries 'The Jinx', featuring Robert Durst, who is suspected in the 1982 disappearance of his wife and 2000 murder of his friend, and the 'Serial' podcast, which examined the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and conviction of her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed.
Leonard Kastle's 'The Honeymoon Killers' (1969), his one and only film, is a fascinating entry “ripped from the headlines,” as they say in promos for the 'Law & Order' franchise. An opening title card states that this true story was “based on newspaper accounts and court records." Also dubbed "the Lonely Hearts Killers," Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck had such a depraved sense of narcissism, it's stunning the depths they were willing to go to in order to satisfy themselves.
Though she works as supervisor of nurses at a hospital in Mobile, AL, Martha (Shirley Stoler) is very unhappy with her life. She's middle-aged and overweight, and the only person in her life is her mother who she takes care of in their shared apartment. The script allows for nice character moments that reveal her condition. She's chastises a young nurse and orderly fraternizing at work. She also kicks at kid's wagon while walking home. Her anger comes from reminders of what she lacks in her life.
Martha's friend, Bunny (Doris Roberts), signs her up for Aunt Carrie’s Friendship Club, where she meets Ray (Tony Lo Bianco), who corresponds with a great many women across the country in order to bilk them out of money. He comes for a brief visit from New York, and Martha is so desperate to have sex with him, she drugs her mother. No longer intending to see her again after getting what he wanted, he eventually invites her to come visit after receiving a call that she is intending suicide.
Once in New York, Martha learns the truth about Ray, but she is so in love she doesn’t care. She ships her mother off to a nursing home and begins accompanying him on his "jobs" posing as his sister. However, she is unable to control her emotions, especially when the women confide their feelings and desires for their new husband/fiancé. This leads the duo to extreme actions in order to continue their crime spree. Along the way, the characters reveal themselves to be psychopaths as they manipulate those around them and each other.
Even though it had a limited budget of $150,000, 'The Honeymoon Killers' demonstrates that a good script and a talented cast are the major foundations needed to create a quality film. With all the civic upheaval taking place in the late '60s, Kastle also seems to be commenting on the United States and those blindly devoted to it with this story. One victim sings "America the Beautiful" while bathing before she discovers being ripped off. Another has a birthday cake for President Lincoln to celebrate his birthday shortly before unknowingly telling the Martha too much about her relationship with Ray. Stoler and Lo Bianco give captivating performances because the characters' minds are never at rest. They are always calculating how best to get what they want as events change around them. Thankfully, Kastle got what he wanted in creating this impressive crime film that didn't glamorize the culprits, as he felt occurred in 'Bonnie and Clyde'.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Honeymoon Killers' (#200 in The Criterion Collection) comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a folded leaflet containing "Broken Promises," an essay by Gary Giddins.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.85:1. According to the liner notes, "This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on Lasergraphics Director file scanner from the 35 mm camera negative.
The image is clean and film grain is on display, which increases in low-lit scenes and also during the hospital lab scene when smoke or powder fills the air from an explosion occurring after chlorine and ammonia are mixed together. Blacks are inky, and whites are bright. Light sources within the frame frequently bloom too bright, such as sunshine bleeding through Martha's apartment or the lamp in ray's bedroom. Shadow delineation is not strong, as seen when Ray descends a staircase and eclipses the light as he walks right at the camera.
Focus fluctuates from scene to scene. Some times, objects look sharp throughout, like when Martha and her mother entertain Ray. Other times, the outer edges of the frame can have a softer, fuzzy appearance, as seen wide shots in the restaurant where Ray, Martha, and fiancée Janet are dining. In those scenes, the depth and detail within the frame are limited. I didn't notice any digital artifacts.
Also revealed in the notes, "the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35 mm magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, AudioCube's integrated workstation, and iZotope RX 4."
The original elements also seem to limit what can be done in high definition. The dialogue is clear and understandable for the most part. When Bunny calls Ray about Martha being sick without him, the dialogue gets very quiet soft. The dynamic range is narrow because people shouting are the main moments of loudness.
The majority of the music used are prerecorded music pieces of Mahler's work. Well balanced within scenes for the most part except when Martha swims too far and needs to be rescued by Ray, it is too loud in comparison to the dialogue. There's a light hiss, but it's not distracting.
Although the film's small budget and production has limited what could be done in presenting it in high definition, 'The Honeymoon Killers' is such a great film in terms of story and acting, I can't recommend it enough.