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at neglected classics and cult favourites
When fledgling director Martin Scorsese was removed from his first project after spending
too much time on master shots, the film's scriptwriter, sometime opera composer Leonard
Kastle eventually stepped into the breach. Like Howard Hawks before him, who had made Rio
Bravo (1959) as a reaction against the perceived moral falsities of High Noon
(1952), Kastle had also written his screenplay as a riposte to an earlier film. After
seeing Bonnie And Clyde (1967), he felt that the glamorous crime duo in Penn's
film bore little resemblance to reality. For his own treatment he settled on another
notorious pairing from the annals of American crime: that of Martha Beck and Raymond
Fernandez, the 1940s' slayers dubbed by contemporary tabloids as 'The Lonely Hearts
Killers', who met their due judicial end in San Quentin in 1951.
The Honeymoon Killers, as his film was finally called, is an account of Beck and Fernandez and their growing relationship during their notorious murder spree. Fernandez was a con man who preyed on spinsters, promising matrimony and then absconding with their savings. Once linked with Beck, his activities took a fatal turn and matters were complicated by their growing attachment. In fact, Kastle originally intended his film to be called 'Dear Martha', taking as its centre Martha's emotional engagement with her lover, rather than the cold facts of their crimes. It was the producers who ultimately opted for the more lurid title in an attempt to exploit the likely marquee appeal. In some ways it is apt, as we see Ray and Martha (introduced as his 'sister') meet and exploit several vulnerable women or discussing marriage with them before despatching with increasing levels of callousness, either before or after the event. Despite some post-production tinkering by the producers, The Honeymoon Killers remains a love story at heart. That's not to say that the film is not driven by the events that took place, but in Kastle's interpretation the victim's deaths are caused just as much by Martha's jealousies, and her impatience with sharing her lover, as they are by financial greed. Ultimately this is her story and it she who brings it to a fitting close.
From this distance the film actually seems related more to In Cold Blood (1967), Richard Brooks' adaptation of Capote's novel, than to Penn's masterpiece of the same year. The chief protagonists of the former, Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, are on a similar path of self-reliance and destruction. One can even draw a parallel between Perry's addiction to aspirin and Martha's love of chocolate and romance magazines. Kastle's stark black and white photography and concentration on the criminous principals gives the same air of precise, unglamorous re-enactment that's entirely missing in the glossier Beatty and Dunaway vehicle. Whether through the uncertainties of first-time direction or conscious artistic decision, his film has a rough edge, a grainy quality in which actors are thrown into relief by stark lighting and shadow. Its natural interiors and the use of off-screen space give it a chilling near-documentary feel that ensures its cult status remains intact down the years.
At the centre of the film is deadly Martha Beck, the overweight nurse - an outstanding performance by Shirley Stoler. This was Stoler's screen debut and she was hard put to regain such memorability again on screen. She went on to appear next in Klute (1971) and in such films as The Deer Hunter (1978), but the only other time she had such a devastating impact on film was probably in Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (aka: Pasqualino Settebellezze, 1976), where her intimidating bulk was also put to good use, this time in a concentration camp setting. Her co-star Tony Lo Bianco, playing the part of the wily Ray with lightness and distinction, appeared in another cult item: Larry Cohen's God Told Me To (aka: Demon, 1976), but has done little else of note. Like Stoler, this is hour of glory.
Ray is the confidence trickster who, in his regular fashion, initially attempts to ensnare lonely nurse Martha, at the start of the film. Reprimanding two ward juniors at the beginning she says, "I don't care what you do outside the hospital, but in here you're as bad as ammonia and chlorine!" Such comments are ironic given the explosive combination of Martha and Ray to come, a duo that, once joined are as deadly as Bonnie and Clyde, or Smith and Hickok. Her opening words are also echoed in Ray's later, and repeated, views on females who prove an obstruction: "I don't care what you do, just get rid of her!"