HONEYMOON KILLERS, THE(director/writer: Leonard Kastle; cinematographer: Oliver Wood; editors: Richard Brophy/Stanley Warnow; music: Gustav Mahler; cast: Shirley Stoler (Martha Beck), Tony Lo Bianco (Raymond Fernandez), Mary Jane Higby (Janet Fay), Doris Roberts (Bunny), Kip McArdle (Delphine Downing), Marilyn Chris (Myrtle Young), Dortha Duckworth (Mother), Barbara Cason (Evelyn Long), Ann Harris (Doris); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Warren Steibel; Criterion Collection; 1970)
“A richly drawn disturbing film that never seemed exploitative.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It was to be Martin Scorsese’ debut as a director, but the young director screwed up in taking too long to do set-ups to find the perfect shot and after a week was replaced by Donald Volkman who was eventually replaced by screenwriter Leonard Kastle, who does a great job in his debut but never directed another feature film. This is a beautifully accomplished black and white film based on a true story of a gigolo Raymond Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) and his grotesquely obese partner Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler), a dead lookalike for John Waters’ Divine. They are working the lonely heart circuit as a swindler and murderer. It’s a low-budget, no-holds barred kind of film, with the unusual Gustav Mahler musical score for a crime drama.
Martha is a desperately lonely nurse bent on suicide who lives and takes care of her invalid mother in Mobile, Alabama. She places an ad in a lonely hearts column run by a Friendship Club and starts a torrid letter correspondence with a Latino immigrant from New York City named Ray. He visits her and they begin a relationship, and he then runs off with her dowry to New York City. But she tracks him down and finds that he’s a professional scam artist stealing from lonely women and elderly spinsters and widows he finds through newspaper ads. This does not deter the love she has for him, and after she is fired from her job she finds a place for her mother in a nursing home and becomes partners with Lo Bianco in the scam. Stoler poses as Lo Bianco’s sister while he continues meeting lonely women and then fleecing them of their money. But when Lo Bianco marries Myrtle Young (Chris) to give her baby a father, Stoler out of a severe case of jealousy turns to murder. Their trail of foul deeds continues with the murder of the religious art collector Janet Fay (Mary Jane Higby), an irritating widow whom Stoler bludgeons with a hammer and then she and Ray strangle her with panty hose to complete the job. They are finally caught after a string of such murders, as in their crime spree there is also the murder of a child. Stoler has become insane with jealousy which causes her to turn in her lover, as she realizes she can never trust her lover and will never be able to keep him as a partner. Their string of murders took place from February 1948 to February 1949, and eventually they were executed in Sing Sing in 1951. They were nicknamed by the tabloids “The Lonely Hearts Killers.”
This unsentimental docudrama remains a cult favorite. It takes us through a weird and sad world of lonely women, that leaves us with a chilling feeling about the human condition. But it is done in such a casually realistic and stark way, that the sociopath couple seem less like the monsters they really were but more like unrestrained mental defects from a permissive society. Lo Bianco and Stoler give unforgettable penetrating performances balancing each other with gobs of sleaze and ruthlessness, while acting human enough at times to earn a small measure of pity. A richly drawn disturbing film that never seemed exploitative.
REVIEWED ON 4/5/2004 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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