Friday, September 9, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

The Honeymoon Killers (1969) ****
Directed by: Leonard Kastle.
Written by: Leonard Kastle.
Starring: Shirley Stoler (Martha Beck), Tony Lo Bianco (Ray Fernandez), Mary Jane Higby (Janet Fay), Doris Roberts (Bunny), Kip McArdle (Delphine Downing), Marilyn Chris (Myrtle Young), Dortha Duckworth (Mrs. Beck), Barbara Cason (Evelyn Long), Ann Harris (Doris), Mary Breen (Rainelle Downing).

The Honeymoon Killers took a rather round about way to get to the screen. The producer convinced a wealthy friend of his to give him $150,000 to make a movie, and then hired his friend, Leonard Kastle, to do research and write a film about the Lonely Hearts killers, Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez. They then hired Martin Scorsese, who had only made one film before, to be the director, but fired him after one week because he was working too slowly for their budget and schedule. Then they hired assistant director Daniel Vlockman to take over, but apparently, he kept checking with Kastle after every shot to see if he was doing it correctly. Eventually he left as well, and Kastle took over. The result is a film that is disturbing in the extreme, with a distinct visual flair. Why Kastle never directed another film, I have no idea. But in his one outing behind the camera, he made a great one.

Perhaps the reason Kastle never directed again was because at the time, The Honeymoon Killers wasn’t highly regarded. It seemed to fall between the cracks of the late 1960s early 1970s movie scene. It certainly was the big budget behemoths that Hollywood kept putting out, but it is also a stark contrast to the “youth film” movement at the time. Kastle said he wanted to tell this story because of how much he hated Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, with its glorification of killers and violence, turning the outlaws into martyrs. Kastle wants to do something completely different here – and he succeeds brilliantly. The film holds all of its characters – the killers and their victims with a similar level of contempt. Yes, the killers are far less annoying than their victims, but that is the point. They never fail to draw us into their game, to almost take their side, right up until the point they merciless kill their latest victim. It’s a movie that constantly has you questioning your moral compass.

The film stars Shirley Stoler, in a truly remarkable performance, as Martha Beck, a middle aged head nurse, hated by all those under her, saddled with an aging mother who is going senile, but still seems to remember to tell Martha to stop eating, she’s had enough. Martha is overweight, and has no romantic prospects in sight. That is until a neighbor (Doris Roberts, from Everybody Loves Raymond) sends her name to a Lonely Hearts club, and she starts exchanging letters with Ray (Tony LiBianco). Their sappy love letters to each other are enough to make you roll your eyes, but are extremely effective. When Ray comes to visit, everything seems to be going well, but then he leaves, with a “loan” from Martha, and it looks like he may not be coming back. Martha, by this point, has figured out he is a con man – but she can’t help it. She loves him anyway. And Ray loves her as well – perhaps because she is the only woman who found out what he was and isn’t  mad about it. There’s something to be said about having a partner in crime.

What follows is the two of them scamming a series of older ladies, all of which think they have found their dream guy in Ray – the scams eventually turning into murder. Kastle holds no sympathy for these women, all of whom are presented as somewhat pathetic, penny pinchers, stupid and annoying. None of them more so than Janet Fay (a brilliant Mary Jane Higby), an elderly woman who the pair convince to go with to their Long Island home in “Valley Springs” to get married, without telling anyone. A penny pincher in the extreme, she starts complaining on the car ride down, and starts obsessing about her cheques that she signed over to Ray – even going so far as to wake up in the middle of the night and start demanding to see them. As an audience, we are invited to share Martha’s point of view, and we do, as she gets increasingly frustrated with her – and we’re with her right up to the point where she bashes her skull in with a hammer. It’s then that we start questioning ourselves – right up until another woman enters the picture, and the whole process starts all over again.

The key to the movie really is the performances. This was Shirley Stoler’s first screen role – and while she would make her career as a character actress in the years that followed, including an unforgettable turn as a Nazi Prison Camp Commandant in Lina Wertmueller’s Seven Beauties – because she was overweight, she never really got a lead role of this magnitude again. Her Martha is a cruel woman, dismissing the women who Ray scams with a roll of her eyes, and cold bloodedly killing them when she was called upon. Yet Stoler makes Martha into something more complex – insecure in the extreme, Stoler is simply trying to hang on desperately to Ray, freaking out with her pathetic screams of “You promised” every time it looks like Ray has touched one of his marks. The sex between her and Ray is somewhat twisted, but I think she is going through the motions trying to keep him happy – she certainly does not show the same ecstasy when engaged in sex as she does when she is eating. It is a remarkable performance, right up until her sad final scenes. For his part, Tony LiBianco gives a more comedic performance – which makes it all the more chilling. Speaking with an exaggerated accent, LiBianco can be extremely funny in many of his scenes, but the his sing song, almost child like voice at times, is truly creepy. He has a hold over Martha to be sure, but she has one over him as well. Together, they make one of the most truly creepy couples in screen history.

The Honeymoon Killers is an unsettling film – and that is probably why it did so poorly when it was released back in 1969-1970. It was marketed as an exploitation film, but it isn’t a fun film. Yet, it also isn’t entirely serious – there is a definite current of black comedy running underneath this film. It kind of reminded me of the films of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling, Palindromes and Life During Wartime). All of those films had a similar vibe – pitch black, almost inappropriate comedy offset to nausea inducing unpleasantness. The film also have, at their center, a moral puzzle that it is impossible to answer correctly. Just when you think you have the answer, the filmmakers pull the rug out from underneath you. The Honeymoon Killers is, quite simply, unforgettable.

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