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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

New on Video: Murderous Amore in The Honeymoon Killers

Posted By on Wed, Oct 7, 2015 at 2:30 PM

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Okay, prepare to have your mind blown. French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. (The exact provenance of the quote is unknown, but Roger Ebert credited it to Godard, so I’m inclined to believe it’s true.)

In the late 1960s, an opera composer named Leonard Kastle hated Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, considering it to be a whitewashing of the famous true case, grafting sexiness and heroism onto where it did not belong. Conveniently enough, producer Warren Steibel approached him to write a movie about the famous “Lonely Hearts Killers” of the late 1940s, and in true Godardian style, Kastle wrote and eventually directed the 1969 film The Honeymoon Killerswhich the Criterion Collection released on Blu-ray last week — as a criticism of Bonnie and Clyde. And who did Bonnie and Clyde ‘s producers originally want to direct their film before Arthur Penn was hired? Jean-Luc Freakin’ Godard. Freaky, right? Also, Godard’s more personable New Wave contemporary Francois Truffaut called The Honeymoon Killers his favorite American film, so it also has that going for it.


Like Bonnie and Clyde, The Honeymoon Killers is based on a true story of lovers on a crime spree, in this case Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, known as the Lonely Hearts Killers because of how they met and how they then found their victims (lonely-hearts ads in tabloid papers). Registered nurse Beck and con man Fernandez fell in love, and went into the business together of cheating lonely women out of their savings. They eventually killed upwards of 20 women between 1947 and 1949, and were executed in 1951, two years before the more famous husband-and-wife execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Martha Beck is also considered the first American female serial killer, so neener neener Aileen Wuornos. 

But Leonard Kastle’s film makes no attempt to glamorize Beck and Fernandez the way Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde did it subjects, or later retellings of the Beck and Fernandez story. (Like 2006’s Lonely Hearts starring Salma Hayek as Martha Beck, which — hey, boobies!!!) The real Martha Beck was — ye gods, how to phrase this in the Weekly without getting in trouble for being counterrevolutionary? — not what is considered traditionally beautiful by the patriarchy, and also quite overweight (but probably no less healthy for that, I'm sure). Bonnie Parker was no looker in real life either, but Faye Dunaway glammed her up, to the extent that her look became an instant icon. That look has been replicated by celebrities as disparate as Morgan Fairchild (with Harvey Korman as Warren Beatty's Clyde) in the 1985 Rodney Dangerfield special Exposed...

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...and, more recently (and more faithfully, if we're being honest), Hilary Duff in a 2009 Allure shoot.

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As near as I can tell, nobody has tried to replicate Shirley Stoler’s look as Martha Beck. Also, Stoler’s performance as Martha is phenomenal, outclassing Dunaway’s Bonnie in terms of sheer chops. (Tony Lo Bianco as Fernandez is no slouch, either.)

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The Honeymoon Killers follows the real story as closely as possible, and being very a low-budget film shot in glorious b-and-w, it has a strong documentary feel. Martin Scorsese was the original director, but left after a week because of creative differences — the difference between that Scorsese was trying to make an art picture, as was his wont at the time, and producer Warren Steibel just wanted him to shoot the goddamn movie and not spend forever filming a beer can on the ground. Scorcese was replaced by screenwriter Kastle, who never made another movie. Nor for lack of trying to get other projects off the ground, and as he often pointed out before his death in 2011, he was one of the few directors who couldn’t honestly say they never made a bad movie. He was right, because The Honeymoon Killers is pretty brilliant. 

It does get me to thinking, though: y’know what word you don’t see used much anymore? “Annals.” Like, I remember the VHS box for The Honeymoon Killers used it prominently, from a design which was almost certainly used in a print ad: 

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For that matter, so did the original theatrical poster for Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 1963 Blood Feast. 

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You may well remember reading about Connie Mason in Playboy, but do you remember seeing the word “annals” used in a movie advertisement over the past few decades? No, you don’t, and I can’t imagine why that it is.


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Sherilyn Connelly

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