Deemed a “sleeper” upon its release, THE HONEYMOON KILLERS was distributed by Cinerama Releasing (who would soon be known for exploitable drive-in horror fare such as WILLIARD and British Amicus imports such as THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) in 1970 after AIP’s limited theatrical run the year before. A critical favorite which is not quite the cult classic it should be, THE HONEYMOON KILLERS now sees Blu-ray release, appropriately enough, through The Criterion Collection.
Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler, SEVEN BEAUTIES), an obese, freckled head nurse at a Mobile, Alabama hospital, lives alone with her senile mother (Dortha Duckworth, MURPHY’S ROMANCE). Her friend Bunny (Doris Roberts from "Everybody Loves Raymond") registers Martha for a "lonely hearts" club, and she is soon corresponding with Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco, GOD TOLD ME TO), a Spanish-born immigrant residing in New York City. A relationship commences, but while visiting him in New York, Ray confesses to being a gigolo who swindles lonely women for their money. Martha is madly in love with Ray, so she helps him by posing as his sister as he dupes other women, promising to be faithful. The crimes get worse, with murder coming into play. The couple's sexual desire for each other increases, but the womanizing Ray can't be loyal, and the overbearing (and suicidal) Martha is insanely jealous.
Little seen or acknowledged by the general public, THE HONEYMOON KILLERS is an independently-made gem, far superior than its exploitive title would suggest. Shot on a reported budget of around $150,000, the story is based on incidents involving real-life media-hyped con artists Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck and their late 1940s/early 1950s-era murder spree which eventually lead both to the electric chair. First-time (and only-time) director Leonard Kastle injects the film with a raw, documentary-style approach with some nifty touches of stylized Film Noir. Shot in various small-town locales (much of it in the New York area), with some outstanding performances by an (at the time) unknown cast and a bitingly dark storyline, the film is downright unforgettable, and like IN COLD BLOOD, it was wise to shoot this tense tale of a devotedly devious duo in glorious black and white at a time when color was almost a necessity for box office success. The black and white cinematography also helps to disguise a handful of anachronisms, if the film is being true to its period setting (as the caption in the final shot dictates).
With his screenplay, Kastle has molded highly vulnerable and unsound characters in Martha and Ray, and they are wonderfully recreated by Stoler and Lo Bianco. The late Stoler is large, loud and intimidating as the desperately lonely Martha, motivated to murder by excessive greed and jealousy. Stoler's performance is one that doesn't miss a trick, and her on-screen relationship with Lo Bianco (whose heavy Latino accent it totally convincing) is fascinatingly lurid to watch. These two start off as anti-heroes, but by the finale, they are truly despicable. Low, natural lighting and effective, claustrophobic camera set-ups (sharply handled by cinematographer Oliver Wood) set up a mood that grows increasingly intense, all set exclusively to the moving symphonies of Mahler. If the novice director shows his inexperience, it only helps the realism felt with this shoestring effort. Never really graphic, but always painting more or less disturbing innuendoes in its depictions of violence, THE HONEYMOON KILLERS is a must-see for film students and any movie goer who appreciates storytelling and characterization at their finest.
First released on DVD by them in 2003, The Criterion Collection now revisits THE HONEYMOON KILLERS on Blu-ray (as well as standard DVD using the same transfer) in a pristine new 4K digital restoration. The film is presented in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the black and white picture quality is crisp and clean, with excellent detail and fine gray scale. The contrast range looks appropriate, black levels are always deep and proper, and the film’s shadowy and darkly-lit scenes never produce any clarity problems or excessive grain, which is handled well and never excessive (grain structure looks organic, with no artificial tampering evident). The uncompressed LPCM mono track offers clear dialogue (a noticeable improvement over the 2003 DVD) and the classical music pieces also come through nicely in the mix. Optional English subtitles are also included.
Carried over from the 2003 DVD is an insightful interview with writer/director Kastle (29:38) who passed away in 2011. The music writer (by profession) talks about his one film, why he never made another one since, and how he envisioned it after being discouraged by the gloss of Arthur Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE. He also tells how a young Martin Scorsese was actually the original director for hire and describes the scenes that he shot. Kastle – who had the project entirely story-boarded in his head – can truly claim that he never made a bad film. “Love Letters” (24:59) is an excellent new featurette by Robert Fischer containing interviews with Lo Bianco, actress Marilyn Chris (who plays Myrtle Young, one of the couple’s victims) and editor Stan Warnow. Chris states how much she wanted to be in the film, and that she actually came in to read for the role of Martha, bulking herself up with clothes to look heavier; she was offered another small part but introduced the producer and director to Stoler. Chris also told Lo Bianco about the casting for the film, and the actor campaigned for the lead role after being told over the phone that he wasn’t right for it (his convincing Spanish accent got him the role). The original director, Scorsese, and the scenes he directed (and his firing), are also discussed here. Warnow mentions the editing process and he too was also working with Scorsese for a short period of time (Lo Bianco describes Warnow as the film’s “hero”). Scott Christiansen's video essay "Dear Martha… A True Crime Story" (22:56) is a fascinating look at the real murderous duo, their notorious slayings and the movies inspired by their exploits, and it’s illustrated with photos, newspaper headlines, letters, criminal records, excerpts from the pressbook and other genuine items. The original trailer for Cinerama's release of the film is included, and Gary Gidden pens liner notes that are included in an insert booklet. Highly recommended. (George R. Reis)
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