Lonely Hearts (2007): Todd Robinson’s Third Version of Murderous Couple, Starring Travolta and Gandolfini

A misfire on many fronts, Todd Robinson’s Lonely Hearts is the third screen version inspired by the murderous couple Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez in the late 1940s.

The duo were dubbed the “Lonely Heart Killers,” because of their specialized conning–their targets were mostly lonely war widows–exploiting Fernandez’s macho Latino charisma as a romantic bait.

In 1970, Leonard Kastle made The Honeymoon Killers, starring Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco as the deadly couple, which became a cult movie and a campus favorite. Then in 1996, Arturo Ripstein made a Mexican version of the same saga, “Deep Crimson,” a well-executed noir that played the festival circuit. Both movies are superior to Robinson’s work.

“Lonely Hearts” received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. It’s taken a long time for a distributor to pick up theatrical rights, and I doubt whether many people would see it on the big-screen.

I suspect that the main reason Robinson was able to get financing for his project was the fact that he is the grandson of Nassau County Detective Elmer C. Robinson, who was instrumental in arresting, convicting, and executing the duo in 1951.

In the press notes, writer-director Robinson says: “These stories have been kicking around my family for years, my Grandfather was usually very quiet, but when he told stories he was a great storyteller. The stories were usually grim but always had a bit of humor. He would tell stories about scams that led to murder like in the case of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez.”

Robinson wants to show how the whole experience, particularly witnessing the couple’s executions at Sing Sing Prison, changed dramatically his grandfather’s life. Which again shows that personal stories do not necessarily result in personal or good–movies.

Whereas the two former films have focused exclusively on the murderous couple, Robinson’s version also includes the perspective of Detective Robinson (played by John Travolta) and his partner Detective Charles Hildebrandt (James Gandolfini of TV’s “Sopranos” fame). But not much insight is gained by expanding the story, which is curiously detached, and after a while, the crosscutting of the two stories becomes tiresome.

Picture’s main problem is the casting and the lack of chemistry between the actors who play the leads. In the earlier films, Martha is played by a big, unattractive woman (borderline obese), whereas in “Lonely Hearts” she is cast with the sexy and seductive Salma Hayek, who plays her as a likable (but not menacing) femme fatalewhich calls too much attention to her looks. The lack of chemistry between Jared Leto, who’s at least physically credible, since Fernandez reportedly was a handsome gigolo type, and Hayek makes things worse.

The film’s problems are exacerbated by the inexplicable switch of locale: Though the murders took place in Long Island and Michigan, Robinson’s saga transplants the events to Jacksonville, Florida.

“Lonely Hearts” is no doubt well-intentioned, but it comes across as yet another story about serial killers on the lam. In concession to contemporary standards, the murders are depicted as bloody and demented, as lovers Ray and Martha travel together. The crime follows a pattern: Ray seduces lonely, vulnerable women through personal ads, then milk them of their money, and finally kills them.

Meanwhile, Martha falls deeper into her obsession for Ray–she is convinced of their intimate bond because he kills for her. Ultimately, she too is drawn to participate in the grotesque crimes. Martha and Ray are depicted as a dangerous duo that commits murders casually (one against a boy, off screen), often carelessly leaving a bloody trail behind them.

Robinson’s true goal is to go beyond the story’s historical aspects and show the grim reality of being a homicide detective, how the work invades ones personal life and isolates him from his loved ones. To that extent, the tale’s factual crime aspects are intertwined with Robinsons personal culpability in the unexplained and spontaneous suicide of his wife (which occurs before the film begins).

Borderline pretentious, “LOnely Hearts” also wrestles with some existential questions of purpose, accountability, and a mans significance in the world, while not neglecting rays of hope and redemption. According to “Lonely Hearts,” after capturing Fernandez and Beck and witnessing their executions, Robinson becomes convinced that he must abandon the illusion of control in police work. He realizes that any real hopes for happiness and forgiveness are represented by his young son and devoted wife. As a result, he leaves the homicide world behind him, in exchange for a life with the people he loves.

Risky civil service and stable family life, as “The Good Shepherd,” “The Breach” (to name only a few recent films) have shown, don’t go hand in hand. Robinson wants to show the tragic dimensions of his grandfather’s connection to the crime story, how his detective work meant everything to him–at a high price, alienating his family for a decade. Robinson worked long hours on this infamous case, when his wife began a downward spiral which ultimately would take her life.

Travolta gives a decent performance as Elmer Robinson, the dedicated and brooding detective, and so does Gandolfini as the partner who steers him through emotionally difficult times. However, it might have been a mistake for Robinson to use Gandolfini for the hard-boiled narration as his distinctive voice is now all too familiar from “The Sopranos,” thus bringing an extra set of references. Moreover, rather than offer insightful commentary, the voiceover often simply tries to fill in the gaps in the story of Robinson as a tormented detective.

The yarn alternates scenes of the killers in action with scenes of the pursuing lawmen, but, as noted, “Lonely Hearts” is dissatisfying as a killers or detective story. Indeed, ultimately, Robinson seems less interested in the demented couples homicidal rampage (always an alluring element of such movies) than in the toll that this work takes on Robinson’s personal life, which, unfortunately, he’s unable to dramatize.

Good supporting cast is largely underutilized. We get to see Riobinson’s on-again-off-again romance with a co-worker named Rene Fodie (played by Laura Dern), and for comic relief, we have clownish Detective Reilly (Scott Caan). Among the couple’s victims are a lonely middle-aged woman (Alice Krige) and a young widowed mother (Dagmara Dominczyk).


Nu Image/Millennium Films

MPAA rating R
Running time: 108 minutes

Director-screenwriter: Todd Robinson
Producers: Boaz Davidson, Holly Wiersma
Executive producers: Danny Dimbort, Randall Emmett, George Furla, Manfred Heid, Gerd Koechlin, Josef Lautenschlager, Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, Andreas Thiesmeyer, John Thompson
Cinematographer: Peter Levy
Editor: Kathryn Himoff
Production designer: Jon Gary Steele
Costume designer: Jacqueline West
Music: Mychael Danna


Elmer C. Robinson: John Travolta
Charles Hildebrandt: James Gandolfini
Martha Beck: Salma Hayek
Raymond Fernandez: Jared Leto
Rene: Laura Dern
Detective Reilly: Scott Caan
Janet: Alice Krige
Delphine Downing: Dagmara Dominczyk

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