Honeymoon Killers (1969): Leonard Kastle’s Gritty Film

Based on newspaper accounts and court records, Leonard Kastle’s aptly titled The Honeymoon Killers is a terse and chilling true story of a couple who murder lonelyhearts women after stripping them of their money.

Small in scale and realistic in style, this gritty l969 picture is charged with piercing intelligence and amazing intensity.

The film begins in Mobile Alabama, where Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler), a big woman, is a tough hospital head nurse. Frustrated by her life with her senile and overbearing mother, she is encouraged by her friend to join “Aunt Carrie Friendship Club. “No more lonely night,” says her friend, “no more fears of turning into an old bag.” Martha begins correspondence with Ray Fernandez (Tony LoBianco), an attractive New York immigrant from Spain. Before long, their letters become ardent and a meeting is arranged. Martha falls head over heels for Ray, even after his honest disclosure of his “profession”–courting and swindling rich and lonely women all over the country.

Intrigued by his suave duplicity, Martha joins him, posing as his sister. The taut screenplay, also by Kastle, follows the logic of a road movie, not unlike Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and other American classics of amour fou and love on the run. Yet the characters are not charming or romantic in the mold of Faye Dunnaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde. And they are not the confused and alienated teenagers that Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen embodied in Badlands. Instead, they are a middle-aged, ruthless, and self-destructive couple, strung out on crime–and sex. In the end, realizing that Ray will never be faithful to her, the obsessively jealous Martha informs on him.

Shot in black and white by Oliver Wood, The Honeymoon Killers has the precision and investigatory style of an expose. Kastle provides an extremely tight focus on the two protagonists. Viewers will get an accurate sense of life on the run: the meaning of trust and compliance; the panic at the first murder, the highs and lows of each escalating murder, the passionate love-making right after killing.

Despite its grim subject matter, the film is not without humor or irony. One of the ironies is that in every stop they make (and they go to New England, New Jersey, Alabama, Albany), Martha ends up sleeping in the same bed with Ray’s current mark, while he is in living room. And every encounter ends with an explosive argument between the increasingly jealous Martha and the woman.

Yet the movie is surprisingly nonjudgmental. Refusing to manipulate the audience’s sympathies, Kastle maintains a tenacious objectivity on the subject. There is something deceptive about this film–it is modest in scale, but it takes big risks in everything else: story, approach and style.

Genuine suspense, which builds from the film’s first frame, is sustained throughout. Some of the murder scenes generate nerve-racking tension worthy of Hitchcock. The killing of one Albany widow, bludgeoning her with a hammer, then strangling her, is shown in great graphic detail. But because the violence takes place in a particular context, and both murderers and victims’ characters are well established, it generates more meaning and is more harrowing than the special-effects violence in mainstream American movies.

Shirley Stoler gives an impressively commanding performance. She is particularly good in conveying Martha’s barely controlled anger, a rage that could be triggered at any moment. The young Tony LoBianco, who later became a major theater and television actor, also excels as the suave immigrant. The uniformly superlative cast consists of a large number of women, each playing with flawless naturalism.

The most striking achievement about the movie is that writer- director Kastle makes no concessions to audience’s expectations. Here is a coherent film, and a first one at that, that refused to make any compromises–marketability, aesthetics, or morality. A classic independent film, The Honeymoon Killers is as chilly and scary as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). It is a testament to the film’s integrity that 23 years after it was made, its edge, intensity and impact are still very much in evidence.