Bite Size: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

Like most films that bear a “based on a true story” title card, 1970’s The Honeymoon Killers takes a loose approach to the facts of the real life crimes that inspired it, a 1940s multi-state theft and murder spree that earned its culprits the snappy newspaper sobriquet the “Lonely Hearts Killers“.

Nursing supervisor Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) lives with her aging mother in a modest apartment in Alabama. When her well meaning best friend, Bunny (an early role for TV regular Doris Roberts) signs her up for a correspondence club for singles, she is far from thrilled. However, a letter from the suave, Spanish born Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) soon sees Martha in the throes of a whirlwind romance.

After a visit to his home in New York City, Martha learns what sort of frog lies behind her supposed prince. Ray is a gigolo, using the personals to find older rich women to marry and subsequently rob blind. Rather than run, Martha decides to assist him in his schemes. She travels alongside Ray to meet his procession of “wives”, pretending to be his spinster sister. Soon Ray’s dishonesty and Martha’s furious jealousy escalate what had been simple grift into cold blooded murder.

Despite the primarily handheld, documentary style camerawork, The Honeymoon Killers doesn’t try to hide any of its carefully curated artifice. This isn’t “reality” any more than a carefully staged real estate showing is a “home”. There’s no attempt to disguise the era swap to the then present day, the technical gaffes typical of low budget productions or the film’s replacement of Martha’s real life circumstances to that of a single, childless woman to better suit the narrative.

What lends the film a heft it wouldn’t otherwise have is the fact that it commits to its fictions wholeheartedly in a manner that feels authentic without being bogged down by the need for period perfect details or the minutiae of the protagonists’ real life counterparts. Writer/director Leonard Kastle (who famously subbed in for the quickly fired Martin Scorsese) doesn’t so much truck in realism as he does the utter lack of romanticism.

This was likely quite the shock for audiences at the time of the film’s release. The majority of the vocabulary in cinematic crime films up to that point was dominated by cartoonishly lurid low budget potboilers, noir-ish morality tales and glossy big studio efforts deeply invested in the stylish pathos of tragic outlaws.

Stoler and Lo Bianco both give expertly calibrated performances of the lived in banality that accompanies an uncertain life on the fringes, bickering and boasting in equal turns depending on where their ill gotten fortunes stand on any given day. The film parcels its violence sparingly, and when the constant paranoia and mistrust between the pair brings the couple’s bright burning passion to ash, it happens with a sighing whimper and a telephone call, rather than the fireworks pop of bullets and artfully tousled defiance.

The clinical tone of the film has subsequently been used to great effect in a variety of genre fare (Henry:Portrait Of A Serial Killer), but The Honeymoon Killers retains a subversive, transgressive charge in Shirley Stoler’s snarlingly surly and confidently sexual portrayal of Martha. It’s rare to see a female character allowed to exist this far outside of the notions of conventional desirability and mandatory feminine agreeableness. It’s even rarer to see that character treated seriously as both a love interest and an object of desire.

It would be easy to dismiss the hysterical, mocking focus on Stoler’s physicality as an an unfortunate relic of an earlier era had it been confined to the original promo and press materials. Yet, modern reviews of the film point to Stoler’s passionate affair with a man who makes his living as a lover with the same air of prurient incredulousness rampant in those of 50 years ago, which definitely speaks to how little the baseline of gendered expectations have changed.

Much like Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter or Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls, The Honeymoon Killers is one of genre fare’s finest one off directorial efforts. In a realm that famously sold the sizzle rather than the actual steak, The Honeymoon Killers takes the opposite tact. Sold as a sensationalist bit of ripped from the headlines exploitation, the film refuses to serve the meat of what the promo materials promise. Instead, it dispassionately allows a glimpse into the sort day to day drudgery that the promised butchery entails.

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