The Honeymoon Killers is an intense, terrifying portrait of repression and instability. As with most films about con artists, it’s concerned with the social constrictions that squeeze people into figurative corners, fostering desperation that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by interlopers, while understanding its villains to be beholden to the same cultural prejudices. Released in 1969 and vaguely set in the 1950s (based on the true story of the “Lonely Hearts Killers”), the film was a reaction to the prim, hypocritical respectability of the Eisenhower era, in which male bosses questioned their female subjugates about their sex habits without fear of legal recourse, and mothers reliably pestered daughters about their dating lives, which had to adhere to cordial parameters of “decency.” The institution of heteronormative marriage was correspondingly regarded as a higher suburban calling, and those who failed to buy into it were not-so-quietly ostracized, which begat untapped desires that bled over into emotional or physical violence.
At the film’s opening, surly, overweight Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) would appear to be destined for life as an old maid, her embittered demeanor succinctly established by a scene in which she scolds underlings for fooling around in her hospital. A head nurse, Martha supports herself and her mother (Dortha Duckworth) professionally, but she’s no male fantasy (either of the ideal wife or sexy, accommodating lover), and therefore a failure in the eyes of her peers—and herself. Fatefully, a friend, Bunny (Doris Roberts), reveals one afternoon that she’s submitted Martha for a dating pen-pal service. Martha makes a pretense of hesitation, nervously eating (for which Bunny scolds her, reminding her that she’s a little heavy), but we know she’ll relent to the pressure.
Soon, Martha’s trading letters of rapidly escalating intensity with Raymond Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco), an unexpectedly good-looking, city-dwelling smoothie with shaky claims of European family connections. Raymond eventually visits Martha, winning over her family, seducing her, and making off with a “loan” that reveals the true nature of his intentions. Raymond’s a scammer who grifts lonely, often older, or dumpier women who feel estranged from the conventional nuclear-familial arrangement. For reasons left enticingly ambiguous, Raymond also feels divorced from suburban American life, and he’s found a way to live by flipping it the finger. Except Martha’s not one to be so easily outdone. After Raymond sends her a “Dear Jane” letter brushing her off, Martha calls him, scheming with Bunny to fake a suicide attempt over the phone. Impressed with her steel, Raymond invites Martha up to the city, revealing his operation, inviting her into the fold and initiating a love affair in which new terms are brokered: Martha will play the role of Raymond’s “sister” as he goes about seducing large sums of money out of his pretend fiancées, his heart truly belonging to her.
While the film was clearly produced on the fly for a low budget, abounding in unvarnished, electrifyingly improvisational cinematography and declaratory acting, director Leonard Kastle exhibits phenomenal artistry in his staging of emotional and behavioral escalation. We’re privy to the victimization of several women who cumulatively gain in stature and pathos, and an initially amusing cult film blossoms into a major American tragedy. We’re initially primed to enjoy Raymond and Martha’s subterfuge, though Kastle steers the narrative carefully and inexorably into an abyss in which Martha’s jealousy and calculation transform her and Raymond into remorseless killers, their parody of domestic deception devolving into an expression of annihilation and madness. Tellingly, the imagery grows more deliberate and spectral as the film progresses, fashioning the shabby quotidian of low-income, 1950s-era domestic life into a subtle expressionism that misleadingly appears as if the filmmakers “found” it.
Kastle pulls the viewer into the film’s sleazy, hopeless milieu with startling confidence. Like the similarly anarchic Night of the Living Dead, The Honeymoon Killers shrewdly benefits from the grit and rawness of its aesthetic, suggesting that we’re watching a grimy documentary torn from an ancient newsreel playing forever on a loop in our true-crime-fed nightmares. Several tones compete with each other for dominance throughout the film, constantly complicating our reactions. Angry, despairing, often broad comedy inhabits the scenes detailing the Honeymoon Killers’ schemes, as they’re profiting off the misery and uncertainty brought on by the victims’ failures to ingratiate with society—a failure around which the protagonists believe themselves to have found a loophole.
Complementing this suggestion of social revenge is the collected behavior of the targets themselves, who progress in presentation from shrill to poignantly pitiful to ludicrously self-possessed, though the perceptive will discern the need and loneliness that unites all of them underneath their varying guises of braggadocio. Finally, there’s the striking romanticism of Raymond and Martha’s relationship. At their nastiest, there’s still undeniable force of life churning within them and shared between them, a passion that forces us to confront their humanness, triggering from us an ultimate reaction of horror.
Specks and debris have been removed from this image, even since Criterion first issued The Honeymoon Killers on DVD in 2003. The whites are gorgeous, lacking the glare that sometimes dogs them in less polished prints, and the blacks are velvety, with rich, deep dimension. Importantly though, the film doesn’t look too good. The roughness of the aesthetic—which contributes to the film’s vitality—comes through in the vividly detailed facial textures of the actors, who’re often unflatteringly lit. (Most of the lighting was achieved by sources actually within the frame.) The soundtrack is clean, though a bit shallow, and it’s occasionally difficult to understand what the actors are saying, though these issues scan as being inherent to the source material. Diegetic sound effects, however, register with frightening palpability.
A relatively slim supplements package from Criterion, most of it carried over from the prior DVD, though these features generally merit the repetition. A conversation with director Leonard Kastle allows the perceptive filmmaker to discuss his intentions with the project as well as a variety of anecdotes pertaining to its creation. Most famously, a young Martin Scorsese was originally hired to direct, though his deliberateness was too much for the producers’ slim budget. Kastle memorably recalls how he hated the glamour of Bonnie and Clyde, wanting instead to emphasize the "banality of evil," to quote Hannah Arendt. A certain sentimentality still crept into Kastle’s orchestration, of course, particularly in how he streamlined the stories of the real Lonely Hearts Killers to make it appear as if their love for one another kick-started their crime spree. It didn’t, as "Dear Martha...," an illuminating video essay by writer Scott Christianson about the real killers, makes abundantly clear. "Love Letters" is the one new supplement included here, providing an actor- and editor-centric telling of the film’s production, though much of it is inevitably redundant of what Kastle said in 2003. Rounding out the package are the theatrical trailer and an essay by Gary Giddins.
One of the most intense of all American con-artist films receives a sturdy A/V upgrade from its initial DVD debut, though the supplements largely remain the same. Impressive on its own terms, but potentially not worth the double-dip if you already own the prior Criterion edition.