The Honeymoon Killers
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The Honeymoon Killers

There is one type of storytelling that is so popular that transcends every conceivable media. From a newspaper of record to the most salacious tabloid scholarly books down to the penny dreadfuls that were popular in the 1800s; True Crime Stories. The general public has always been fascinated, arguably morbidly, the accounts of stories detailing the heinous elements of a crime. The degree of popularity is in direct proportion to how gruesome and scandalous those details might be. Topping the list of subject matter are accounts or serial killers. Ever since headlines of Jack the Ripper frightened the people of Victorian London, serial killers having favorite fodder for journalists of every rank of respectability. One of the latest inductees into the much lauded Criterion Collection is the 1969 film ‘The Honeymoon Killers’ directed by Leonard Kastle and based upon the true story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, the notorious ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ of the 1940s. Criterion originally released the DVD version of this film back in 2003 but now they have included it in their ongoing series of remastering films of particular merit to high-definition quality and re-release on Blu-ray. The most common form of serial killer is the lone wolf, or pair of men down by a twisted psychological dynamic. The rare aspect about this case is the perpetrators of are a romantically linked couple, Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) and Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco). Between 1947 in 1949 they are believed to have murdered over 20 women. He was dumped by the newspapers of the time as the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’, a reference to their method of targeting their victims personal ads used by people seeking companionship.

There is no source of excitement and Martha Beck’s life. She was a dour, overweight woman working as a nursing administrative and Mobile, Alabama. At home she cared for elderly mother (Dortha Duckworth), circumstances that made the potential for romance even more remote. A friend Bunny (Doris Roberts) decides to help Martha by taking matters into her own hands. Bunny submits an ad on Martha’s behalf to the person a section newspaper, known in the popular parlance 'of the day as the lonely hearts section. The ad catches the attention of a man living in New York City, Raymond Fernandez. His nefarious character is economically shown to the audience without first glimpse of the man surrounded by photographs of young women, the previous victims of the con game he has been running for many years. Martha eventually gets over being angry with Bunny as she begins to exchange letters with Raymond. The relationship develops quickly and soon Raymond comes to visit Martha. After seducing her he proceeds to obtain a loan from her. As soon as he returns back to New York City, Raymond posts in letters from Arthur breaking up with her.

Martha has Bunny write a letter to Raymond telling him, falsely, that Martha attempted to take her own life. Raymond agrees to allow her to visit him in New York City where he confesses to her that he is a con man victimizing lonely women. Rather than being revolted by this revelation, Martha is quite agreeable to it. After Martha places her mother in a nursing home elderly woman disowns her completely effectively severing all ties Martha had with Alabama. She moves to New York City and begins living with Raymond. Martha was anxious to see Raymond at ‘work’ and accompanies him as he meets his victims posing as his sister. Raymond does promise to alter his modus operandi by refraining from having sex with his victims. Their dynamic is a couple becomes exceptionally complicated when Raymond marries one of his marks, Myrtle Young (Marilyn Chris), who is pregnant with another man’s child. Myrtle is insistent on consummating the marriage, the situation unconscionable to Martha resulting in her giving the young woman a large dose of sedatives. With Raymond’s help the place to drug woman on a bus out of town where she dies.

Without losing a beat over committing murder pair moves on to the next victim. When Martha catches Raymond in an intimate encounter and in a fit of jealousy attempts to commit suicide by drowning. Raymond is a house in Valley Stream, back then considered a suburb of New York. The next victim, Janet Fay (Mary Jane Higby) quickly falls in love with Raymond accepting his proposal of marriage. He takes her to the house he shares with Martha and Janet writes him a check for $10,000. She does become suspicious and attempts to call the family for advice but Martha and Ray cannot allow this to happen. After knocking him unconscious with a hammer they strangled to death, disposing of the body by burying it in the cellar. Now that the time Damon was escalated to a murder spree the pair is now predisposed to not leave anyone to file charges against them. They moved to Michigan where Raymond’s next quarry is Rainelle Downing (Mary Breen), lives with her mother, Delphine (Kip McArdle). Much to Martha’s consternation Rainelle is younger and prettier than most of the women Raymond victimizes. Delphine confides in Martha that she hopes Ray marries her daughter quickly because she is carrying his child. Martha reacts by trying to drug the older woman just as Rainelle and Ray enters the room. He shoots the mother and the head on Martha drowns the daughter. Ray convinces Martha that they need to have one more score before they can retire. They moved down to New Orleans to find the next prey and promises he will marry Martha as soon as this one is done. He promises that he will never again go back on his promise of fidelity but Martha is convinced, rightfully so, that Ray is a lawyer and will never change. She decides to put an end to their activities by calling the police.

This is the only film that Leonard Kastle wrote and directed. It’s a shame since the movie is so tightly presented without the waste of a single frame of film. His approach stylistically was to tell the story in the form of a docudrama reinforcing the veracity of the events and people to the audience. Naturally, there is a degree of dramatic license employed in bringing any true crime story to the screen. In his function as a screenwriter, Mr. Kastle deploys his exposition in an economical fashion is dialogue is keenly honed getting right to the point without extraneous distractions. Visually, the main characters are not what you would expect of a lethal scam that depends on having the subject fall in love with the con man. If Hollywood was the told the story undoubtedly the leading characters would be rendered as quite attractive. Ms. Stoler is quite Rubenesque and Mr. Lo Bianco is obviously balding. This explains why Raymond always targeted women so desperate for attention and love that they would take out an ad to find companionship. From an emotional perspective this is an even more despicable element to their criminal activities; playing on women they just want to be loved. The directorial style exhibited by this one example of Mr. Kastle’s incredible potential is manifested by some advanced techniques in lighting and camera work. He replaces the only mandatory shot of a hospital corridor by replacing the typical panning depiction of walking down the aisle the more novel reverse tracking shot the leaves the audience disconcerted. Some directors utilize the camera as a participant in telling the story but for this film the camera is a voyeur covertly bringing the audience in as witnesses to these brutal crimes. Every frame of this work of art is perfectly composed and sense to tolling the overall story.

bulletInterview with writer-director Leonard Kastle from 2003
bullet"Love Letters," a new interview program by Robert Fischer, featuring actors Tony Lo Biance and Marilyn Chris and editor Stan Warnow
bullet"Dear Martha...," a new video essay by Scott Christianson, author of "Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House"
bulletPlus: An essay by critic Gary Giddins

Posted 09/30/2015

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