Honeymoon Killers, The

Director: Martin Scorsese

U.S.A.| 1969. Black and white. 108 min.

This is one of the great American crime movies and deserves better than its reputation as a minor cult classic or a footnote to Martin Scorsese’s career. Scorsese was hired as director but fired by the producer after a couple of weeks. He was replaced by Leonard Kastle, a composer of serious music who had scripted the tale of serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Despite a very low budget, an excellent cast was assembled, with Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler playing Ray and Martha, and some experienced theatre and TV actors as the couple’s unfortunate victims.
In the film, Ray is a swindler who uses the lonely hearts columns to prey on women by promising love and marriage. A nurse with a weight problem and a temper to match, Martha could have been one of Ray’s victims but instead becomes his lover and associate in crime. The couple prove to be a lethal combination when they operate as a brother-sister team, with Ray’s philandering and Martha’s jealousy leading to a string of gruesome murders.
Kastle’s take on this material is fascinating and his treatment never less than inspired. Resolutely refusing to glamorise either the killers or their victims, he also bypasses most of the rules of the serial killer movie (the music, for instance, is all Mahler). Some critics have praised the film’s realistic approach, but in fact it’s a highly stylised piece of work. It’s especially good at showing the methods Ray uses
to lure his victims, which involve building up a false impression of himself through the use of indirect forms of communication. Kastle brilliantly captures this deception by drawing our attention to letters, advertisements, old photographs and telephone conversations, revealing in very cinematic ways how things are not what they appear to be. The victims are no fools, but they are vulnerable because they are desperate for male companionship (incidentally, the movie’s portrayal of these women is sympathetic, often amusing and
very revealing about American aspirations). Even Martha herself becomes a victim of Ray’s deceit, wanting to believe that he loves her as much as she loves him. In the film’s haunting final shot, Martha is left to ponder Ray’s last letter, and as the camera slowly tracks back we hear his disembodied voice speaking about a love that will last beyond the grave.
It’s just one brilliant touch among many, and makes one regret that Kastle never made another film.

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