director Leonard Kastle
Back in the early 1990’s I moved into San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood, which housed (and still houses) the great video shop Le Video. In these pre-DVD, pre-internet times, Le Video was one of the greatest places a film fan in the Bay Area to live near. I spent many hours being incredibly indecisive about the huge, intriguing “Cult” section (as well as many others), and found for the first time in my life, access to films that I had only heard of. I discovered innumerable things in those years, things that without access to research tools (Wikipedia!) were only as informative as the films or the film boxes would be themselves. Context wasn’t as easy to come by.
It was back then that I first saw Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers, which I had heard of and had been intrigued by. But I honestly didn’t know much about it beyond the film itself.
Shot in black-and-white, it’s a stark, naturalistic version of a pair of true crime criminals who bilked and killed many a lonelyhearts lady for their money back in the 1940’s. Most compellingly, it stars Tony Lo Bianco as the Latin lothario Ray Fernandez and Shirely Stoler as the bitter Reubenesque nurse gone bad who becomes Rays evil, romantic foil.
What I didn’t know at the time was that this independent production was a one-off film by Kastle and producer Warren Steibel. Somewhat like Herk Harvey’s amazing 1962 film Carnival of Souls, it’s out of step with both mainstream cinema of the time and most of the alternative B-movie and low-budget films of its day. It’s style and being are singular and unique, emphasized in no small part by the fact that the team that made the film made no others. Ever.
And yet, it’s a masterful film.
Still, this is in no small thanks to the actors. Not just Lo Bianco and Stoler, but the many other women who play the victims of the pair, all offer performances true and keen yet somehow a bit different from standards.
It’s said that Martin Scorsese was originally hired to work on the film but was fired for working too slowly. This fact is interesting because it does tie this film to others of the period, like Scorsese’s own early films and perhaps as well to films of John Cassavetes. An independent and innovative style that would shake up American cinema in the 1970’s. Still anomalistic here in this unusual film about real life killers Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez.
I watched The Honeymoon Killers this time, on demand from cable, where it had played on TMC. It’s available on Criterion Collection (still, I would argue, a mark of cinema cachet). And with the internet (beyond Wikipedia), knowledge about the film and its production is relatively easily accessible. It’s a world away from Le Video and my first interaction with the film. Though Le Video still exists today. And between that time I read the novelization of the film by Paul Buck, published by the British Blue Murder series.
It’s a pretty great film. A love story about two pretty unlikable people. A vain and sleazy man and a self-loathing misanthropist of a woman, who kill for a living, and love one another. Their world has a deadly gravitational pull that unites them and dooms any others upon whom they set their sights. The real Beck and Fernandez were executed on the same day in 1951 in Sing Sing’s electric chair. A love story for all times, as perverse as any out there.