Monday, August 22, 2022

THE HONEYMOON KILLERS 1970

Spoiler Alert: Crucial plot points are revealed in the interest of critical analysis and discussion

“My Favorite American film.”  François Truffaut
“One of the purest movies I’ve ever seen.”  Michelangelo Antonioni
The Criterion Collection release #200 – DVD in 2003. Blu-ray in 2015.

I’m pleased The Honeymoon Killers has finally acquired the kind of mainstream critical acceptance and highbrow cineaste cachet it has always deserved. Precisely the kind of rep that should prevent the future unfamiliar and uninitiated from being scared away--as I was in 1970--by that Drive-In exploitation flick title. Sounding then to me like a movie that belonged on a double-bill with Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory, I avoided The Honeymoon Killers for years, only finally getting around to seeing it when TCM aired it sometime in the early 2000s.

Originally to be titled either Dear Martha or The Lonely Hearts Killers when slated for 1969 release by low-budget independent distributor American International Pictures (of biker and Beach Party movie infamy). When that deal proved short-lived, the small film (lensed in 1968 for $200,000) acquired the grindhouse-friendly title of The Honeymoon Killers and was picked up for 1970 release by the somewhat more upscale Cinerama Releasing; an independent distributor specializing in handling high-profile niche-market films and arty genre movies (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Killing of Sister George). 
The Honeymoon Killers opened in Hollywood on Wednesday, March 11, 1970, at the Fox Theater on Hollywood Blvd. Actress Shirley Stoler was in attendance on opening night to judge a "Fat is Beautiful" contest. 

Released in many markets just before Valentine’s Day, The Honeymoon Killers, despite its "Creature Features" title and grisly ad campaign, was surprisingly well-received by critics at the time. But due perhaps to the limited marketing resources of Cinerama Releasing or the film’s overall grim subject matter, it proved to be only a modest success at the boxoffice and quickly disappeared. It did well overseas, and in 1992 was briefly rereleased to art and revival houses in the US where more- appreciative reappraisals still failed to result in a significantly higher profile. Well-regarded and ranked by both of its lead actors as their career favorite film, The Honeymoon Killers never achieved the kind of mainstream recognition its widespread critical acclaim augured, but over the years it has built a steady and devoted cult following, becoming a marquee mainstay at revival theaters and midnight screenings. Today, it’s hailed as a modern classic of gritty realism by first-time director/screenwriter Leonard Kastle, a one-hit wonder who never made another film. 
Shirley Stoler as Martha Beck
Tony Lo Bianco as Raymond Fernandez
Doris Roberts as Bunny

The Honeymoon Killers is based on one of those stranger-than-fiction true crime cases so bizarre that it has to be toned down just to register as even remotely credible on the screen. An unlikely pair—surly nurse Martha Beck and unctuous con-man Raymond Fernandez—meet through a Lonely Hearts Club, fall in love, and embark on a larcenous, ultimately murderous, partnership swindling lonely widows out of their savings…and doing away with the ones who give them trouble. 
The real-life duo, dubbed the Lonely Hearts Murderers by the press for their practice of finding their victims through meet-by-correspondence Friendship Societies and Lonely Hearts Clubs, embarked on what one journalist referred to as their “Career of lust and murder for profit” in 1947. They were finally arrested for their crimes in 1949, and both executed in 1951.
To be together as Ray carried out his seduce-and-abandon schemes, the pair posed as brother and sister. In real life, Martha more credibly pretended to be Ray's widowed sister-in-law  

The Honeymoon Killers is bookended by documenting title cards asserting its factual basis. Opening with a printed declaration of the truth of the events to follow, the film closes with a verifying coda citing March 8, 1951, as the date of Martha and Ray’s execution by electric chair in Sing Sing prison. Given all this, what fascinates me is that while the narrative details of the movie hew closely to the facts, absolutely nothing about the film’s appearance…from automobiles to clothing to hairstyles to décor…ever gives the impression of taking place during the years 1947 to 1951. The look is completely late-1960s. In fact, one scene has Martha using a Princess Telephone (invented 9 years after her execution), and another places her in the kitchen with a 1968 wall calendar in view. What fascinates me about all this is that it matters not a whit.
Martha's mother (played by actress Dortha Duckworth) plays DJ for visiting guest, Ray, the handsome "Latin from Manhattan" who traveled all the way to Alabama to meet (and wheedle money out of) Martha, his most recent Lonely Hearts pen-pal. The LPs lined up for the occasion are several era-specific favorites: The 1958 debut album by The Kingston Trio: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass' ubiquitous 1965 album Whipped Cream & Other Delights, and epic novelist James A. Michener shares his Favorite Music of the South Sea Islands from 1965.

Who needs period detail when you have Oliver Wood’s exquisitely grimy, documentary-style B&W cinematography turning every frame into a gritty crime-scene snapshot straight out of a ‘60s issue of True Detective Magazine? I have a hunch that what was perhaps simply a consequence of the film’s prohibitively small budget wound up serendipitously granting The Honeymoon Killers the aura of an intentionally revisionist updating of the traditional ‘40s crime noir. Particularly the nihilistic, gritty, crime noirs like Detour (1945).

If it’s true (as historian Ryan Reft suggests in his 2017 essay When Film Noir Reflected an Uneasy America) that ‘40s film noir “…depicted a nation in which the American Dream was treated as a ‘bitter irony,’”; then it's therein that I find in The Honeymoon Killers' '60s look and cynical perspective, a seamless affinity. With its vivid merging of the stark, grainy look of documentary with the impressionistic lighting and stylized framing of film noir, the mood and atmosphere of The Honeymoon Killers resonate with me as reflective of American moral and spiritual ennui during the Vietnam era.

Hungry for Love
Although seen early in the film responding angrily to her mother referring to her as "My little girl," Martha is nonetheless frequently depicted in ways emphasizing her childishness. In scenes shared with Ray and his temporary wives, Martha behaves pretty much like an ill-tempered 200-lb toddler left in their charge. When not complaining, throwing a tantrum, or sulking petulantly, Martha's childlike inability to control her impulses extends to her sexual rapaciousness, her appetite for candy, and her homicidal possessiveness of Ray. A delusionally blinkered devotion fostered by the idealized depiction of adult relationships in her ever-present Romance magazines. 

The Honeymoon Killers’ unpleasant characters, blunt violence, and air of austere ugliness is the purposeful attempt on the part of producer Warren Steibel and director-screenwriter Leonard Kastle to rebuke and repudiate the embroidered approach of “based on real events” crime movies like In Cold Blood (1967), Bonnie & Clyde (1967), and  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969):
“I wanted to do (this film)…in a form that didn’t sentimentalize or romanticize murder. I’ve always thought that the way people like this are represented, in Hollywood especially, is terrible. They are either made too evil, so that they are no longer human, or they are made too sweet, or, sometimes even beautiful.”    Leonard Kastle -  The News and Observer June 4, 1970
The Honeymoon Killers has much to recommend it and is one of those films that feels like it's far more violent than it actually is because of its bleak tone and pervasive air of dread. With each new Lonely Hearts encounter, I found my jaw clenching tighter and tighter. The assured performances of Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco are compellingly raw in their total disinterest in coming across as sympathetic or likable. I can't say enough good things about the intensely evocative cinematography, and I love the ingenious use of the music of Gustav Mahler on the soundtrack (goosebump-inducing!). 

But had true crime exposé and sensationalism been the only things on the film’s mind, I’m not sure the movie would have held much appeal for me beyond morbid curiosity. But The Honeymoon Killers is anything but your typical crime film (a police presence is nowhere to be seen). A minor masterpiece of the macabre, it’s a contextually rich and narratively provocative film whose dire themes offer a trunkload of things to unpack.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
In approaching a film like The Honeymoon Killers, I can’t say that I expected to see anything of myself reflected in the grubby saga of these notorious callous murderers. But I did hope that in its characterizations, I’d find traces of something, if not necessarily sympathetic, then perhaps recognizably human. Kastle's perceptive screenplay and the realized performances of the outstanding cast meet this daunting task with admirable sensitivity and an unexpected degree of psychological and social insight. 
Indeed, one of the more unanticipated twists of The Honeymoon Killers is that in its depiction of the nature and design of the duo’s criminality, a shadow portrait of contemporary American culture is painted, allowing the unsavory case of The Lonely Hearts Killers to assert itself as a uniquely American kind of nightmare. 
The CEO
Ray refers to his practice of swindling gullible and lonely
old ladies out of their savings as his "business."


Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, like the grotesques in Nathanael West’s The Day of The Locust, are embittered fantasists whose misdirected discontent with their lives fosters contempt for conventional society. An amoral resentment that fuels the compulsion to strike out at a world they perceive as having somehow shortchanged them.
Ray, in his picayune ambition and greed, is the American “success ethic” writ small. His so-called business being the heteronormatively “unmanly” occupation of trading on his looks and sexual desirability, Ray buttresses his masculine insecurity (linked also to his hatred of women) by adopting an absurd machismo: (To Martha’s suggestion of returning to nursing to pay their bills) “…no woman’s going to support me!”  Of course, that’s all women have ever done for him…granted, either unwittingly or posthumously. 
Nurse Wretched
For her part, Martha clings to the romantic banalities of the distaff side of the American Dream that profess a woman’s greatest happiness is found in marriage and family. But with no maternal instincts to speak of (we see her kicking a child’s wagon out of her way as she walks home) and only her emotionally manipulative mother for company, love’s lack has turned Martha into a clenched fist of bitterness. 
The obvious intimation that Martha’s obesity is the cause of her desperate loneliness is quashed about five minutes into the film when it’s confirmed that Martha’s biggest hurdle to intimacy is her astoundingly lousy personality. Surly, sullen, sneaky, and hostile (and let's not forget anti-Semitic), it’s a perverse irony that her only remotely humanizing traits—her love for Ray and the wish that they might be married and move into a house in the suburbs—are responsible for the unleashing of her darkest, most inhumane self. 

Spreading my The Day of the Locust analogy even thinner, in West’s novel, LA’s disillusioned are depicted as wholly ineffectual as individuals, yet a destructively violent mob when joined with the embittered like-minded. Separately, Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez were but miserable sociopaths living out their drab lives. 
But when they met (to paraphrase Max's famous intro to TV's Hart to Hart)...
...it was murder.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS NIGHTMARES
The most fitting term I’ve heard coined to describe the look and feel of The Honeymoon Killers is American Gothic. Indeed, its low camera angles and deep shadows call to mind gothic horror as readily as film noir. But also, in Ray and Martha’s cynical exploitation of lonely women whose unfiltered, often foolish, belief in the “Happily Ever After” ideals of romantic myth leave them vulnerable to opportunists; The Honeymoon Killers offers mordant commentary on the foundational myths of American culture (marriage, morality, religion, patriotism). A harsh indictment and social critique consistent with late-‘60s zeitgeist cinema expressing disillusionment with the American Dream.

Nobody’s dreams are realized in The Honeymoon Killers.
Ann Harris as Doris Acker
The blushing bride is a New Jersey schoolteacher for whom Ray's disdain is displayed early on when he accidentally-on-purpose refers to her as a spinster. And most certainly later when he consummates the marriage with his "sister" instead of his wife. Robbed of $2000 and some jewelry, Doris escapes sadder but wiser, the biggest crime committed during that honeymoon being the atonal rendition of “America the Beautiful” she sings in the tub. 
Marilyn Chris as Myrtle Young
As cons go, Ray’s 2nd marriage is kinda on the up and up. To keep up appearances and stay in good with her wealthy family, Myrtle pays Ray $4000 to marry her so she can have a husband’s name on the birth certificate when she delivers her illegitimate child fathered by “…a certain married sonofabitch” back in Arkansas. Things only begin to go south for the Southern belle when she starts to show some “not in the contract” sexual interest in Ray.
Barbara Cason as Evelyn Long
A merciful misfire. A mix-up match-up brought about by Ray mistaking Evelyn's boarding house for a mansion, the union is doomed from the start due to the atypically youngish woman being intelligent, gentle-natured, and athletic. In short, everything Martha is not. In an ironic twist, Martha’s jealousy actually ends up saving Evelyn from harm and heist.
Mary Jane Higby as Janet Fay
The absolute jewel in the crown sequence of The Honeymoon Killers. Higby as Janet Fay--a pious, penny-pinching, amateur hat-maker with one of the most spot-on hilarious speech patterns--would walk away with this virtuoso vignette had not Stoler and Lo Bianco brought out the big guns and so seriously killed it (bad, ill-timed pun) with the drop-dead (sorry, folks) chilling intensity of their performances in this sequence. Walking a delicate tightrope between black comedy and darkly disturbing horror, the film turns a corner with this segment, and Mary Jane Higby gives one of my all-time favorite supporting role performances.  
Kip McArdle & Mary Breen as Delphine Downing and daughter Rainelle
Ray has plans to marry this pleasant military who irks Martha with her youth, avid patriotism (she throws birthday parties for ex-Presidents), and penchant for serving health foods. Things go wrong in a hurry and in a big way when Martha learns that her sweetheart...remember him, the professional liar?...has been (surprise!) lying to her.  
"You promised!"

PERFORMANCES
“I always made sure I wasn’t a sight gag. I used my weight as an ominous instrument”  -  Shirley Stoler in a 1998 interview (she died in 1999) for Index Magazine.

Shirley Stoler (who would later appear in Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties and--most memorably for me---as Mrs. Steve in the first season of Pee Wee's Playhouse) is flawless as Martha Beck. When The Honeymoon Killers was made, a woman of plus-size was a familiar staple of comedy, but extremely rare in a dramatic context or as a character meant to be regarded seriously. Typical of both the era and the genre, when it came to marketing the film, Martha Beck's weight was a central focus of exploitation.  Posters for The Honeymoon Killers sought to shock with images of Stoler posed assertively or erotically (caressed and kissed by a shirtless Lo Bianco) in her underwear. 
In the film itself, Martha's weight is treated with far less sensationalism. In fact, the movie is cannily content to let viewers implicate themselves as to whether or not they find the romantic and sexually-charged pairing of these two reprehensible murderers more distasteful because of who they are or because of the disparity of their appearance.  
Bad Romance
Shirley Stoler's performance is so dynamic that Tony Lo Bianco's seductively sinister portrait of evil is often overlooked. Playing a manipulative sociopath who dons many masks (and a toupée) to get what he wants; Lo Bianco is assigned the difficult, hall of mirrors task of imbuing a shoddy, superficial loser with layers of depth that are both inaccessible and unrecognized to him, yet must be conveyed to the audience. Lo Bianco has two remarkable scenes (both involving heinous acts of violence) in which Ray's cracked facade reveals the weak, dependent man underneath. The pitiful beast behind the beauty.
A nightmare of psychosexual dysfunction
Cinema's conventional gender inequity of exposing the female form while keeping the male body clothed is reversed in The Honeymoon Killers. The camera trains a scopophilic eye on Ray, centralizing his body in various states of exposure and undress. Ray's body is presented to us in a manner not dissimilar to the way Ray uses his body in his profession...for purposeful display and deliberate enticement.


THE STUFF OF LEGACY 
One factoid about The Honeymoon Killers that doesn’t get much traction (if any) is that it is a work of Queer Cinema. Not for content (although I suppose one could mount a critical theory around latency being behind Ray's narcissism, sexual self-objectification, and manifest hatred of women), but because the film is the collaborative creation of two gay men. 
Sex Sells
To better secure a distribution deal, small-budget independent filmmakers are encouraged to make sure their movies have enough "sex." This usually translates to frequently exposing the female form to the hetero male gaze. The Honeymoon Killers provocatively breaks with tradition in having Ray be the film's "sex" object, with the camera often adopting the hetero-female and/or queer male gaze.
 

Director/screenwriter Leonard Kastle (an opera composer and music professor at the State University of New York in Albany) and producer of The Honeymoon Killers Warren Steibel (Emmy Award-winning TV producer) were a couple who shared a life for 25 years in their home in New Lebanon, NY.  Their personal and professional relationship dissolved in 1980, several years after which Kastle sued Steibel for business fraud, a claim Steibel sought to have dismissed by the courts on the grounds that he believed the lawsuit was merely a bid for palimony. 
That Kastle & Steibel had to be closeted or discreet during their years together is understandable, as they must have met in the 1950s and Steibel produced the conservative TV news commentary program Firing Line hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. But since their deaths (Steibel in 2002,  2011 for Kastle) it's dismaying to read contemporary bios and articles referring to these two single, childless, middle-aged men as having been "roommates" for 25 years. 
Leonard Kastle 
Much is made of and considerable mystery surrounds the fact that Leonard Kastle, whose debut feature film was hailed by the likes of Truffaut and Antonioni, never made another movie. Shirley Stoler in the aforementioned Index Magazine interview and Tony Lo Bianco in a 2021 YouTube interview for the Albany Film Festival offer at least one possible answer. Both state that Kastle--who was never slated to direct the film to begin with--had "no experience" and was“no director,” and that the person who really did the lion's share of the directing and shaping of The Honeymoon Killers was the same man responsible for its distinctive and celebrated look...British cinematographer Oliver Wood (The Bourne Ultimatum, Fantastic FourSafe House). 
Looking at the magnificent composition in this low-angle shot: oppressive ceiling, packing boxes, Martha's soon-to-be-abandoned mother sitting despondently in the far distance with her exit doorway not far behind, the tacky TV trays, the dowdy housedresses whose similarity underscores Martha and Bunny's conspiratorial closeness...it's hard to doubt or second guess Oliver Wood's influence and impact on the production.  

Assisting Wood with the directing chores was Tony Lo Bianco, at the time an experienced theatrical director and the creator of NY’s The Triangle Theater. He helped the first-time screenwriter Leonard whittle down the script before the film’s original director, young Martin Scorsese, took the helm. Scorsese was fired after two weeks for working too slowly (Lo Bianco cites the scenes at the lake and the railroad station as Scorsese’s work). Both stars relate that directing duties then fell briefly to a second individual, an unnamed ex-film editor described by Stoler as “...a kind of quasi-derelict.”  Oliver Wood then took over directing the film in an unofficial capacity and, according to Lo Bianco, Kastle only came onto the film as director during its final days, directing the film for “A week and a half or two weeks, tops" yet claiming sole onscreen credit as director.


BONUS MATERIAL
The fictional and real Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck

The Honeymooners
The late actor Guy Sorel (who portrays Mr. Dranoff, the hospital administrator who fires Martha for the obscene letters he finds in her desk) and popular radio actress Mary Jane Higby (who plays the ill-fated Janet Fay) were a couple in real life. Married in 1945. Isn't that cute? 

Regina Orozco and Daniel Giminez Cacho in Deep Crimson (1996)
The Beck/Fernandez "Lonely Hearts Killers" case has served as the inspiration for at least three other films that I know of. To date, the only one I've seen is the superb Deep Crimson (Profundo Carmesí) -1996 by Mexican director Arturo Ripstein. In 2006 Todd Robinson directed Jared Leto and Selma Hayek(!) in a more police investigation-centric retelling of the story titled Lonely Hearts. And Alleluia (2015) is a French/Belgian adaptation directed by Fabrice Du Welz that updates the story to a contemporary setting. 


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2022

16 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Hi Thom - I'm glad to hear you're intrigued! Although a film I wouldn't recommend to everyone (for a '70s film, it's still pretty strong), I think its such a brilliant film. I'm SO glad I didn't see it in 1970 when I was 12 (I would have needed a paramedic to resuscitate me) I'm sorry I waited so long. If you check it out one day, I'd love to know what you think. Thank you very much for stopping by and expressing interest in THE HONEYMOON KILLERS.

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  2. Another great post! Thanks--thoroughly enjoyed reading this and am now itching to see this great movie again! Can't remember whether I first saw this on cable or as a video rental, sometime in the early '90s, but I was completely blown away by how brilliant it was--in every respect. The script, the direction, the cinematography, the use of Mahler as the soundtrack music, and, especially, the performances. Just a "wow" movie all around. Stoler and Lo Bianco are stunning, and EVERY supporting performance is brilliant. (Yes, Higby is the most memorable! But it's also a kick to see Doris Roberts and Barbara Cason, known by me for their sitcom appearances, appearing in this low-budget thriller.) I had no clue that Kastle wasn't the "true" director until reading this today--for years, I've considered it a near-tragedy that he never directed another film! Whatever the circumstances, the movie is practically perfect in every way! Thanks again for spotlighting this amazing flick!

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    1. Thank you, Beef! This movie was a huge surprise for me the first time I saw it, as well. A true cult hit that stayed under the radar for me for several decades. I too, find nearly everything and everyone connected with this film to be a cut above. Remarkable what was achieved on such a miniscule budget.
      I'm familiar with Doris Roberts' career, but I only while researching this did I realize I had been seeing Barbara Cason's extensive character work in TV for ages without knowing it.
      And likewise with director Leonard Kastle...never heard any of that stuff about the revolving door of directors on this film until reading about it for this blog. I've never seen any of the bonus documentary features on the Criterion DVD release, so I wonder if any of it is discussed there. Perhaps while Kastle was alive, Stoler and Lo Bianco kept mum out of respect or not wishing to cause controversy. If you check Lo Bianco out in the YouTube zoom interview, he acts as though he REALLY wants to lay myths to rest and get it off his chest.
      Certainly adds to my fascination with what is indeed a film that's practically perfect in every way.
      Much appreciate your commenting here, Beef. Happy if this inspired you to revisit this classic. Thanks!

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  3. It's an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind movie, and your account does it justice, Ken! In the early 90s, I was working at Film Four in London, and was ecstatic to receive a screenplay by Leonard Kastle, which he wanted to direct. Alas, it was close to unreadable, and we passed. I never got to meet him.

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    1. Hi, Jack - What a fascinating piece you've added to the expanding Leonard Kastle puzzle. Remarkable not only that you were privy to one of Kastle's attempts to make another film, but that the shortcomings of the screenplay in question lends credence to Tony Lo Bianco's claim that he had to work with Kastle a great deal to shape up the original "Honeymoon Killers" script.
      In a 2001 interview for the Albany Times, Kastle expressed he had tried to get several screenplays produced over the years, his most recent being a film about corruption in the Catholic Church set in the 1970's, entitled "The Wedding at Cana." If you happen to visit this blog again, I would be so grateful if you could confirm/deny if this was perhaps the script that you read.

      Jack, I appreciate your stopping by the site and being so complimentary AND for contributing a little Six Degrees of Separation personal information related to the man (one of many, it seems) responsible for this--as you say--extraordinary, one-of-a-kind movie. Thanks!

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  4. Reading this, immediately made me think of the "Crazy Fat Ethel" movies of the 1970's which The Cinema Snob trashed. Of course, you know I'm talking about 1974's "Criminally Insane."

    That review was funny as all hell.

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    1. I'd completely forgotten about "Criminally Insane" (1974). A movie that made the underground/midnight screening rounds in Berkeley and San Francisco in the late-'70s and that I always assumed drew its lead character inspiration (at least in part) from Shirley Stoler "The Honeymoon Killers."

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  5. Blog Editor's Repost of Comment originally posted by:
    Rick Steven D.
    August 31, 2022 at 3:14 AM:

    Hey Ken, you really capture what makes this film so unique. Terrific job as always. Some thoughts:

    Leonard Kastle is in a special category of directors with a perfect batting average, since he made only one film, but that one film has since become a masterpiece. Others in this select pantheon: Charles Laughton (Night of the Hunter) Herk Harvey (Carnival of Souls) and Barbara Loden (Wanda).

    The real life Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez were initially apprehended in Michigan for the murders of Delphine Downing and her daughter Rainelle. But they never stood trial for those crimes, and were instead extradited to New York, to face charges in the death of Janet Fay. But New York had the death penalty and Michigan didn't, and, back then, virtually the entire country wanted these two fried, and I guess you can't blame anyone for feeling that way. But apparently, newspapers at the time had a field day mocking Martha Beck for being overweight, calling her 'fatso' and other derogatory terms, and I've even read contemporary accounts of this as 'fat-shaming' poor Martha. But can anyone actually defend this monster, for any reason? Martha Beck's only redeeming quality was her intense love for Fernandez. Even while they were both sitting on Death Row, the two continued to write each other love letters, and the movie versions of their story do well to emphasize this 'amour fou' quality to their relationship; without it, their crimes would be well-nigh impossible to watch. As a life-long horror movie buff, I lapped up the original ultra-gory Dawn of the Dead at age thirteen, when my older sister and her then-boyfriend were nice enough to take me to see it in the theater; at mall, of all places (it was released unrated, but they originally wanted to give it an X for violence). But even I find The Honeymoon Killers almost unwatchable at times.

    Some commenters have noted the resemblance between Shirley Stoler and Divine in the early films of John Waters. But there are also rumors that Stoler is actually one and the same person as Shirley Kilpatrick, of The Astounding She Monster, 1957. Judge for yourself:

    https://d2rights.blogspot.com/2014/02/ed-wood-wednesdays-week-30-astounding.html

    And while The Honeymoon Killers and Seven Beauties are always regarded as Shirley Stoler's two great, indelible roles, in which she was perfectly cast, there is a little-known third: 1977's The Displaced Person, from PBS's American Masters series of television-movie adaptations of famous American short-stories (though the great Flannery O'Connor's lengthy tale edges on novella territory). Stoler is again perfectly cast, and unforgettable, as Mrs. Shortley, a morbidly-obese, Deep South sharecropper given to prophetic religious visions. In fact, given the great Stoler's uncanny basilisk stare and awesome presence, you might be forgiven for thinking that Flannery O'Connor actually used Stoler as a model in creating Mrs. Shortley, painting her almost directly from life. "As she mounted the prominence, she might have been the giant wife of the countryside, come out at some sign of danger to see what the trouble was. She stood on two tremendous legs, with the grand self confidence of a mountain, and rose, up narrowing bulges of granite, to two icy points of light that pierced forward, surveying everything." Check out The Displaced Person if you haven't, Ken, with a powerhouse cast that includes Irene Worth, John Houseman, a young Samuel L. Jackson, and even Henry Fonda introducing the tale.

    Thanks, Ken!

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    1. Reply to comment by: Rick Steven D -
      Thank you very much for reading this post and commenting so informatively. I'm sure readers unfamiliar with the particulars of the real-life case will find your summary helpful. Reading about that case was the only part of my research I didn’t enjoy and was glad when it was over. Although I must say I was surprised to have found in several old newspapers, accounts of there being a temporary Death Row bust-up between the two incarcerated lovebirds when Ray heard (or suspected) that Martha had been having relations with one of her prison guards.
      All in all, given the grim source material, Leonard Kaster came up with a remarkably intelligent and psychologically sophisticated screenplay.
      Oh, and on the topic of Leonard Kastle, to me, he possibly belongs in the select pantheon of individuals who took credit for directing a film they actually didn’t. (A clickbait-style article on the topic: https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/11-movies-that-might-have-been-directed-by-someone-else/)

      And this is my first time hearing of Stoler the PBS production of THE DISPLACED PERSON (so glad available on YouTube). She’s such a fascinating actor, I’m looking forward to checking it out. And as you note, what a cast! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      And you jogged my memory about the Shirley Kilpatrick - Shirley Stoler similarity thing. I was under the impression it had since been debunked, but I've been out of the loop. Maybe it's been revived with new info!

      Appreciate your info-filled contribution to this post and I'm happy you enjoyed the essay. Sorry about the deleting and reposting of your original entry. Should you wish to discuss it, you can always reach me by email by clicking "View my complete profile" in the sidebar near my avatar. Thanks, Rick!

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  6. Thank you for the thoughtful and insightful essay on this obscure film and the interesting backstory of the filmmakers and the making of. But let me go low for a moment. I beat a path to the theater to see this on its release on the strength of the lurid trailer. On that level, I can't say I was disappointed. I'm not sure that at that point in time I was ready to label this "art", but I could tell there was something at work here not usually present in the Dusk-to-Dawn Drive-in Trash-a-thons we flocked to. Also, the dam was just breaking on male nudity in American film, and Tony was a happy addition. It was a great time to be a budding filmgoer.

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    1. You bring up a good point about a characteristic of late-'60s and '70s movies that makes it my favorite era in film. What with the simultaneous dismantling of the studio system, the break-away from censorship, and the mining of a younger moviegoing demographic, low-budget and independent films became the accessible “intro” into the once nepotistically closed-off film business.

      Because the easiest way to attract a distributor was to make a horror or exploitation film, many innovative directors went the sensationalist route to get their foot in the door. That meant that in the ‘70s, you could go dumpster-diving for sleaze and horror at grindhouse theaters or Drive-Ins and find yourself watching movies that are now featured on The Criterion Channel.

      Many many of the lurid and lowbrow films I was drawn to as a youngster but got no respect, are now the movies Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino talk about as being influential to their respective styles. So many directors like Polanski and Coppola got their foot in the door making movies that were only supposed to supply a cheap thrill or titillation. But the marvel of ‘60s and ‘70s movies is that the economic landscape allowed these talented to work in marketable genres, and still put their personal artistic stamp on their work.

      So, to me, you’re not really going “low” when you say you were attracted to THE HONEYMOON KILLERS because it promised lurid thrills. That’s exactly what it was made for, and if you think it’s a good movie just because it delivered on its promise of scares and sleaze, your experience requires no reevaluation. It’s a movie that works as a genre piece, and yet it delivers a bit of food for thought for those searching for it.
      I'm pleased you enjoyed this essay and I thank you for contributing such a great observational comment that allowed me once again to wax enthusiastically about my favorite film era.

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  7. Ken, James here. A great review of a wonderful movie. Have watched it many times but first saw it at the drive-in probably 1971. I was 16. Never was I so disappointed at the appearance of a woman in only underwear! Strange that Martha was so heavy then but these days people have let themselves go so much that you would not give a second thought to her now.

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    1. Hi James –
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post…thank you very much. How terrific that you got to see this during its original release and have remained a fan of the film all these years. And at a Drive-In yet, which seems the ideal setting for a creep-out movie like this. Although at age 16 I’m sure I imagined myself to be pretty sophisticated, there’s no doubt in my mind that HONEYMOON KILLERS would have still been traumatizingly strong, nightmare-inducing stuff for me at that age.

      Your comic comment reflecting the reaction of an adolescent in 1971 does illustrate one of the major observations I came to after reading numerous reviews of HONEYMOON KILLERS from the ’70s to today: America’s fat-phobia (especially as it relates to women) is stronger than it’s moral response to serial killing.
      Reviews of the film from the ‘70s and news journalist coverage of the real-life crimes in the late-‘40s consistently (albeit unwittingly) held forth that Martha's gravest criminal offense was not the cold-blooded murder of several women and a child, but her weight.
      It’s like a woman's one truly unforgivable sin is not to be appealing to the male gaze.

      For many 1970’s critics of HONEYMOON KILLERS, the “horror” that most deeply etched itself into their minds was not the film’s brutal violence or callous amorality of the murderers. It was the idea that a heavy woman was depicted in a sexual context and as someone physically desired by a traditionally attractive leading man. That she was granted a sexual appetite an agency society had long deemed out of bounds for women of size.

      Given that contemporary attitudes haven’t changed all that much (witness the whole Twitter eruption earlier this month when a celebrity was asked his thoughts on Lizzo’s music and all he could talk about was her weight) makes THE HONEYMOON KILLERS something of a subversive classic to me. Aside from being a marvelous “crime film as cultural commentary” it explodes fat phobia expectations.

      You’re correct in noting that American obesity statistics have only grown higher over the years. And it’s a very serious health issue (physical and mental) issue that hasn’t a chance of improving in an environment of fat-shaming. From all my years working in the fitness industry, I do know it’s both unfair and inaccurate to characterize obesity exclusively as a matter of people letting themselves go. In a country as capitalistically greedy as ours, I think the myriad socio-economic factors that contribute to the nation’s rising obesity index is ironically related to a very different kind all-consuming appetite: the insatiable greed of corporate America’s truly repulsive financial fat cats.

      Thank you again, James, for reading this post and sharing with us your enviably long history with this film. Much appreciated!

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  8. Hi Ken, I just had to stop a leave a few lines to compliment you for yet another great essay. As usual, you seem to appreciate many of the same aspects of a film as I do—here the doc-like black and white photography, the lurid scenario, and especially the solid supporting performances throughout. I’m so glad you mentioned the actress playing Janet Fay—hers is perhaps the most effective performance in the film. Her final scene, where she goes from demanding to know where her checks are to just begging to “go for a walk”, is wrenching. She knows she’s been trapped and it’s heartbreaking as she tries to wriggle free.
    There’s been mention of the similarities to Divine in the early Waters’ films, something I also picked up on, but I also noticed how both Female Trouble and Desperate Living have scenes featuring an upset woman yelling from an open window, as Martha’s mother does early in the film. Stoler is great here and I wish she’d had a bigger career. I love her performance in Seven Beauties and her bit in Klute as well. Thanks for covering another favorite. Rich

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    1. Hi Rich --It's funny...I know a few people who don't really care for the film very much, most of them citing the theme and unpleasant "realism" of it all. But it often seems that those who enjoy THK appreciate many of the same elements. I think it's difficult not to be impressed by the cinematography. For a low budget film, it achieves moments of horrific beauty reminiscent of the big budget IN COLD BLOOD.
      Janet Fay stands out for precisely the reason you note...her played for comedy character work melds seamlessly into the intense scenario you describe. She puts it over beautifully and gives the film it's first real jolt.
      In your mentioning having noticed similarities in Stoler's character and the character of Divine, I wonder if that contributed at all to Stoler's animosity to John Waters.

      Theres a video on YoutTube of Waters selecting favorite DVDs from the Criterion Collection, and when he comes to HONEYMOON KILLERS, he sings it's praises, but he recounts that his one meeting with Stoler had him coming away feeling that she hated him despite the fact that he just loved her. She was a smart cookie and often didn't "appreciate" humor that played to the image of large women being grotesques or living sight gags.

      I think Stoler is fine in this and it's perhaps her finest screen work (although a friend told me she did a Charlie's Angels episode I should see!). I very much enjoyed your sharing what you like about the film, and I'm flattered by your kind compliments.
      Thanks, Rich, for reading this essay, and double thanks for adding to the shared conversation that is this comments section.

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