Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Lonely hearts club bands of steel

The Honeymoon Killers (1970) is both venerated and attacked as a perverse gorefest, which is odd. It is far tamer than the average PG-13 teen-oriented horror flick, and it is laced with a subtle wit and an affection for both killers and victims would make it completely unsuitable for an exploitation audience. It is probably best considered a pioneer art romance-horror film. It bears some relation to crime-spree love stories such as Gun Crazy, Badlands and True Romance and like some of those, it is loosely based on reported facts. Basing an outrageous film on fact not only provides a filmmaker with a frame and a premise, it may also provide cover from charges of bad taste. "I'm sorry if it's in bad taste. It's just what really happened."

But of course within the parameters of a horrendous story, there are a variety of ways the story can be told. The clip I picked to post above shows both the quality of the acting in the film and the dry humor it aims toward its characters. We begin with the love affair between Martha Beck and a box of candy, as played by the underemployed Shirley Stoler, forever immortalized in Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties. Then we see Martha and her husband Ray Fernandez (played by Tony LoBianco, to spend most of the rest of his career as cops), posing as brother and sister, reeling in the silly, vain and stingy widow Janet Fay (played by Mary-Jane Higby). Janet proposes they all go to dinner to celebrate, "on her," then proceeds to take them to a dingy cafeteria, where she remarks on the poor quality of the food and the portions. None of this hilarious scene is in the historical record; it is been created by writer-director Leonard Kastle, who may be strangest figure associated with the film.

Kastle was a well-respected opera composer, whose close friend Warren Steibel got his hands on $150,000 to make an unspecified movie. Steibel thought of making a film about the "Lonely Hearts Killers" case of the 1940s, but lacking the funds for a WGA screenwriter, turned to his friend Kastle, who had written his own librettos. Kastle, game as only an innocent and a neophyte can be, wrote the brilliant, balanced and strange script that is the basis of The Honeymoon Killers. Neither Steibel or Kastle were part of the film-making establishment and did not concern themselves with questions of genre or marketing (or censorship) that preoccupy distributors. Now they just had to find a director that shared their sensibility, to render these horrific acts as they appeared to their obsessed perpetrators.

They engaged Martin Scorsese on the strength of some of his student films, and a few of Scorsese's shots are still in the film, notably a characteristic long take incorporating a complex camera move that appears in the first sequence of the film. But that very complexity was incompatible with the low budget and short schedule, and Steibel turned to Kastle to execute the film he had already designed. In the spirit of "why not" that seems to have governed the entire project, Kastle took over the reins, and has thus earned for himself perhaps the only 1.000 batting average in the history of film direction.

I relate this story because it is a key to the aesthetic of the film, which reduces murder to a low-rent way of making a living for two people so obsessed with each other that the whole rest of the world is nothing but an obstacle to their romance. (The real Martha, who at first was supposed to have been one of Ray's "marks," dumped her two kids at the Salvation Army in order to be with Ray.) Hence the film confronts the ugly reality that people are often very hard to kill, especially when you don't have overwhelming weapons and they don't want to be killed. These may not be the most horrific murders in film history, but they are among the slowest and most difficult this side of Torn Curtain, especially the messy and inconvenient killing of Janet Fay. Lacking a proper weapon, Martha bashes her head in with a hammer, but that doesn't kill her at once, and several more assaults are necessary before she gives out. Their final downfall is a by-product not of police work but mistakes made by Martha due to her jealousy over Ray's relationship with a victim-to-be.

Finally in jail, Martha is relatively happy and at peace, since Ray no longer has access to other women. They can enjoy a pure spiritual love, as they are destined to. Is this tasteless? Yes, of course, but life is in bad taste, too--the film often turns its head decorously at some of Martha and Ray's most depraved behavior, as if it is afraid we will think badly of them.

The two other films based on the case, Deep Crimson and Lonely Hearts, bring the qualities of Honeymoon Killers into stronger relief. Neither of the others had the courage to represent Martha in anything like her real physical unattractiveness and her real vulnerability and devotion to Ray. Trying to jam the story into the conventions of noir bend the characters and their motivations out of shape. Clearly, Salma Hayek is quite a different femme fatale than Shirley Stoler.

The one big misstep is the use of Mahler's music in the score. The problem is more technological than aesthetic. The choice of Mahler makes sense--Martha sees herself in the center of a sweeping romantic melodrama, not a grubby little murderer. But the large-scale orchestral recordings of Mahler had to be mixed down to a single track and pushed behind the dialogue and effects track on a 1970-era optical track--definitely lo-fi. This is akin to watching Lawrence of Arabia on your phone. Actually, it's worse, because it turns the enormous emotional landscape of Mahler's music into an overheated buzz. The effect is not to surround Martha and Ray with drama, but to make it sound as if they were driving past an apartment with Mahler playing on the radio. Still, it is a better choice than the usual sort of movie-faux-jazz that disfigures similar films such as In Cold Blood.

Honeymoon Killers is one of those artistic anomalies, a work without obvious sources or followers. Literally one of a kind.

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