Friday, November 19, 2010

Bald-faced killers with a toupee

I was so intrigued by the cult film Honeymoon Killers and its relationship to a real-life case in the late 1940s that I looked up two other films based on the same case. They could be interpreted as remakes or homages to Honeymoon Killers, or simply parallel films, one of which acknowledges its predecessor extensively and comes up with a rich robust re-interpretation of the story, following the earlier film sequence by sequence. The other turns its back on Leonard Kastle's film, and to some extent on the actual Beck-Fernandez murders, and takes a creative new tack with the story which ultimately fails, and renders the film inert. The question is whether that approach could ever have worked without discarding the central premise of the real-life material, and hence, the very reason to base a film on this particular case.

The actress who plays the Martha Beck character in Profundo Carmesi aka Deep Crimson (1996), Regina Orozco, is primarily known as an opera singer, which tells you something about the movie. Where the lovers Honeymoon Killers were joined in seediness, two con artists who recognized each other, in Deep Crimson they are both absorbed in a fantasy of passionate romance. Neither of them can deal with reality and are completely committed to the idea of the grand passion. Perhaps it is telling that this version of the story includes the fact in which Beck (here called Coral) abandoned her children in order to follow Fernandez. This signals that we are not going to see a gradual slide down the moral ladder, as in the earlier film, but a portrait of a grand obsession. She imagines her paramour to be Charles Boyer, or a reasonable facsimile thereof and frequently dresses in red. She is not nearly as interested in the swindle as she is in the thrill of being on the run with her lover.

Nicolas, who corresponds to the real-life Fernandez, also seems less interested in money than his counterpart in real life or in the Honeymoon Killers. He loves the sport of seduction, and his paramount concern is the condition of his toupee. (Actor Daniel Cacho looks alarmingly like David Margulies, the actor who played the mayor in Ghostbusters, not exactly the most seductive image.) In fact, he loses heart in the whole criminal conspiracy when his toupee becomes damaged beyond repair. On top of which, he seems to have inherited blinding migraines from Clyde Barrow, in a tribute to that other film about killers in love and on the run.

Where Honeymoon Killers unfolds in a clinical, almost judgmental black-and-white, Profondo's director Arturo Ripstein's camera prowls smoothly about (no handheld or even Steadicam is evident here) in the style of early Otto Preminger, with long, takes allowing the actors to move about the environment and interact with each other. Although it is Mexican, it seems much more like a Hollywood movie, reflecting the fantasy life of the two principals. In Leonard Kastle's film, Mahler seemed like an overstatement, but in Profondo, Verdi or Puccini would fit right in.

There are some interesting variations in the way the facts of the case are used. The querulous old widow who is killed with a hammer in Honeymoon gets clobbered with a religious statue in Profondo, after going through a grotesque mock wedding in a cemetery. Profondo makes more of Beck's knowledge as a nurse, although in this version she is a bad nurse, whereas in Honeymoon she was a supervisor. But when Coral promises to perform an abortion on Nicolas's girlfriend, it is clearly in order to bleed her death. But that fails and Nicolas has to do a messy job of stabbing her. And where Beck in Honeymoon does away with the surviving toddler in a cold, frozen manner, Coral does it choking back tears, angry for her inability to connect with the child who stills want her own mother, though she is now a bloody corpse in the room.

Profondo ends like a Western. Whereas the real killers and the ones in Honeymoon die separated on death row, the Profondo killers are gunned down on the plain, dying together in a spoon position, half immersed in water which might as well be blood. Finally, these lovers are victims of as big a delusion as the women they tricked and killed, and they somehow seem pathetic where the originals were repellent.

Lonely Hearts (2006) is almost a complete misfire from start to finish, beginning with its odd conceit to center the story around the investigating policemen (who barely appear at all in Profondo). It is a novel idea, and potentially compelling, given the contrast between the thriving and exciting romantic relationship of the criminal couple and the failing marriage of the policeman. But it has a couple of negative effects. First of all, it sends the film in the wrong direction. Yes, we like policeman to catch bad guys -- especially on television, where we need to see the moral order restored. But in movies, we only like it if they catch monsters, as in Silence of the Lambs. If the criminals are interested, complicated, conflicted, they are going to grab our interest and we will not want to see them caught, at least not until their story is worked out. So our sympathies work against the intended protagonist, John Travolta's cop character.

Second, it flattens Beck and Fernandez into any criminal couple on the run. Beyond the basic mistake of the story structure, writer-director Todd Robinson turns the overweight and homely Martha Beck into the glamorous and irresistible Salma Hayek, takes away her children and all her other problems, including lack of confidence. It makes Ray Fernandez pretty ordinary, too, for whereas the real man was obsessed with a very large woman who berated and dominated him, now he is in love with a sexy, hot babe. Beck and Fernandez become run-of-the-mill swindlers turned killers -- we never see their panic or sense of doom. They are scarcely individualized at all.

In addition to a suicidal wife and a girlfriend played by Laura Dern, Travolta is given a partner, played by James Gandolfini who seems to have no story function at all other than to prevent Travolta from talking to himself and to provide voiceover narration. Neither Travolta nor Gandolfini, nor Scott Caan, who performs a bad carbon copy of his father, is as believable as a cop as they are as criminals, which undermines the film. (Yes, there are films which suggest the kinship between cop and criminal, but this is not one.) It doesn't help that Jared Leto, as Ray Fernandez is so completely lacking in any distinctive personality or style, playing a generic con man when something really unusual and strange is called for.

The one thing Lonely Hearts does well is go to town on the late 40's atmosphere-- the wardrobe, music, lighting, settings. The idea is presumably to align the film with the tradition of film noir. But this story is not going to cooperate with that notion; in fact the writer has done a good deal to destroy any sort of noir structure. It could have been, but Robinson chose to write a police procedural, with some added angst for the cop. (And even here Robinson couldn't help himself changing the details of the real policeman's life -- ironic, given that the man was Robinson's grandfather.) Production design does not a film noir make.

The decision goes to the reigning champion, Honeymoon Killers, with Deep Crimson a worthy challenger. It's time for the governor to declare a moratorium on film versions of the Lonely Hearts Killers.

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