Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Whatever renown The Honeymoon Killers deserves is likely diminished by two popular crime couple films that bookend it: 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and 1973’s Badlands. The films are ostensibly similar, concerning the violent collaboration of a couple, each with independent strengths. Bonnie and Clyde an example of popular 60’s nonconformity and Badlands a study of youth disillusionment, The Honeymoon Killers is the most frankly horrific of the three. It is a laudable trait of differentiation that these killers are the more vicious and deceptive among their fictional peers in crime.
Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, the couple on which this film is based, were labeled the “Lonely Hearts” killers, a title derived from the source of their connection: a matchmaker tabloid advertisement. Compatible for their financial greed and deceit, the pair enacted a scheme in which Ray would woo and engage women, and Martha, posing as his sister, would aid in their killing. Years later and after a modest but horrific string of murders, the pair was executed on the same day in 1951.
The Honeymoon Killers is a crime film deprived of the genre’s typical social and capitalist relevance (in that fame and profit are consequences of fictionalized crime). The violence in the film is not predetermined by the title couple (to mind, neither actively plans to murder anyone in advance), and the scenes of killings linger on the escalation and aftermath of the crime. The violence is sporadic and spontaneous, resulting in grief for the perpetrators. This reaction and horror is invaluably relayed in the frenzied compositions of hand-held cinematography, heavy black and white grain (scenes in the dim light of a living room at 2 AM are particularly ominous), and the barely audible, monaural soundtrack.
In another trait of differentiation, this story is not romanticized. There are scenes of intimacy and sex is strongly implied, yet killing for the pair supplies little sexual interest’sex and violence, a coupling apparent in most every film of this type, are distinctly separate. The murderers are attracted to one another yet are tied by mutual greed. Martha, tired and gluttonous, observes a box of chocolates given to her by Ray and accepts them obsessively; it is an indirect sexual advance, as with notable others in the film, in which sexual interest is displaced and unreciprocated. Because of this incompatibility, Martha and Ray remain frustrated, and such frustration fuels their crime. This is my presumption, but it is substantiated by an illustrated essay on the Criterion DVD that includes correspondence between the pair after their capture. Martha’s final letters to Ray imply such a frustration.
Crucial in the conveyance of this disinterest is the performance as Martha by Shirley Stoler (who, here, challenges her legendary role as a prison warden in Seven Beauties). It is an uninhibited, menacing performance (the traditionally unattractive woman is in revealing underwear on the film’s poster). She is large, loud, and dominates every frame she appears in, even her most casual reaction is overbearing. Martha is a manipulative character (lending the film the slant of feminist redemption) whose cause to lead her man to fleece younger, more attractive women exceeds his interest in fleecing them. The pair’s crimes, while mutually beneficial, are of greater significance to Martha.
Although Martha is this film’s villain, her violence and deceit are promoted by jealousy and loneliness; her violence, in other words, is justified by her human desperation, whereas villains (and especially Martha’s peers in crime couple films) are traditionally inhuman. It is an alarming reception when the film is seen as an exploitation of the desperation that generally motivates those who respond to matchmaker ads similar to the “Lonely Hearts” club. Bonnie and Clyde, Kit and Holly, all are motivated by boredom and insensitivity. Ray and especially Martha are violent for their desperation, their fiction the more vilified of the late 60’s, early 70’s crime couples.