Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Film #106: The Honeymoon Killers

It was supposed to be Martin Scorsese's movie, but he was fired after the first day's shooting for taking too long on the set-ups. So the writer of the script for The Honeymoon Killers, Leonard Kastle, took over the directorial duties. A novice filmmaker, Kastle was barely known upon the movie's 1970 release as the composer and librettist of numerous obscure operas. He used the music of his favorite composer, Gustav Mahler, as his film's intermittently-appropriated score.

Francois Truffaut once listed it as one of the ten best pictures of the American canon. And the tony Criterion Collection released it (with a beautifully designed package, seen above) as part of their catalogue in 2003. So it has to be posited that The Honeymoon Killers is the most highly-praised amateur movie to ever hit the screen. Based on a true-crime story from the late 1940s (which was retold in 2006 from the cops' point-of-view in the deadly-dull Travolta/Gandolfini vehicle Lonely Hearts) and shot in hauntingly stark black-and-white, The Honeymoon Killers bleeds quality: it's the bellwether of a screenwriting and directorial talent that came to instant fruition and then burnt out like a rocketing star, very much like that of another one-film autuer Charles Laughton (whose 1955 effort The Night of the Hunter shares a few of its heartless qualities). The Honeymoon Killers begins, after a "true story" title card, with a crudely-edited Mahler cue and a violent puff of chemical smoke exploding within the buffed hallways of an Alabama hospital. Head nurse Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) rushes into the misty room and castigates two employees whom she quickly suspects of some on-the-job hanky-panky. She is stern and cruel, and there's not a whit of empathy in her voice. At once, we're suspicious that this is not a show of Beck's dutiful concern: we sense she's jealous of the possibly romantic attention being paid to this rather plain young nurse. See, Martha is grossly overweight, and clearly lonely from the outset. Anyone who doesn't share in her misery is an enemy. She sends the man out of the room, and further guts the novice nurse, who says she's sorry. "You'll be a lot sorrier if you're ever out of line with me again," Martha sneers.

She stomps home, her arms filled with a grocery bag full of junk food. In her apartment, which she shares with her doting elderly mother (Dortha Duckworth), she's greeted by her best friend Bunny (Doris Roberts, who ironically went on to clutch Emmies as Ray Romano's demanding mother on TV's Everybody Loves Raymond). Bunny, exasperated, details her difficult day looking after Martha's mama. She hands Martha her mail, in which she finds a letter from Aunt Carrie's Matchmaking Service. "What is this, an April Fool's Day joke?!" Livid, Martha takes instant solace in food. Bunny gets after her ("I thought you were on a diet"), and Martha loses her cool. Here, Bunny--the unwitting villain here--feels she has to confess: it was she who sent Martha's name in to the service--"All you need is a man. Oh, you're a little on the heavy side, but you're not an old bag, y'know?" Martha slowly takes to this solution and replies to the service. We cut to New Yorker Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) who, narrating with his heavy Spanish accent as voiceover, answers her letter as the camera pans across a suspicious bank of old-maid pictures on his desk. In an enticing montage, the film jets into action as, in less than a minute, it details months of correspondence between Martha and Ray (these must be the scenes that Scorsese shot, because they are identical to the letter-writing sequences in Taxi Driver and The Age of Innocence). Before we know it, Martha and Ray are embroiled in a sickly romantic relationship that'll seal their own doom, and that of their victims.

In 1951, the real-life "Lonelyhearts Killers" Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez were electrocuted in New York's Sing-Sing Prison for the murders of Janet Fey, Dephine Downing and Downing's two-year old daughter. While it doesn't strenuously stick to the details of this notorious case, The Honeymoon Killers does hit all the major points, and with a singularly gory attention to detail. As with many great movies, Kastle's work operates in two worlds at once: it makes us root, however lightly, for its perverse heroes while also evoking overwhelming pity for the naive victims of their viciousness.

This horror movie's first ghastly moment is bizarre, because it's not a horror scene at all. In fact, it's just a dramatization of a domestic problem we'll all have to face sooner or later. Martha agrees to join Ray in New York, but he doesn't want her mother to come along. "What will I do with her?" Martha asks. A harried Ray yells into the phone "Get rid of her! Choke her! I don't care what you do with her, but you can't bring her here!" Martha ends up dumping her her off at an old age home, and Mama responds fiercely: "You're diggin' my grave by leaving me here. You're killing me!" Then, as Martha leaves, she becomes even more pathetic; she's the first of many begging, desperate women we'll see in this stone-faced film. "Martha, don't go, I'm sorry for what I said! Take me with you...I won't be any trouble I promise! Please don't leave me. I'M AFRAID, MARTHA! Martha, don't go!" Then, yelling shrilly out the window to her: "Goddamn you! Goddamn you! I hope you end up like this. I hope someone does this to you!" This utterly disturbs our bones. This is the meaning of horror.

Kastle's camera now follows this odd couple as they bilk a series of homely ladies out of cash. Martha poses as Ray's sister (they concoct a hard-to-believe story regarding their estranged upbringings) and accompanies Ray on his cross-country outings to marry these women. But Martha's jealousy threatens to derail Ray's moneymaking schemes at every turn; she even fruitlessly attempts to get Ray to promise he'll be faithful to her. Some of the ensuing scenes are mordantly funny. Doris Hacker (Ann Harris) is a nerdy schoolteacher who sings "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" while sponging herself off in the bathtub. Martha's merely rolls her eyes at this, and Doris escapes minus some jewelry and cash. Then we're on to Marilyn Chris as the southern-fried Myrtle Young, an already-pregnant lady who needs Ray (known as "Charles" to his ladies) to give her baby legitimacy. She presents the balding Ray with a toupee ("Why didn't I think of that?" he says). Myrtle tries to seduce Ray, but he objects ("You act like a little ol' virgin boy!" she exclaims) and, after being rebuffed, sullenly retires to the adjunct bedroom, where Martha waits. Her nighttime confrontation with Ray's "sister" is rife with discomfort:

Martha: What's the matter, can't you sleep? You woke me up.
Myrtle: Oh I'm sorry, I guess I'm just restless.
Martha: You want a sleeping pill? I've got some.
Myrtle: You have any other kind?
Martha: What do you mean?
Myrtle: Never mind. You wouldn't, you're too square! (she sighs)
Martha: You sigh a lot, don't you? In nursing school they taught us that people who sigh a lot are unstable. Is that your problem?
Myrtle: No! I was just thinkin' about your brother and how handsome he looked in that toupee I gave him. He lied to you.
Martha: I don't believe it, he never lies to me!
Myrtle: I think he's a little bit afraid of you, that's probably why he never married before. I think I'm gonna have to show him what to do!
Martha: You must think you're an authority!
Myrtle: Well I AM pregnant!
Martha: Not only are you pregnant, you are disgusting! You're the hottest bitch I've ever seen!
Myrtle: I don't have to take that from you! And let me tell you something. I am in love with your brother. And if we decide to make a go of this marriage, which I think we'll do, and sooner than you think, why we'll get out of here before you can say Jack Robinson. We will go to Little Rock. Why, as a matter of fact, I'll make all the arrangements on the phone with my Papa tomorrow! Charles will fit right in with us. He has STYLE. And you, you can go right back to that, that, that, that hospital of yours where you can boss everybody around! Now I'm going back to my husband! This doesn't end well for Myrtle ("Christ almighty, I'm earning my $4000 tonight!" Ray yells). And then we're on to veteran character actress Barbara Cason as Evelyn Long, who instantly suspects something is amiss when Martha tries to drown herself upon seeing Ray's canoodling with her behind the bushes ("You promised! You promised!" she bellows before dunking herself under). From here, Martha and Ray try to set up a traditional household in New York, but the charade inevitably doesn't take.
The meatiest portion of The Honeymoon Killers deals with the episode involving the couple's first victim, Janet Fey (Mary Jane Higby, who's marvelous). Her introduction, on the phone talking to a friend about "Charles Martin," is filmed in a long close-up that's remarkable in its prowess. Fey is the sort of irksome, cheap old woman that treats Ray and Martha to a cafeteria meal, telling them that they can disregard cost and have anything they want, then sighs in disgust when Martha orders the pricey veal cutlet. Janet is whiny and nettlesome, and we almost can't wait to see her get hers. But when her final moments arrive, we feel sorry. The terror in her voice and eyes is instantly humanizing. Hair-raising is her nighttime murder, filmed in almost total silence, with ominous stings of Mahler's music, and captured in eerie long takes. Afterward, Ray is bedeviled by what they've done, but Martha is typically cold (she administers the fatal blow and its brutal aftermath). The deed done, she nurses Ray, dabbing his sweaty brow with a towel. "Nobody knows what happened--only you and me," she says, and the lights go out. There's a a disorienting 360-degree pan as Ray gets undressed. "You want the lights on or off?" Martha asks. "Leave them on. I want to make love," Ray answers, creepily approaching Martha in the nude.

The radical photography is by Oliver Wood, who's gone on to shoot blockbusters like Die Hard 2, Fantastic Four, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. The blacks are inky, the grays eloquent, and the whites glaring. The Honeymoon Killers arrived way past the moment in which black-and-white was an acceptable way theater patrons wanted to see their movies. The last production of the B&W era to receive a cinematography Oscar nomination was Richard Brooks' compatible In Cold Blood in 1967. After that, all ticketbuyers staunchly expected movies to be in color. So black-and-white must have been a steadfast directorial choice (or perhaps a financial necessity, though a negative one, as it probably damned the movie at the box office). Kastle's filmmaking can be clunky, but in no way does it betray a fundamental lack of know-how. He uses sound inventively (as when the maukish martini music to which Ray once danced for Martha accompanies a scene in which Martha longingly reads one of his letters; or in the echoing dialogue sequences--which add a sense of reality; or in the sequence that has Martha drowning as she recalls audio snippets of her past). Kastle also knows how to edit--when to resort to shocking close-ups and telling long shots. And he's quite aware of his actors' delivery. Stoler's Martha, deep in her protracted suicide, displays a grim chill in her voice at just the right moments, and in the scenes where Ray and Martha both are playing their "roles," there's a precise measure of calculated stiffness (LoBianco's pathological liar Ray almost always oozes phoniness, even in his most intimate scenes with Martha; only when he's angry or upset does he seem to be speaking from the heart). Upon repeated viewings, I'm also constantly impressed by the variety of performances given by their victims; Kip McCardle's showing as the final casualty, Delphine Downing, is particularly heartrending--she's the most sympathetic of all. Her final seconds are portrayed in an extreme close-up that's sorely painful.

The Honeymoon Killers is one of the greatest horror movies out there. Along with Peter Bogdanovich's Targets, it ushered in a new era of monsters--one in which villains were scarier because they often dischordantly displayed humanity alongside their wickedness. I regard this film as an ugly miracle. That it sprang from Leonard Kastle--a man who never made a film before or since--just makes it all the more so.

No comments: