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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

The Honeymoon Killers, 1969. Written and directed by Leonard Kastle and released by American International Pictures. 

“The Bride is in the trunk”

But first another connected tale:

The Honeymoon Killers is one of the best genuinely off-beat films of the late 1960s. The movie was written and directed by Opera composer Leonard Kastle. Originally, Kastle developed the script for the producer Warren Steibel. Stiebel would attain fortune and fame as creator and executive producer of the long-running Firing Line, starring William F. Buckley. He was not just friends with Kastle. They were roommates. Together they formed a partnership to produce The Honeymoon Killers. 

Warren had a pal from school, Leonard Levy, who founded the Oppenheimer Fund. At its sale in 1982, the fund's value was $120 billion smackeroos! They thought if they could make a film cheap enough, they could make a profit with a sale to an independent distributor regardless of the box office. Levy gave Warren $150,000.00 to develop and maybe shoot the film.

Kastle and Steibel landed on the true crime story, dubbed the "Honey Moon Killers" in the press. Executed on the same day at New York's famous Ossining Correctional Institute, lovingly called by its residents Sing Sing. With Levy's money, Kastle was free to research the project. He dove into the story, spending days pouring over news accounts and building a portrait of the two criminals. His script focused on overweight and grumpy hospital administrator Martha Beck and her unhealthy obsession with con man Ray Fernandez.  

With the script in hand, the two roommates set out to put together a team to make the film. Because of the low-budget nature of their endeavor, they searched for talented young people to work on the film. Steibel had heard about this hot young director who would be perfect for directing their movie. A kid named Martin Scorsese, who had recently graduated film school and had made an excellent low-budget feature, Who's That Knocking at my Door. Steibel was confident that this was the guy.

The co-producers, Kastle and Steibel, arrive on the set to do what producers do and to observe their wonder-boy in action. Because of budget constraints, the cast had to do their own make-up, hair, and wardrobe. The producers were very excited to see this young fellow at work. However, Marty had his hands full with a cast packed with a collection of experienced theater actors. Almost all were cinema neophytes except one, Mary Jane Higby, who had been working steadily since appearing in silent movies as a child star. They knew what a director was.

Tony Lo Bianco, as the con man Raymond Fernandez. Was a former Golden Gloves boxer with a penchant for classical drama. His first featured role on Broadway was in Tartuffe. Lo Bianco formed the Triangle Theater Company with, ironically, three friends. Actor Roy ("I think we need a bigger boat") Scheider, playwright Jason (That Championship Season) Miller, who also played Father Karras in The Exorcist, and Lighting Designer, Jules Fisher. Fisher, the most acclaimed Lighting Director in Broadway history, was nominated for the Tony Award 20 times and has taken it home nine! Lo Bianco would win the Emmy award for the filmed version of his Broadway performance as Fiorello LaGuardia in the one-person play Hizzoner! 

Shirley Stoler, as Martha Beck, the lonely nurse with a murderous side, was a member of Julian Beck and Judith Malina's legendary Living Theater. Beck, you movie maniacs will remember as the terrifying Reverend Kane in Poltergeist II: The Other Side. Ms. Malina, fondly remembered as Grandmamma in Barry Sonnenfeld's Addams Family movies. The Living Theatre was dedicated to transforming society through cooperative and communal expression and attempted to counteract complacency in the audience by direct and confrontational engagement. Politics is OK, but a girl has to eat and Shirly signed up. In Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties, Shirley gained international attention as (get ready) a Nazi concentration camp commandant seductress with eyes for inmate Giancarlo Gianinni. Besides her stage work, her screen appearances were memorable bit parts in movies, television shows, and even a soap or two.

Rounding out the cast, we had a five-time Emmy Winner, Doris (Everybody loves Raymond) Roberts. After a lifetime of acting, the award-winning stage actress, Marilyn Chris, played Garry Shandling's mother on, It's Garry Shandling's Show. And Elsa Raven, who is best remembered for screaming, "Save the clock tower, save the clock tower!" In Back to the Future.

Marty baffled the cast and young crew by not only his laconic pace, shooting master shots, and utilizing whip pans on the handful of close-ups. After a couple of days, he had to be let go. According to Scorsese, "I was fired for pretty good reason. It was a 200-page script, and I was shooting everything in master shots with almost no coverage." The actors were in revolt. The single most dangerous thing to happen to a director is (No, not flying a helicopter too close to the special effects) mutiny. When a director loses the faith of the cast and crew, it will destroy the project. 

In retrospect, The Honeymoon Killers was the seemingly perfect project for the Oscar winner. Leonard Kastle explained, "We wanted to do an honest movie about murders. These are not charming people but fascinating. You won't come out of the theater feeling sorry for the killers like in some movies. It is not romanticized." Kastle saw the film as an antidote to films like Bonnie and Clyde, filled with beautiful people and stunning fashion. Kastle conceived his movie as a response to the ground-breaking cultural touchstone Bonnie And Clyde. 

The debuting director was appalled by the technical color beauty and rousing antihero worship of Arthur Penn's masterpiece and wanted to create a film about a true-life couple's killing spree that was anything but romantic. Even though they were real-life killers, portrayed by Warren Beatty and (Hubba, Hubba) Faye Dunaway, the couple becomes almost Robin Hoods in the Fantasy. Shirley Stoler is not Faye Dunaway.

With a cast and crew standing around doing nothing, Warren Steibel made a choice that was just so risky it might work. Leonard Kastle would take over the film as director. He had experience directing opera and an idea of what to do with the cast. The cast was mollified and was more than willing to give him a chance after the Scorsese disaster. Unknown to anyone on the cast or crew, Leonard had inherited an ace in the hole with cinematographer Oliver Wood. 

Oliver Wood was all of 19 when he moved from swinging London to New York City to behind the camera on The Honeymoon Killers. He would find success as a Director of Photography. It might have been the cute accent, but there isn't a good reason why or how he secured the job. But he had a great eye and was essential to the film's look. After being co-directors of photography with Fred Murphy on Larry Cohen's Q the Quetzalcoatl - The Winged Serpent, he would go on to a pretty stellar career. He got tapped to be the DP on Miami Vice, and after 53 Episodes, he would shoot (not in any order of importance) Die Hard 2, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Face/Off, Freaky Friday, and all three of the Bourne movies. What I'm saying is the dude didn't suck.

The Honeymoon Killers was Leonard Kastle's only film behind the camera, but not because he did anything wrong. In point of fact, it's a pretty extraordinary debut that showcases an impressive raw talent that was sadly never developed. Thankfully, the film has become a perennial cult classic and a Criterion Collection mainstay that finally gets the HD treatment in a beautiful Blu-ray of a deliberately ugly little tale. Kastle was an artist, and after The Honeymoon Killers, he wrote scripts, but all Hollywood wanted was another film like The Honeymoon Killers.  

Kastle took inspiration from murderous lovers Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez and stayed as close to the court transcripts as possible. The movie opens with a title that promises to tell the truth. This doesn't hold up to a factual comparison, yet it is honest in its intent. By its very nature, film, even documentaries, are essentially works of fiction. Even using the real names, locations, and incidents, Kastle takes liberties and edits out less interesting murders and facts that detract from the narrative flow.

Martha Beck (future Pee-Wee's Playhouse cast member Shirley Stoler) is a lonely middle-aged nurse in Mobile, Alabama. She is so desperate for love that her friend signs her up for a lonely hearts mailing group, hoping she will find her Romeo one day. True love arrives in the form of Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco), who wrote florid letters and promised the moon before inevitably failing to deliver and conning her out of her savings. 

Eventually, Beck tracks down Fernandez in New York City and learns he uses the love-struck dating service as a con game, regularly seducing women to rob them blind. Beck agrees to stay with him and pose as his sister while he seduces other women. Unable to control her jealousy, she soon adds a new wrinkle to the scam, a body count. As if ripping off lonely women wasn't enough, Ray joins Martha in her murderous ways. What makes The Honeymoon Killers  so intriguing and enduring is how Kastle makes the audience identify with the protagonists before sliding them down the rabbit hole. Stoler's performance, in particular, is heartbreaking, and you feel her desperation and fleeting happiness before gradually growing disturbed by her descent into insanity. 

Ray promises never to betray their love, but Martha realizes their business is seducing women, and Ray will never tell her the truth. As one does, she calls the police. We fade to black only to fade up in Sing Sing. During their trial, Martha receives a note from Ray telling her she is the only woman he has ever loved. Upon reading it, Martha's expression is inscrutable. We fade to black.

Titles read: "Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez were executed at Sing Sing on March 8, 1951."

I'm not quite done with this. Though the film takes place in Alabama, New Orleans, Long Island, New York, Michigan, and Albany, New York, most of the film was shot in that acclaimed center of cinema production, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Why? No one can say. Even the Magic Eight Ball couldn't know. The music is interesting for what it isn't. Though he was a composer, Leonard Kastle elected not to use original music but portions of Gustav Mahler's 5th and 6th symphonies. The full orchestra gives the film a sense of gravity and even relief from this bleak story. 

It made eleven million dollars at the box office in America. In what can only happen in the film business, Leon Levy maintained he never made a penny from his investment. 

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