The Strange Alchemy of The Honeymoon Killersby Scott Tobias

By Yasmina Tawil

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The story of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, a.k.a. “The Lonely Hearts Killers,” was made for the movies. Not merely because of the tabloid punch of a criminal partnership that led to three murders and likely many more, but because the details of the case are so bizarre and endlessly fascinating. Before meeting Beck, Fernandez was a con man, trolling the personal ads for lonely, desperate older women of means and seducing them out of their cash and jewelry. Beck was one of his marks, a rotund nurse supervisor from Mobile, Alabama who fell hard for his charms, got bilked out her money just like the rest of them, and yet—here’s where the mystery begins—would not let that dissuade her from loving him. When the pair continued Fernandez’s scheme, Beck would pose as his “sister,” but her jealousy, possessiveness, and nasty temper manifested itself into violence, turning their cons in murders.

This week, Fabrice Du Welz’s Alléluia hits independent theaters and VOD, effectively reimagining the case as a grisly, genre-jumping tale of obsession, set in the same murky Belgian countryside where Du Welz staged his breakthrough film, Calvaire. But Du Welz is smart to get an ocean’s distance from the 1969 cult favorite The Honeymoon Killers, which remains the definitive telling of Beck and Fernandez’s killing spree, and a case of nearly equal mystery. None of the key players involved with The Honeymoon Killers had any experience making a movie: Not its financier, Leon Levy, who handed over $150,000 to a producer, Warren Steibel, who had never worked outside television. Not its screenwriter and eventual director, Leonard Kastle, an opera composer and librettist who pieced his script together out of trial transcripts and took over behind the camera after two other directors, including a young Martin Scorsese, left the project. And not its two stars,  Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler, who had only acted for the stage.

The Honeymoon Killers thrives on the strange alchemy between Beck and Feranadez’s story and the big-screen novices who bring it to life. Shot in newsreel B&W that occasionally pops with noir expressiveness, the film looks like the B-movie undercard of an old drive-in double feature, like something the lovers might have watched between killings in the late ‘40s rather than typical late-60s exploitation fare. It’s not surprising to learn that John Waters is a fan: The film anticipates the blunt, provocative outsider art of Pink Flamingos and beyond, with Stoler resembling a slightly more put-together Edith Massey, minus the eggs. The actors in The Honeymoon Killers don’t look like actors, and the black-and-white photography adds a texture of documentary truth that legitimizes their performances as color never could. This is a middle American story that appears completely untouched by the Hollywood system, which would have surely buffed out the rough edges that so effectively pierce the skin.

Trumpeting the Beck/Fernandez case as “perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime” in the opening credits, The Honeymoon Killers then sets about backing it up with little hesitation. At the hospital, Martha seethes with anger over the romantic indiscretions of her charges and her fury doesn’t abate at home, where she kicks a child’s wagon off the sidewalk on her way to the door. She’s equally ticked when her mother suggests she place a personal ad, and she only softens a little when Ray, a suave Spanish importer, flatters her in a series of letters, even after receiving a rather grim portrait shot.

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Martha and Ray hit it off on their date, which already suggests perversions to come, as she angles for private time with him by filling her mother’s liquor glass until she passes out. Following through on his usual scheme, Ray bilks her out of her available cash and sends her his regrets via mail, but an undeterred Martha tracks him down to continue their affair and commence a criminal partnership. Martha agrees to legitimize his scam by posing as his sister—though the resemblance between the trim, accented lothario and his coarse, portly sibling is the opposite of uncanny—but under the condition that his relationships never reach the honeymoon stage. For Ray, who often marries his victims and whose sexual appetites run deep, this proves to be an impossible arrangement.

The essential fact, and central mystery, of The Honeymoon Killers is that it’s a love story. That’s what makes the whole affair so marvelously inexplicable. When Beck and Fernandez were executed at Sing Sing on March 8th, 1951, after being sentenced for three murders between 1947 and 1949, both used their last words to profess their love for each other. (Beck even requested to sit on Fernandez’s lap on the electric chair!) The Honeymoon Killers smartly emphasizes Ray and Martha’s relationship as l’amour fou (“crazy love”) at its most extreme rather than attempting to account for it. Why does Martha continue to love Ray despite his record of betrayal, from the “lonely hearts” scam on her to his inability to abide by the terms of their arrangement? And perhaps more curiously still, why does Ray allow Martha into his life? It’s possible that he loves her for accepting him as the scoundrel he is, but she’s a needy, joyless romantic partner and incompetent criminal one. Her jealousy runs so hot that it often sabotages his operations before he can abscond with the loot. There’s some other force that explains their connection and it’s not the film’s responsibility to account for it, other than to make their collective psychosis feel plausible. We cannot know why they love each other, only that it makes sense on some perverse wavelength.

For a film made of many hands, none of them seasoned—even Scorsese had only directed Who’s That Knocking On My Door? before his week at the helm—The Honeymoon Killers isn’t as artless as it seems. Kastle’s script has a nasty streaks of black comedy running through it, most notoriously in a scene where Martha, furious at her Jewish boss riffling through her love letters, spits, “I’m not so sure Hitler wasn’t right about you people,” or when she cuts down one of Ray’s women by saying, “You sigh a lot. In nursing school, they taught us that people who sigh a lot are unstable.” The young cinematographer Oliver Wood, the only alumnus beyond Scorsese to have a distinguished career in Hollywood (he’s Adam McKay’s regular DP), keeps the camera moving and chooses his spots for dramatic, expressive angles. When Martha and Ray turn to violence, time seems to slow down and the film fully registers their victims’ terror as a once-heady romance takes a dramatic turn. One murder is reflected chiefly through a pair of widened eyes.

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François Truffaut once called The Honeymoon Killers his favorite American film, which seems like a peculiar choice until you emphasize the word “American.” Great films have been made about outlaw lovers peeling through the Midwest—Gun Crazy, Bonnie And Clyde, and Badlands, to name a few—but to foreign eyes especially, The Honeymoon Killers must look like a transmission from another planet, continuing a tradition of crime movies, but outside the gatekeepers in Hollywood, who would have surely made something less distinctive. This was a side of the country not even Americans get to see reflected back at them—the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime happens to be one of the most bizarre movies, too.