The Honeymoon Killers

The Honeymoon Killers ★★★★

The true crime milieu cries out for the kind of grey heavy palette only black and white on a budget can bring. Alfred Hitchcock toyed with certain true crime stylistic elements in Psycho and The Wrong Man and Richard Brooks strived for some semi-documentary realism with his seminal take on Capote’s In Cold Blood. Yet, those great films despite their grasps at the common, the grim and the mundane are meticulously crafted, highly professional, and the result is downright artful. The Honeymoon Killers, about the 40s era “Lonely Hearts” serial killer duo of nurse Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) and con man Raymond Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco), is more in tune with the pulpy, seedy, low brow torn from the headlines genre origins. The first third of the film with its matter of fact approach is startlingly bland and amateurish, even dull. Somehow, almost as if by fluke, the film suddenly begins to gel. The momentum starts to build right around the moment Mary Jane Higby appears as Janet Fay, the god fearing hat making widow who entrusts her life savings to the smarmy but amiable Fernandez. Higby’s spot on portrayal of an eccentric bitty deluded by romance elevates Stoler’s and Lo Bianco’s performances. The less hysterical Martha becomes and the needier Ray gets the more menacing and combustible the pair become. Despite Higby’s inevitable exit, Stoler and Lo Bianco are more than able to drive the sordid tale to its unsettling conclusion. If done today surely the tone would be ironic and the performance mode deadpan. Director Leonard Kastle succeeds in creating a mood of unease because he gets the actors to play it straight, without wink or camp. Even a low rent contemporary film like Night of the Living Dead had stylistic ambition evident in its editing, lighting, make-up and camera angles. The lack of stylistic flourish in The Honeymoon Killers actually makes it work (for a low budget colour film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is another good example). I’d even argue that the use of the Mahler compositions was superfluous.