In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde changed the face of American cinema by presenting a pair of criminals as sympathetic heroes and not sparing the graphic bloodshed in the romantic antiheroes’ lurid death scene. Two years later, writer Leonard Kastle visited similar themes in his also based-on-a-true-story Honeymoon Killers, but something was drastically different at work here. Instead of a pair of cute law-breakers who remain lovable even after they start killing people during their heists, Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) and Martha (Shirley Stoler) are pretty despicable from the start. He’s a sloppy con man who marries women to bilk them. She’s a lonely heart he attempts to take for a ride but ends up partnering with when he realizes she’s just as much of a sociopath as he is. Ray’s dishonesty and Martha’s jealousy is a volatile combo, and their cons turn violent. However, the big question—and one that never needs to be asked about Bonnie and Clyde—is: do they really love each other? Well, Martha is clearly smitten with smarmy yet sexy Ray, but what is he getting from her? She tends to botch his cons. He does not respect her enough to honor his promise not to have sex with his marks. Their relationship remains ambiguous until the end when Martha makes good on a self-spiting promise she makes earlier in the picture.
As loathsome as the couple is (before she has committed a single crime, Martha makes a hideous anti-Semitic slur to let the audience know exactly where she stands as a human), they are still sympathetic. This is key, since the film would be unwatchable if this were not the case. Ray and Martha are terrible for each other, but we do want them to find happiness in their suburban home (they don’t) and we want Ray to quit messing around (he doesn’t). The women the couple target elicit similarly ambiguous feelings. They are played as fools for their religiousness or patriotism, yet their fates are unfailingly sad. In this way, The Honeymoon Killers pulls off a much greater feat than Bonnie and Clyde: instead of making us sympathize with a couple of charming pretty faces, it makes us care about a cast of people who do not have any admirable qualities simply because they’re people. In its warped way, The Honeymoon Killers is a deeply humanistic film.
It’s also a lot of fun (again in its own warped way). Even as each caper turns grim and tragic—increasingly so as the film progresses—almost every character enters the frame as a high-camp archetype that could have stepped out of a John Waters movie. There’s a lot of humor in The Honeymoon Killers, particularly in Marilyn Chris’s portrayal of a Southern belle who meets an ugly fate. The riveting performances from Lo Bianco and Stoler elevate the film way above its lowly budget, as does Oliver Wood’s cinematography.
Criterion’s new blu-ray of The Honeymoon Killers showcases that cinematography beautifully, though inconsistencies in the original film are still apparent. At their best, the elements are either strikingly high-contrast, deep-focus examples of B&W photography or dreamily over-lit and soft. Some elements are rougher, overly grainy, a bit blurry, and Criterion’s restoration does not erase those issues or deepen a soundtrack that was always kind of lo-fi and tinny (especially when Mahler’s music plays, though the fact that these dramatic pieces sound as though they’re crackling from a cheap phonograph actually compliments the camp atmosphere nicely). However, these issues are minor and the film looks fabulous overall.
Most of the extras have been ported over from Criterion’s 2003 DVD—an interview with late director Leonard Kastle, who suggests that he intended to make the anti-Bonnie & Clyde; Scott Christianson fascinating illustrated essay on the real Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck that fills in their disturbing back stories absent from the feature film—but there’s also a new half-hour featurette featuring interviews with Lo Bianco, Chris, and editor Stanley Warnow. It’s a fascinating piece in which Chris discusses how she lost the role of Martha and helped Lo Bianco and Stoler get involved in the project. Lo Bianco and Warnow explain how Martine Scorsese began directing the film only to get fired for using too much film on such a low-budget project and was ultimately replaced by writer Kastle who’d never made a film before and never made another one again. As such, The Honeymoon Killers stands as one of the great one-offs in the tradition of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter.
Get Criterion’s new edition of The Honeymoon Killers on Amazon.com here: