by Helen DeMichiel
Cut, no. 32, April 1987, pp. 31-32
Never a commercial success, THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1970) is indeed a film which defies facile categorization. It was a low-budget crime thriller/melodrama. As such, the film worked the fringes of previously established genre codes well before today's safe, fashionably big budget Joseph H. Lewis or Sam Fuller quotations. It eluded the merely formulaic aspects of its "B" predecessors and remained determinedly outside of any rule of genre bankability, either in style or concept. I doubt if a film like this could ever be made today under industry constraints or get serious theatrical distribution.
This curious cinematic treasure presents a few very rich readings. It can be seen as a disturbing study in pathologically twisted romance or as a very special kind of "woman's film." In a shocking and naked way it deals with some usually unspoken relations among women - their jealousy, rage, victimization and strength in the domestic milieu. The strain of patriarchal values on the characters' lives becomes obvious and is frightening in its significance.
The plot is derived from an actual account of two people, Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, who were sentenced to death for the murders of three women. The setting is the flattened, limited horizon of the early fifties. In this low-budget black and white film, director Leonard Kastle had no pretensions of creating another nostalgic, high-style, crime period-piece, like BONNIE AND CLYDE. Instead, the film willfully and precisely traces the senseless destruction of certain working class lives. It does so straight on and remarkably without parody. It shows without condescension the numbing and claustrophobic world of single, middle-aged women, forgotten and trapped, who eke out their survival in Anytown, USA. That is not typical material for a cinema generally obsessed with its own trend-grasping images of youth and glamour.
Consistently, the film shatters media stereotypes of beauty and behavior. In this soap opera without make-up or well-lit gentility, each hoarded retirement dollar, every bottle of booze, and each year of smiling servility are scratched into the women character's faces, as they age none too gracefully. Yet we do not see a gallery of grotesque female caricature, but rather a visual hyper-naturalism that is tactile and absorbing in its anti-glamorous detail. The performances do not repel us. Kastle assembles meaning not only through dialogue - banal and uncomfortably revealing dialogues of flirtation, suspicion, complaint and fear - but through attention to common gestures, glances, and pauses. These non-verbal dramatic elements have a rage and bitterness not often allowed out of the cutting room. And the actresses seem to perform to each other almost on their own terms. They seem oblivious to unflattering camera angles and absorbed in portraying hidden emotions that come out only under a situation of extreme duress. In bold and relentless strokes, both the acting and the directing bring the audience to see the end point in women's everyday lives. The romantic pulp fiction dream appears to come true for a moment, and then it goes violently haywire amidst bathrobes, curlers, bathrooms and dinette sets.
From the characters' physical characteristics and emotional sensibilities to the impoverished anonymity of the environments in which their story takes place, Kastle tries neither to make palatable nor to moralize about this particular working class milieu. The film has a bare light bulb look. THE HONEYMOON KILERS denies any studied filmic elegance, which would work against its decidedly unsentimental stance. The characters emerge from a background environment which seems like a tired and musty, "classic," fifties motel room-like atmosphere. It connotes a general U.S. transience, and it always has an integral relation to the character's psychological make-up. The action moves through doorways into kitchens with chipped formica tables, living rooms with plastic couches, and bedrooms smelling of stale sachets. It reminded me of those coarse, dramatically effective illustrations in magazines like Intimate Romance, where against the cheap, familiar backdrop, vaguely titillating confessions got whispered and hot impulsive caresses took their toll.
THE HONEYMOON KILERS soaks up this torrid yet saccharin melodramatic vernacular of true confession. In such love stories found on supermarket shelves, the plain and unselfish woman meets the handsome exotic mystery man and finds true and ecstatic happiness and escape. But the film also twists and subverts the codes of this genre. In this picture, unfortunately even the most modest dreams of love and intimacy cannot come true — the stakes are simply too high and explosive from every personal angle. What were gambled on to be happy endings culminate in an ever-spiraling cycle of violence and murder. The film grimly reverses banal yet potent fantasies played out "for real." In this way, it makes painfully clear the destructive effects that this type of popular media may have on women's socialization.
The plot goes as follows: Martha Beck (Shirley Stoller), a nurse who lived with her elderly mother in Mobile, Alabama, reads pulp romances to relieve her alienated and routinized existence. She used that fiction to construct her own private desires of how wonderful life might be. From the beginning, Kastle defines the parameters of Martha's psychological and social entrapment, At work, she has control only over the hospital corridor, and she rules within its tight boundaries like any petty and hardened authoritarian, At home, on the other hand, she seems short-tempered and childishly pouty, confined to being her mother's overweight and emotionally frustrated daughter. A claustrophobically resigned futility surrounds Martha, as she chafes under the pressures of mother's nagging, faded seascapes, and old naugahide.
Her neighbor Bunny tries to get her to meet an eligible bachelor. Bunny sends in Martha's name to a correspondence lonely-hearts organization, Aunt Carrie's Friendship Club. ("No more lonely nights for these two lonely people!") At first Martha scoffs at this scheme, but she soon begins exchanging intimate love letters with Raymond Fernandez (Tony LoBianco), the suave "Latin from Manhattan." This long distance romance dominates her life. Eventually Raymond arrives in Mobile for a visit. As they dance a slow rumba to the strains of Herb Alpert's "South Sea Islands," he promptly seduces her. She falls frantically in love with the only man who has ever paid her this much attention.
Fernandez is really a small time gigolo who makes his living by marrying lonely spinsters and widows and running off with their money after the honeymoon. He goes back to New York. Martha persuades her neighbor to call him there and say that Martha will commit suicide unless she can be with him. Shocked and somewhat flattered by her passionate perseverance, Ray suggests that she visit him. When she arrives, he confesses to his true profession, but Martha remains unfazed and reiterates her absolute love for him. By the time she returns to Mobile, she has made her decision to shed her past and follow Ray. She loses her job, puts her mother in a nursing home and packs her bags.
In order to legitimize her association with him, from this point on Martha poses as Ray's sister. The two then have a series of monstrous encounters with their middle-aged victims. Insanely jealous and possessive, Martha continually thwarts Ray's well-polished con performances by badgering his "lovers," pulling dramatic tantrums, and spying to make sure that nothing "will happen" between Ray and his current fiancée. As Martha and Ray lose control more and more, their blunders become increasingly extreme and vicious. They find themselves swept into a cycle of terrible wrong turns. The only recourse they can conceive of is to murder three of the women.
Martha Beck is an U.S. anti-heroine of a completely homegrown and unstudied variety. Her character is positioned at the ragged edge of every woman's most deeply buried fears. Physically and emotionally her entire persona counters the usual cardboard feminine representation in American films. Without a trace of remorse, she speaks, groans and gesticulates the terrors of solitude, age, and unwarranted victimization. To the world Martha presents herself as threatening and tough. Yet at the same time she is a little girl who cries, pouts easily, and eats too many pretzels in her mother's kitchen after those interminable days working at the hospital. Throughout the film Martha careens between an overwhelmingly dominating assertiveness and a shy, childlike innocence that wholeheartedly believes in true and everlasting love. Ironically, in a profession noted for self-effacement and gentle nurturance, Martha-the-Nurse has learned to survive the workplace game through sadistically cruel power manipulations. Implacable toughness shields her - to the point where she'll do and say exactly what she thinks, regardless of the situation. She doesn't look to her man to guide her - she acts completely of her own inner volition.
In a terrifyingly accurate and complex performance, Shirley Stoller as Martha does not dilute or compromise this massively contradictory protagonist. She acts out the character's tension by presenting a sense of unique physical presence and moments of offbeat, large-girl beauty right alongside supremely vengeful grotesqueness. Sometimes she seems too largely human for the screen to contain her comfortably - just as in the narrative she has been compacted into the small and hopeless world she was born into. From the start, we understand how and why she would attach herself so totally to Raymond Fernandez, gigolo and self-employed spinster-stinger.
But Martha constantly fights with Ray. She bullies the "brides." For anyone who has ever experienced a lover's jealousy, the film's petty argumentative dialogue is achingly realistic. Kastle has us eavesdropping into an inordinately high voltage relationship. The film never shows Martha's love for Ray, which governs all her actions, in the colors of marvelous perfection. On the contrary, her love's raw, acidic intensity seems all the more exposed and vulnerable because it pops out from the cracks, from bizarre moments of spontaneously loving gesture and word, amidst the film's pervasive atmosphere of unrelenting violence.
The context in which this violence occurs is completely in keeping with Martha's own contradictions as a character. In many ways, these contradictions are familiar to all of us, as they are rooted in the real patriarchal values of our culture. THE HONEYMOON KILLERS deals with a social order in which women, who are not allowed the leisure or consciousness to develop their self-esteem, become reduced to continual mistrust and suspicion of one another. The film takes this attitude to a logical extreme. When verbal abuse can no longer force submission, physical violence here becomes the only answer. There is no fake friendship between Martha and each of the women she must confront. Her relationship to them is refracted through the one source of their common desire - Raymond Fernandez, the only male we ever encounter.
For all the women, Ray represents a ticket to social validation in a society where they are snickered at and emotionally ignored. Each women has finally reached a state where she craves giving up her own meager identity to become the Mrs. Fernandez. Ray plays right into a fantasy of bourgeois respectability, only to exploit it in the end. Martha understands his method and knows that at any moment he could turn on her, possibly as smoothly as with the other brides. Given her deep fear that Ray will leave her, the only bond she can construct with him is secretly to harass and literally destroy the other women. That only further dehumanizes her. And she will never be able to reconcile the peculiarities of Ray's livelihood with her own ultimate dream of respectability, a life of wifely certainty in their cozy and stable love nest in the Long Island suburbs.
But Kastle turns this notion of respectability on its head as well. Ultimately their environment is stripped of tradition and stability. The dream becomes perverted into on-the-lam motel life anonymity. At one point Ray reluctantly gives in and gets the little house, but he is only able to pace the living room restlessly, day in and day out, watching Martha read trashy magazines and eat chocolates. And by then, it seems much too late for either of them to recover a sense of rootedness - especially Ray, who could never settle down. He would exploit that hope of respectability, not actually live it. Cajoling and charming her, "If you love me you'll do it," Ray gets Martha to consent to trapping "just one more" lonely heart. But this time Martha insists on choosing the bride. They prime a 65-year-old widow with $10,000 for marriage, but afterwards they bungle the plan and end up killing her in their own Long Island living room.
Very few Hollywood crime films would dare to represent this kind of murder in such an explicit, clinically observant manner as Kastle does. He never softens the edges - either with virtuoso mannerisms, tidbits of glamour to cut the brutality, or celebrity presences to make brutality that much more palatable. Martha and Ray bumble through their killings and each time it seems consistently believable and starkly frightening. The actual act of killing is always shown economically yet in ghastly detail. For example, in these scenes, the camera laconically records the dull thud of a hammer on an old lady's neck, the gagging of a dying, drugged woman on a Greyhound bus, or an enormous close-up magnifying the eyes of a housewife as the trigger is being pulled against her head. The script provides no cutaway shots or implied off-screen actions. With each murder, the depiction reminds us how utterly sickening and degrading and banal murder really is. We are made to be accomplices, and we come to see the stupidity of violence and how most of the time it happens in a kind of everyday way.
The film is unsparingly faithful to everydayness, to the accretion of significant and common detail. At the same time the script has a recurring black humor - usually about the inanities of petty bourgeois civility. Ray initially seduces Martha while her mother peacefully dozes nearby, sedated by one of her pills. Martha forces Ray to rescue her from drowning in a lake during a jealous fit. We hear cattily hissing exchanges between Martha and the recalcitrant "wives." The film continually pierces its characters' facades just as the characters struggle to maintain them. The underlying dynamic becomes the push and pull from the surface of near respectability - cute and adorable homes in the suburbs, friendship clubs with ulterior motives, boxes of candy and bunches of calla lilies - to the unchecked hostility and resentment seething just below it.
While events spiral to their terrible culmination, Kastle hints at something beyond both Martha and Ray which propels them to lock into their maniacal relation of power over others and the confused values of their obsessive love. The film methodically demonstrates how, given the oppressive structure of Martha's and the other women's lives, these murders make a kind of shocking sense. Since Kastle emphasizes the social context from which these quotidian horrors are perpetuated, we are well able to see one way in which idealistic emotional impulses can turn inside out and how unresolved contradictions - good/bad girl, cynical/ innocent passion, strength/ passivity, stability/ transience - can rip psyches apart. In his cataloguing of desperation, of deserted lives floating through the lower end of mass culture, Kastle accounts for the why of these murders, the why of a notion of fantasy love that can never break out of the fictional strictures of romantic pulp media. It's obvious that for Martha Beck, it was the only way she had ever learned to think of love. Yet her real-life suspicions, fears and insignificant choices constantly negated her ever living out the melodramatically happy ending.
Revealing a culture where a Raymond Fernandez can be the totem pole around which women are enchanted into pursuing their destructive dances of self-annihilation, THE HONEYMOON KILLERS clearly depicts the distortions of patriarchal values in a form rarely examined on the screen. In a system that depends on romantic love, the possibility that the narcotic may reverse its anesthetizing effect always remains below the surface, ready to erupt. The seemingly harmless pulp ideology of romanticism - with "good" girl catching "perfect" boy - can only produce false illusions. And romantic illusions ultimately repress women further rather than liberate them, confuse rather than articulate. In lives stripped of a rooted social connectedness, where self-esteem got thrown out along with hundreds of punched-out time cards, only the saccharine aftertaste of cheap and easy romantics seem credible to these women characters. THE HONEYMOON KILLERS describes and pushes this situation to its full negation. There is no redemption at the end. We walk out from the film having to confront our own sense about how far we too have been duped into mediated intimate romances within our own social and personal lives.