Monday, January 26, 2015

Recommended!: The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

The Noir City festival wrapped in San Francisco last night, and I'm not sure they could have booked a better series-closer than The Honeymoon Killers. The film ended a series of film noirs (and related others) spun around a theme of marriage gone wrong, and in addition to being the latest movie (from 1969, shot well after the classic noir period), its berserk low-budget energy and free-floating amorality made for a hell of a finale.

One of several cinematic treatments of the Fernandez/Beck murders of the late-40s, it's the single directing effort of screenwriter Leonard Kastle, who took over from the young Martin Scorsese (canned from the project for working too slow). The movie's bizarre pacing and carefree camera placement betray its director's inexperience, but the performances wind up carrying it. As oily-smooth, lonely-hearts con man Ray Fernandez and cranky, overweight, lovelorn nurse Martha Beck, Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler aren't given quite a clear, linear path from lonely strangers into mad-loving psychopaths, but they definitely exhibit and feel the chemistry necessary to sell that transition. And the various women they con, romance, and kill along the way could easily have been rendered as one-dimensional stereotypes, but all wind up being very different from one another, and fully-realized characters to boot.  Mary Jane Higby, as a none-too-bright would-be hatmaker, gets the most screen time of her fellow victims, and with some sharply observed details, mainly her use of the word "cute" to describe all she finds agreeable, she makes the strongest impression. But Kip McArdle is at least as solid as Delphine Downing, a curiously patriotic single mom who would turn out to be Ray & Martha's undoing.

In spite of, or hell, maybe even because of the movie's low-budget and attendant energy, The Honeymoon Killers winds up beautifully capturing a certain American grotesquerie and desperation. It's unsurprising that both Francois Truffaut and John Waters named it a favorite American movie (indeed, some of Shirley Stoler's more violent outbursts anticipate Divine's work for Waters - when she tells a victim "You're the hottest bitch I've ever seen!" the viewer can only hang on for dear life). For all of the movie's white trash insanity it does captivate in ways that most low-budget schlock doesn't, and the movie's final title card is an emotional gutpunch. As brutally as it ends the story, it doesn't erase Martha and Ray from memory. Even a day after watching it, I haven't shaken them either.

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