Mahler and Murder
The Criterion Collection 200
This 1969 film, shot on a shoestring, won the attention of such luminaries as François Truffaut, who declared it his favorite American film. It’s based on the true story of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, lovers who, in the late 1940s, killed as many as 20 women. They were dubbed “The Lonely Hearts Killers” because they met most of their victims through lonely-hearts ads. Now it’s Craigslist, eHarmony, or one of the other dating websites. Back then it took more time -- you had to write a letter, mail it, and wait for a response.
The film deals with only the last three murders, in 1948 and 1949. The task of writing the script was given to Leonard Kastle, an American opera composer who had never written a screenplay. After two directors were fired -- one of them was Martin Scorsese -- Kastle also became the director, something else he’d never done. The cast largely comprised Broadway performers who’d never acted in films. Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco were cast as Martha and Ray. Stoler acted up until two years before her death, in 1999, usually in roles that required a heavy, villainous woman. (She wowed everyone in Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties, in 1975.) Before The Honeymoon Killers, Lo Bianco had had small roles in Star! and A Fine Pair, but it was Kastle’s film that really got him noticed. He went on to perform in The French Connection, Serpico, The Seven-Ups, Nixon, many other films, even more TV series, and is still working today.
The Honeymoon Killers, shot in black and white in semi-documentary style, at times seems a bit amateurish, yet has a raw energy, and offers keen observations of its main characters as they rapidly descend into lives of crime. Kastle loves close-ups -- in one, Stoler eats an entire Whitman’s Sampler box of chocolates, epitomizing the overweight woman with time on her hands.
The images in this Criterion Collection edition are crisp and clean -- one can fully admire Oliver Wood’s masterful cinematography. The soundtrack score comprises selections from the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, most notably No.6. It’s an odd choice, especially as it seems to have been deliberately transferred to something slightly less than high fidelity. Yet it’s effective in its own way, and properly maintained on the remastered soundtrack. The dialogue is easily understood, even when soft.
The extras include Dear Martha . . . , a fascinating look at the real Martha and Ray that reveals historical events that were changed for or omitted from the film. There are also contemporary interviews with Lo Bianco, Marilyn Chris (who plays victim Myrtle Young), and film editor Stanley Warnow. Best of all is a half-hour interview with Kastle, from 2003 (he died in 2011). Flamboyant and extroverted, he relates actual events like tall tales. Kastle never made another film after The Honeymoon Killers, and makes a classic joke about it. (To catch it, wait until the end of the interview credits.)
The Honeymoon Killers has a lot of raw power. It will make you think twice about security the next time you answer an Internet dating ad.
Be sure to watch for: None of Kastle’s close-ups is more effective than the one of victim Delphine Downing’s eyes just before she’s murdered. This unforgettable shot of actress Kip McArdle is genuinely horrifying.
. . . Rad Bennett