The Honeymoon Killers (DVD)
In 1967, Arthur Penn's Bonnie And Clyde pushed the boundaries of screen violence, inviting viewers to feel every bullet hitting its vicious-but-sympathetic protagonists in a climax of carnage that made its beautified Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow into icons for an anti-heroic age. Leonard Kastle thought it was phony as hell. A writer and composer previously best known for creating the Mormon-themed opera Deseret, Kastle scripted and eventually directed 1970's The Honeymoon Killers as his response. Like Penn, he looked back through the annals of notorious crimes, rediscovering the story of murderous lovers Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, who in the late '40s ran a series of sometimes-deadly cons on husband-hungry women responding to lonelyhearts ads. Unlike Penn, he made a film as glamorous as a wet sock, but no less haunting for it. Assuming directing duties from an unseasoned talent named Martin Scorsese–whom Kastle and producer Warren Steibel fired after a week for wasting too much time, though the film retains some of his shots–Kastle used gritty, documentary-like black and white to recreate the careers of low-rent Latin lover Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) and his 250-pound partner in crime Beck (future Pee-wee's Playhouse denizen Shirley Stoler), who posed as his sister while working to defraud Lo Bianco's "fiancées." Matching Lo Bianco's syrupy charm with a feral intensity, Stoler turns her part into the role of a lifetime, playing her character as a woman who's finally found some form of happiness after years of getting kicked around, even if it involves the occasional murder of a helpless woman. Much of the genius of Kastle's first (and, to date, only) film comes from its ability to keep throwing sympathy in the direction of its monstrous protagonists, giving them hopelessly square victims prone to singing "America The Beautiful" in the bath or taking a future husband and sister-in-law out for a luxurious dinner at an old-folks cafeteria. "She always takes these with her wherever she goes," Stoler coos, tossing a pair of Jesus icons onto the cellar grave of one of their victims, and Kastle's willingness to throw in such taboo-flouting moments of black comedy (usually to the strains of Gustav Mahler) often makes The Honeymoon Killers play like a less obviously tongue-in-cheek version of an early John Waters film. But when it erupts into violence, the laughs stop cold. That nauseous mixture of laughs and shocks, and the fact that real passion drives Kastle's characters even when they plot against each other, is what makes The Honeymoon Killers such an enduring one-off. It works, as Gary Giddins argues in the liner notes to this beautifully restored DVD edition, as the perfect product of the same anxious, permissive age that produced Waters, Night Of The Living Dead, and blaxploitation. But it holds up just as well as a weirdly timeless love story with a body count.