I first saw The Honeymoon Killers (1970) with friends a month or so after it premiered. Our motivation, I suspect, was prurient, with a story about gruesome murders, based on actual events, and the hope of seeing some sex scenes. Were we aware of the exhilarating reviews? Perhaps, besides the sex, we expected to see a good film.
I haven’t watched it or even thought about it until lately. If I did, it was in reference to one of its stars, Tony Lo Bianco, who made this film prior to The French Connection (1971) and The Seven-Ups (1973). However, I didn’t recognize Shirley Stoler as the Prison Camp Commandant in Seven Beauties (1975) or in The Deer Hunter (1978). The film’s writer and director, Leonard Kastle, never directed another film.
I got the disk from Netflex. In an interview, Leonard Kastle said he wanted to make The Honeymoon Killers to respond to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which he felt had glamorized the criminals. While I agree with his sentiment, and am thoroughly impressed by Kastle’s film in many ways, I don’t think less of Bonnie and Clyde. The Honeymoon Killers can stand alone as a great film, especially as a love story between the killers, Ray and Martha, a more complicated relationship than that of the bandits who rob banks and kill a few people.
Ray and Martha robbed people and soon began to kill them as well. Just as Clyde lured Bonnie into his exciting ways, Ray became Martha’s lover and brought her, saying she was his sister, with him as romanced women he contacted from ‘Lonely Hearts’ ads. In fact, that’s how Martha met Ray. After a correspondence through a Friendship Club, he comes to Mobile, Alabama, from New York, but despite his attraction for the overweight Martha, he finds she hasn’t any money to fleece. He goes back to New York, but Martha fakes a suicide and then follows him. She accepts what he does, romancing older women to steal their money, and accompanies him on his business, posing as his sister.
Martha’s presence disrupts Ray’s normal operations because she can’t bear sharing him with his marks. Their first ‘job’ together goes wrong because of Martha’s jealousy and impatience. She forces the women to take some pills, she and Ray put her on a bus home, but she dies before the bus leaves.
Returning to New York, they bicker and hope for the big score. Maybe then he can settle down to a life in the suburbs. He’s infatuated with Martha, may even love her deeply, but Ray cannot give up something that he has been doing for many years.
The next woman Ray targets he believes could be a big score – around $10,000. However, the mark plays hard to get and responds slowly to Ray’s offer to meet. Martha nags Ray but they wait and finally meet her, Myrtle Young Eventually, he lures Myrtle from her family, marries her, and gets her to sign over her money in several bank checks. She’s feel so fortunate to have found a younger man, she can’t deny herself.
However, Martha’s bitter disposition makes Myrtle anxious and suspicious. She wants to call her family. It’s two a.m. Ray and Martha try to convince her to do it in the morning. Martha loses all patience and calls ‘Ray’ by name. Myrtle starts to panic and tries to leave. Martha picks up a hammer and gives it to Ray. He was never in this racket of bilking old women to kill them. Loving Martha changed the dynamic. She had given the pills to the previous victim. It was Ray’s turn. He bashes Myrtle on the head.
Their next victim has a child. Ray anticipates another big payday. Martha is bitchier than ever. The woman makes the fatal error of confiding to Martha that she’s pregnant, bringing Martha to the breaking point: Ray’s infidelity stares her in the face. Martha gives her the poison pills.
Ray had taken the little girl out for a treat. They return and the girl wants to see her mother, senses something is wrong, and becomes hysterical. Martha tries to calm her. She takes the girl to the basement. We had seen her before fill a sink with water. We watch Ray waiting outside the cellar door. He knows what Martha’s doing, as do we. But the film doesn’t show us. It is too much. Martha returns, her arms wet. Ray goes downstairs to bury the mother and daughter.
It is too much for Martha. She loves Ray, knows Ray loves her, but she realizes that he cannot be faithful. They are never going to settle down. She’ll be driven to kill again. So, she calls the police, saying she’s the next door neighbor and heard something suspicious going on. Thus ends their crime spree, although she would remain devoted to Ray, until the day they would both be executed at Sing Sing prison.
In one sense, Ray’s infatuation quickened his demise. He had bilked innumerable women before meeting Martha. Teamed with her, he is drawn into murdering his Lonely Hearts women. Martha and Ray’s union becomes complete and immortalized when they share these killings. Martha, however, could never feel that she alone shared Ray’s affections. He is bringing her back to the very unhappiness that she thought she had left way behind in Mobile, Alabama. Now, sadness and jealousy outpace her. Better to give themselves up to the law, she believes, ending the unhappy and bitter life that she could not shake.