As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Weekend double feature: Killer Lovers

Posted by Hedwig on March 10, 2008

Having hit an all-time visitor high with the Washinton Times thing, I thought the time was ripe for a new, hopefully weekly-ish feature: the weekend double feature, in which I examine a duo of movies linked by… something. Perhaps they share a core story. Perhaps a director, or writer. Perhaps one was a big influence on the other, and perhaps – like in this case – they’re both based on the same true story.

Raymond Fernandez was a con-man who answered Lonely Hearts ads and cheated women out of their money. Martha Beck was an overweight nurse he met through these ads. She fell madly in love with him, and they became partners in crime, Martha posing as Raymond’s sister to lend him an air of respectability. However, Martha was extremey jealous, and the pair of them killed at least two women – and the 2 yo daughter of one of them as well. Seventeen other murders were attributed to the pair. They were both executed in 1951.

In 1970, Leonard Kastle made a B-movie -his only movie – about the case, with Shirley Stoler as Martha and an unctuous Tony Lo Bianco as Ray, The Honeymoon Killers, which was shown the IFFR in February. 36 years later Todd Robinson, the grandson of one of the policemen assigned to the case, cast the considerably prettier Salma Hayek and Jared Leto in the same roles in his film Lonely Hearts.

Readers of this blog know I have a penchant for noir. The Honeymoon Killers can’t really be called noir, though, because it’s so funny it can almost be called a dark comedy. The film stays with Martha and Ray for the whole running time, and boy, are they a crazy pair. Martha especially, needy and manipulative, but also Ray, who’s entirely at her mercy. What’s more, they’re incredibly clumsy. They have a very hard time even making their racket work, and killing ain’t easy, it turns out.

There really are no heroes here. Not the protagonists: Martha is slightly sympathetic in the beginning, but mean and later obviously psychotic. Ray is a manipulative ass. And the victims? The last one (Delphine) aside, they’re figured of ridicule, used for laughs rather than pathos. It makes for a mean, cynical movie… and the meanness is exactly its strength. It doesn’t romanticize the criminals, not does it let us get away with our enjoyment of the murders by letting us feel empathy. It offers a very bleak view of life, but manages to be highly enjoyable all the same.

Lonely Hearts, by contrast, is much more earnest. The title is revealing: The Honeymoon Killers is about the killers; Lonely Hearts is about loneliness, and craving for love. Martha has been turned from an overweight, overbearing nurse into a true vamp (Salma Hayek), in many gorgeous costumes. The movie glamorizes the time, replacing the rather cold, newsreel-like, B&W style of The Honeymoon Killers with the same kind of sleek, glossy, desaturated style of The Black Dahlia, the only color provided by the occasional splash of lipstick… or blood.

Most importantly, the killers share the limelight here with the main detective on the case, Elmer Robinson. He’s a lonely man, too: his wife committed suicide and he doesn’t want to open up to the new woman in his life (Laura Dern). He relentlessly pursues the couple… and frankly, it’s boring. John Travolta does weary surprisingly well, and James Gandolfini is reliably good as his partner, but the storyline is simply too bloodless – and that’s not good when you’re making a crime picture. Luckily. Salma Hayek and Jared Leto (with a toupee) clearly enjoy camping it up, and their segments are sleazy fun. Martha is even more psychotic here, and Ray much more dependent on her, much more fascinated, but it works.

The enjoyment is tampered by the saintliness of the victims. They’re so gullible, so sweet, so incredibly sad. They’re even pretty. They don’t belong in the same movie, don’t belong in the same world as the crazy killers. They make the movie even more tonally inconsistent, and unfortunate not much more than a couple of nice campy scenes. I liked the retro touches… but in the end, I’ll prefer the cynical old thing to the nostalgic remake.

3 Responses to “Weekend double feature: Killer Lovers”

  1. I love the idea of a double feature. I’m not a man to make anyone promise anything, but I hope you keep it up.

    I’m intrigued by the story and have been drawn to both movies, though I have yet to check either one out. I’m disappointed the modern one isn’t better. The trailer for it last year really grabbed me. I know, I know…trailers lie.

    Congrats on the high hits as well.

  2. sarcastig said

    I hope I keep it up, too 🙂 Planned for next weekend: Kiss Me Deadly and Southland Tales. It means watching Southland Tales on the small screen, and not waiting for its release… but since I don’t think it absolutely needs the big screen, AND think it’s potentially a movie you have to see twice anyway, I don’t mind.

    The new movie isn’t bad, perse. It looks gorgeous, it’s well acted, and definitely atmospheric. It’s unfortunately also a bit dull, especially when compared to Kastle’s over-the-topness. It’s worth putting on your netflix queue though, is only for Hayek’s gorgeous outfits and impressive…assets.

    And yeah, the “high hits” I got would probably represent terribly slow day for you, but for me, the foray into triple digits was very exciting!

  3. My hits are a drop in the bucket compared to the big guys, but I’m growing damnit and one day I will own the world!!!! (cue evil laugh)

    I love Salma Hayek so maybe I’ll check it out anyway. I made an earnest effort to see more new releases and I was much improved over previous years, but I still missed a lot. This year will be better.

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