Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 5
In 1947, a single mother from northern Florida, Martha Beck, placed a “lonely hearts” ad in a rag with a nationwide circulation, through which she met Raymond Hernandez from New York City, an ex-con/con man who preyed upon war widows and single women of means, relying upon the fact that they were often (but not always) too embarrassed to report being swindled. Through a letter-writing courtship, Raymond attempted to do the same with Martha, but when he realized she had no money to squander, he dumped her. Martha was not easily dissuaded, and once she was fired from her job as a nurse at a hospital, she showed up at Raymond’s doorstep. She catered to him. She threatened suicide. And when he confessed his modus operandi to her, she abandoned her children at a Salvation Army and joined him on his ventures, often posing as Raymond’s sister or sister-in-law to unsuspecting marks. The partnership turned homicidal as Martha became increasingly less comfortable with sharing Raymond, sexually or otherwise, even as part of a ruse. By the time they were arrested in 1949, it is believed that the pair had killed as many as 20 women.
Martha and Raymond were not what most most people would consider conventionally attractive, and that aspect, combined with an unapologetically lusty demeanor toward each other, fueled the freak show-spun media hype leading up to their executions in 1951.
Some stories have an amazing propensity to endure. And exclusive of other sources of entertainment media (e.g., episodes of TV series, plays), the story of Martha and Raymond, dubbed “Lonely Hearts Killers,” has endured through six international feature films over the course of six decades (including two relatively obscure Hollywood dramas not discussed here due to a lack of availability, Lonely Heart Bandits (1950), starring Dorothy Patrick and John Eldredge, and Lonely Hearts (1991), starring Beverly D’Angelo and Eric Roberts).
The U.S. cult classic, The Honeymoon Killers (1969) (originally titled “Dear Martha”), which was famously branded as François Truffaut’s “favorite American film,” represents an alternate legacy to the influence of the French New Wave in the U.S. – a DYI, pre-punk sensibility to independent filmmaking in defiance to the New Hollywood. Opera composer Leonard Castle took an interest in the Lonely Hearts Killers story and persuaded Warren Steibel, producer of the show Firing Line, to put up $150,000 to make a feature film. With connections as limited as their budget, Castle ended up conducting research directly from the courthouse records, boning up on screenplays he appreciated to write his own, casting the parts, and ultimately, taking up the mantle as director after a young upstart Martin Scorsese was fired early on for spending too much time shooting a beer can. Inspired by the revulsion Castle harbored against the glamorously-cast New Hollywood harbinger, Bonnie & Clyde (1967), he cast Shirley Stoler as Martha for her “gorgeous” appearance – a look that would later influence John Waters’ own casting choices.
As a self-proclaimed amateur, Castle shot few takes, achieving a “quasi-documentary” quality, although the casting of actors from the New York theatre scene and scoring the film with a rather generic Gustav Mahler symphony contributes to a distinctly “overbaked” feel (as Castle himself put it in an 2003 interview).
The Honeymoon Killers ultimately falls into a categorization that I would describe as “b-movies as art” – films with a unique energy that embrace b-movie aesthetics and sensibilities, while also reflecting admirably earnest, and mostly effective, sense of thematic ambition. In addition to molding certain victims as manifestations of right-wing American values, Castle’s choices in casting Stoler and writing the screenplay with a relatively sympathetic eye toward Martha (e.g., by omitting the abandonment of her own children) demonstrate an authentic desire to reveal a previously unseen character. Nonetheless, the film shows certain seams that do not quite add to the charm.
As a winner of eight Ariel Awards and Mexico’s official submission to compete for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Profundo carmesi (Deep Crimson) (1997) may be the most well-regarded of the Lonely Hearts Killers adaptation.
Director Arturo Epstein maintains Castle’s authenticity in casting, which contributes to a certain negative self-image and social insecurity in Martha’s character (Regina Orozco as “Coral”), while adding similar elements to Raymond’s character (Daniel Giménez Cacho as “Nicholás”) that Castle treated more as an afterthought (e.g., the use of a hairpiece). And Coral exerts more overt dominance over Nicholás than in Castle’s interpretation.
That said, none of these psychological aspects are explored with much depth. Rather, Deep Crimson is pure noir melodrama.
As such, while sticking to the era of the source material, the filmmakers give the story a distinctly Mexican identity, with all of the narrative choices and attention to class distinctions/the justice system that entails. And the experience of the film is all the more rich for it.
With Lonely Hearts (2007), Hollywood reclaimed the tale, assembling writer/director Todd Robinson, the grandson of one of the police investigators in the real case, and an A-list cast including the ravishing Salma Hayek as Martha and the youthful Jared Leto as Raymond (channeling a manic Johnny Depp).
The intended vibe is L.A. Confidential (1997), but the actual effect is gawdy. The most positive things that could be said about this movie would be confined to the costumes and the set pieces.
Robinson, who was obviously motivated by a perceived personal connection, weaves in the subplot of a brooding, yet lily-white, lead investigator (John Travolta, unconvincingly cast as a superior to James Gandolfini), who, as one might expect, has his own lonely heart to deal with – the death of his wife and the fallout with his teenage son. (The irony, which never seems to dissuade Hollywood, is that the actions of the police and the courts in the actual case, hell bent on meting out the death penalty, were dubious at best.) Setting aside the misguided attempts at creating narrative parallels, the dialogue ranges from the pedestrian to the cringe-inducing, leading one to wonder whether the actors actually read the script before agreeing to take on the project.
In stark contrast, co-writer/director Fabrice du Welz offers the bloody pagan Belgian-French psycho-drama, Alléluia (2015). With the modern context of online dating and stylistic choices that never shy away from emotional and thematic emphasis, du Welz constructs what may be the most accessible version of the lot for the contemporary cineaste.
And from this particular vantage point in film history, Lola Dueñas and Laurent Lucas turn in the most committed, if not convincing, performances as “Gloria” and “Michel.”
If The Honeymoon Killers represents b-movie as art, then Alléluia could be characterized as an attempt at horror film as art, with du Welz exploding how empathy for others is crowded out by obsessive love (an aspect emphasized at one point when Dueñas rather inexplicably breaks into song), while drawing from the vocabulary of the 1969 film (inverting a key line of enigmatic dialogue). However, the end result is not entirely successful, as the episodic structure is ultimately betrayed by a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.
Considering that none of these four different films are considered widely successful, one has to wonder why this single true crime story has been mined over and over with relatively few differences in the fundamental details. Despite the differences in approaching that same story, perhaps it is more useful to consider these films as part of a single genre, and as Carol Clover posited (Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror Film (1992), p. 12), the “art” of a genre “is to a very large extent the art of rendition or performance, and it is understood as such by [its] competent audience.”
The Honeymoon Killers (1969): B
Profundo carmesi (Deep Crimson) (1997): B-
Lonely Hearts (2007): D
Alléluia (2015): C+