Opera composer Leonard Kastle made only one movie in his lifetime, but it was enough to retire on.

The Honeymoon Killers (1969) is loosely based on Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, the so-called lonely hearts killers who cheated and killed women seeking love and companionship through classified advertisements in America in the 1940s. Raymond would reel in the women through stirringly worded letters, while Beck, posing as his sister, would help him rob their victims and, on occasion, murder them. They were eventually arrested and sentenced to death.

Kastle builds on this pulpy foundation a solid examination of the passion between Raymond and Martha, which bound them together through jealousy, betrayal and murder. This most unusual of romances came smack in the middle of the so-called New Hollywood phase of European arthouse cinema-influenced experimentation.

The Honeymoon Killers bears many marks of the period: it is shot in the bold black-and-white tones associated with newspaper headlines and the newsreel documentary, features relatively unknown actors (Shirley Stole and Tony Lo Bianco), and resolutely refuses to glamourise its subject matter. Stole bears a far greater resemblance to the corpulent and ruddy-faced Martha Beck than does Salma Hayek, who featured with Jared Leto in the glossy and misguided 2006 version of the story titled LonelyHearts.


The fierce-looking Martha’s humdrum life changes for good when Raymond answers a letter she has sent to a lonely hearts club. Rather than treating Martha as another one of his marks, Raymond, a Spaniard whose exotic good looks and lilting accent set off flutters in the hearts of widows and single mothers, involves her in his crimes. Martha’s possessiveness and temper tantrums threaten to undo Raymond’s schemes ever so often, but his control over her invariably wins the day. In a telling sequence, Martha tries to drown herself in front of Raymond and a potential victim, only to be rescued by him.

Their love has been cemented, but Martha has learnt her lesson – and her place in the power grid that governs their equation. She puts on her most pleasant face for the next few victims, with deeply tragic consequences. The sordidness of the crimes is leavened by black humour. Kastle mischievously suggests that some of the victims might have been foolish enough to deserve their fate.

One of the saddest deaths is of an aging, penny-pinching widow who is mercilessly done away with in black-and-white motel room hell. Another victim’s fate is viewed almost entirely through her terror-stricken eyes – this is a movie that makes powerful use of close-ups to suggest, rather than spell out, the emotional impact of the moment.

Serial killer movies usually amp up the gore and demonise their villains. The Honeymoon Killers retains its empathy for its remorseless murderers, especially for Martha. She is rewarded for her loyalty to Raymond with a letter in which he declares his undying devotion to her. Martha reads this billet doux with quiet triumph as she awaits her trial. Love is strange, the love that exists between serial killers stranger still, and The Honeymoon Killers is one of the rare films to explore the dimensions of this ardour with intelligence and beauty.