- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2007

Moviegoers whose impressions date back to 1970 probably recall a low-budget crime melodrama titled “The Honeymoon Killers.” The principal characters were appalling to contemplate — a tawdry and remorseless pair of murderers, Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, whose depravities led to the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1951.

Despite the well-deserved fear and loathing generated by the content, it was difficult to deny the movie’s insidious flair. “Killers” left a blunt and distinctive impact, and it enjoyed a considerable art-house vogue of a freakish, semi-amateurish kind.

An incongruous first film, “Killers” was written and directed by an aspiring operatic composer, Leonard Kastle, once active in NBC’s “Opera Theater” television productions of the early 1950s. He was destined to remain a one-shot filmmaker — an improbable fate he ruefully explains during a retrospective interview appended to the Criterion Collection DVD of “Honeymoon Killers.”

Other curiosities of movie history are associated with the film, notably Mr. Kastle’s decision to replace the young Martin Scorsese as director after the first week of shooting. Evidently, Mr. Scorsese’s pace (he had one feature to his credit at the time, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?”) was just too slow for a movie budgeted at $150,000.

Short on names, finances and an attractive subject, “Honeymoon Killers” bucked unsightly odds and proved a cult success.

Earlier this year, a movie titled “Lonely Hearts,” far more reputable and attractive in many respects and dealing with the same case history from a different but arguably more revealing perspective, failed to make the slightest commercial headway. It debuted in “select” markets (Washington not among them) in April a year after being shown for the first time at the TriBeca Film Festival. In the interim, it was released abroad, months before the belated, half-hearted American distribution.

Despite the calamitous start, “Lonely Hearts” makes a plausible case for belated respect, in part because it provides such a striking contrast to Leonard Kastle’s depiction of the Fernandez-Beck crime spree.

“Lonely Hearts” is also a first feature, but the writer-director, Todd Robinson, has an earlier theatrical screenplay (Ridley Scott’s “White Squall”) and numerous television credits on his resume. He’s also completing an auspicious second feature, “The Last Full Measure,” so the recent failure of “Lonely Hearts” hasn’t stymied his career.

Mr. Robinson has an unusual personal stake in the material: He’s the paternal grandson of the character played by John Travolta, a Nassau County homicide detective named Elmer Robinson, whose investigation of one of the murders committed by Fernandez and Beck led to their capture and execution.

“The Honeymoon Killers” does not depict the police. They are mentioned only moments before the fadeout. The movie insists on an ominous, graceless and sometimes morbidly funny intimacy with the killers, played by Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler.

The most successful member of the cast turned out to be Doris Roberts, the future mother of Ray Romano in his “Everybody Loves Raymond” series. In “Killers,” she was cast as a ditsy friend of Miss Stoler’s obese and scowling Martha, started on the road to perdition when enrolled in a lonely-hearts correspondence service. Miss Roberts’ character took the liberty of enrolling her.

“Lonely Hearts” operates on incisive and parallel narrative tracks, intercutting between killers and lawmen. Mr. Travolta, partnered with James Gandolfini as a gruff but solicitous sidekick, is a sleuth of abiding sorrows, haunted by the unexplained suicide of his wife a few years earlier.

Mr. Robinson contrives to unite a dreadful crime history with a reflective and elegiac family legend. Apprehending the killers acquires a special redemptive aspect for his protagonist, reinforced by the very structure of the movie, which insists on a fundamental moral divide between emotionally suffering but decent human beings and the terminally ruthless or bloodthirsty.

A sumptuously designed and photographed movie, “Lonely Hearts” evokes a late 1940s setting that was barely suggested in “Honeymoon Killers.” It also takes a freshly witty and perverse approach to the murderers by entrusting these wretches to Jared Leto and Salma Hayek, two of the best-looking film actors of their generation. The result is a tour de force that contradicts Leonard Kastle’s decision to emphasize blatantly unappealing physical traits in Fernandez and Beck, whose photographs seem to defy anything flattering.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Mr. Leto does fabulous things while downgrading his looks (especially his ravaged hairline) in favor of a weaselly cunning and vitality. Miss Hayek hasn’t messed with her appearance, but she has acquired a capacity to make it genuinely threatening through the expression of despotic vanity.

These two are alarming spellbinders and arguably more menacing than the co-stars of “Killers” because it’s easier to believe the predators of “Lonely Hearts” could seduce an infinite array of victims. Ironically, they also may be thorns in the side of Leonard Kastle, who claims he envisioned “Honeymoon Killers” as a rebuke to “Bonnie and Clyde,” which he felt was “fake,” largely because of glamorized casting.

He wasn’t alone in that complaint back in the late 1960s, but it was always debatable and remains so. Mr. Leto’s and Miss Hayek’s performances in “Lonely Hearts” remind you that beautiful actors may always have an edge, even when they choose to portray human ugliness.

TITLE: “Lonely Hearts”

RATING: R (Graphic violence, sexual candor, profanity, nudity and systematic ominous overtones)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Todd Robinson. Cinematography by Peter Levy.

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

DVD EDITION: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.SonyPictures.com

TITLE: “The Honeymoon Killers”

RATING: R (Graphic violence, sexual candor, fleeting nudity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Leonard Kastle. Cinematography by Oliver Wood.

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

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