Monday, May 23, 2011

R.I.P. Train: Leonard Kastle (1929-2011 - director of THE HONEYMOON KILLERS)

It's a sad thing when any director dies, but something nearly singular (or I should say rare) when the director of only one film has died.  There aren't too many in history who direct just one movie and move either don't do it again for various reasons or die, but there are a handful of notables for better (Jean Vigo, Charles Laughton) and worse (Hal B. Warren, whoever that motherfucker was who directed After Last Season).  Now there is another to add to the list.

The director of the 1970 film The Honeymoon Killers has passed, Leonard Kastle... and he only directed this one film (and according to small obits I perused he was mostly a composer), ironically brought in after none other than Martin Scorsese was kicked off for taking too long with master shots.  It was a small independent release back when it came out, and it became after a time a cult film that was praised none higher than Truffaut who called it the best American film of the past 20 years (that being 1950 to 1970 I suppose, the quote can be found somewhere online).

Reprinted below is my review from from 2007.  I gave it, in the traditional star rating system, 3 1/2 out of 4 stars, with only minor complaints on what is in general a wonderfully written, directed and acted film:

"*** This review may contain spoilers ***

To get right out of the way, the quibbles I had with The Honeymoon Killers: once or twice in Leonard Kastle's direction the bravely amateurish quality goes into the unnecessarily over-dramatic (the drowning scene in the lake is the most extreme example, maybe the only one worth noting here); a slow start as far as emotional engagement to the story (it's a slightly weak start in terms of the relationship between mother and daughter Beck); a scene towards the end where right after the murder of a crucial character- and presented in a perfect way with the absence of malice- dialog is exchanged that feels inappropriate for immediately after such an event that's just happened (or rather, it would be a fine exchange of words- last words spoken directly between Martha and Ray on screen- if it were in another room or a cut-away).  But these aren't big gaping flaws so much as minor criticisms of what is really a passionate debut where exact knowledge of craft isn't as crucial, though it is filmed wonderfully by Kastle and DP Oliver Wood in black and white, as are the very truthful performances.

According to Kastle on the DVD interview, the film is more or less accurate to real events, meaning that certain facts involving the murders are real, but there are small details slipped in for dramatic effect. It's a major credit that nothing feels false, however if suitably dramatic, in a form that edges somewhere between drama and documentary, never too at ease in slipping into one genre or the other. The mood is foreboding a lot of the time, with the limited lighting and tight, lingering close-ups and shots accentuating Martha's fleshy arms. Adding to the atmosphere greatly, and perhaps as the best reasons to see the film, are the leads themselves, with Shirley Stoler giving a second best performance of her career (the best would later be in a less demonstrative but perfectly cold turn in Seven Beauties) as a nurse who falls for a skeezy con-man named Ray (Lo Bianco is also powerful in his role, as well as totally appropriate for the role in an occasional toupee), who lures lonely women into his trap and gets their money.

It's a story about the couple's duality of ego and disintegration within their combustible deal going on. They're heavily in love, or what might be considered love, but neither side will give in totally for the other's desire- Martha to settle down with Ray and for him to stop his scheming and getting close with women, and Ray to get enough money so the two of them can move on to somewhere else. It's a impactive psychological analysis not just because of how the characters are and act in their real world settings in such a low-budget and non-studio settings, but because the actors are the farthest from being beautiful or pretty to look at.

As what Kastle called decidedly anti Bonnie & Clyde casting, Ray and Martha look like they were pulled out of a local deli kitchen, with enough attitude to knock out anyone in sight. It's a fascinating story and fairly well told, and whatever slip-ups Kastle runs into in terms of not telling the greatest story or little things with the style are made up by the immediate nature of the material. It's raw, rough, lurid and disturbing work."

(If you'd like you can watch the whole film below, in 11 parts):

NY TIMES OBIT (much more detailed than I could write-up)

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