Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Lonely Hearts

'Lonely Hearts' is yet another account of the infamous 'Lonely Hearts Killers', though this time with the added distinction of being written and directed by the grandson of one of the cops who brought them in. Whether he adds anything to the tale though is doubtful.
For the uninitiated, throughout the late '40s, conman Raymond Fernandez targeted vulnerable women through lonely hearts columns, meeting, seducing, robbing and then leaving them. That is until he met the somewhat unstable Martha Beck. Martha proved to be his soul mate and to her he confessed his criminal activities. Far from being shocked, she embraced his lifestyle, masquerading as his sister, while he pursued more lonely women. She even added an extra dimension; murder.
The definitive movie telling of this seedy story is Leonard Kastle's 1970 film, 'The Honeymoon Killers'. Low-budget and looking it, it nevertheless caught the homicidal duo's career perfectly, with Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler making the killers live again with amazing performances. It was also very faithful to the facts of the case. Despite Robinson's credentials that can't be said for the latest version.
Once again there are star turns by the actors playing the killers. Jared Leto shows us Fernandez as a small-time operator who is nevertheless ready to take the next step into homicide given the right push. Salma Hayek is perfectly believeable as that 'push', a wonderful mask of caring and affection hiding a truly psychopathic interior. She is excellent. The problem is she looks nothing like the original Beck who suffered from a weight problem and was acutely aware of the world's perception of her. Hayek's Beck, despite a voiceover telling us of an abusive brother and a lifetime of ills, is too pretty to adequately convey the real Beck's insecurities.
The story, while close, nevertheless deviates from the facts too, principally to give John Travolta's Detective Robinson more of a role in the killers' capture. A 'subplot', involving Robinson's relationship with his son following his wife's suicide, is no doubt of great interest to the director, but personally I saw it adding little to what should be the main tale. Despite a somewhat one-note performance from Travolta, he and Gandolfini are a good pairing as the cops on the case, but when it comes down to it, they seem to do very little actual detecting. In fact, they seem to do very little of anything, and that is part of the problem. This is really a movie of two stories, the Lonely Hearts Killers on one side, and the director's grandfather's unhappy life on the other. One is a nasty, but engrossing, portrait of two pychopaths in love, the other is a hopscotch mosaic of cop life in the '40s. In trying to tell the stories of both the cops and the robbers, 'Lonely Hearts' fails to do justice to either.
Where the movie succeeds is in the period detail, the casual violence and racism of the cops, the petty squabbling over who takes a pinch. The film also works when conveying the pathos of the horrific final murders of the pair. Visiting a single mother and her young daughter, Beck's jealousy ensures as unhappy an ending as you might expect. Here again though the earlier film was even more chilling.
This is not a bad movie. Although I question the wisdom of another retelling, the good performances and the only just dominant narrative of the killers ensure that it won't bore any audiences. However, it adds little to what is already a familar tale, and one that is not pleasant. Make no mistake, Fernandez and Beck were two of the most sickening killers of the Twentieth Century. Their story is sordid and unpleasant. However, I say it again, if you want the definitive 'Lonely Hearts Killers' on celluloid watch Kastle's 'The Honeymoon Killers'. You won't forget Shirley Stoler in a hurry.

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