Saturday, December 28, 2013

Honeymoon from Hell

A low budget need not restrict an artist from fully realized creative fact, it often forces the filmmakers toward creative and original methods of telling their stories.

The Honeymoon Killers (1969) is a twisted tale of jealousy, sacrifice and obsession, with high black humor punctuated by brutal acts of cold-blooded violence. Filmed in stark black and white, this little film, which bills itself as “one of the most bizarre stories in the annals of crime,” makes for one of the most bizarre and original motion pictures of the 20th century. Based on a true story of a couple who bilked, pillaged and murdered their way through the unlucky members of a lonelyhearts “friendship” club, this early indie effort is considered a cinematic trailblazer and underground masterpiece.

Director Leonard Kastle, who never made a film either before or after this startling debut, tackles the material, the camera and his actors with the savvy of an old pro, capturing layers of meaning in every scene of this rich and deeply affecting odyssey. In lieu of expensive production values, Kastle relies on his actors and his director of photography Donald Volkman to compose scenes and devise shots that evoke humor, terror and pathos by focusing on the talented performers’ expressive eyes and faces. The script, also helmed by Kastle, is as tight as a drum, unfolding a richly layered story with perfectly drawn, quirky characters.

Forming the powerful apex of the film are the unforgettable performances of the brilliant Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco,  two fine character actors who were elevated to leading man and lady for the one and only time in their careers.

As a lonely woman transfigured by the love of a man, the character of Martha Beck as played by Shirley Stoler belongs alongside such legendary spinster portrayals as Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and Katharine Hepburn in Summertime. Obese, cranky and desperately lonely, Nurse Beck toils in a hospital by day and binges on junk food by night while caring for her elderly mother. Actress Stoler, who never again headlined another film as leading lady, sculpts the role of Martha Beck into a thing of beauty with her multilayered portrayal, nailing countless brilliant moments ranging from subtle to epic, becoming a woman transformed (for better and for worse)  by love.

LoBianco is sexy, charming, dangerous and complicated as Ray Fernandez, aka Charles Martin, the slick con artist who never turned down a forward pass from the opposite sex. Not known for being a heartthrob or beefcake, this veteran character actor (The French Connection, The Juror) registers an unexpected sex appeal as the compulsive gigolo, even revealing his lean, well-muscled  physique in several scenes—dancing the rhumba in tight white pants with the camera trained on his perfectly rounded buttocks; wearing a skintight bathing suit while doing pushups; stripping off his blood-soaked pajamas and sauntering nude into the bedroom to make love with Martha after committing murder. Ultimately, he is the weaker character, relying heavily on the clinical practicality of nurse Martha to clean up their savage messes. And of course, it’s Martha who must put an end to the madness by tipping off the police to their ugliest killing yet.

Despite the unrelenting violence, Honeymoon Killers is at its core a love story. The chemistry of these two actors transcends the nature of their brutal crimes—you actually start to feel sorry for Martha and Ray, despite their acts of evil and ugliness. You really believe that Ray loves Martha above all others; you witness the palpable relief he displays after he reveals his profession to Martha...and she accepts him as he is, even offering to help him swindle the unsuspecting women. But Martha’s jealousy and pride deliberately provoke the violence in every instance, when any of these women try to get close to Ray, either physically or emotionally.

Ray and Martha’s victims, as painted by Kastle and brilliantly brought to life by both skilled and amateur actors, are each so comically annoying, neurotic and dishonest themselves that no wonder Martha is driven to the brink of madness and bent on revenge. From an inane schoolteacher to a knocked-up nymphomaniac to a plain-Jane bed-and-breakfast proprietress, Ray’s lonelyhearts assignations make passionate, plump Martha seem like a catch indeed. All are played to the hilt by talented performers. But as Janet Fay, the elderly, childish, penny-pinching widow with a nasal twang that goes through Martha like a nail ( “Isn’t that cute?”), Mary Jane Higby practically steals the show before being dispatched in gruesome fashion by Ray and Martha.

TV audiences will recognize Everybody Loves Raymond’s Doris Roberts near the beginning of her career (the veteran actress had already clocked more than 100 acting credits before starring in the hit TV series) as Martha’s neighbor who acts as the initiator of the story by signing up Martha as a member of the friendship club.

Dramatic music from great German master Gustave Mahler underscores Kastle’s sweeping, operatic storytelling and heightens the sense of impending doom. The film ends as it begins, with ardent, passionate expressions of love and affection between two romantic pen the star-crossed lovers correspond prior to their executions at Sing Sing prison.

The Honeymoon Killers is chilling, brutal and shocking, but unrelentingly absorbing, a one-hit wonder by director Leonard Kastle, and a rare opportunity to see unique character actors cast as romantic leads.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

To Sirk with Love

I consider Douglas Sirk one of the great auteurs of classic 1950s cinema, because all his films bear an indelible stamp: A Sirk film always presents a glamorized and superbly heightened reality, a story teeming with passion and drama, building to a grand crescendo. Emotions are sensationalized, sentimentalized and romanticized, and clothed in widescreen technicolor splendor, with lavish sets and costumes, sweeping music and of course, bigger-than-life and too-beautiful-to-believe stars. Sirk made many a great picture using this formula, most notably All That Heaven Allows and Written On The Wind, but his masterpiece of cinematic artifice is most definitely Imitation of Life (1959).

The classic tale of the bond between two single mothers, one black and one white, had been filmed successfully before, in 1934 with Claudette Colbert, so the 1959 version had to be bigger and better. Here, producer Ross Hunter (Pillow Talk, Backstreet, Madame X)  enabled Douglas Sirk’s opulent aesthetic vision with a generous budget and full creative control.

Lana Turner as Lora Meredith

Sirk takes the title of Fannie Hurst’s old novel literally in fashioning a film that is a near-perfect imitation of real-life love, passion and dysfunction. He focuses relentlessly on the superficial and cosmetic aspects of storytelling in a style that helped define camp  as “a lie that tells the truth.” Beginning with the casting of glamorous superstar Lana Turner in the lead, opposite a square-jawed, deep-voiced John Gavin, one of the handsomest, if not theatrically gifted, actors of the 1950s, Sirk reveals his aim is far from creating a gritty slice-of-life. No, this is soap opera at its entertaining best, a film that used to be known as a tearjerker, with only a few brief nods toward reality.

Juanita Moore as Annie Johnson

John Gavin as Steve Archer

Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane

Sandra Dee as Susie
A mature, still arrestingly beautiful Lana Turner, gowned by Jean Louis and dripping in David Webb jewels, turns in a skilled, if mannered, performance as selfish actress Lora Meredith, who sacrifices both love and family for the sake of career ambition. In the early sequences, as Lora struggles financially, living in a downtown “coldwater flat” with daughter Susie, Turner adopts the long-haired 1940s coiffure that she sported in films a dozen years earlier, with close-ups lovingly photographed in ultra-soft focus. Later, her hairstyle becomes short and severe after her transformation into the toast of Broadway, an ego-driven diva still burning with ambition to conquer the silver screen. The intensity displayed by Turner’s character is a pantomime of genuine human emotion, designed to reach the back row of the theater, but nonetheless divinely, compellingly watchable. In one of the climactic mother-daughter confrontations that drive the plot of this classic “women’s picture,” a teenage Sandra Dee implores of Turner, “Oh, Mama, stop acting!” But the audience pleads silently--”No, Miss Turner, don’t stop. Please keep on chewing that scenery!”

Turner had developed a flair for this type of melodrama, having earned her only Oscar nod the previous year for Peyton Place. And of course, she was no stranger to off-screen drama and tragedy, either. Just before beginning work on this film, sordid details of Turner’s private life had been splashed across the tabloid pages after her lover Johnny Stompanato had been stabbed to death, reportedly by daughter Cheryl Crane, during a domestic dispute. The scandal boosted publicity for Imitation of Life (with its eerily paralllel mother-daughter plot angles) making it one of the top grossers of 1959.

But beneath the veneer of melodrama and flamboyant production values is a storyline with a soupçon of substance, dealing head-on with one of the chief issues of the time...racial injustice and prejudice. Juanita Moore’s touching and understated performance as Annie Johnson strikes the film’s sole note of reality (erasing the offensive image of Louise Beavers as the Aunt Jemima-like pancake lady in the original 1934 version). Amid the bombast of practically every other performance, Moore quietly underplays, modulating her voice to a soothing whisper as she selflessly looks after everyone but herself, offering comfort and wisdom but suffering silently.

Susan Kohner (better known today as the mom of filmmaking brothers Chris and Paul Weitz of American Pie fame) is much more showy in her role Annie’s rebellious fair-skinned daughter, tortured and embittered by a life of always staying “in the back.” Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations went to both Moore and Kohner for their very different approaches to the material.

But even the racial angle of the story is not immune to Douglas Sirk’s ostentatious, presentational style. Kohner’s Sarah Jane works in “low-down dirty dives” and morally corrupt nightclubs, even lip-synching a song with a highly sexual double entendre, likening an empty purse to a feature of the female anatomy and imploring the sleazy crowd to “fill what is empty.”   Earlier, a young Troy Donahue beats the hell out of Kohner’s character in a startlingly violent and over-the-top manner after asking, “Is it your mother a n****r?”

And the final funeral sequence is pure fantasy, with four white horses, a New Orleans blues band and of course, the iconic Mahalia Jackson singing “Trouble of the World.” (Look for an homage to this sequence in Mike Nichols’s brilliant film of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.) Of course, here is where Sirk gives Miss Kohner the opportunity to throw herself over the coffin of her dead mother and beg for forgiveness, something we in real life very rarely do. But it is a surprisingly effective catharsis...if you are in the right mood, you will cry right along with mourners Susan, Lana, John and Sandra. I know I always do.

Imitation of Life is an artfully constructed and captivating film that’s a feast for the senses and emotions, presented by a masterful auteur. It provides a glorious opportunity to while away a lazy afternoon with a pint of Haagen Dazs, and escape your own real-life “troubles of the world,” knowing that even the rich and beautiful have issues, too, though in Douglas Sirk’s world, they do their suffering in in mink.