Director: Todd Robinson
Cast: John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Jared Leto
Granddaddy of today’s speed date and chat room, America’s Cold War-era lonely hearts club catered to socially hesitant World War II widows and worried aging singles by discreet postal newsletter. As is still the case, this was fertile ground. In 1948 Martha Beck, a registered nurse, joined such a club in New York City and soon met toupee-clad con man Ray Fernandez. Unlike his previous marks, the full-figured Martha followed Ray after he robbed her, igniting an obsessive mutual passion. After she dropped her two small kids at the Salvation Army, Martha managed Ray’s dates, and posed as his sister to reassure skittish prospects. By the time they were arrested outside Grand Rapids in 1949, this duo had industriously fleeced three dozen women of their bank accounts. Charged with 20 murders, tied to three more, they admitted to 12 – these involved poison, bludgeoning, shooting, drowning and dismemberment. After a failed insanity defense, they went to Sing Sing’s electric chair in 1951 for killing wealthy and ostentatiously religious Albany widow Janet Fay.
At least three movies tell their tale – the first two released in 1970 and 1996. The latest, Todd Robinson’s Lonely Hearts, went quickly to DVD on July 31st after a theater run both long-delayed and brief. Writer-director Robinson is the grandson of Nassau County Detective Elmer “Buster” Robinson (John Travolta), who – with fellow cop Charlie Hildebrandt (James Gandolfini) – finally chased down Ray and Martha (Jared Leto and brilliantly-cast Salma Hayek). Then he quit police work. In five years he’d worked 1000 homicide cases.
Lonely Hearts premiered at New York’s 2006 Tribeca Festival to good reviews but didn’t reach theaters until this April, when it hit an apparent wall of fatigue with similar stories. Despite popularity on-screen of World War II battles and Cold War espionage, recent attempts to explore parallel upheaval in private life during that same period – often through noir-ish treatments of actual unsolved murders – haven’t been as sure-footed. Intervening films like Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia (about Elizabeth Short’s 1947 murder), Hollywoodland (Ben Affleck’s vehicle about Superman actor George Reeves’ 1959 death) and even David Fincher’s under-appreciated Zodiac (somewhat later California serial killings) have been less warmly embraced by audiences.
Robinson’s film deserves another look. It’s beautifully shot, with uniformly fine performances – including Laura Dern as Rene, Buster’s girlfriend-under-wraps. And Buster’s story provides a new, edgy parallel meditation on obsession and its price for “the rest of us,” an approach neither earlier film took. Robinson sets this up at once, opening his film with Buster’s wife’s suicide on their anniversary in 1947 – off working, he’d missed dinner once too often, and came home late to find the table set and her body in the tub. The film introduces Buster to Ray and Martha’s handiwork a year later via another woman shot dead in a bathtub. The echo hits Buster hard. Director Robinson’s film evades the question of whether his grandfather was already seeing Rene Fodie before his wife’s suicide or simply started afterward with unseemly speed – less, I think, out of any family reticence than correctly intuiting that his film is dramatically stronger for focusing on the detective’s secretiveness and Rene’s demands for attention as mirrors for Ray and Martha.
A kind of ricocheting comparison develops. When Martha discovers Ray in bed with another woman – this leads to her first murder – he exclaims, “Jesus, Martha! I was working!” Fed up with Buster’s all-consuming work, Rene resorts to leaving instead of murder – but at the worst possible moment, when Ray and Martha have just surfaced in Michigan, having killed a cop. Rene announces, “I’m leaving. I’m going to live with my sister in Rochester. Say something to stop me!” Buster manages only, “I don’t want you to go. I’ll be back in a couple days.” Early on, Charlie reminds Buster, “Just do your job!” That’s always more than anyone bargains for.
All three films select some variation on these key murders in the duo’s malignant career – their first, then that which sends them to Sing Sing, and the final fiasco with Delphine Downing (pregnant with Ray’s baby) and her small daughter. All three films convey convincing animal heat between Ray and Martha, but the earlier two place them in distorted, suffocating isolation, decisively defining them as pariahs rather than markers of a new post-war darkness in American life. Though Robinson had seen the previous two films, when he declares Lonely Hearts is “not a re-make,” that is surely a starting point for why not.
Leonard Kastle made The Honeymoon Killers (1970/DVD 2003) because he judged Bonnie and Clyde (1967) “revolting” and “fake” for glamorizing violent criminals. Kastle used grainy black and white film, shooting a manipulative, hysterical Martha (Shirley Stoler) from unflattering angles so she looked even blowsier. For his only film – Kastle works in opera and orchestra production – he adapted Mahler’s 6th symphony for the score, calling it as “over-baked” as the story. An extraordinarily articulate Kastle explains in detail on the DVD how the film was made and his own series of choices as writer and then director.
Casting slender Salma Hayek as Martha – Jared Leto’s skinny, jittery Ray reinforces this – allows Robinson to use physical mass differently, conveying visually how irredeemable promises and sorrows weigh men down. Charlie and Buster – Travolta added pounds for this role – are dense, ponderous men, oxen, enlarged yet again by their trench coats and brimmed hats and the deep shadows they daily traverse. This is the first of the three films that includes substantial treatment of the police themselves. In doing so, Robinson explores what happens during interaction with personalities such as Ray and Martha over time – exactly how they are socially toxic beyond their individual horrific crimes. In contrast, Kastle’s film virtually excludes police, while Ripstein simply equates his back-country lawmen with the duo. This is Robinson’s first feature-length film – he previously made the Oscar-nominated documentary Amargosa and some TV movies – and that makes his next effort something to look out for.
This review appears in the 8/16/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent films that didn’t open in CNY & older films of enduring worth.