One of my favorite directors Leonard Kastle, originally an opera composer who unexpectedly found a niche in film history as the writer and director of the low-budget 1969 crime-thriller film “The Honeymoon Killers,” died on Wednesday. He was 82.
When I made my worst ever film, The Method with Elizabeth Hurley I stole, almost shot by shot, one of Kastel’s brilliant murder scenes. See attached video.
Sadly, not even appropriating Kastel’s genius would save that terrible film.
One of the most shocking lines from any film ever written? When angry with her jewish boss Martha Beck says, “I’m not so sure Hitler wasn’t right about you people.”
In the 1950s and ’60s Mr. Kastle enjoyed a modest reputation as a composer of melodic, romantic operas and as a musical director of works for the stage.
Fame arrived by an unexpected route. Warren Steibel, the producer of “Firing Line” with William F. Buckley Jr. and of Mr. Kastle’s television operas, was given $150,000 by a rich friend to make a film. He hit on the idea of making a grim, documentary-style work based on the story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, who were known as the Lonely Hearts Killers.
Fernandez was a balding lothario, Beck his obese lover. Together they sought out victims by reading newspaper personal ads, and when Fernandez had won the trust of those they contacted, they robbed them. The couple murdered two of their victims and the 2-year-old daughter of one as well. Fernandez and Beck were electrocuted at Sing Sing in 1951.
At the request of Mr. Steibel, who died in 2002, Mr. Kastle sifted through the trial records at the Bronx County Courthouse. Then, after studying scripts by Fellini, Pasolini and Truffaut, he wrote a screenplay.
Both men envisioned the film as a cinematic rebuttal to “Bonnie and Clyde.” “I was revolted by that movie,” Mr. Kastle said in an interview for the 2003 Criterion Collection reissue of his film on DVD. “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.”
For his director, Mr. Steibel hired Martin Scorsese, whose first film, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?,” he had seen recently. But as filming began near the summer home that Mr. Steibel and Mr. Kastle shared in New Lebanon, N.Y., trouble loomed.
It quickly became apparent that Mr. Scorsese’s deliberate, painstaking approach would break the budget and play havoc with the shooting. Mr. Kastle said that after Mr. Scorsese and Oliver Wood, the cinematographer, spent an entire afternoon filming a beer can in a bush, it was clear they would need another director.
When Mr. Scorsese’s replacement, an industrial filmmaker named Donald Volkman, also proved unsatisfactory, Mr. Kastle stepped into the breach. Against the odds, he turned out a quirky masterpiece.
“The Honeymoon Killers,” with Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler in the lead roles, stunned moviegoers and critics. Brutal, unblinking and ruthlessly honest, with a powerful undercurrent of black comedy, it quickly earned an exalted place in American cinema.
Variety, in an early review, hailed the film as “well-scripted, harrowing, brilliantly acted” and “deserving of a class build-up.” Roger Greenspun, in The New York Times, called Mr. Kastle “the real star of the movie” and placed him “among the important deliberate artists of his medium.” François Truffaut, on more than one occasion, included it among his favorite contemporary American films.
The film performed tepidly at the box office in the United States, despite strong reviews, but found a receptive audience in Europe. It reaped a new harvest of acclaim as it made the festival and art-house circuits when it was re-released in 1992.
“Even 20-plus years after its original release, this picture’s implacability and refusal to compromise are as startlingly pure as ever,” Kenneth Turan wrote in The Los Angeles Times.
In 2006 Jared Leto and Salma Hayek starred in a remake of the film, “Lonely Hearts,” with John Travolta as the detective who pursues the murderers.
It was Mr. Kastle’s first and last movie.
Mr. Kastle was often asked why he never made another film. It was not for lack of trying, he said.
“I have six or seven screenplays, and maybe something will happen,” he told the interviewer for the Criterion DVD. “But one thing I can always say — and not every director can say this — I never made a bad film after ‘Honeymoon Killers.’ ”