On Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers and Barbara Loden’s Wanda
At its heart, The Honeymoon Killers is a love story. This heart is black, and this love story twisted — defined by manipulation and violence more than anything else — but director Leonard Kastle goes to great pains to continually stress the love that binds his two eponymous killers. Even as the film draws to a close and the game is up, con-man Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) declares to his partner in crime Martha (Shirley Stoler) that he loves her, insisting “you and you alone are the only woman that I’ve ever loved.”
And in a way, this is true. Ray and Martha find in each other someone they can open up to; who they feel is able to stare at their inner lives, and all the darkness and pain within, and not look away, flinching. It begins with small things; when he asks her to call him Ray, something only one other person has done, “a childhood sweetheart from long ago.” Then his confessions escalate when he tells her about his scheme: marrying and swindling lonely women, and, inevitably, murdering them. Before the couple turn on Janet Fay (Mary Jane Higby), Ray says to Martha “if you love me, you’ll do it.” And she loves him. So she does it. The two of them enter into a covenant after Janet is killed; with Ray’s insistence that “only you and me know what happened. Only you and me.” This act of violence — stark, stripped back, as all of The Honeymoon Killers’ most brutal moments are — is born not of love, but loneliness. It is loneliness, and the promise of an extreme antidote for it, that has made Martha into the woman she is; it is what has brought her into Ray’s arms, into his cons.
The two of them meet via a lonely hearts ad, which Martha’s aunt insists “just might change [her] lonely life.” Martha, on the other hand, thinks that the letter she receives in response is an April fools joke at first. The romance between her and Ray is sad, desperate; Ray seems to be the only thing that Martha is able to hold on to. When she receives a Dear Jane letter from Ray, she has someone else call up on her behalf and tell him “she says you’ll read about it in the papers when she kills herself” — a threat that might seem hollow at first but which takes on a shockingly real turn as the story progresses. Martha’s violence — towards herself and others — is born out of loneliness more than anything else; getting blood on her hands seems to her to be a price worth paying in order to remain with someone who claims to be in love with her.
Because Martha is a character full of agency. She has plenty of chances to turn back; whether it’s the original Dear Jane letter, or the revelation about Ray’s life as a conman. But she continues to take his hand, the two of them walking lock-step together towards oblivion. She is desperate to be anything other than lonely, and puts all her hopes in Ray. When he comes to stay with Martha and her mother, he asks Martha to dance but she declines. Instead, he dances by himself, though the camera stays on Martha; we see the way she looks at him, and it seems we’re watching her fall in love with him in real time — but she also appears to be making a decision, that of staying with him no matter what. Until death parts them. Just as he emphasises the love that binds the two killers, Kastle also obsessively renders Martha’s loneliness through the film’s visual language: the camera focusing on her while Ray and a mark are together, the door to their room ajar; Martha’s attempt at drowning herself, alone out in the water. For all of her anger — even from her introductory scene — and raging against the world, it is the weight of loneliness that makes Martha small and twists her out of shape. Although it is through violence and the lingering spectre of death that she holds onto Ray, she is dwarfed by her loneliness.
The eponymous Wanda in Barbara Loden’s enigmatic crime story (played by Loden herself) is another woman alone in, and rejected by, the world around her. Often she lingers as a small dot on the landscape, rendered barely perceptible by the scale of everything around her. Loden’s film has a more distinctively feminist edge than Kastle’s, and she constantly challenges the ways in which Wanda’s worth is being defined. When she’s first introduced, Wanda is seen running late to a hearing about the end of her marriage and the parents’ custody rights. She is more than willing to let the children stay with her former husband and makes no secret of it, even as she is continually questioned about how capable she was of ”taking care” of them all.
In contrast with the operatic grandeur of so much of Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers, Wanda is a film defined by its silences. After a one night stand, the film plays out in silence as a man leaves Wanda lying in bed alone. She’s a lonely woman, and again the question lingers about what loneliness can make a person do; what it can turn them into. But unlike Martha, Wanda lacks agency and willingly relinquishes what little of it she does have, without needing any convincing. She is a slate onto which the men that drift in and out of her life are able to project whatever they want.
As in The Honeymoon Killers, at the centre of Wanda is a relationship between a lonely woman and a violent man. Wanda’s opposite number is Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), an aggressive, overpowering, evangelical man. The first night they spend together, he recoils from her when she tries to touch his head. It seems Wanda is trying to find something to hold on to, even as she silently let go of everything that defined her old life. Her (chosen) loneliness is more explicitly politicised than Martha’s: Wanda is told that she is stupid, that she is nothing because she “has nothing,” and that she “isn’t even a citizen of the United States.” There’s some truth to this, based on the way Loden defines the USA in the film: it is a vast, uncaring land that demands those who tread on it to provide, either with money, or by fulfilling their duties as spouses or parents. If Wanda is unable (or unwilling) to do these things, then her very right to exist in the country is called into question.
The things Wanda clings to are less corporeal than those Martha throws herself at. Wanda reaches out for literal crumbs; the last pieces of food given to her by a stranger. The way she tries to sustain herself, and her continued lack of agency, create a portrait of a woman who isn’t simply lonely, but has no place in the world. Like Martha, she’s drawn into crime and violence by the man whose orbit she falls into, and like Martha she has a chance to leave before things escalate. If she doesn’t take it, it isn’t because staying comes with a particular reward — unlike Martha, who gets a version of love. Wanda stays simply because she has nowhere else to go, nobody else who would take her in.
It is a feeling — and a reality — that lingers over Wanda throughout the film, from the moment she leaves her (ex) husband behind, to those final images where it seems she might be able to start again. After all, in divorce court early on in the film, it is by her (in)ability to be a wife and mother that she is defined. Even after she leaves that life behind, she isn’t sure how to define herself. This is what makes the relationships at the heart of Wanda and The Honeymoon Killers so fascinating: even with the offer of love — or something like it — the two women are unable to stop feeling lonely. This feeling comes from the world they inhabit as much as anything else; Wanda’s silent submissiveness around Mr. Dennis is a repetition of how she apparently related to her family life, an echo of what she tried to leave behind. She repeats her attempts at domesticity with Mr. Dennis because that is the only life she’s ever known, a self-negating partner the only kind of person she’s known how to be. The Honeymoon Killers shows Martha in a similar pattern of repetition, one where a more domineering personality subsumes her until she becomes little more than an extension of it — it’s no surprise that one of the major turning points in her relationship with Ray is when she has her mother put into a home. As much as Ray might call the suburbs “one little jail after another with ten feet of grass between them,” there are echoes of a traditional, suburban lifestyle emerging between them, and the violence of their scheme does not disrupt it — on the contrary. The loneliness that both women rail against in Wanda and The Honeymoon Killers becomes a trap of their own making, even if, as they suffer through these repeated cycles of pain, they aren’t quite alone.