Lonely Hearts is a loosely historical treatment of Raymond Martinez and
Martha Beck, serial killers who preyed on lonely women back in the late 1940s.
They were eventually caught, convicted after a 44-day trial, and executed in
New York's electric chair. Lonely Hearts is the fourth film to portray
the killers fictionally. The first was The Honeymoon Killers (1970), a
pseudo-docudrama which identified the killers by their real names. The second
was also called Lonely Hearts, a 1991 roman a clef starring Eric
Roberts and Beverly D'Angelo. The third was Deep Crimson, a Spanish-language
roman a clef from Mexico, which was nominated for 15 Ariel awards in
1997, winning eight.
Of the four films, the new version of Lonely Hearts is the only one to
incorporate the perspective of the detectives who worked on the case. In fact
the writer/director of the film, Todd Robinson, is the grandson of the lead
detective from New York, and used his own grandmother's scrapbook for
research, as well as to form the montage behind the opening credits. Given his
special relationship to the subject matter, especially from the perspective of
the investigating officers, one would assume that Robinson's version of the story
would be the least romanticized, and the most loyal to the facts of the case.
One would be wrong.
One example should be sufficient to illustrate the casual relationship
between this script and reality. The real Martha Beck was a 233-pound woman so
physically repulsive that the first man who got her pregnant tried to commit
suicide rather than to contemplate a life with her. So who did Robinson
recruit to play that role? Kathy Bates? Rosie O'Donnell? Nah. He picked the
notoriously disgusting Salma Hayek. Mind you, Ray Martinez was a bunco
artist who originally met Martha and all of his potential marks through personal ads. Does Salma
seem like a woman who would need to advertise in the paper to get worthwhile dates? The rest of
Ray's known real-life victims were also physically unappealing, as you might
expect, all of them desperate enough to be ripe for seduction by a young,
handsome con artist. Their fictional equivalents were filled by attractive
women. The woman who was bludgeoned to death by Martha in a fit of jealousy
when she saw her naked with Ray was actually a 66-year-old spinster, the
type with sensible shoes and thick glasses. That role was assigned to elegant Alice Krige,
who was a classy 52 and damned attractive, sexy enough to fan the flames of
much younger men.
In addition to the glamorized casting choices, the script skirted reality
in other ways. It assigned murders to the couple which they did not commit. It
changed the details of some they did commit. But it stayed close to the facts on
some other murders. It completely changed the circumstances of the couple's arrest.
It omitted some of the juiciest details, like the fact that Ray believed that
his power over women was attributable to his expertise in voodoo, or that fact
that Ray was a normal guy with a nice family in Spain and a great record of
service to the allies in WW2 until a freak accident nearly crushed his skull
and caused some pathological personality changes. One of the most interesting
details of the real story is that the obese Martha Beck was a highly competent nurse who
finished first in her nursing class and was consistently promoted in record times.
After her conviction, Martha was aghast at her treatment in the New York
tabloids, which ridiculed her unsightly appearance just as her classmates once
had, so she wrote sensitive, literate letters of protest to the editors from
death row! Underneath her corpulent exterior, she was
an extremely capable and competent woman who desperately longed to be loved,
and achieved that longing by latching on to a crazy fraud, whereupon the two
brought out the worst in each other.
If you don't care about historical accuracy, and just treat this as a
fictional noir with a vague historical backdrop, ala Brian De Palma's The
Black Dahlia, you may enjoy some of the eccentric characters and the lurid
details of casual sex and cold-blooded murder. Unfortunately, the interesting
(if sometimes imaginary) details about the lives of the killers are only half
of the story. The rest of it is about some cops in New York eating donuts,
arguing among themselves, and adapting to problems with their families and
girlfriends. The film plods slowly when the cops are on screen, perhaps
because it concentrates on their irrelevant personal interactions rather than their
Here's a tip for you youngsters. If you're going to write a script about
famous people who were involved in violent incidents, like the Lonely Hearts
Killers or George "Superman" Reeves, your audience is going to go to your
movie to see those famous people. Don't devote half of your running time to
some detectives who are working out their soap opera problems and talking to
their kids about getting paper routes. It doesn't matter whether the
detectives are real or fictional. Nobody cares about them. It doesn't even
matter if the lead detective was your grandfather. The only difference that
makes is that one person cares about them instead of none. And that does no
good because I assume you are not going to pay for a ticket.
The film has plenty of star power. In addition to the beautiful Hayek,
Barbarino and Tony Soprano are hanging around as the homicide detectives. The least famous of the four stars, Jared Leto, turned out to be the one
guy in the production who seemed to care about historical accuracy, and he
created a Ray Martinez who seemed to be a perfect evocation of the killer I
have read about. There are other positives besides Leto's performance: nice
production values; interesting period details; good cinematography. The film
looks impressively good, to the point where I
could have forgiven the inaccuracies in the killer half of the story if there
hadn't been so much boredom in the cop half. Unfortunately, the combination of
those two factors means that Lonely Hearts is just an adequate flick that seems like
it should have been much better.