Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lonely Hearts Killers

Lonely Hearts Movie

by Katherine Ramsland

While svelte actress Salma Hayek is no Martha Beck, a hefty former nurse-turned-serial killer, this vivid rendering of the 1940s "Lonely Hearts" team of grifting executioners is nevertheless a satisfying case study. Since it's meant to honor a detective who stayed on their trail (the director/scriptwriter's grandfather), we get two tales in one. The cops provide the investigative framework, though they often encumber the narrative drive, and the grifters, Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez (Jared Leto), keep things moving.

Salma Hayek
Salma Hayek

There have been two prior film renditions of this true crime story, The Honeymoon Killers and Deep Crimson, but Lonely Hearts is the first to weave in the detectives' perspective. The filmmakers adopt a noirish style, including a voiceover that spews hard-boiled metaphors as abysmal as the lighting in many scenes, so it takes patience to get into the story. We follow homicide cop Charles Hildebrandt (James Gandolfini) and his dour partner, Elmer C. Robinson (John Travolta), as they track down a male con artist using lonely hearts ads to fleece vulnerable women. (In an interview, Travolta explained that his deadpan portrayal of Robinson mimicked the post-war machismo typical of a man in that position.)

James Gandolfini (left) and John Travolta
James Gandolfini (left) and John Travolta

While tracking Fernandez's handiwork, the investigators learn that he's teamed up with a woman, who poses as his sister. Robinson thinks they've turned their con game into a deadly affair and on instinct he associates them with more than a dozen fatal incidents, such as suicides that might have been murders.

While it's difficult to imagine how the real Martha Beck, an intended mark both homely and overweight, managed to seduce Fernandez into a relationship (aside from kinky sex), it's not difficult to see how Hayek's Beck accomplished it, which is perhaps why Hayek was cast. While she's hardly credible as a "lonely heart," her sexual manipulations carry the film, especially when the con game grows stale.

Robinson, whose wife has recently committed suicide, keeps seeking proof of the couple's more deadly deeds, despite his partner's skepticism. Finally in a rental house traced to Fernandez, they find evidence: Apparently, the killers didn't realize just how much blood can seep through floorboard cracks and the discovery of this mess is an unforgettable scene.

The cops then learn that Beck and Fernandez have gone to Michigan, but they arrive only after the dirty work's been done — including killing a child. The real Beck and Fernandez were convicted, largely due to their 73-page confession, and both went to the chair on the same day in Sing Sing. Their post-conviction shenanigans made headlines right up to their execution (though the film does not go that far).

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