In the 1940s, in one of the most sensational murder cases of its time, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, the “Lonely Hearts Killers,” worked their way into vulnerable women’s lives by way of ads in the personals, robbing them and killing some of them. Their story has multiple times been the basis for movies and episodes of TV shows.
Deep Crimson is a 1996 Mexican version of the story. The setting has been changed (from the United States to Mexico), of course artistic license has been taken with various details of the story, and the ending is substantially different from real life, but other than that the movie sticks quite closely to the facts, as I was pleasantly surprised to discover when I read about the case afterwards.
There are elements of black comedy to the film, but it’s 90% drama and at most 10% comedy.
What’s decidedly not funny are the murders themselves, which the film partly shows and partly suggests. Well, mostly shows—it really doesn’t shy away from the violence. According to reviews I read, more than a few critics and viewers were offended by the depiction of the murders, resulting in walkouts. The scenes in question are not unusually gory or sensationalist in slasher fashion; some of them are just really brutal in a realistic way. Especially disturbing—not surprisingly—is the murder of a small child.
Deep Crimson succeeds in making the two main characters and their relationship psychologically intriguing. The woman is especially unbalanced, which is manifested in a myriad of ways.
I mentioned in writing about the Japanese movie Nobody Knows that the degree to which the mother seems crazy across the board falls well short of what you would expect given what her behavior is at its most bizarre. I can’t say that here though. There’s a pretty darn good match between how crazy this woman comes across as in general, and the weirdest things she does.
The man—OK, he’s not playing with a full deck either, but let’s say he’s missing a half dozen or so of the fifty-two cards, and his partner is missing at least twenty.
The woman is a heavyset single mother lost in a dream world of movie star magazines, with her fantasies especially focused on Charles Boyer. She is at times self-conscious and self-deprecating about her weight, at other times bold and defiant about it. She is sexually confused, promiscuous, and certainly inappropriate relative to social norms (especially of the 1940s). At times she manifests a certain amount of warmth and emotional connection with her children, and at other times she behaves toward them with a creepy harshness and/or indifference that bears little relation to what they’re actually doing but instead seems to reflect whatever’s chemically out of balance in her sick brain at that moment.
Initially she’s just another victim of the man. (Before hooking up with her, he was a solo con artist.) He meets her at her home after establishing contact with her in the usual way through a personal ad, has a one night stand with her, goes through her purse, and slips out.
She’s quite taken with him. He’s of significantly higher dating market value than she, which he augments with his well-rehearsed, suave style. Charles Boyer he ain’t, but he’s close enough for her purposes.
When they later become more involved with each other, you realize that’s all she ever really wanted is someone who will role play that he’s her fantasy mate. She knows at some level from the first night that he’s a fraud, but she wants to be fooled, she wants him to play along, to stay “in character” as much as possible. (Like a john who is fully aware it’s all phony but still gets into it a lot more if the prostitute role plays and says and does all the things the kind of woman he fantasizes about would.)
She tracks him down after their one and only date and shows up at his house unannounced, with her two little ones in tow. (They are world-weary beyond their years, having had to deal with her all their lives.) She informs him they’ll be moving in (the two of them being soulmates and all). He reacts predictably—scared she’ll figure out he’s a con artist (as I say, she already knows, though she finds out more of the details as time goes on), aware she’s nuts, and strongly opposed to her moving in. Fumbling for an excuse to get rid of her, he tells her it’s just not realistic to move the children into his small place.
So she promptly takes her children—who are crying in shock and panic—to a church and abandons them. After which she returns to the man’s abode to give him the news that that little impediment has been eliminated and they can now be together.
Soon she has persuaded him to allow her to participate in his scams. She screens the various prospects based on the correspondence he’s had with them, arranges his schedule, etc.
You’d think he’d be more desperate than ever to get rid of her now, given that there’s even more evidence that she’s a complete loon, but he pretty quickly warms to the idea of having her around. The way she’s so exaggeratedly worshipful of him feeds his ego and fits his fantasies as much as it fits hers. (Plus he knows she’s genuine about it, which makes it all the more enticing.)
He’s a quite vain fellow. He’s especially obsessed with making sure no one sees him without his toupée (a trait which is presumably exaggerated for humorous effect in the script).
It’s unlikely he keeps her around because of her prowess as an accomplice, because really she doesn’t bring much to the party. Whatever research, screening and plotting she does appears to be no more than perfunctory. Really her main reason for wanting to be involved is she is insanely jealous, and she wants to always be present when he’s with one of the women—they pass her off as his “sister”—to make sure there’s no hanky panky.
Their murders are not so much a planned part of their cons, as more something they fall into when their plans fall apart. They’re really pretty sloppy about the whole thing, with her acting from spontaneous emotion—mostly jealousy—and him doing his share of irrational stuff as well, albeit not to her level.
So they dig themselves into some kind of hole or do something to put themselves at risk of discovery, and then they panic and do whatever they need to do to rectify the situation, up to and including murder.
Their attitude is more often amoral than immoral. As I say, they don’t seem driven to kill or to get some great pleasure from it like serial killers. Whatever capacity they have to connect with another person they expend on each other, albeit in a creepy, delusional way. Other people don’t register as people to them, but as moneymaking opportunities, threats, whatever.
In real life, the man probably killed an earlier wife, and then the two of them together are suspected of possibly having killed dozens of people, though they were only convicted of killing two women and one of the women’s young daughter.
In the movie, it is suggested that the man earlier killed a wife, so that much is consistent. They are depicted as then killing three women and one of the women’s young daughter. The murder of the woman and her daughter is at least somewhat like real life, and one of the other two murders bears a lesser resemblance to the other murder the actual killers were convicted of. The remaining murder in the movie (the first one they commit) doesn’t seem at all like anything they were convicted of in real life.
There is no indication in the movie that there were other murders as well, though I don’t think there’s anything that would exclude the possibility.
And as I mentioned earlier, the ending differs. How they come to be apprehended and what subsequently happens to them is very different in the movie compared to what really happened. (It probably doesn’t matter, but I’ll avoid giving the specifics so as not to spoil it for anyone.) I’m not sure why that decision was made, as the real story sounds like it would have had plenty of dramatic potential, probably more than what the movie replaces it with in fact.
The overall quality of Deep Crimson is high. The script, the production values, the acting, etc. are all very smooth and professional. This is a more serious movie than just some low budget, violent shocker.
For example, one scene that is particularly well done and intense is one of the few instances of violence other than the murders.
The man spends an extended period of time with a rich widow and gets her to agree to marry him. She’s taunting him playfully on one occasion (about his toupée—bad idea), and he completely loses it and goes off on her.
It’s as shocking to the audience as to her, because as I say, he’s comparatively the sane one, the one who’s confident and in control, the one who uses his smooth talking to manipulate things to his advantage. But he explodes with a startling savagery in response to what he interprets as a ridiculing of his masculinity. It’s quite a scene.
I wouldn’t say I was mesmerized by Deep Crimson or that I’d rank it real high compared to the movies I’ve written about so far. But the story held my interest, the characters were well done, and all-in-all I think it’s a movie worth seeing for those who like this sort of thing—a semi-factual, true crime movie with some cleverness and flair to it, including some offbeat dialogue and black comedy.