Cinema Signal:

My Life Among the Serial Killers:
Inside the Minds of the World's Most Notorious Murderers
(in Hardcover from Amazon)

. "Lonely Hearts"

When a pretty boy turns into a gigolo in order to make a living by feeding off the needs of 1940's war widows (WWII), you have to figure his victims aren't likely to be the cream of the crop. But what his victim looks like, or her age, aren't part of his concern. The womanizing predator just has to make sure he's expending his rare gift on someone whose got money for him to plunder, and that she lives long enough to make it possible. Ray Fernandez, a thin, dark-haired smoothy has the scam down pat. His scores are as easy as rain in the tropics.

When he encounters Martha Beck, on the other hand, he's met more than his match. This mama is gorgeous and, despite the fact that he was about to make tracks after their first tryst in her hotel room -- when he finds out she's got a smaller bank balance than he does -- she turns him into a partner in crime. They'll go after rich, lonely dames together. The execution of the plan is lucrative but it goes south as Martha's love reaches such a point of possessiveness that jealousies rage when she sees him "working" their victim with kisses and physical consummation.

The story, however, isn't only about this sordid enterprise. It's equally about the cops trying to catch up to them through the trail of mortified widows left in their wake. Long Island detectives Elmer C. Robinson (John Travolta) and partner Charles Hildebrandt (James Gandolfini) have no idea that their quarry is anything more than a single guy. They have no way of knowing, at first, that the appearance of corpses suddenly showing up in Ray's wake is the influence of a psychotic partner. But the stakes for putting an end to the lurid crime spree get higher, quickly.

Subplots round out the detective characters, with Robinson suffering with his wife's suicide and dodging guilt over taking up with police officeworker Rene Fodie (Laura Dern). Hildebrandt, the more hardnose of the two, provides narration from his perspective, expressing his understanding of the essential details of the multi-state investigation and his inability to comprehend Robinson's more humanistic approach to killers with 17 women on their belt.

The casting is astute, perhaps most in Leto's impeccable representation of an amoral snake of a man with the looks and sociopathology to fulfill the requirements. He's probably better looking overall than the real Raymond Fernandez. But a note of questionability enters the realism with casting Hayek to portray the real-life murderess. While the subtleties of her performance exhibit skill on the highest level, her looks make her constant presence as a third party in the scams seem improbable. Even though Ray and Martha pass themselves off as brother and sister, the easy acceptance of it by the victims jars the trappings of realism. It seems more the work of the creative team trying to pass it off as acceptable for the sake of commercial returns than for what we would regard as passing the smell test.

In actuality, murderess Martha Beck looked more like the lonely hearted widows that Raymond pursued for his bread and butter. She wasn't only homely, she was so big and overweight she didn't fit into the electric chair when the time came -- a moment not rendered in the film.

But that's where my carping ends. Travolta and Gandolfini are as good as they get, either individually or together, which means close to superb. These are roles best suited to them, and they play to their strengths in a relationship of capable colleagues with a common mission. There's enough contrast of styles and preferences to cause clashes. These, alone, are worth the price of admission.

And that's only part of the pay off here. Technical credits are professionally tops, with stylish visuals that capture the period, from Peter Levy's superb cinematography to production design (Jon Gary Steele), art direction (David Eckert) and delicious costumery (Jacqueline West). These craftspeople are as much heros and heroines in the creative realization of the piece as director-writer Todd Robinson. And, yes, he is related to the cop in real life.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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