When Leonard Kastle's debut movie as a writer and director, "The Honeymoon Killers," was released in 1970, critics raved over the grimly realistic, low-budget, black-and-white crime drama about a lowlife lothario and his overweight nurse lover whose partnership in conning lonely women leads to murder.
French director Francois Truffaut called it his "favorite American film."
Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni considered it "one of the purest movies I've ever seen."
Kastle, whose first film was destined to be his last, died May 18 at his home in Westerlo, N.Y., after a brief illness, said Tina Sisson, a friend. He was 82.
Kastle is considered one of America's most intriguing one-shot movie directors.
Neither he nor producer Warren Steibel had any filmmaking experience when they set out to make "The Honeymoon Killers," which gained cult status in America and Europe.
Kastle was an opera composer whose work had aired on television, and Steibel was the producer of William F. Buckley Jr.'s TV series "Firing Line."
But after a wealthy friend of Steibel's agreed to put up $150,000 to finance a low-budget movie, Steibel asked his friend Kastle to write the script.
"The Honeymoon Killers" was based on the true-life story of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers who were executed at New York's Sing Sing prison in 1951.
The movie was shot on location in and near Albany, N.Y., in eight weeks, with Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco playing Beck and Fernandez.
The film's original director was a young Martin Scorsese. But Scorsese's filmmaking pace was too slow and he was soon removed. Industrial filmmaker Donald Volkman then stepped in for a time before Kastle took over as the credited director.
Like Steibel, Kastle envisioned the movie as a starkly realistic contrast to "Bonnie and Clyde," starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
"I was revolted by that movie," Kastle said in an interview on the 2003 Criterion Collection reissue of the film on DVD. "I didn't want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people."
"'The Honeymoon Killers,'" The Times' Kevin Thomas wrote in his 1970 review, "is the kind of movie that restores your faith in the possibilities for the commercial American cinema."
"This extraordinary little movie," Thomas wrote, "belongs to that long but now virtually extinct line of B movies that examines the dark side of American life with a perception and honesty traditionally lacking in our expensive escapist fare."
In his review of the film in the New York Times, Roger Greenspun described Kastle as "the real star of the movie," saying that his direction placed him "among the important deliberate artists of his medium."
But then Kastle vanished from the world of cinema, to the point that two decades later Daily Variety's Todd McCarthy was telling readers that Kastle was one of the directors about whom people most often asked him, "Whatever happened to?"
"No one," McCarthy wrote when "The Honeymoon Killers" was re-released in theaters in 1992, "ever disappeared faster and more mysteriously than Kastle."
After making the film, Kastle returned to composing and later began teaching — not that he didn't try to make a big-screen comeback.
He wrote a number of screenplays over the years. And for decades, he tried to make "The Wedding at Cana," his story of corruption involving the Catholic Church and organized crime set in the 1970s. He came closest to making the film in 2001, but financing fell through.
"It was a lot of almosts and near-misses," Kastle said of the failed project in a 2001 interview with the Albany Times-Union. "I felt like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill."
But, as Kastle wryly pointed out in his interview for the Criterion DVD, he at least was always able to say, "I never made a bad film after 'Honeymoon Killers.' "
The son of Russian immigrants, he was born in New York City on Feb. 11, 1929, and grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y.
A child prodigy, he began his musical training at the Juilliard School in 1938. After studying piano and composition at the Mannes Music School (now Mannes College) in Manhattan, he earned a bachelor's degree from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1950.
His early career included serving as assistant musical director and conductor for "NBC Television Opera Theater" from 1955 to 1959, during which he directed his own one-act opera, "The Swing." NBC also aired his three-act opera, "Deseret," in 1961.
Other Kastle operas are "The Pariahs," "The Passion of Mother Ann: A Sacred Festival Play" (a trilogy) and a one-act children's opera, "Professor Lookalike and the Children."
Kastle, who also wrote orchestral works and songs, taught composition and other classes at the State University of New York in Albany (now the University at Albany) from 1978 to 1989.
He is survived by his sister, Norma Merker of San Francisco.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun