This classy Fox production was considered the epitome of sick film subject matter in the pre- Psycho year of 1959, the true story of jazz-age thrill killers Leopold & Loeb. Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman are the nihilistic child murderers; Orson Welles stops the show with his portrayal of Clarence Darrow, going under a different name.
KL Studio Classics
1959 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 103 min. / Street Date March 7, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell, Diane Varsi, Bradford Dillman, E.G. Marshall, Richard Anderson, Robert F. Simon, Edward Binns, Gavid McLeod, Russ Bender, Peter Brocco.
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Film Editor: William Reynolds
Original Music: Lionel Newman
Written by Richard Murphy from a novel by Meyer Levin
Produced by Richard D. Zanuck
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Movies about serial killers and psychos with exotic agendas were much different before Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which hit America in 1960 like a thrown brick. Calculating killers were common, as every fantasy needed its Evil Genius villain. But motivations were always available in the form of greed, jealousy, envy and the other deadly sins. It’s quite a shock in Val Lewton’s The Ghost Ship to have a respectable sea captain admit to his girlfriend that he’s losing his mind, and that he doesn’t know what to do about it. Abner Biberman’s The Night Runner (1957) is a grim little tale about a former mental patient who comes to recognize that he’s still a menace, and cooperates in turning himself in. But those movies were exceptions to the rule.
The notorious Leopold & Loeb ‘thrill killers’ case of 1924 added another motive to the madness. The first-degree murder defense of attorney Clarence Darrow got Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb clear of the hangman, with an influential plea lasting longer than most congressional filibusters. The case was one of the first to publicize the modern concept of meaningless crime — of a murder committed for its own sake, a thrill. The killers were wealthy Chicago teenagers. Because they were Jewish and quoted Nietzsche as a motive, they became the focus of arguments by anti-Semites and anti-intellectuals. Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope was based loosely on the Leopold and Loeb case, and Alfred Hitchcock made it into a 1948 movie written by Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents. Two young men are so enamored of their professor’s theories about superior humans above the law and common morality, that they kill a friend just to prove they can commit a perfect murder. They do this just before they throw a party to which they’ve invited the victim’s relatives and fiancée.
A big deal in the play was the fact that Leopold and Loeb were also gay lovers. That fact is downplayed in the Hitchcock film but still an active subtext. It capped the bundle of elements that made the case a source of controversy and a touchstone for bigots – the killers were rich, Jewish, intellectuals, and homosexual.
That makes the 1959 movie Compulsion a difficult project, as the Production Code preferred Hollywood entertainments to avoid the entire laundry list of this story’s taboos. Movies in that year couldn’t show an ordinary toilet on screen, and the very existence of gays was too much for the censors as well. Compulsion was based on a 1956 book and play by Meyer Levin that told the true story of Leopold and Loeb and is credited as an early ‘non-fiction novel.’
Although films in the late 1950s had begun to use the real names of famous 1930s gangsters, Compulsion changes the names while leaving most of the particulars of the case just as they were. Two rich Chicago teenagers, Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) are ‘unhealthy friends’ that form a malignant personality. The younger and more submissive Judd nevertheless defends the theory of the superman with great arrogance in class. The egotistical braggart Artie plays the Big Man on Campus. We first meet the boys when they’re stealing a typewriter, supposedly as an isolated test of daring. Artie tries to make Judd run over a drunk on a back road, just for kicks. Artie’s mother is oblivious to his warped behavior, but Judd’s brother Max (Richard Anderson) suspects Judd’s relationship with Artie. Judd seems the more conflicted of the two young men; he’s attracted and confused by his attraction to co-ed student Ruth Evans (Diane Varsi). Ruth’s boyfriend Sid Brooks (Martin Milner), a cub reporter, covers a tragic drowning case. Sid pleases his editor Tom Daly (Edward Binns) by detecting that the boy was been beaten, and that a pair of glasses collected at the death scene are not the victim’s. Lt. Johnson (Robert Simon) investigates.
Things heat up between Judd and Artie — the glasses are Judd’s. The self-proclaimed genius Artie hangs around the investigation, offering clues and deflecting suspicion toward two teachers and a neighbor’s German chauffeur. D.A. Harold Horn (E.G. Marshall) interprets Artie’s interest correctly — and goes to work on the boys’ alibi. When they are put on trial for murder, none other than the celebrity attorney Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles) volunteers his services for the defense — not for the sake of these two confessed killers, but to strike a blow against capital punishment.
Made and sold as different and daring — producer Darryl F. Zanuck was keen for sensational movie subjects — Compulsion was quite a shocker in its day, despite the fact that the crime is not depicted and the victim never shown. Four years before in The Phenix City Story, a little black girl could be shown pulled screaming off the street, and then tossed dead onto a lawyer’s yard, but the famous Leopold & Loeb case was still a touchy subject. Cleanly directed, it concentrates for most of its running time on the performances of Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman, both nervous young actors of great talent.
Fairly new to films, Dillman would continue mostly as a TV actor. His crooked smile and insincere grin does much of the work to bring the loathsome Artie Strauss to life. Dean Stockwell was a celebrated child star with sterling credits. He had played Judd Steiner in Broadway’s Compulsion, and here makes him a fascinating study. Judd tries to be a heartless ‘pure intellect’ to please Artie, but through Ruth Evans’ kind attention is finding another way to relate to people. The actual ‘Leopold’ was reportedly a more malevolent personality, fully invested in twisted philosophical theories. The movie would seem to want to portray Judd’s aberrant outlook, and his sexual preference, as something a good heterosexual relationship could cure.
It’s interesting to compare Dillman and Stockwell’s characters with a ‘madman’ killer from one of director Richard Fleischer’s previous movies, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Rather than merely entitled and spoiled, Farley Granger’s murderer is depicted as being filthy rich and filthy rotten, without benefit of psychological empathy. Actually, Granger is so unlikeable that Red Velvet Swing could have supported a pro- death penalty message.
A ‘Ruth Evans’ figure was part of the real case. Ruth occasionally tires of her boyfriend Sid’s rough edges, and gravitates toward the clearly sensitive and emotionally needy Judd. Second- billed Diane Varsi had excelled in Peyton Place and is equally appealing as a positive girlfriend/mother figure for Judd. Her rocky career eventually led to a number of daring performances in A.I.P. films, most notably Wild in the Streets and Bloody Mama. Perhaps as a substitute for a depiction of the murder, the script gives Varsi and Stockwell a scene in which, on Artie’s orders, Judd attempts to rape Ruth out in the same undeveloped park where the killing took place. So the movie is definitely not devoid of daring content.
No-nonsense director Richard Fleischer was a fine choice for Compulsion, although we’re told that Orson Welles, marketable in Hollywood as an actor but not as a director, behaved as though the wrong man had been given the job. Fleischer’s memoir gives an even-handed account of the difficult shoot, while biographers have reported Welles’ behavior across a full spectrum, from spirited cooperation to active sabotage. Nobody’s denying that Welles had complex relationships with his employers.
Orson Welles doesn’t enter the story until the final act, yet his presence alone makes the film a must-see. His section of the movie brings the show to a dead stop, structure-wise, for a position speech against Capital Punishment. The boys have already confessed and the crime is so severe that the main question is whether or not they’ll be given the death penalty. Welles’ courtroom summation is delivered in an overtly theatrical style, with grave mumbling and important pauses. It is staged as if it were a great moment in screen acting. Wilk’s plea asks the judge if the state has any more right to kill than does an individual. It still comes off in ’50s TV drama terms with Wilk asking that all of us accept our part of the guilt: the old ‘it’s not Artie and Judd’s problem, it’s our problem’ defense.
We’re told from some quarters that Orson wouldn’t allow himself to be directed, either out of spite or insecurity. I’ve also read that his performance had to be pieced together from bits. What we see cut together in the movie doesn’t look at all bitty. The performance is perfectly consistent. Some form of insecurity may account for yet another bizarre nose choice to help Welles become the character. I’ll leave others to figure that out, but Orson’s fake noses hurt some of his best work.
Wilk’s introductory scenes display his sharp wit and establish him as the intellectual and moral Top Dog — even the self-obsessed defendants defer to the famous lawyer. The one big plus in Welles’ performance is the moral gravity he brings to his defense summation, which lifts the show above any notion of exploitation. I always found the ten-minute speech just too long and monotonous; every time I’ve seen Compulsion, my mind drifts away. Welles’ extended performance is certainly a notable achievement. He was regarded as a genius and a top talent, yet was all but blackballed for directing work, and unlikely to be nominated for Academy awards.
Everybody now likes to say that B&W Cinemascope is a cool format, but Compulsion isn’t that polished of a picture. It’s a detail, but in the process shots used to place Artie and Judd in their Stutz Bearcat, the brightness of the background projection is all off, like milky-bright. UCLA grads will be pleased to see Royce Hall, the Quad, Powell Library and the top of Janss Steps serving as a set for the boys’ Chicago university. The interior corridors and classrooms appear to have been filmed in Royce Hall as well.Twelve years later, on the grassy area we see just past the actors, I witnessed demonstrators square off against Ronald Reagan’s masses of cops, protesting Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Compulsion is a good, clean transfer of this shocker from the immediate pre- Psycho era. The film’s ad blurbs made it appear five times more sordid than it is — Fox sold the picture like the ultimate in depraved Juvenile Delinquency, but with a little class.
The disc can boast a well-researched and reasoned commentary by Tim Lucas, who approaches Compulsion from multiple angles, not just its status as an almost- horror opus. He gives us a fine rundown on the real crime, and Meyer Levin’s interpretation of it for his book and play. Lucas concentrates on details of performance that lighten or soften our attitudes toward Judd and Artie, and takes a matter-of-fact approach to the homosexual aspects of some scenes. Although the filmmakers aren’t explicit, they leave no doubt as to Judd and Artie’s relationship. Richard Fleischer’s direction, although not flashy, is attuned to the characterizations. When Judd is agitated by the presence of Ruth, a telling camera truck toward his face emphasizes his discomfort.
Tim also clears up why it was claimed that Orson Welles’ final speech had been ‘assembled from bits.’ After the actor refused to loop any of his lines, the editor had to piece together some of his dialogue from alternate takes, including an entire concluding close-up. The synchronization is excellent.
I found Tim’s commentary illuminating and balanced, with an occasional insight and fair reaction to the varying press accounts of what really went on during filming – a lazy commentator would have portrayed it as another ‘Orson vs. the World’ drama.
In the ‘whattaya know?’ department, I wasn’t aware that Leopold was already an important ornithologist at age seventeen, thus motivating the stuffed birds in his rooms. Although I always knew which movie was made first, I somehow always assumed that the taxidermy motif had been stolen from good old Normy Bates.
Kino’s disc also ofers a selection of trailers.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Trailers, Commentary by critic Tim Lucas
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 10, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson