Film Review: Compulsion (dir by Richard Fleischer)

The 1959 film, Compulsion, tells the story of two wealthy young men — Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) — who think that they can outsmart anyone.  Judd started college when he was only 14 and he speaks several different languages.  Artie, the more loquacious and sociable of the two, is convinced that he can talk his way out of anything.  Desiring to prove that they’re capable of committing the perfect crime, Judd and Artie kill a young boy who is walking home from school.

At first, it seems like Judd and Artie may have pulled it off.  The police seem to be baffled.  Local reporter Sid Brooks (Martin Milner) dutifully reports that there are no leads.  Judd and Artie are convinced that both their wealth and their superior intelligence will protect them.  However, Judd soon discovers that he can’t find his eyeglasses.  Where he could he have lost them?  Well, he does remember struggling a bit during the murder …. could they have been knocked off?  What if they’re at the scene of the crime….

Based on a novel by Meyer London, Compulsion retells the infamous story of Leopold and Loeb, the two students who murdered another student in order to show their devotion to Nietzsche.  In real life, of course, both Leopold and Loeb were arrested when one of their possessions was discovered at the crime scene.  In the end, the two were convicted of murder and the only thing that prevented them from being hanged was an impassioned closing plea from their lawyer, Clarence Darrow.  Darrow argued not that the murderers deserved any mercy but that the death penalty itself was immoral and barbaric.  Supposedly, his final speech went on for 12 hours, which is odd to me.  I can’t imagine ever listening to anyone speak for 12 hours.

Leopold and Loeb’s crimes have served as the basis for several movies.  Hitchcock’s Rope was based on Leopold and Loeb.  So was the far less interesting Murder By Numbers.  Compulsion, however, seems to stick the closest to the facts of the case, with the two killers being driven by a combination of arrogance and alienation.  While Artie appears to simply be a sociopath, the far more neurotic Judd is driven by a need to win Artie’s approval.  (I’ve read conflicting accounts about the nature of Leopold and Loeb’s relationship.  Some accounts say that they were lovers while others say that they were just intensely close friends.  Compulsion keeps things ambiguous but it certainly implies that Leopold — or Judd — was obsessed with Leob.)

Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell are well-cast as Artie and Judd.  Stockwell’s neurotic performance certainly shows why, if Anthony Perkins had refused the role of Norman Bates in Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock was planning to offer the role to him.  There’s a good deal of pleasure in watching the two murderers get tripped up by the same cops and prosecutors to whom they considered themselves to be intellectually superior.  This is especially true in the scene where Artie realizes that he’s not as good at fooling people are he originally assumed he was.

That said, the film is pretty much stolen by Orson Welles, who plays the role of attorney Johnathan Wilk, a stand-in for Clarence Darrow.  Welles doesn’t show up until the final 30 minutes of the film but he’s such a commanding screen presence and so comfortable with the role of the theatrical attorney that he thoroughly dominates your impressions of the film.  Though Welles was apparently annoyed that he hadn’t been asked to direct the movie, he still gives one of his best performances and he delivers his final plea against capital punishment with the powerful conviction of a man who believed every word that he was saying.

Overall, Compulsion is an intensely watchable film.  Even if you know how the story is going to turn out, you’ll want to see it for the performances of Stockwell, Dillman, and especially Orson Welles.

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