Home Video Hovel: Compulsion, by David Bax
There are surprisingly few movies about Leopold and Loeb, the 1920s Chicago rich kids who murdered a teenage boy just to prove to themselves that they were smart enough to get away with it. The jaw-dropping cold-bloodedness of the crime alone seems ripe for dramatization. And yet 1959’s Compulsion is only the second of four such movies (after Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope) and it doesn’t even show the murder. What it does focus on, though, is the one element of the killers that seems to inspire even more salacious attention than the murder, their presumed homosexual relationship. When the movie’s Leopold, Dean Stockwell’s Judd Steiner (only 1992’s Swoon used their actual names) is accosted by his older brother for his attachment to Loeb, er, Arthur Strauss (Bradford Dillman), he pointedly asks, “Don’t you ever go to baseball games or chase girls?”
Other than the names, not much else is changed. Unlike Rope or Barbet Schroeder’s Murder by Numbers, director Richard Fleischer and screenwriter Richard Murphy (adapting a book by Meyer Levin) stick mostly to the facts. The year is 1924, the setting is Chicago’s then-tony Hyde Park neighborhood and the boys are even defended by a well-known and grudgingly respected lawyer (Orson Welles as Jonathan Wilk, based on Clarence Darrow).
What really sets Compulsion apart, though, is the almost fascinated clinical distance from which it observes its subjects. Hitchcock was ultimately repulsed by them and Schroeder was a little too drawn in by their seductive amorality. Fleischer seems initially dismissive, especially when introducing the young men’s facile understanding of Nietzsche from which they draw the super-man paradigm they immediately assume they live up to. But the film ends up spending more time picking at their psychology; it’s almost a precursor to Netflix’s Mindhunter. From the imbalance in their affection for each other to Strauss’ infantilized relationship with his mother, a sort of perverse sympathy for the young men begins to emerge.
Unfortunately, this all adds up to nothing as everything the movie has been building is obliterated by the introduction of Welles. A lot of that comes down to the fact that the film’s thematic thrust shifts suddenly, becoming overloaded and confusing. On the one hand, the clear anti-death penalty stance is stirring and persuasive, especially when Wilk argues that a trial resulting in capital punishment is as much a scheme to commit murder as the one the men are being tried for in the first place. Conversely, though, Compulsion is far less sure how it feels about its protagonists’ money. It argues that the public circus around the trial comes from a tabloid-style schadenfreude on the part of the masses, a desire to see the haves dragged through the mud for our amusement. At the same time, it is suggested that the very lawyer who will save them from the gallows would not have been affordable to anyone outside their economic sphere. There’s also some “affluenza” type questioning of whether such psychopaths could have been produced by anything but wealth. All of this third act befuddlement is exacerbated by a misguided acting choice on Welles’ part. He’s probably going for a world-weary, understated profundity. He comes across as just sleepy.
Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration is impeccable, especially when it comes to contrast. It’s so clear and stable that we can see Welles’s old age makeup, though. There’s also, remarkably, no hiss on the soundtrack. Wherever the source element was stored, they should get a credit.
The Blu-ray includes a commentary by film historian Tim Lucas.