Leopold and Loeb and Welles
“Compulsion” is loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case that shocked America in 1924. Leopold and Loeb were two wealthy young men who murdered a young boy for the sheer thrill of it. They were set to find thrills but went too far. Their fellow aw student Sid Brooks helped to identify the body of the victim and found a clue to the killers who firmly believed they could outsmart all adversaries with ease. The result was a sensational court case when attorney Jonathan Wilk put capital punishment as well as the young men on trail.
Even though the movie was made in 1959 it is still remarkably riveting. Leopold and Loeb were amoral college students who were suffering from superiority complexes. They were bored with committing minor crimes like running drunks off of the road and smashing out storefront windows. They were looking to commit the “perfect crime that would have everyone talking”. They had entrenched themselves with the philosophy of Nietzsche concerning the concepts of the superman, master-and-slave relationships and acts that wet beyond good and evil. So they kidnapped an elementary school student and killed him before they requested ransom.
Richard Fleischer directed the movie with flair and panache and made the decision not to show the murder and the terrible crime thus takes on a shuddery quality since the viewer has to fill in the details in his own mind. The movie is a study of how to make a flawless film. Chicago of 1924 is presented, therefore, in small details that make the surety of the verisimilitude of the movie and the major cast members give performances worthy of every award in acting.
Based on a novel of the same name by Meyer Levin, the screenplay does as the novel did-change the names of Leopold and Loeb to Artie Strauss and Judd Steiner. The film only deals with the crime and the trial which climaxes with the performance of Orson Welles as Jonathan Wilk (Clarence Darrow was the attorney. Dean Stockwell plays Leopold (Strauss) as sympathetic and confused and historians often have wondered if he, indeed, was weak. It was rumored that he was Loeb’s sex slave. Stockwell captures the demeanor and the looks of someone who might very well think that he is above everyone else. He acts and looks like a boy genius. He speaks 14 languages and had plans to brush on most of them when he traveled to Europe. His trip was cancelled when he was called in and questioned about a pair of glasses that were found at the scene of the crime.
Bradford Dillman plays Loeb (Steiner). He is explosives personified. He is so aware of his own charm that it is amazing to think that he would consider a career in law over a career in acting. He is handsome and popular and dominated by his mother. He makes the most of the homosexual undertones in the screenplay when he questions Stockwell whether he is being replaced by a girl in the other’s affections. We now know that Leopold and Loeb were lovers and lived a homosexual lifestyle long before the world was even considering acceptance. For a more homosexual view of the same case, the movie “Swoon” serves up all of the necessary information.
Orson Welles is Jonathan Wilk (Clarence Darrow) and Welles wars the role like a pair of comfortable shoes. Since there is no doubt to the guilt of the boys, his only issue is the sentencing and Welles gives a wonderful and moving plea for life in prison.
The Leopold and Loeb story fascinated many. Alfred Hitchcock bases his 1949 film “Rope” on it. “Rope” and “Swoon” are both excellent films but “Compulsion” is the best of the three films and aside from being the best about Leopold and Loeb, it is also one of the most valuable films made on the nature of murder.
Leopold and Loeb did not hang, because Darrow was such an opponent of the death penalty, the boys’ families hired him to defend the boys. He used the theory that a jury would never be able to divorce the cruelty of Leopold’s and Loeb’s actions from the consideration of the punishment and he requested a bench trial for the sentencing. By doing so he managed to save the lives of the gay lovers. He was unwilling to risk losing two guilty clients to public hatred. Darrow won his case and the boys were sentenced to life plus ninety-nine years. Loeb, however, was murdered in prison by another prisoner who slashed him to death and was not punished for it. Leopold was released in 1958 and moved to Puerto Rico and worked as a nurse there, He died in 1971.
It shows the nervousness of Leopold as Loeb stayed cool, even to the point of helping the police investigation by suggesting possible suspects who were known to be pedophiles.
Welles only appears in the last half hour of the film but it is well worth the wait. His speech to the judge and his damnation of Stockwell who feels there is no God is one of the most powerful moments in the history of American cinema.
The film has one major flaw. Darrow did not win the sentence by convincing the judge of the impracticality of the death sentence. The judge actually dismissed this argument. Leopold and Loeb were under 21 years of age and they were to young to die by execution—although thy well deserved to. Welles pleaded for the lives of the two crazy boys and it is interesting to pay attention to how a barometer like the death penalty tells so much about the civility of a society. The United States backed away from it when a crime had been so horrific but now it is swinging back in favor of it for lesser crimes.
The movie puts a great deal of emphasis on the craziness and wealth of the two boys but des not get into their Jewishness nor their gayness. The fact that the boys were gay evoked public wrath at the time of the trail.
Stockwell and Dillman do fantastic jobs of drawing audience anger to the fore and I found myself watching and hoping they would be killed. Then enter Orson Welles with his perfect phrasing and the magnificence of carriage to remind us of what a great actor he was.
“Compulsion” is not a movie easily forgotten and now that it has finally been released on DVD, all of us have a chance to see what an excellent movie looks like. Do yourself a favor and have a look. You may never look at another movie the same way as you did before you saw “Compulsion”.