We agreed it was the true test of the superior intellect.
The infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case, stemming from the crime in which two 18-year-old University of Chicago law students killed a teenage boy for the philosophical challenge and sheer vicious thrill of it all, seems like ideal material for the movies. And sure enough, cinematic variations have ranged from, most famously, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope in 1948, to Barbet Schroeder’s Murder by Numbers in 2002. While each reworking brings something unique to the table in terms of style or supplemental subject matter, Compulsion, from 1959, transpires to be the most thoroughly detailed and disquieting account.
Available on a new Kino Lorber Blu-ray, which features a terrific 4K restoration and an insightful commentary by historian Tim Lucas, Compulsion was adapted from the 1956 Meyer Levin novel of the same name, a fictionalized relation of the slaying and ensuing trial (Levin was a classmate of the two boys). The film stars Dean Stockwell as Judd Steiner (based on Nathan Leopold) and Bradford Dillman as Artie Strauss (based on Richard Loeb), and while Stockwell had already acted the character on stage, in a 1957 play also written by Levin, Dillman was taking the place of Roddy McDowall.
The story begins in 1924 Chicago, as the transgressions of Judd and Artie begin relatively innocuously, with the theft of $67 and a “second-hand typewriter” from a frat house. But more is needed to feed their insatiable criminal appetite, and when they pass by a drunk stumbling along the road, they dabble—abortively at this point—in the euphoric potential of cold-blooded murder. Sneering at the boisterous lush, they attempt to run him down, doing so in part because they feel like it, but also because of an ethical ascendency they have placed upon their supposedly unassailable selves. In these early sequences, Compulsion has a dash of the juvenile rebelliousness one sees in countless teen delinquent movies of the 1950s, but there becomes so much more. The deeds of Judd and Artie are enacted as an “experiment,” as a “true test of the superior intellect.” These boys are detached from humanity, proceeding through their twisted lives with a moral defiance grounded in the model of a Nietzschean “Superman,” a figure above the law and above the dictates of the common man. They are rebels, not so much with a cause, but with a rationale. As it happens, however, their judicial smugness gets the better of them, and following the careless observations of a too-chatty family chauffeur, the two lethal academics turn on each other and are ultimately convicted of their crime.
The other individuals who figure prominently in the psychological profile of Judd and Artie, and their eventual downfall, are fellow undergrads Sid Brooks (Martin Milner), a budding reporter who breaks the homicide scoop, and Ruth Evans (Diane Varsi), a young woman who takes a shine to Judd and, to a certain extent, comes between the two maniacal students. She also provides a conduit through which the viewer engages with Judd and Artie as characters beyond mere “bad guys.” Though she herself was a near victim, the compassionate Ruth says she can’t help feeling sorry for the duo. If not exactly “sorry,” a similar degree of benevolent captivation also enthralls the audience, and much of this derives from the ostensible incongruity of wealthy, clean-cut college kids, with seemingly everything in their favor, choosing to go down this shocking path. Judd especially, owing to Stockwell’s phenomenally schizophrenic menace, is a fascinating personality, in spite of his despicability.
Making their situation all the more engrossing is the curiously warped bond that Judd and Artie share. For better or worse, the apparent strangeness of their rapport is in many ways an outgrowth of 1950s Hollywood. Compulsion’s peculiar presentation of the two friends seems to largely result from the film’s cautiously vague allusions to their latent homosexuality. In this regard, Compulsion is somewhere between Rope, where Hitchcock certainly didn’t suggest even this much, and Tom Kalin’s Swoon, a 1992 version of the story that takes it much further. The boys bicker like quarreling lovers—Artie is unhappy at one point, not because what they do upsets him, but because there is the chance Judd might do it without him—but aside from the infrequent comment, an off-hand reference to the boys being “powder puffs,” for example, the filmmakers keep such scandalous insinuations primarily beneath the surface (though to a viewer today, there is scarcely any doubt). What there is instead is a far more unnerving sadomasochistic undercurrent, which appears to partly motivate the actions of Judd and Artie. “You said you wanted me to command you,” says Artie. Yes, responds Judd, but only as long as he keeps his part of the agreement. And what is that agreement, exactly? We never really know. But by including such oblique statements, the mind reels and the film becomes provocative indeed.
In whatever ways Compulsion may circumvent an explicit treatment of homosexuality, it still manages to indulge in some pretty sensational content, from the way Artie coddles a stuffed bear, which conceals a flask, to the discussion of rape and the depiction of the KKK burning a cross, an action that prompts Orson Welles’ dry-witted lawyer Jonathan Wilk to remark, “It’s much too warm for an open fire.” Judd also alludes to the nine million people killed in World War I, a subtle acknowledgement of how one places value on the life of another, and how given circumstances will skew that worth. That notion, compounded by the boys’ interest in the spectacle of death, even carries over to the animal kingdom, as when Artie gleefully suggests to Judd, “Hey, come on. Let’s go watch them slaughter the sheep.”
The primary theoretical concepts of Compulsion are brought to the fore in the film’s final act. When the first-billed Welles finally makes an appearance, nearly 70 minutes into the picture, it is only after his lawyer character is described as an atheist, a charlatan, and a drunk—but also the best trial lawyer in the city. Welles always had a penchant for grand entrances, particularly after his character had been discussed beforehand (The Third Man’s Harry Lime being the quintessential example), and here he bursts onto the scene, making his legal case based on the questionable emotional stability of Artie and Judd, using their apathy as evidence of a troubled mental condition. And it works, just like it did in real life. Judd/Leopold and Artie/Loeb avoid capital punishment. Richard Loeb was killed in prison in 1936, while Nathan Leopold, who sued the producers of Compulsion for invasion of privacy (this after he released his autobiography), was released in 1958, eventually moving to Puerto Rico to escape the notoriety.
Haggard, overweight, sweaty, and disheveled, Welles nevertheless displays characteristic polish in terms of actorly craftsmanship: the unmistakable elocution, the glimmer of obstinate charm, the complete control of his physical self and the environment. The rhetorical anti-death penalty plea gets a little heavy-handed as the film descends into a mostly flippant courtroom-drama-meets-message-movie, but by this point, Compulsion becomes an Orson Welles showcase. Modeled after renowned attorney Clarence Darrow, Wilk’s lofty summation speech runs about twelve-minutes, which feels long until one remembers that Darrow’s closing argument lasted for two days. Despite this ample opportunity to dominate the screen, the production was a generally unpleasant experience for Welles. Compulsion was the first feature produced by Richard D. Zanuck, son of the famed Darryl F. Zanuck, and it was released between Welles’ directorial efforts Touch of Evil (1958) and The Trail (1962). He had hoped to direct Compulsion as well, but when that job went to Richard Fleischer, director of such eclectic recent fare as A Place in the Sun (1951), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and The Vikings (1958), Welles remained bitter through much of the shoot (which for him lasted only 10 days).
In any event, Fleischer does an admirable job, if not one quite as stylish as perhaps Welles’ rendering would have been. Most notably, Fleischer recognized that a film like this is an actor’s picture. While the dialogue is important to motivation, exposition, and the movie’s basic themes, the more meaningful relationships that develop come from the characters’ expressions and nonverbal interactions, both of which Fleischer hones in on, staging sequences for the unencumbered benefit of his cast. So exceptional are the performances in Compulsion, that when the film played in competition at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, it came away with a rare three-way honor, in which Dillman, Stockwell, and Welles all shared the best actor award. All deservedly so.