Compulsion (1959)

Dir: Richard Fleischer. Starring: Orson Welles, Diane Varsi, Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman. Classics.
Compulsion (1959)

The son of the legendary animator Max Fleischer, film director Richard Fleischer had a long and often successful career, but he produced an extremely mixed bag of work. It included the good (small thrillers like The Boston Strangler and the noir train flick Narrow Margin, as well as Disney’s big-budget 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea); the bad (Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer and countless other mediocrities); and the ugly (the over-produced musical Doctor Dolittle and the famously bad, 1969's Che!). The courtroom murder drama Compulsion is one of his more interesting films, maybe his best. In 1924 the real life thrill-kill murder of a fourteen-year-old suburban Chicago boy by college prodigies Leopold and Loeb stunned the nation. Represented by the most famous lawyer of his day, Clarence Darrow, their trial becomes the first "trial of the century" (later Darrow would also defend John T. Scopes of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" fame). Before Compulsion their story had inspired the gimmicky Hitchcock film Rope and, later, a number of films and plays, including Swoon and Funny Games which were also able to explore the two killers' potential sexual nature a little more in depth.

The writer, Meyer Levin, had attended the University of Chicago at the same time as Leopold and Loeb. Compulsion, his "non-fiction novel" (years before Capote coined the phrase) renamed all the players and was seen through the eyes of a school reporter, Sid (Levin himself?) and his innocent girlfriend. As adapted for the screen by Richard Murphy (Panic In The Streets), Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) and Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) are a pair of well off college brats with brilliant minds. Artie is the more outgoing, while the even more genius Judd is an introvert. They plan and almost pull off the "perfect crime," the murder of a young neighbor. Unfortunately, Judd leaves his glasses at the crime scene and Sid (Martin Milner) finds them. As the young men think they are toying with the cops using Nietzsche's superman theory, they slowly spins more webs, getting themselves in deeper and deeper, until finally the cops crack them.

The film is basically broken up into two halves. The first half concerns Judd and Artie’s twisted relationship, the crime they commit, and the cover-up. The second half is about their trial. That is when Orson Welles enters and takes over the movie as their lawyer, Jonathan Wilk (Clarence Darrow). He does not claim they are innocent but have diseased minds, so therefore should not get the death penalty.

Welles gives one of the most towering performances of his career. Certainty it’s up there with his extended cameo in Carol Reed’s The Third Man as one of his best performances that he himself did not direct. He commands the courtroom with a long speech begging for mercy for the young men, there are no histrionics from him and no over-acting. A year earlier he gave a masterful performance in his own film, Touch Of Evil. But even that, one of the best of his career, was full of clever hammy tricks. Though incredibly entertaining it’s much different than his more subdued yet still powerful work in Compulsion. It’s interesting that Welles, deservingly, will always be remembered as truly one of the five most important directors of all time and maybe the most influential American director ever. But Compulsion reminds us that he was also a great actor (I mean, if after his epic performance in his own Citizen Kane, we still need to be reminded). In ’59 with the Brandos and the Newmans having changed what we now consider great film acting, Welles was able to keep up, when he tried. Frankly though, Welles would continue popping up in other filmmakers' work for the next twenty-something years. Sadly Compulsion would prove to be his last significant performance.

Compulsion may feel slightly tied down by the then fading sexual constrictions on film. There is a slightly shocking scene where Judd rather sheepishly tries to molest (or rape) Sid’s innocent girlfriend, Ruth (Diane Varsi), but instead of violation, she takes pity on him. It’s the film's way of addressing Judd’s sexual disjunction without pushing his apparent homosexuality (other than timid overtones in his and Artie’s relationship, which by today’s ears seem obvious). Films about Leopold and Loeb since have gone further to establish their homosexuality but that has not made them more accomplished. It may be a case of less is more, and helps give Compulsion a deeper whiff of mystery and makes it a solid courtroom/crime movie.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 9, 2010 6:31pm
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