1. - the action or state of forcing or being forced to do something; constraint.
2. - an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one's conscious wishes.
Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959) deserves further consideration, though arguably, not much praise for honing, though nevertheless, regurgitating the plot points already fine-tuned in Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play, Rope’s End, foreshortened to Rope, for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 movie adaptation, and later still, rehashed with more absorbing clarity in Meyer Levin’s novelized account, published two years before this movie. All of the aforementioned ‘fictionalized’ endeavors derive from one rather morbid true-to-life tragedy: the heinous murder of fourteen year old, Robert Franks, committed by two upper crust Chicagoan college students, Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb, merely to prove a point; or rather – disprove it: that, the perfect crime does not exist. Murdering Franks merely because they could - for a thrill kill – Leopold and Loeb would enter infamy as one of the most unrepentant and remorseless pair, brainwashed by their smug superiority afforded them by a philosophical book-learned arrogance and their parents’ affluence. And while the particulars of the crime are nauseating, the killers systematically obscuring the license numbers on a rented car, luring Franks inside, only to bludgeon him with a chisel, then gag and hide the corpse beneath a blanket in the backseat, later to be deposited in a culvert near a lake; the boy’s birth marks and genitals obscured with repeated applications of acid; the plan then to mail the boy’s father, Jacob a ransom note; deriving further pleasure from watching the police squirm while repeatedly being misdirected in their investigation; the ‘perfect crime’ was to hit its first unanticipated snag when Franks’ lifeless remains were unearthed and identified before the ransom could be delivered; Leopold’s distinct pair of eyeglasses recovered near the body and traced right back to him. So much for ‘superior intellect’ and ‘the perfect crime’.
Erroneously believing Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the superman could absolve them of responsibility for their actions, Leopold and Loeb were in for a very rude awakening when not even a twelve-hour court room summation put forth by the legendary Clarence Darrow was enough to get the pair off; though it did sway the hand of justice from exacting its pound of flesh at the hangman’s noose; capital punishment swept aside as retributive, rather than transformative justice. That Loeb was murdered in his prison cell by fellow prisoner, James Day in 1936 and Leopold eventually released on parole in 1958 is rather a moot point, except to speculate whether or not the latter found his way to the inside of a theater in 1959 to see what actor, Dean Stockwell had made of his fictionalized counterpart, Judd Steiner in Fleischer’s movie. That Leopold lived to marry a widow, teach mathematics, publish an ornithological book and eventually die of a heart attack in Puerto Rico, really makes me want to throw up. In case, you have not guessed it – I do not support Darrow in his views on capital punishment or quest for clemency herein, given that at least one killer was set free to live out his duration on this planet while Bobbie Franks lay in six feet of cold earth some seventy-plus years before his natural turn. Justice, indeed!
Yet, for all its congenital disrepute – however iniquitous and scornful – Compulsion is a fairly subdued account of Leopold and Loeb; capped off by an immaculate recital from Orson Welles as the jowly and weather-beaten, Darrow-esque attorney-at-law, Jonathan Wilk. Welles was hardly in an enviable position in 1959; having burned virtually every bridge in Hollywood after the disastrous implosion of his final American-funded picture, Touch of Evil; the actor informed on his last day of shooting by producer, Richard Zanuck that his entire salary for Compulsion had already been garnished by the IRS for back taxes. Welles’ genius never did equate to anything but heartbreak for the man, though it undeniably translates to more than a handful of exceedingly fine-tailored performances for the rest of us to admire. The part of Jonathan Wilk is what Welles might have coined the ‘Mr. Woo’ of the piece; Welles, later to explain how the first two acts in which a pivotal character is absent from the screen, then suddenly appears to give a brief, if memorable performance, essentially overtakes the entire piece in the public’s estimation through sheer forcefulness. And Wilks (a.k.a. Woo) is a part virtually engineered, in tandem, to master the sheer bloat in Welles’ physical girth, gravitas, grand-standing bravura and maniacal ego. Welles, who insisted on doing his own makeup (a holdover from his days in the WPA he carried with him beyond his RKO movie career) transforms himself into the epitome of a barnstorming legal beagle with all the fire and brimstone leveled at ‘then’ prevailing Old Testament jurisprudence, decidedly in favor of capital punishment.
Compulsion opens with a fairly lurid vignette set in 1924, the year Leopold and Loeb committed their shocking thrill kill. We catch a glimpse of Judd Steiner – a.k.a. Leopold (Dean Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) stealing a typewriter from a fraternity house; the instrument to craft the morbid ransom note planned to be sent Jonas Kessler (Wendell Holmes); the father of the late, Paulie – a fourteen year old abducted from the school yard whose body is later discovered drowned near a remote lake. Artie, the more flamboyant of the two, orders Judd to run over a hitchhiking drunk in the street; a second crime narrowly averted at the last possible moment as Judd swerves to avoid catastrophe. Returning home at an obscene hour, Judd is lectured to by his elder brother, Max (Richard Anderson) who threatens him with thinly veiled references about his ‘unnatural’ friendship with Artie (about as close as fifties’ American cinema dared tread on the subject of homosexuality). Indeed, Judd is a recluse; a renowned ornithologist, his room a veritable museum of taxidermy birds (in hindsight, Mark-Lee Kirk and Lyle Wheeler’s art direction foreshadowing Norman Bates’ office and backroom sitting area in Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960). From here we flash ahead, first to a newsroom where Sid Brooks (Martin Milner) is assigned to investigate the discovery of a body in the morgue. The Medical Examiner (Jack Lomas) is unmoved by the disturbing condition of the corpse (we never see). But Sid is quite shaken, dislodging a pair of round-lensed eyeglasses from the stretcher. These innocuous-looking spectacles fall to the floor. Their curious ‘Harold Lloyd’ quality; also, their petite-ness, leave Sid mildly perplexed.
Next, we move to a university criminology lecture attended by Judd, who unsuccessfully attempts to help sneak Sid past Prof. McKinnon (Jack Raine). After class, the pair hooks up with Artie, holding court with a group of their fair-weathers while spinning a yarn about a small tear in his sport jacket; the fallout from his supposedly narrow escape from police for smuggling liquor across the Canadian border. Also in attendance is Sid’s gal pal, Ruth Evans (Diane Varsi) who is empathetic, and mildly sexually attracted, to Judd. Artie makes everyone promise to meet later at a jazz club. There, Ruth pursues Judd a little more. He awkwardly shares a few of his flawed theories about life with her; then, a more intimate story about losing his mother while he was still very young. Ruth is touched, placing her hands on his to comfort; a very human reaction for which Judd is wholly unprepared. Judd invites Ruth to partake of his bird-watching skills at a remote lake the next afternoon and she agrees, flirting that any opportunity to spend more time with him alone is a bonus. But the jovial mood turns sour when Sid, arriving too late to the party, confides in all that the ‘morning edition’ will publish a new find in the Paulie Kessler criminal investigation; the glasses discovered near the body do not belong to the victim, though quite possibly, the killer. More enraged than disturbed by his cohort’s incompetence, Artie cuts his hand by smashing a glass at their table upon hearing the news. His reaction is so transparently suspicious it is a wonder no one at the party connects the dots. Instead, Judd escorts Artie home – the two frantically discussing how best to cover up this latest blunder. Artie reasons there is no possible way the police can trace over 4000 pairs of glasses back to him; overlooking the fact Judd’s pair is a new model, unique designed with spring mechanisms in their handles. Only three such pair has been currently sold.
Learning of Judd’s ‘date’ with Ruth, Artie orders him to rape her; again, as an experiment in domination and control. Mercifully, Judd still possesses an ounce of self-restraint. For although he does take Ruth into the woods near the lake where Paulie Kessler was murdered, on the ruse of bird-watching, and then makes a momentary advance to force himself on her, Judd cannot bring himself to complete this act; instead, tearfully backing away as a bewildered, but otherwise unmolested Ruth looks on. Meanwhile, Artie delights in repeatedly deflecting Police Lt. Johnson’s (Robert Simon) investigation with alternative theories of the crime; suggesting any one of Paulie Kessler’s ‘odd’ teachers might be responsible for his death; then, staging an anonymous phone call about evidence hidden in a sewer (forcing the police to tear apart the street near his home with jackhammers), and finally, playing devil’s advocate with Sid and his editor, Tom Daly (Edward Binns). Mrs. Straus (Louise Lorimer) is obtusely unaware her son has had anything to do with the gruesome murder. Indeed, she dotes on Artie as a mildly possessive matriarch. By now, Detectives Brown (Simon Scott) and Davis (Harry Carter) have managed to trace at least one pair of glasses back to Judd. Unable to locate his pair in time to dispel their curiosity, Judd is brought before District Attorney Harold Horn (E.G. Marshall) for an ‘off the record’ interrogation at the local hotel. Judd coolly refuses to buy into Horn’s alternative theories as to how Judd may have lost his glasses near the same lake where Paulie Kessler’s body was discovered.
Judd attempts to fabricate a story about him and Artie picking up ‘a couple of chippies’ (prostitutes) on the afternoon the crime was committed; a lie retold by Artie. But their cover-up turns to vinegar when the Steiner’s chauffeur, Albert (Peter Brocco) inadvertently reveals that on this particular afternoon Judd’s car did not leave the garage; thus, causing investigators to inquire why he should ‘rent’ a car to entertain some hookers. It’s one too many lies and coincidences. The police have their man, Horn using Artie to play off Judd’s insecurities and vice versa. The pair reluctantly and independently confesses to Paulie’s murder, though each suggests the other delivered the fatal blow. While Horn prepares for the trial, the Straus’ retain renowned attorney, Jonathan Wilk for Artie and Judd’s defense. Wilk pleads the pair as ‘not guilty’, but is stirred to reconsider this decision when a delegation from the Ku Klux Klan burns a cross in front of his hotel room. The plea is changed to ‘guilty’ by reason of mental defect; Wilk engaging psychiatrists to back his strategy. The ‘guilty’ plea absolves a jury from ever hearing the particulars of the case. Now, Wilk further muddies the clarity of the facts by putting the law on trial, suggesting capital punishment is murder sanctioned under the law, though murder nonetheless. Unable to disentangle himself from Wilk’s sound logic, Judge Matthews (Voltaire Perkins) nevertheless reaches a verdict of life behind bars with no chance of parole. As Artie and Judd are led away, Artie scoffs at the careworn and exhausted Wilk, who suggests God has had his day in court; a higher authority than his own sealing the boys’ fate by providing the circumstances by which Judd’s glasses fell from the pocket to incriminate their rightful owner in Paulie Kessler’s murder.
Compulsion is an uneven entertainment at best, heralded as Hollywood’s first legitimate stab at the ‘thrill kill’ movie. Perhaps in part due to the prison release of Leopold, the picture garnered morbid curiosity from amateur sleuths more fascinated by crime than confounded by the warped machinations of the criminal mind. Unhappily, Compulsion is a fairly turgid and straight-forward account of a crime made more abominable and legendary on the stage; in which co-star, Dean Stockwell already assumed the part of Judd Steiner. Stockwell’s cohort on stage had been Roddy McDowell; once considered a child star par excellence at Fox, but whose reputation had somewhat slipped since puberty, to the point where McDowell basically lost a decade in films, concentrating his formidable talents in live theater until the movies once again came to call. Bradford Dillman was initially not welcomed by Stockwell as McDowell’s replacement for the movie; an animosity set aside after the first day’s shoot, when Stockwell apologized for his behavior. Dillman accepted the apology and the actors went forth with a mutual respect for each other. Alas, Richard Fleischer’s direction here is rather flat; the arrogance that Dillman brings to the part, compounding his lack of empathy for either of these two antagonists (perhaps, Fleischer’s point to the story – neither deserving of as much). Dillman’s bravura is offset by Stockwell’s tortured submissiveness; but the heinousness of the crime itself is unbalanced by both Dillman and Stockwell’s discrepancies in age; much older than the real Leopold and Loeb (still in their late teens at the time the real murder was committed. In the end, nothing about the first two acts of Compulsion compels the viewer onward to witness its finale; Orson Welles’ magnificent oration of the facts (or rather, the case as he re-conceives it) as an impassioned stance against capital punishment is a tour de force. Welles is a firestorm of attenuated emotions; toggling between bombastic outbursts and hushed reverence. It’s quite a good show.
Yet Compulsion ought to have been a far more gripping drama. Diane Varsi, who renounced her Hollywood career, forcing her off the screen for seven long years, is thoroughly wasted in the bit part of Ruth that any of the studio’s lesser contract players could have played with their eyes closed; hardly a successor to the powerful and star-making performance she delivered as Alison MacKenzie in Mark Robson’s blockbuster, Peyton Place just two years before. Fleischer has populated the backdrop of his movie with some stellar support, but none are given very much to do; Richard Murphy’s screenplay waffling in and out of the particulars of the case and becoming mired in the repeatedly diverting police procedural back story. It might have worked, except that Fleischer never manages to go beyond the mechanics of the plot, drawing a relatively straight line from points ‘A’ to ‘B’. William C. Mellor’s cinematography is brightly lit, straight out of a TV serial; albeit, tricked out in the elongated framing of Cinemascope. In the final analysis, Compulsion is a movie with little fresh or exhilarating to say about the crime that virtually shook 1924’s socially affluent jazz babies to their core and sent shudders down the spines of all who followed its daily revelations in the tabloids. As a movie, Compulsion is a blip on the radar. It lacks the girth, greatness and gingerly massaged guidance to be anything more than diverting melodrama.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a revelation; sourced from a restored 4K master, the image is immaculate and mostly razor sharp, revealing superb tonality in the B&W grayscale, and startling amounts of fine detail in hair, makeup, clothing and background info. There is virtually nothing to complain about with this release. If only Fox would pay a little more attention to some of its more prominent classics still MIA in hi-def or those already released in decidedly lackluster Blu-ray renditions, then we might expect some very fine work in the future. We’ll see! Personally, I think it is high time Fox made some of their vintage musicals like Down Argentine Way, Week-end in Havana, The Dolly Sisters, Star!, Doctor Doolittle and so on available in 1080p. We could also stand for complete restorations of 1954’s Demetrius and the Gladiators, 1956’s Anastasia, and a remaster to fix the notorious teal color issues on Desk Set, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Wild River, The Blue Max (very blue, indeed) and, The Black Swan. But I digress. Nothing about Fox’s efforts on Compulsion will disappoint. In fact, prepare to be as astonished by the bombastic 5.1 DTS audio, surprising robust and subtly nuanced. Extras are limited to a sporadic audio commentary from Tim Lucas and a few theatrical trailers to promote other Fox catalog being released by Kino Lorber. Bottom line: a winner in hi-def for sure. Just not a great film to warrant as careful preservation, it is nevertheless a welcomed surprise to see from Fox; a studio notoriously neglectful of its back catalog.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)