Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Richard Murphy; Based on Compulsion by Meyer Levin
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Producer: Richard D. Zanuck
by Jon Cvack
Last time I saw Rope we were a few weeks out from entering into production for Road to the Well, which gets better with every viewing and left me all the more inspired to work on our film's blocking. For a few days, our DP Tim convinced me to name the RttW’s production company Leopold and Loebe, until our producer made us realize that having a company named after two psychotic murderers wasn’t the smartest a move.
The more I read about the crime, the eerier they became; committed by two Northwestern Law students, taking the ideas of Nietzsche and his thoughts on the übermensch in order to try and commit the perfect murder. I went to school directly beneath Evanston, in Rogers Park and there’s something especially chilling about the cold Chicago weather and frozen Lake Michigan that paints a creepy portrait. I had no idea that there was a crime drama about the actual Leopold and Loebe, let alone one that stars Orson Welles. So on it went.
First off, like El Dorado for a B&W crime film, this is a brilliant transfer, showing off every wrinkle beneath Orson’s scolding eyes, shot by William C. Miller, who didn’t really do much else beyond The Greatest Show on Earth; as neither did director Richard Fleischer (who did such films as Soylent Green and The Jazz Singer remake with Neil Diamond, and portions of Tora! Tora! Tora! a few years before that). The forces formed a near perfect story, examining the two students as they plan, execute, and fess up to a murder.
I was especially excited to see how they dealt with the gay undertones that have been reported in the story. The film finds the perfect balance between suggestion and subtly. Friends Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) are two law students with genius IQs, who believe they could use their supreme intellect to commit the perfect murder. Artie professes his knowledge of Nietzsche and his ideas that moral subjectivity, based upon the individual, and uses the logic for evil. I wrote my philosophy thesis back in college on this exact idea, working with my professor Tom Carson to explain the few conditions necessary to make Nietzsche’s ideas work. One of the most significant qualities was that the individual needed to be “psychologically healthy” (with the arbiter of “healthy” reserved for a different paper). Point being that Artie was immediately misinterpreting the message, twisting it to include cold blooded murder.
The story proceeds into a cat and mouse game, with Artie caught in a love triangle between Ruth Evans (Diane Varsi) and her current boyfriend and fellow law student Sid Brooks (Martin Milner), who got a job at the Chicago Globe, investigating the body that Artie and Judd killed off, discovering Artie’s pair of glasses that he left there. The police take whiff, and in a brilliant scene involving the detectives asking Artie to demonstrate how he would have lost his glasses, they eventually book the two, bringing in the best part of the movie - Mr. Orson Welles.
Part of me thinks that Orson Welles only signed onto this movie in order to complete the last scene’s monologue, as he doesn’t appear until over halfway through, and while commanding each and every moment from there on out, it’s the final monologue where he argues for the boy’s to be spared the death penalty that he really shines. The role is brilliantly complex, in that on the one hand Jonathan Wilk (Welles) is an exceptionally well paid attorney and atheist, acting for the prestige, power, and money the case could bring, others might see him acting as a man solely against the death penalty in whatever facet.
The only concern I had is with the abrupt conclusion. I’m aware that there wasn’t more to see or experience. The boys were going to be killed and that was that. It’s this fact that makes me all the more appreciative of what Hitchcock did with his version. He seemed to understand that there wasn’t much drama come the conclusion of Leopold and Loebe, instead focusing on the smaller moments, condensing the story and creating something equally terrifying. Compulsion’s a great film. I’d love to see it on the big screen, but it’s more about the performances and photography than the story. Definitely worth checking out.
BELOW: How I've never heard of this scene, let alone the film, is beyond me
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