[Film Review] Compulsion (1959)

Compulsion poster

Title: Compulsion
Year: 1959
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Director: Richard Fleischer
Writers:
Richard Murphy
Meyer Levin
Music: Lionel Newman
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Cast:
Dean Stockwell
Bradford Dillman
Orson Welles
Diane Varsi
Martin Milner
E.G. Marshall
Edward Binns
Louis Lorimer
Richard Anderson
Gavin MacLeod
Robert F. Simon
Rating: 7.3/10

Compulsion 1959

A cinematic revamping of the notorious Leopold-Loeb murder case in 1924, which is also the source material for Alfred Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948), well-known for its specious “entirely-one-long-shot” conceit. This polished Black & White version is directed by a lesser-known Richard Fleischer, a prolific studio journeyman, and the final product is a compelling character study despite the fact that it strikes a false note in its climatic courtroom finale.

Judd and Artie (Stockwell and Dillman) are two flush college students who deem themselves superior to others, they carry on a “perfect crime” to murder a teenage boy for no other reason, just to flout the law and take pleasure in such “superiority” of omnipotence. However, it turns out they are rather clumsy perpetrators, soon a key evidence emerges and with no bother, their crime is exposed by district attorney Harold Horn (Marshall). Then belatedly entering the scene is the distinguished defense attorney Jonathan Will (Welles), who will launch a heartfelt polemic against capital punishment and prevent them being hanged, instead, the trail ended by life imprisonment.

As stylish as any monochromatic oldies could ever be, the film effectively introduces Judd and Artie to spectators with their after-crime ecstasy, to give instant access of their twisted morals and sociopathic symptoms. Although carefully circumventing the homoerotic and sadomasochistic undertones, but for new audience it is pretty easy to detect it without knowing any knowledge of the case itself, it pinpoints Nietzsche’s “supermen” philosophy as the root of their poisoned mindset, and gives the exclusive intimacy a fertile soil to be sanitized. A young Dean Stockwell embodies Judd’s rebellion, intractability, blind submission, naivety and vulnerability with scorching engrossment and sheer amazement. Bradford Dillman, as the slightly older dandy, radiates some sort of gorgeous flair of a young Tyron Power, his Artie is a child trapped in a grown-up body, a capricious and spoiled wiseacre.

Orson Welles is first-billed, but only appears in the third act, but once he is on, he dominates the show entirely, only 43 years old at then, he assumes to be an old man in his seventies thanks to an intricate make-up and his portly figure, although his towering presence and the extensive anti-death penalty homily does elicit a powerful performance out of his usual haughty weight, the film misses the point catastrophically by opting for a shallow sensation while turning a blind eye to the elephant in the room, with no further intention of probing into the undoing of the two killers’ more controversial perspective of the world, which could have been more insightful and edifying to comprehend. Also during the final scenes, the implication of God’s work in the act sounds like a sententious punchline can instantly turn many liberal minds off. And last but not the least, the portrayal of Ruth Evans (Varsi), the girl who almost gets raped by Judd but is still willing to accept him as a troubled mind, looks rather dubious and over-contrived. Otherwise, the film should have connected with a broader audience and been named as one of the untainted classic in the genre of crime drama.

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