Stockwell Provides An Engrossing Compulsion
Inspired by the infamous 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder trial, 1959's Compulsion first drew me in many years ago during a television showing, and I've eagerly awaited a DVD release of this rich, satisfying drama. Seeing the film anew, I felt it held up extremely well; although the mores of the 1950's made it impossible to address some of the subject matter in explicit terms, the plot is so fascinating that, despite the film's shortcomings, it's easy to get involved in the story. Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman star as Judd Steiner and Artie Strauss, two brillant young men who believe their superior intellect places them above the rest of society, and decide to kill a young boy to prove it. Although Dillman is competent as the feral, unsympathetic instigator of the crime, with his beautific-yet-glacial looks and intense, focused demeanor Dean Stockwell (as Leopold to Dillman's Loeb) gives such a compelling account of the complex, tormented Judd he dominates the movie (in many scenes, he somehow manages to be sinister and sensitive simultaneously). Stockwell also makes the film's homoerotic subtext clear- when Judd breaks down in hysterics after being unable to seduce a girl (well-played by Diane Varsi, whose voice is as mellifluous as it is in Peyton Place) or earlier, when he intently gazes at Dillman and states, "Please Artie, I'll do anything you say" the audience knows Judd's a young man desperately at odds with the social conventions his affluent background has forced on him.
Orson Welles shows up halfway through the proceedings as the Clarence Darrowish lawyer hired to (literally) save the boys necks, and he easily takes center stage during the courtroom scenes- Welles seems intent to underplay his role, making for an interesting contrast to his bombastic, juicy performance in the previous year's The Long Hot Summer (the acting style he adopts for 1958's Touch of Evil lies somewhere between his work in Summer and in Compulsion). With E.G. Marshall as the crafty prosecuting attorney, and Richard Anderson as Max, Judd's constantly disgruntled older brother, who thinks his sibling should stop spending long hours in his room "giggling" with Artie, and get out to see some baseball games instead (it's clear big brother knows something is up, but he's so stoic and humorless about it, the viewer starts to wish Max would just get a room and do some giggling of his own). Lionel Newman's terrific score aptly evokes the jazz age of the 1920's, while director Richard Fleischer keeps the pace steady for the film's 103 minutes. Stockwell, Welles, and Dillman were jointly awarded the Best Actor prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. The 20th Century-Fox DVD offers few extras, but features a great B&W Cinemascope print of the film.
For an interesting double feature, follow a viewing of Compulsion with 1992's Swoon, Tom Katlin's more "out" there take on the Loeb and Leopold case (and if you want to make it an all-nighter, start the evening with Rope, Hitchcock's 1948 experimental thriller, with John Dall and Farley Granger in the Loeb and Leopold-inspired roles, respectively).