Compulsion (1959)

26 Sep

The Leopold and Loeb case has been fertile ground for film-makers; from Hitchcock’s experimental ‘Rope’, to Tom Kalin’s turgid ‘Swoon’, to Michael Haneke’s hectoring guilt-by-association-fest ‘Funny Games’, to Rafal Zielinski’s criminally overlooked female take on the ‘thrill kill’ phenomenon ‘Fun’. But ‘Compulsion’ remains the most well-known, primarily because Nathan Leopold sued the film’s makers for defamation of character; which, ironically, only served to boost the profile of the film. ‘Compulsion’ is emblematic of Hollywood’s preoccupation with ‘message’ movies in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, the undisputed king of which being Stanley Kramer.

‘Compulsion’ tells the tale of Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Arthur Strauss (Bradford Dillman); two wealthy college students who see themselves as Nietzschian supermen beyond good and evil. They undertake to explore all the possibilities of human existence, a quest which culminates in the murder of a teenage boy. Sid Brookes (Martin Milner), a fellow student working part-time as a journalist, finds a pair of glasses from the crime scene that links Steiner to the murder. Strauss and Steiner prepare an alibi, which quickly unravels under the scrutiny of District Attorney Harold Horn (E.G Marshall). They are charged and face the death penalty. Enter Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles), a maverick defence attorney and vocal opponent of capital punishment who is employed by the students’ families to save them from the gallows.

Journeyman director Richard Fleischer takes a conspicuously journalistic, Kramer-esque approach; the clinical, well-lit tone and unfussy shot selection provide a workmanlike platform for the performances, despite the lifeless soundstages and choreographed location shoots. Dillman plays the affable, brazen Strauss in a manner that seems hopelessly outdated and affected, when you consider that ‘On the Waterfront’ and its fine-de-siècle ilk had been in the ascendancy for much of the ‘50s. Strauss is intended to be the antagonist, the id to Steiner’s superego, but Dillman’s portrayal is so mannered that it renders the character little more than a snide caricature. Stockwell, on the other hand, pitches it perfect as the impressionable, bewildered Steiner, marking him out as an actor attuned to the changing timbre of his craft.

Orson Welles’ had no such truck with this nascent naturalism and remained a steadfast adherent to the ’bombast’ approach to the last. His performance is that of an actor whose cinematic instincts have deserted him and is forced to fall back on showy theatrics, running roughshod over director and production – something Welles became infamous for when he deemed a project beneath his talents. Grandstanding appeals to the jury abound in the heavily codified world of courtroom dramatics, and Welles savours this opportunity to use the culmination of the trial as a shop window for his acting chops; lurching around the set and delivering a disjointed, ranting, meandering, sonorous monologue for the best part of twenty minutes.

But for all its melodrama, ‘Compulsion’ still has value when viewed in the context of the Cold War. Though set in the ‘20s, the film’s core themes resonate with the moral and philosophical sensibilities of ‘50s America – the conformist, proscriptive paranoid world of the slowly eroding moral majority. Much like Judd and Arthur’s homosexuality, the fear of communism is only ever alluded to; ‘rationalism’ and ‘secularism’ are invoked throughout as a handy euphemism for the godless faith. Judd and Arthur symbolize a world where certainty and order no longer hold sway, where nature’s innate cruelty has shaken people’s belief in a guiding force. America’s de facto class system is also addressed, albeit tentatively; the deference with which Judd and Arthur are treated when being questioned would not have been extended to suspects from less affluent backgrounds. Indeed, their interrogators refuse to believe at first that these privileged young men could be capable of such a heinous crime.

‘Compulsion’ goes as far as was permitted by the self-censorship of the industry and the squeamishness of society; but it still feels like a missed opportunity to deal with the case in an even-handed manner. Little attempt is made to explain what in fact compelled these two young men from well-to-do homes to act as they did, beyond blaming the big ideas their heads were filled with at their seat of learning. The apparent coldness of their home life is never addressed, as family life was sacrosanct in ‘50s America, an integral part of its self-perception as God’s Own Country.

The one kernel of a dangerous idea that the original case – and the film, however unintentionally – posits is that the criminal urge transcends wealth, education and breeding, a contention that strikes at the very heart of the idea that these things are tools for amelioration. Richard Murphy’s screenplay ultimately shies away from this in favour of ‘morality lessons’; pandering to the status quo and allowing the audience to go home reassured that their values have not been challenged.

Stand back, Mr Welles is about to declaim.

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2 Responses to “Compulsion (1959)”

  1. webdesign December 4, 2010 at 6:52 am #

    Lovely sharp post. By no means thought that it was this simple. Extolment to you!

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  1. Compulsion (1959) | Old Old Films - July 4, 2011

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