The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
In 1924, the kidnap murder of 14-year-old Chicago resident Robert “Bobby” Franks would be publicly branded as “the crime of the century.” Bobby, the son of wealthy watch manufacturer Jacob Franks, was snatched as he walked home from school; he was bludgeoned by a chisel while traveling in a car belonging to two assailants, then gagged in the back seat until he was dead. Franks’ body was dumped in a culvert along the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad near Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana, and to obscure his identity, hydrochloric acid was poured over his face and other parts of his body.
The two individuals ultimately implicated in the murder were Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb. Leopold and Loeb, convinced they had committed the perfect crime, ultimately succumbed to the same frailties that beset all human beings (a pair of eyeglasses carelessly left at the scene was the key clue in helping the police solve the murder), even though the two men were convinced their superior intellect (Leopold, in particular, was a devotee of the teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche) absolved them from the rules and laws that applied to otherwise “inferior” members of society.
Leopold and Loeb were defended by renowned criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who convinced the judge at trial (in a 12-hour summation considered to be the apex of his career) to spare his clients the death penalty and instead give them life imprisonment (they received that sentence, plus 99 years for the kidnapping). Loeb died in prison, having been attacked by a fellow inmate in 1936; Leopold was paroled in 1958 and relocated to Puerto Rico where he suffered a heart attack in 1971.
The sordid story of Leopold and Loeb provided the grist for a 1929 play written by Patrick Hamilton titled Rope’s End. As Rope, it was brought to the silver screen in 1948 by director Alfred Hitchcock, who conceived the production as a cinematic experiment filmed in a series of ten-minute takes (John Dall and Farley Granger play the Leopold and Loeb-like killers). Later feature film versions of the Leopold-Loeb crime include 1992’s Swoon (an anachronistic take featuring a franker depiction of the two men’s homosexuality) and 2002’s Murder by Numbers. And then there’s Compulsion (1959).
Compulsion began as a 1956 novel by Meyer Levin and was brought to the Broadway stage a year later in a play by the author, with Roddy McDowell (as Arthur “Artie” Straus) and Dean Stockwell (as Judd Steiner) playing the fictionalized versions of Leopold and Loeb. Screenwriter Richard Murphy adapted Levin’s novel/play for a film version, directed by Richard Fleischer and allowed Stockwell to reprise his stage role (McDowall was replaced by up-and-comer Bradford Dillman).
Fleischer, best known for movie blockbusters like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), began his film career helming B-noirs like Follow Me Quietly (1949), Armored Car Robbery (1950), and what some consider one of the best B-pictures of all time, The Narrow Margin (1952). The director later returned to tales based on real-life crimes with entries like The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1971). (Fleischer also directed The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing , based on another “crime of the century” — the murder of architect Stanford White by millionaire Harry K. Thaw.)
The actor who receives top billing in Compulsion is none other than Orson Welles, portraying the Clarence Darrow stand-in, Jonathan Wilk. It’s a testament to Welles’ thespic stature (we sometimes overlook that in addition to his renown as a director with titles like Citizen Kane  and The Magnificent Ambersons  on his resume Orson wasn’t too shabby in front of a motion picture camera, either) that he’s identified as the film’s star even though he doesn’t make his entrance until an hour and five minutes into the proceedings. Welles is every bit as fiery as you’d expect a character inspired by Darrow to be, and his concluding oratory (purported to be the longest monologue in movie history) is unquestionably compelling. (The story goes that twenty seconds of Welles’ speech had to be put together in post-production by editor William Reynolds using words and syllables spoken by Orson earlier in the movie because the actor had already bailed, his paycheck having been garnished to pay his back taxes.)
The relationship between Straus and Steiner is understandably downplayed due to the silver screen rules of the era, but even a blind man would have little difficulty reading the subtext. Dillman’s Straus is the more flamboyant of the pair (his odd relationship with his mother [Louise Lorimer as “Mumsy”] echoes a similar situation with Robert Walker and Marion Lorne in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train ) and is a fascinating individual, boldly flirting with capture as he assists the police in their investigation. Dillman was a hard-working actor who despite his lengthy show business C.V. never achieved major stardom and later noted in his autobiography that his relationship with co-star Stockwell was strained (Dean was disappointed that he couldn’t work alongside stage mate McDowell).
Stockwell, a child actor noted for his turns in films like The Boy with Green Hair (1948) and The Happy Years (1950), continued to do outstanding work as he got older; he’s the Farley Granger in Compulsion, subdued and often appearing to be a poor soul under the spell of Dillman’s Steiner—all-too-willing to do his bidding. Dean’s Steiner attempts to attack Ruth Evans (played by Diane Varsi—whose second billing in Compulsion was a result of her Oscar-nominated performance in Fox’s Peyton Place ) but he’s unable to carry out the deed; attorney Wilk later uses the incident in his defense by having Ruth testify at the trial.
It’s interesting to note that Compulsion features a plethora of familiar future TV faces: even Dillman (in a 1965-66 series entitled Court Martial) and Stockwell (on the long-running sci-fi comedy Quantum Leap) would later find work on the small screen. Martin Milner (as reporter Sid Brooks, a friend of Straus and Steiner’s), already making an impression in movies like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Sweet Smell of Success (both 1957), would star in Route 66 in the year after Compulsion’s release and enjoy even greater success in Adam-12 toward the end of the decade. Richard Anderson, who plays Stockwell’s brother, went on to portray the same character (Oscar Goldman) on the ’70s hits The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, while Robert F. Simon (as the top cop on the case) displayed an impressive TV resume (roles in Saints and Sinners, Custer, Bewitched, and Nancy) as did Gavin McLeod (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Love Boat).
Character actor E.G. Marshall gets a little practice in Compulsion for his later practice as a member of the father-and-son defense team on TV’s The Defenders. Granted, Marshall is on the opposite side of the courtroom (he’s the district attorney) but I like to think it gave him a little perspective as to the prosecutorial aspects of the legal system. E.G. also figures in a little in-joke that refers to a role he played in a previous film; his district attorney is told by cop Simon and assistant McLeod that they don’t think Straus and Steiner are guilty of the murder, but Marshall remains unconvinced, remarking of the evidence: “Those damned glasses keep bothering me.” (As Juror Number Four in 12 Angry Men , E.G. also experienced problems with a pair of “cheaters.”)
20th Century-Fox promoted Compulsion as “based on the famous Leopold and Loeb murder case,” something that no doubt gave the studio’s legal department apoplexy, since they were concerned that the still-living Leopold might take legal action in the form of a lawsuit. He did not disappoint; he sued the studio for defamation of character and invasion of privacy. The court, however, dismissed the suit since Leopold had already published a book on the affair, Life Plus 99 Years—and as such, had no reasonable expectations for privacy since the book’s details mirrored the content in the film.