Wednesday, September 30, 2009

We only look like Leopold and Loeb

The Fox Movie Channel is showing the movie Compulsion tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM.

The movie is based on the notorious 1920s "thrill killing" case of Leopold and Loeb, although Fox went to great pains to claim that any similarities to real people was only coincidental. Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman star as two young students at the University of Chicago who believed in the Nietzschean philosophy that some men are supermen, burn to be superior than others, and that the laws of mere normal men didn't necessarily apply to such supermen. They decide to prove their hypothesis by actually going out and killing somebody and getting away with it just because the "normals" who are the cops are so unbelievably stupid. (If this sounds familiar, it's probably because Alfred Hitchcock's Rope was also based on the Leopold and Loeb case.)

Needless to say, Leopold and Loeb (or their substitutes) weren't so smart, as they left a critical piece of evidence on the body of the adolescent boy they murdered. The police find this evidence and are quickly able to link it back to the two college students, who are summarily arrested and face the death penalty. Their parents don't want them to die, so the parents hire Hollywood's best Clarence Darrow substitute, played here by Orson Welles. Welles has the two defendants plead guilty and waives their right to a trial by jury, figuring that a judge is more likely not to sentence them to execution than a jury....

Compulsion is a movie that's very interesting at times, although it's also not without its flaws. In real life, Leopold and Loeb were not just friends, they were homosexual lovers. The strictures of the Production Code didn't really allow the filmmakers to explore this in the late 1950s, and while Compulsion does try to explore the relationship between the two men (Stockwell is portrayed as a pretty extreme "bottom"), it doesn't go far enough. Instead, the Stockwell character is shown as more of a social misfit, trying to foster a friendship with a woman (Diane Varsi) who also happens to be friends with journalist/student Martin Milner. That having been said, Stockwell does an excellent job with his character, who is much more interesting than Dillman's. Welles gets top billing here, although the movie bogs down when he shows up, which fortunately isn't until about 65 minutes in.

Ultimately, you could do much worse than to watch both Compulsion and Rope to get two different angles on the same case. Fortunately, both are available on DVD.

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