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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Compulsion" (1959)

There have been many plays, roman a clef novels, and movies based on the famous Leopold and Loeb murder case of the 1920's, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" and Tom Kalin's "Swoon". This version is adapted from Meyer Levin's 1956 book of the same name. It hews pretty closely to the major incidents in the case: two very wealthy college students, devotees of the Nietzschean "superman" philosophy, believe they can pull of the perfect crime; they plan and cold bloodily kill a young boy, but through happenstance and smart police work are found out and brought to trial in what at the time was billed as 'the crime of the century". Their lawyer was the famous Clarence Darrow and a media circus ensued. If you don't know the outcome, the suspense of the courtroom drama is whether the two murders will get the electric chair. Director Richard Fleischer does right by all the actors here. The young and swoon-worthily handsome Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell play the culprits. Dillman brings just the right amount of smarm to his cocky to-the-manor-born half of the duo, while Stockwell is the shyer, introspective one. Of course no telling of the Leopold/Loeb story is complete without a strong undercurrent of gay subtext, and the film is pretty explicit (by late '50s standards) about indicating the strong attraction these two culprits have for each other...and murder. The last third of the piece is the trial itself and Orson Welles (who gets star billing but doesn't show up for over an hour), is quite effective in a subdued world-weary performance for the Darrow role, as is the always stalwart E.G.Marshall as the prosecuting attorney.

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