Compulsion is a film that every loyal viewer of the Law & Order series should be familiar with but probably isn’t. And by loyal viewer I don’t just mean those ten people who watch 166 hours of reruns that run every week. I mean those who turn in religiously for the weekly original showings.
It’s a shame that this masterpiece isn’t more well known. It’s one of the best movies made in the 50s, far and away better than such other well-known award-winning films as On the Waterfront, Gigi, or Ben-Hur. In the years since it was released it has been overshadowed by two similar movies, Anatomy of a Murder and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.
Both pale in comparison. Rope, especially, since it’s based upon the same true story and handles it with much less aplomb. No less a problem with Rope is it gimmick of seeming to be shot in one continuos scene (it wasn’t) which leads to some major problems in both staging and overacting.
The true story upon which both films are based is the Leopold and Lobe murder from the 20s. Two young men killed a fourteen-year-old boy. One of the murderers was a certified genius and both were extraordinarily precocious. Their intelligence led naturally enough to a certain belief in their own superiority over common folk.
What made their case so infamous was that it was basically the first trial for two “juveniles” engaged in a joy killing. There was no motive other than the attempt to see if they could get away with it. Seems kind of silly to get so worked up over something that like nowadays, but it just goes to prove that sometimes the good old days really were better. But not usually.
The most famous lawyer in American history, Clarence Darrow-the same man who defended Scopes in the infamous monkey trial-came to the defense of these two unlikely sociopaths. Actually, he wasn’t so much defending his clients as he was attacking the idea of the death penalty.
Darrow was perhaps shortsighted in not thinking it was possible to find twelve men in Chicago who could find his clients not guilty. After all, who would ever have thought you’d find twelve people in all of America who would find OJ Simpsons not guilty? Instead, Darrow pled them guilty and spent his time as lawyer giving a two-day summation about the evils of the death penalty. It paid off, however, and both his clients avoided execution.
The film is based on a novel of the same name. Directed by Richard Fleischer, Compulsion takes this fascinating story and adds to it with an almost unbelievable-for the 50s-undercurrent of psychosexual motivation. It’s difficult to think of another film that makes such effective use of homosexual tension than this one. The tendency in most films that touch upon homosexuality is to make that its topic.
The topic here isn’t homosexuality, but the sexual attraction/envy/jealousy that exists between the two main characters touches upon everything in the film. In fact, it’s probably possible to watch this film without even realizing that murderers are homosexual, though you’d have to be incredibly obtuse to do so.
Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman play the killers. Stockwell is the better-known actor today from his appearance on Quantum Leap or the David Lynch film Blue Velvet. While Stockwell is superb, it is Dillman who is creepily fascinating. It’s a towering performance, one that probably led many to expect a long and brilliant career from this young man.
That wasn’t the case, but no one can ever take this performance away from him. And the chemistry between Stockwell and Dillman is almost painful to watch. There is a dominant/submissive dichotomy at work here that could easily have gone over the top, as it did in Rope, as a matter of fact. Were this film to be made today using the exact same script, one would almost be sure to cringe at the overplayed relationship.
(There actually is a more recent version of this story in the 1992 film Swoon, but I haven’t seen it, although I am told that it does delve deeper into the sexual undertones. And apparently a Sandra Bullock vehicle called Murder by Numbers is very, very loosely based upon it, but since this movie looked more like it should have starred Ashley Judd I avoided it at the cost to my sanity). Fleischer is to be commended for keeping the reins tight enough to not allow it to verge into melodrama, but loose enough so that we can get the message.
Another reason by Dillman’s performance may have been overlooked is that Orson Welles comes into the play in the second half, playing the Darrow character. In fact, in most articles and reviews about this film, the focus is on Welles. Although I am a huge Orson Welles fan, I wanted to focus this article on the rest of the movie, so I’ll just say that Welles delivers his usual interesting and idiosyncratic performance. It’s probably his second best 50s performance, after his own Touch of Evil.
Compulsion manages the amazing feat of being suspenseful even when you know how it turns out. Which just about everybody did when it was first released. Since most moviegoers today aren’t aware that America has a history prior to 1980, it’s much easier to watch this film with a clean slate. Unfortunately, since Turner Classic Movies is the only network in American that regularly shows black and white movies, your chances of coming across this masterpiece without actually looking for it is close to nil.
Do yourself a favor: Shut off Law & Order and get a subscription to Netflix and rent this movie and watch it.