August 13, 2010

COMPULSION (1959) - re-enacting the story of Leopold and Loeb

(1959, USA)

They're loaded, and they wanna have a good time...

This is a taut fictionalisation of a famous murder case from 1924. Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy and intelligent Chicago students, thought they were clever enough to plan a perfect crime, and of superior enough intellect to be above the law. While it lead to 'the trial of the century' at the time, fellow student Meyer Levin later told their story in his 1956 book, Compulsion, which stuck to the facts but changed the names of everyone in the case - I'm not clear why. This early true-crime novel predates Truman Capote's 'ground-breaking'
In Cold Blood which has been heralded as the first of its kind.

After the book of Compulsion came a hit play and then in 1959 a hit movie, monopolising on the renewed publicity from the release of one of the murderers on parole (after 33 years in prison).
The movie is gritty for the time, struggling with teenage sex, rape, and child murder, not to mention the killers' homosexual relationship. Many of the elements that Hitchcock loved to spice up his plots with - he used two (subtly gay) murderers who thought they were above the law in his 1948 film Rope. The image of polite college boy killers may have informed the character of Norman Bates in Psycho.

Remember that in Robert Bloch's book, Norman is overweight and middle-aged, and that the real-life inspiration for the character was Ed Gein, a dishevelled old hermit. The young Anthony Perkins couldn't be further from the source material if he tried. Another thematic link between Compulsion and Psycho is Judd Steiner's (Dean Stockwell) hobby of bird-watching and taxidermy, a perfect match for Norman Bates' favourite past-times.

While not nearly as modern or edgy as the movie of In Cold Blood, Compulsion is still fascinating because it follows the events and twists of the real-life case so closely. While it's set in the 1920s, apart from the car and a scene set in a prohibition speakeasy, it's not aggressively a period film and feels very 1950s, with Dean Stockwell rebelling against his family ties and scorning the teachings of his college professor.

The majority of the film shows the killers at large and the cops trailing far behind, don't let the photos here make you think this is only a courtroom drama. The inevitable trial doesn't dominate the film, though the renaming of all the characters robs the courtroom scenes of their historical power. In that I didn't realise that Orson Welles, as the defence lawyer, was in fact portraying Clarence Darrow, also famously fictionalised in Inherit The Wind. Welles steals every scene once he arrives, though his character is an unlikely figure for sympathy, because he looks too much like his most villainous portrayal, in Touch of Evil, released the previous year. It's a far cry from
the image of upstanding legal do-gooders played by Gregory Peck and Spencer Tracy.

Dean Stockwell (above) is always interesting to watch, even as far back as his child roles, like The Boy With Green Hair (1948, a simple but early parable about race relations) and the beautiful 1949 version of The Secret Garden. I also love his later sixties' drop-out roles, especially The Dunwich Horror, and his sublime performance in Blue Velvet (1986). His astonishingly long career continues to fascinate, continuing with his long-running character in the recent Battlestar Galactica remake.

Stockwell's partner-in-crime is played by Bradford Dillman (Bug, Escape from the Planet of the Apes),
pictured above on the right. He's a familiar face to me from many seventies' roles, but had no more parts as high profile as this. Of current interest, he was great as the leading man in Roger Corman's original Piranha (1978), which has just had a big budget 3D remake.

Dillman and Stockwell's screen relationship is not only hinted as being homosexual, but sado-masochistic as well. This is inferred in their performances and the direction, plus a few sneaky coded hints in the dialogue. The tortured but unspoken gay undercurrent heightens the drama throughout. A later adaption of the same case, Swoon (1992), was explicit in showing the sexual relationship as well as the boy's murder. But as a film, it's lacking in drama, looking more like a Madonna video, right down to the buff leading men.

Director Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage, Blind Terror) uses subtly skewed angles to insinuate the power struggle between the two, and their unbalanced morality. We even get Dillman hiding in a closet - subtle! Fleischer landed two more adaptions of real-life murders later in his career - The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1971).

The US DVD (pictured) has a crisp black-and-white transfer
, in 2.35 anamorphic widescreen. The only extra is a trailer. I don't find the cover art very inspiring, considering the weighty cast and subject matter. They're even the wrong kind of glasses...

Another Compulsion review here, with screengrabs, at
The Sheila Variations.

Cool interview with Bradford Dillman over at Cinema Retro.

A rather sensationalistic trailer, considering the comparatively subtle style of the movie...

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