Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Compulsion


The Leopold-Loeb case is one of the most famous American crimes. Two students – intelligent, but not as intelligent as they believed themselves to be – abducted and murdered a young man as a Nietzschean ‘experiment’ in committing the perfect crime in 1924. Of course, it was far from perfect. They were duly caught and convicted, but Clarence Darrow’s advocacy saved them from execution. Loeb was murdered by a fellow prisoner, but Leopold was released after 33 years and died in 1971.

The story inspired Patrick Hamilton to write the famous play ‘Rope’, filmed equally famously by Alfred Hitchcock. Meyer Levin based his book and play Compulsion on the story, and I’ve just watched the film of the same title, starring Orson Welles as Darrow, made in 1959. Apparently, Leopold tried to prevent the film’s release, arguing that it breached his privacy. This may be why the characters are named Steiner and Strauss rather than Leopold and Loeb.

Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman do a good job as the selfish young men, and convey the gay undercurrents of their relationship reasonably well, given the constraints that existed at the time the film was made. But it has to be said that they are unappealing characters, and although their motivation was fascinating, it is less than fully explored. The abduction and murder of the victim is not shown at al, and I felt that was a structural weakness since the central horror of the story is dealt with at one remove. I do not suggest that the crime should have been depicted graphically – that would also have been a mistake – but to omit it altogether struck me as odd, though it is a reminder that the focus of the film is different from that of most crime-based movies. Further weaknesses are the duo’s attempts to avoid arrest are puerile, and the action is rather slow at times.

However, Welles gives a towering performance as Jonathan Wilk (the Darrow equivalent) and his passionate opposition to capital punishment is so effectively conveyed that it is the highlight of the film and the reason why, more than half a century after it was made, it remains well worth watching to this day.

7 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for reminding me of this case - and of Rope. I find it absolutely fascinating that true crime has such a powerful effect on the world of crime fiction. What a powerful story this one is, too...

Mrs. B. said...

I remember seeing this film years ago and enjoying it. I'd love to see it again.

Minnie said...

I remember seeing it on (UK) tv when I was still at school. Obviously a child shielded from too much reality, as I still recall how frightening the film was! I suspect it was the very idea of the two students not only conceiving such an idea but also realising it that did the trick, as well as Brad Dillman's thoroughly convincing acting as the dominant (and chillingly manipulative) partner. The two lads made such a horrible impression, the fact the killing wasn't shown came as a relief!
Now keen to see what Hitchcock made of the story ...

Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

Martin - Nice coincidence. Rope was yesterday in a Spanish TV. I was not able to watch it, but I'm keen to see it again.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I recently saw this article, which mentioned "Rope": http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/2010/05/the-conversations-minor-hitchcock/ I haven't read "Compulsion" or seen "Rope"--I'll have to correct that!

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Deb said...

There's a more recent movie about Leopold & Loeb--SWOON. It's explicit about L&L's relationship, but it lacks the power of COMPULSION or the subtleties ROPE. Incidently, Loeb was murdered in the prison shower. The inmate who committed the murder claimed that Loeb had made a pass at him and did not serve any additional time for Loeb's murder.

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks for these comments. Deb, I did not know about Swoon - thanks for telling us about it.