Stars – Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, Orson Welles, Diane Varsi, E.G. Marshall
Director – Richard Fleischer
Released by Kino Studio Classics
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
In 1924 two university students, Leopold and Loeb kidnapped and murdered a 14 year old boy. The were both from wealthy families. They did not do this for money. They were not driven by revenge or any other passion. The reason given was that they wanted to commit the perfect crime to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. This crime of the century rocked the nation. The murder was awful. The motive shocking. In 1948 Alfred Hitchcock brought the story to the screen as Rope. Ten years later Richard Fleischer made this version which is exceedingly well done and quite chilling. The two leads are fantastic. Bradford Dillman plays Artie Strauss as a coiled bundle of energy and ego. He carries himself as being the smartest guy in any room. He is always up for kicks as long as he is the center of attention. Dean Stockwell as Judd Steiner is brilliant and deeply troubled. We can feel his torment and pain from the first moment we meet him. He is obsessed with Artie and will seemingly do anything to win his approval. Artie manipulates him without mercy. The two have a very strange relationship that the film portrays in good detail. The movie starts with the two of them driving at night in a very fancy sports car. They barely miss hitting a drunk in the deserted street. Artie taunts Judd to go back and run him over. Artie is full of bravado, confidence and liquor. Judd is scared but more frightened of disappointing his friend.
We do not actually see the murder of the boy. We hear about it while Martin Milner (13 Ghosts) as a young reporter classmate of theirs gets the lowdown on the cause of death from the coroner. There is a sequence in the film with Judd taking Milner’s girl friend played by Diane Varsi (Wild in the Streets) out to go bird watching. Judd is a nationally recognized ornithologist. When they are alone in the woods he steals a kiss and attacks her but he can’t go through with it. Judd’s balance is very off emotionally. It’s a difficult scene to watch. Judd is ashamed for his actions. But we can’t tell if that is because it was such a terrible thing to do or because he realizes he is not attracted to the girl. There is a very uneasy feeling whenever any hint of homosexuality comes up with Judd. Clearly he is driven by an attraction to Artie but he seems so painfully uncomfortable with it. Rather than offer any explanation or understanding for this the film lets us feel the tremendous struggle that Judd experiences. He is tortured by it.
From the moment that Orson Welles appears in the film things change. His presence dominates every scene he is in. He has such control over his performance. His presents Clarence Darrow, called Jonathan Wilk here, as immensely charming even affable. But none of that charm belies the talent churning inside his mind as he works his way into the case. It is a grand standing move when he changes his plea for the two boys to guilty with mitigating circumstance. That tactics allows him to plead the case directly to the judge. Two things are accomplished by that. First and foremost the boys have a chance at getting a lengthy sentence as opposed to being hung which the jury would very likely have selected. Secondly we get to see the great Orson Welles deliver a lengthy almost Shakespearian monologue against capital punishment. During this discourse the film takes us away from the sordid details of this murder and becomes a philosophical discussion. This is how it played out in the real life trail too. Most courtroom dramas hinge on the revelation of details or the legal talents of the attorneys as they battle the merits of the case. But here as in Inherit the Wind much larger issues are at stake. It is significant that both films are based on real events. The actual crimes begat a consideration of moral issues that loom larger than the plight of the two students or the school teacher in the Scopes Monkey Trail.
It’s fascinating to watch Welles work. Tim Lucas in his commentary goes into some of the stories about his antics on the set. Apparently he did not want anyone to have eye contact with him while he delivered his very lengthy monologue several times for the cameras. I am continually fascinated by the way he shapes his words. He pauses in his sentences often placing a different emphasis than you’d expect. The performances of Dillman and Stockman are excellent, too. Each one is so different than the other and yet they were really the only friends they had. Diane Varsi gives a very good performance as Ruth the girl that Judd tried to force himself on. Her character testifies about him in court and seems to genuinely like him. Compulsion remains a powerful drama filled with several strong actors. The widescreen Cinemascope image as lensed by William Mellor is outstanding. It is clever the way he positions Dillman’s character almost letting him sneak into the action as his character worms his way into helping with the investigation. He gives us a large view of the courtroom scenes so it often feels like we are in an auditorium listening to a great orator, and we are.
Video – 2.35:1
Nice strong detail is abundant in this new release from Kino Studio Classics. Black levels are good. Everything is nice and sharp. You can really appreciate everything that is going on with the William Mellor’s Cinemascope photography.
Audio – DTS-HD mast 2.0 with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow. Music cues support the film nicely without being over played in the mix.
Extras – Commentary with by Film Historian Tim Lucas, Trailers for Compulsion and a few related other titles.
The Tim Lucas commentary covers the background of the true case the film was based on and a good deal about the actors involved. He reads some excerpts from director Fleischer’s book that concern his experiences with the making of the film. Despite all the grandstanding that has been attributed to Welles Fleischer was able to control the shoot. Lucas has a nice relaxed delivery. He’ll take short breaks once in awhile.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Excellent