Reviews of Compulsion, Stage & Screen
"The Theatre: New Plays on Broadway" – Time ® Magazine – November 4, 1957
Compulsion (dramatized from Meyer Levin's novel) re-enacts, exhaustively and explicitly, one of the grisliest horror stories of the century – The Loeb-Leopold murder case. Told in 20 scenes and lasting some three and a half hours, Compulsion begins just after two young homosexuals have, with long-calculated wantoness, killed a 14-year-old boy. There follow revelations of self-styled supermen who had dreamed of committing the perfect crime; of gay, violent, vicious Artie Straus (Richard Loeb) and his "superior slave", Judd Steiner (Nathan Leopold); of how imperfect a crime the two had actually committed; of their dissension as danger looms, their behavior as detection narrows; of the fantasy worlds in which both had lived. There is finally the trial, with the prosecution flaunting the atrocious nature of the crime, and the defense the compulsive pathology of the criminals.
The jagged, episodic structure of Compulsion constantly stresses the factual, historical, documentary nature of the narrative. It no less constantly proclaims the strength of the subject matter – it's ability to vibrate and electrify as theater – and the weakness, it's inability to widen and deepen as drama. The cause is less the usual documentary one, that truth tends to be formless, than that in Compulsion truth lacks a spacious enough frame of reference.
Fredrich Hebbel, 19th century German dramatist, perhaps put his finger on why Compulsion fails to be large and liberating drama when he said that in a good play everyone must seem in the right. For the two killers this is impossible, less because of how hideous their crime is than how gratuitous; it lacks an understandable human motive. Clinically, the crime can be explained; given a lawless Jazz Age, two badly spoiled, rich men's sons, homosexual neurosis and a Nietzschean intellectual arrogance and such a chemical mixture may explode into murder-for-a-thrill. But the case – and it's causes – remain too special to expand into identifiable bedevilment in man's fate. It is Grand Guignol in real life.
An impact of real-life truthfulness Compulsion does have, often very impressively. It recapitulates just what happened, and how, and why; it implies conscious and unconscious, willing and unwilling behavior. There are dozens of moments in the play with a power to inform, or shock, or dismay, that wholly shrivel mere theatrical make-believe; and as Artie and Judd, Roddy McDowell and, even more, Dean Stockwell, give brilliant performances. But the dozens of moments are not cumulative. Except as a history of master-and-slave relationship, of as Artie who, devoid of normal feeling, must subsist on diseased sensation, and a Judd slowly driven by sexual feelings into becoming Artie's companion in evil – except, in other words, for what has happened before Compulsion begins – it's materials permit no inner development. Balked of psychological progression, or even moral catharsis, Compusion can only – during its very protracted trial scene – fall back on sociological debate. For a Clarence Darrow, defending Leopold and Loeb, such debate was a lawyer's only weapon; in Compulsion, with everything already stated, it becomes a weapon for hitting the audience about three times too often over the head. So long as it is front-page stuff (with occasional editorializing), Compulsion on it's own terms scores. But the full-page editorial at the end is a real mistake.
"The New Pictures" – Time ® Magazine – April 13, 1959
(This preface, featured on a page before the review, was bordered by a picture of the real Loeb and Leopold, in court, from 1924, on the top, and, 2 solo pictures, Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell, from the movie, on the bottom.)
On May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb – both under 20 but already in law school – casually selected a 14-year-old victim, clubbed him, threw acid on him, drove his body across Chicago and hid it in a culvert. Their gory deed is not shown in Compulsion, but their confessed motives – part thrill-seeking, part half-baked Nietzschean philosophy – are brought out in the acting of Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman as the murderers. Planning the crime and later watching with nervous bravado as the police draw a net of evidence around the, Stockwell and Dillman build the tension of the film to breaking point – where it is then resolved by Orson Welles's courtroom eloquence.
Compulsion (Zanuck Productions; 20th Century-Fox) is a terse, tense, intelligent melodramatization of "the crime of the century": the Leopold-Loeb case of 1924. Richard Murphy's screenplay borrows many of it's keenest scenes from Meyer Levin's Broadway version of his own best-selling casebook of the crime (Time, Nov. 12, 1956), preserves in the film (103 minutes) all the essential details of the play (180 minutes), eliminates only a few of the far-out psychiatric references. One important addition: a taut sense of dramatic sequence.
Judd Steiner and Artie Straus (fictional names for Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) are wealthy, brilliant young law students at the University of Chicago. Straus-Loeb, as portrayed by Bradford Dillamn, is the spoiled-rotten son of a socialite mother. At 18, he is already a vicious little sadist. Steiner-Leopold, as Dean Stockwell interprets him, is a motherless young genius whose IQ is too high to be measured by any known intelligence test – essentially a gentile boy who has been completely mesmerized by the animal magnetism of his evil companion. Straus-Loeb is the superman, Steiner-Leopold the "superior slave" in a private world of post-Nietzschean fantasy and homosexual practice.
Carried away by a kind of folie à deux, the boys resolve "to explore all the possibilities of human experience," to pluck the most exotic flowers of evil. Murder, Artie decides, is the only thing that will satisfy his compulsion "to do something really dangerous," and Judd loyally approves "the perfect crime" as "the true test of superior intellect". So they kidnap a 14-year-old schoolboy name Paulie Kessler (fictional name for Bobby Franks), cosh-kill him in the back of a rented care, and dump the body in a culvert. Remorse? Artie seems incapable of human feeling. But thoughtful, sensitive Judd protests too much: "Murder's nothing! It's just a simple experience. What's one life more or less?"
Soon, of course, the perfect crime collapses into a heap of all-too-human, even childish errors – Judd was so rattled that he dropped his spectacles beside the body of the victim. The boys are questioned, tricked into confession, ordered to trial.
Abruptly, at this point, the character of the film changes. The first 60 minutes add up to a clever psychological thriller, marked and sometimes marred by solemn efforts to see the crime in it's social and spiritual setting – as a single pustule in a larger leprosy. The trial, arguing from this evidence swiftly develops an eloquent though somewhat overextended plea for the abolition of the death penalty. The film rises to a memorable peroration, in the words of Clarence Darrow (Orson Welles) as he asks the court to temper justice with mercy, sentence his clients to life in prison. "Life?" he cries. "Any cry for more goes back to the hyena." *
The film's philosophy is open to debate, it's psychiatry to ridicule, but it's actions are open only to ovation, Orson Welles, frazzle-pated, barrel-bellied, hollow-eyed, creates a fetching caricature of the great trial lawyer, all fustian and a yard wide. Bradford Dillman, the Straus-Loeb, is alarmingly screw loose and frenzy fiend. But it is Dean Stockwell as Steiner-Leopold, who dominates the drama. His intensity and insight do much to exploit the character's homosexuality, do something to clarify his fearful crime.
*Life they got. Loeb was killed (TIME, Feb. 10, 1926) in Statesville Prison in a razor fight that apparently started with a homosexual assault. Leopold was paroled last year (TIME, March 14, 1958) at the age of 53, is now working as a laboratory technician in a Puerto Rico hospital.