The Big Important Lawyer is making his final speech. Around him, the court officials and the people in the public gallery sit, their eyes closed, like dreamers. Not a scene from a film, but from the making of one. During the shooting of Compulsion, a moody melodrama based on the Leopold & Loeb murder case, star Orson Welles, a showman afflicted with an intermittent and idiosyncratic form of shyness, told his director that he could not act with all these people looking at him. And so Richard Fleischer, not quite believing what he was doing, asked the extras to close their eyes.
It’s a nice image, complementary to the oneiric intensity of the film.
This particular murder case has inspired several films, from Hitchcock’s Rope to Tom Kalin’s Swoon. The attraction is obvious: apart from the kinky tickle of the two gay killers, and the socially shocking fact that they were from wealthy homes, there’s the idea of murder for the sake of art, to demonstrate one’s superiority from the herd. The Nietzschean angle is central to both Rope and Compulsion, and both films assert a humanist or Christian principle to oppose it.
Compulsion forms the first of an informal trilogy of excellent true-life crime thrillers made by Fleischer, continuing with the baroque, stylish The Boston Strangler, and concluding with the seedy and tragic 10 Rillington Place. The superiority of informal trilogies over the planned kind is their organic nature. (Another, inferior case history made by Fleischer, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, rather spoils the neatness of this scheme.)
In this version of the story, the names have been changed to protect - who, exactly? Twentieth Century Fox, one presumes. But Dean Stockwell’s Judd Steiner is as easily recognisable as Leopold, nervous and sensitive, as Bradford Dillman’s Arthur A Straus is as the cocky, psychopathic Loeb. And Orson Welles even used make-up, including a trademark false nose, to look like Leopold and Loeb’s defence attorney Clarence Darrow (called Jonathan Wilk here), whose closing speech is quoted verbatim. So why the roman í clef dressing?
All three stars deservedly won awards at Cannes. While the script can’t quite decide on its central character and offers up dull norms Martin Milner (a decent actor with the face of a petulant baby) and Diane Varsi for us to ‘identify’ with, Stockwell sucks us in. Undeniably beautiful, his face moodily modelled by William C Mellor’s low-key lighting, Stockwell tells the story with his eyes more effectively than the over-eager exposition of Richard Murphy’s script. Dillman brings a puppyish enthusiasm to his deadly killer, and Welles threatens to sink the whole thing with a theatrical turn that bodily wrenches the story into a whole different genre.
Every crime story should have a Clarence Darrow in the third act. Unusual in being a defence attorney as cinematically popular as the murderers he defended, Darrow’s presence in a plot brings showbiz dazzle and intellectual rigour to the scene. Here Welles is opposed by the far less colourful, but nevertheless riveting performance of EG Marshall, whose clever investigation wins sympathy that must then be dispelled as the filmmakers now require us to root for the over-privileged, cold-blooded murderers to escape the death penalty. And we do!
This is a humane film with a strong liberal agenda, and if Fleischer never quite attains the jazzy style that invigorates The Boston Strangler with its Mondrian panels of split-screen images, or the tawdry atmosphere that reeks from 10 Rillington Place, he nevertheless delivers numerous striking images and moments. Anticipating Psycho by mere months, he surrounds Stockwell with stuffed birds, tilts the camera madly in a nod to The Third Man, and shoots one conversation reflected in a pair of eye-glasses, perhaps influenced by Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock hovers over the film, a benevolent blimp, and when Fleischer has an actor walk right into the camera, blocking it with his chest, following the technique Hitch used to hide reel changes in the supposedly single-shot Rope, one can imagine the master smiling indulgently.