The true crime story of Leopold and Loeb is something that continues to entrance audiences with its layers of complicated motivations and deviant behavior, add in a dash of homosexuality and Nietzschian ideology and the whole thing practically comes gift wrapped with tabloid glamour. The best known film inspired by the true story was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, a grand artistic experiment that finds it stylistic flourishes hampering its merits as a film, but this one may be the best film made out of the case.
Compulsion dives us into the minds of its two killers, affluent prodigies who commit their crime simply to prove that they can and that they’re somehow superior to everyone else around them, but primarily situates itself into Dean Stockwell’s Judd Steiner. Stockwell is a revelation here, and Compulsion provides him with the first of many great roles in his adult career (in just a few years he’d dazzle once again in Long Day’s Journey Into Night alongside heavyweights Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, and Jason Robards.) We spend a great deal of the first half of the film with Judd, and Bradford Dillman’s Arthur Straus to a lesser extent, as the aftermath of the murder and the impending criminal investigation is circling ever closer.
It is here that Stockwell gives us a wide-ranging performance as Judd transforms from snotty intellectual into fragile, scared young man. It’s a part that could easily lend itself towards big emotions and overplayed scenes, yet Stockwell withholds at all times. He finds the truth of the character and material, including playing the latent homoeroticism as fact even when the script is clearly merely flirting in that direction. You really believe that Stockwell is in love with Dillman, and how frightened he is once their “perfect” crime slowly dissolves under closer scrutiny and their mistakes.
Then the second half switches to a court room drama and away from the twisted, well, not quite a love story of the first half. Orson Welles makes a grand entrance as their lawyer and the film effectively becomes his showcase. The second half is actually uniformly stronger than the first, and Welles provides the second essential ingredient to the launching the film into stronger territory. Welles, for his part, thought that he would be given directorial efforts, and it was, frankly, a better idea to have him do both. Richard Fleischer’s work is fine if unremarkable, but Welles could liven up any type of genre or setting with his incomparable artistry. Compulsion could have been an unheralded classic under Welles instead of a remarkably solid lesser known entity.