"It must be done as an experiment - detached, with no emotional involvement - and no reason for it except to show that we can do it."

Director: Richard Fleischer
Starring: Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, Orson Welles, Diane Varsi, Martin Milner
Screenplay: Richard Murphy, based upon the novel by Meyer Levin

Synopsis: In Chicago, in 1924, wealthy college students Artie Straus (Bradford Dillman) and Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) rob their own fraternity house. Driving away, Artie tries to run down a drunk, and is furious when Judd stops him. The two discuss their agreement to carry out dangerous acts as a test of their "superior intellects". Soon afterwards, a local boy disappears and his parents receive a ransom note. Then the boy’s dead body is found. Sid Brooks (Martin Milner), a college friend of Artie and Judd, also works as a reporter. At the morgue, Sid finds a pair of glasses with the boy’s body which did not belong to him. When the glasses - which Judd dropped - become public knowledge, Artie threatens to deny being with Judd at the time of the killing. Artie begins to ingratiate himself with the police, amusing himself by starting false leads. Meanwhile, Judd has caught the interest of Sid’s girlfriend, Ruth (Diane Varsi), who feels sorry for his obvious loneliness and feelings of inferiority. She agrees to go bird-watching with him. Artie is angry at first, then suggests that Judd take the opportunity to rape Ruth - another "experience". When alone with Ruth, Judd does try to attack her, but cannot go through with it. The police trace the dropped glasses to Judd. He produces the alibi which he and Artie have concocted, and Artie backs him up. But the police discover that they are lying, and Artie confesses. The two are arrested and charged, and the boys’ families hire the famous criminal attorney, Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles), in a desperate attempt to save them from the death penalty.

The infamous Leopold-Loeb case of the 1920s involved two intelligent boys from wealthy, privileged families who kidnapped a relative of one of them, and mutilated and killed him. It was America’s first publicised thrill killing. It is not surprising that filmmakers have found the story fascinating. Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Tom Kalin's Swoon (1992) are both based upon the case, but it is Compulsion which stays closest to the facts. The names have been changed, but little else. The film is based upon the novelisation of the case by Meyer Levin, who attended college with the pair, and is depicted onscreen by Martin Milner as reporter Sid Brooks. The era of the action is beautifully evoked through the production design, stunning black and white cinematography by William Mellor (see this letterboxed if you can) and jazz-based score by Lionel Newman. Although the film deals with a brutal murder, we do not witness the crime itself. Rather, it is presented to us through the medical examiner’s description of the boy’s body, and the reading of Artie’s confession, delivered in a droning monotone that underlines the horror of its content. Audiences may have a problem with this, perhaps feel that the film is all talk and no action; but Compulsion is neither a thriller nor a whodunit. It is a case study, and a brilliant one. As Judd and Artie, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman bring the two boys and their sick symbiotic relationship to life. By the end of the film, which is less than 100 minutes long, it is quite astonishing how much we know about these two: Artie, all brag and bravado, contemptuous of everything but himself, with his bridge-and-country-club parents, and his vaguely unwholesome relationship with his mother (which is creepily reminiscent of Robert Walker’s in Strangers On A Train (1951)); and Judd, whose parents seem to communicate with him only through a third party, and whose constant harping on the superior intellect and quotes from Nietzsche do nothing to disguise an inferiority complex so overwhelming that he will literally do anything to hold onto the only friend he’s ever had. Although Leopold and Loeb were homosexual, Compulsion, like Rope (though not like Swoon!), chooses largely to ignore this aspect of the boys’ relationship to concentrate on the psychological. Thus Artie’s incredulous reaction to Judd’s announcement that he has a date with Ruth ("You’re ditching me for some girl?") can be read either as sexual or as a statement of disbelief at Judd preferring anyone’s company to his. The nature of their relationship is established in the film’s opening scene ("You said you could take orders. You said you wanted me to command you," says Artie in a speech full of chilling implications). Judd’s desperate craving for approval, and the feeding upon this of Artie’s rapacious ego, melds the two boys into a single entity capable of murder. Apart, despite their "superior intellects", neither of them amounts to very much. Judd, though consumed by self-hatred, is obviously the more complex of the two. Blowhard Artie is hollow inside his big talk, and for all his sneering at Judd’s "weakness", it comes as no real surprise that is he who cracks under interrogation and confesses. This leads into the cinematic highlight of the film, the courtroom sequence which comprises the final third. Impressive as the performances of Stockwell and Dillman are, even more memorable is that of Orson Welles as the boys’ attorney. Leopold and Loeb were defended by Clarence Darrow, who saved them from a death penalty via an astonishing address to the court, which lasted three days. Here, the speech is compressed into a breathtaking ten-minute oration, and is delivered by Welles in an absolutely spellbinding piece of acting.