March 13, 2005

MOVIES: Compulsion (Richard Fleischer, 1959)

Based on Meyer Levin's novel, itself loosely based on the Leopold & Loeb case.

Here, it's Steiner & Strauss, two Chicago college students in the 1920s who believed themselves so much the intellectual superiors of ordinary men that they ought not be bound by ordinary laws, and decided to commit a murder simply to prove that they could.

Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman are very good as Judd Steiner and Artie Strauss, and the movie is, by the standards of its time, relatively frank in suggesting the homoerotic aspect of their relationship. (1959 audiences must have been shocked when Dillman asks Stockwell, "Are you ditching me for some girl?")

But the performance that dominates the movie is that of Orson Welles as the boys' defense attorney. He doesn't show up until about halfway through the film, but once he arrives, you can't take your eyes off him. There's no question of the boys' guilt, and all their lawyer can hope to accomplish is life in prison instead of hanging; Welles argues their case in a riveting uninterrupted 10-minute speech.

And as is so often true with older movies, it's fun to see actors pop up in small roles who would have greater success later in life; Martin Milner, E.G. Marshall, and Gavin MacLeod are all on hand here.

The acting is occasionally a bit broad and hammy by modern standards, but less so than usual for the period. Worth seeing for the strength of the three principal performances.

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