I caught this film yesterday and it’s stayed with me and not for the right reasons. Originally recorded for viewing because I thought it would be interesting to see both Orson Welles and Dean Stockwell who I’ve recently discovered when I wrote a film talk on Sons and Lovers (1960) at the start of the year. During the time I couldn’t shake his pent-up performance from my mind. Also the fact I was editing clips which he was heavily involved in. Coming to Compulsion (1959) on the off-chance to see what he was like outside of Jack Cardiff’s direction. Also it was a chance to see Orson Welles again, in what could easily have been a two-scene cameo which he was practically reduced to towards the end of his career.
Now I tend to write 1000+ in my reviews now, I’m not so sure I have enough to go that far today, but I need to express my frustration with this film that could have been so much better than it was. Based on the 1924 Leopold-Loeb case, two students in Chicago who were tried for the sadistic, motive-less murder of another student. This thinly guised film (attempted to avoid a lawsuit) fails to actually depict the murder or even suggest with great effect that these two young men – Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Artie A.Straus (Bradford Dillman) who were followers of the Nietzsche theories, which produced to narcissistic individuals with superiority complexes. Not your average cocky student who feels the can take on the world and disprove the established. Carrying with them a philosophy that placed them above their contemporaries who were enjoying the student life of the 1920’s. Even with these personalities, not the most likeable of characters, you wanted to understand who they were.
First meeting them on a late night drive after robbing a house, Artie dares Judd to run over a man walking home, just for the thrill of it, setting the tone of the film. These are young men who have no regarding for general morality that we all live by. When they fail to kill the man in the street – Judd can’t carry out Artie’s order, something is holding him back. No matter they find their kicks off-screen, the murder as we learn of the murder and kidnap of Paulie Kessler, the victim in their “perfect crime”. It’s only when another student discovers the body (working for the local paper) in the morg do we learn somethings not quite right. At this point its a slow burner until Judd realises that he hasn’t got his glasses, they’re on the dead body. It’s only now we start to realise what might have happened.
The investigation soon gets underway, lead by District Attorney Harold Horn (E.G. Marshall) whose building up a case, but is waiting for the two boys to see who cracks first. The cockiness continues, even when they are found out and the stories they made up start to crack under scrutiny. What I don’t understand is why a District Attorney would be leading a criminal investigation, shouldn’t that be the police who build up a case before its even goes to court, landing on the D.A.’s desk?
By this point we haven’t even Welles’s character, a successful lawyer who never lost a capital case in his long career, a perfect role for the only “hero” of the film Jonathan Wilk who is only known by his reputation, building up his first appearance on screen. From the moment he arrives the film is his, bring with him all the experience of his past roles, able to play the older man with 40 odd years of experience. I’m reminded of Inherit the Wind (1960) released the following year a purely court-room affair, set in the same era. The scenes are more fairly split between the two lawyers – Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March). However in the earlier film, there’s not half as much a war of words, sure they are a few disagreements and objections, but there’s not enough passion from both sides. I think partly due to the editing of the film. Made in favor of Wilk who practically given the rest of the film, with the two men on trial. Horn is left with little to do, not even his closing speech to the judge, which would have made for a longer and more impassioned film. To see why these two men should have hung. Aimed as s pro-life film, without any real counterargument for balance, letting down the film and the Marshall who had little to do in the court room besides shout.
Was the murder filmed of Kessler even filmedm or just suggested before we find the body? Given the tone of the film it could have been done in shadow at least for dramatic effect. However Anatomy of a Murder (1959) the murder is not seen on camera, we only learn of it on the arrest of the violent husband Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), was it censorship that got in the way of making a good film even better in the case of Compulsion? Leaving us with a film that has the potential to be so much, along with the script (cut or otherwise) this film could have been longer, darker and ultimately stronger.
The final part of February’s Film Talk, I looked at emotions at the train station and the homes that both Vic and Joe live in.
The next is confined to train stations. Vic (Alan Bates) walking and off his steam from the argument and his drunkenness. Whilst Joe’s (Jon Voight) is running after Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) who has just conned him. In terms of emotions they are very different. Vic’s are more internalised on screen, he is very still and tired. Whilst Joe’s is very external which we see in a combination of reality in colour and his desire in black and white, along with a flashback, a lot of emotion is on the screen. (Stills below)
Lastly the accommodation that Vic and Joe move into, Vic moves into two homes with Ingrid (June Ritchie), once at home and we presume in a flat at the end after looking around a shared house together Whilst Joe has reluctantly moved into Ratso’s condemned flat. (Stills below)
In both films we don’t see the much if any of the glamour of the 1960’s. Instead we have a more realistic representation of life from the early 1960’s with a couple who marry out of obligation before trying to make a go of married life post miscarriage. At the end of the 1960’s we have a young man whose dreams of being a hustler are dashed by the modern perceptions before learning what is more important in life taking the form of Ratso’s friendship.