Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two college boys, brilliant and mad, who decided to kill a younger boy in 1924 to see if they could commit the “perfect crime.” After they were caught, their trial turned into a media circus—the “trial of the century” starring their world famous lawyer Clarence Darrow. He was a hell of a lawyer, and he saved them from the hangman’s noose. They got life, plus ninety-nine years. When one of them was murdered in prison just a few years after their incarceration, the papers mocked his passing. The other boy served thirty-plus years, got out, married, and died of natural causes as an old man.
Why are we still so fascinated with Leopold and Loeb? It’s been nearly a hundred years since they murdered a fourteen-year-old named Bobby Franks, but we’re still talking about the case. Numerous books have been written about them and nearly as many movies have been inspired by their crime. As recently as 2005 there was an Off-Broadway musical about them. What’s the appeal?
There’s no complete answer to that question, but it hasn’t stopped filmmakers from asking. Alfred Hitchcock freely adapted the story in his 1948 Rope, starring John Dall and Farley Granger as the killers. While the results are entertaining, there’s a curious disconnect in the film that is only exacerbated by the fact that Hitchcock used the project largely as a way to experiment with continuous long takes. Though Rope was told from their point of view, Hitchcock completely skirted the issue of sex between the two men (Leopold and Loeb were lovers), depriving us of an important layer of their relationship. Of course, 1948 being 1948 there was only so much a film could even imply, but Hitchcock didn’t find much to substitute in the absence of the sexual power dynamics.
In contrast, Tom Kalin’s 1992 Swoon might be seen as a swing in the opposite direction. Coming at the forefront of the New Queer Cinema movement, Swoon put the relationship between the killers at the center of the story. While fascinating in many respects—with several haunting passages augmented by beautiful black and white cinematography—the film doesn’t really develop Leopold and Loeb beyond a broadly sketched sexual tug-of-war.
Perhaps the closest we’ve come to a revealing screen treatment of their crime was Richard Fleischer’s 1959 Compulsion. While their names were changed for this film, from Leopold and Loeb to Steiner and Straus, the facts presented here are pretty close to the facts in the official record. This isn’t surprising since the source for the movie was the novelist Meyer Levin, a classmate of both young men.
The film made from his book is a surprisingly intelligent and frank treatment of their case. Compulsion makes no real effort to disguise the fact that the young men were lovers, and it explores the psychosis of their relationship vividly. Leopold (for clarity’s sake I’ll use the real names of the killers) is played with an icy fragility by Dean Stockwell. He’s brilliant, knows seventeen languages and can already outdebate his professors on Nietzsche’s concept of the “superman,” that superior individual not bound by normal notions of morality. Leopold maybe half a genius, but he’s also helplessly in love with Loeb, played by Bradford Dillman as a pampered, coldhearted psycho. Leopold has the intellectual concepts, but Loeb has the real ice in his veins. If the idea of romance is that two lovers complete each other, the exact opposite seems to have been the case with Leopold and Loeb. At least as they are presented here, neither of these guys could have killed someone alone, but together they were able to cancel out each other’s humanity. Drunk on a mix of narcissism and philosophical delusion, they became one giant id. As the young killers, Stockwell and Dillman are excellent, and their scenes together are intense, intimate, and chilling. Had the film stayed with these two guys it might very well have been a masterpiece.
Unfortunately, the story swerves in its last thirty minutes or so to make room for their lawyer, the Clarence Darrow figure played by Orson Welles. Perhaps the filmmakers felt the material needed the presence of a big star to compensate the audience for the hour or so we spend with two gay, coldblooded child-killers. Or perhaps the film really does want to work itself up into a condemnation of the death penalty. Welles has a long, justly famous, speech in which he attacks the very foundation of retributive justice. At this stage in his career, Welles was still starring in and directing masterpieces (he had just finished Touch of Evil and was off to Europe to make The Trial) but his days of showboat starring roles were quickly coming to an end. No doubt he relished the opportunity to unleash a fifteen-minute soliloquy condemning capital punishment. It’s a fine piece of rhetoric which Welles delivers with great skill.
As we start to focus on Welles and his legal tactics, however, Compulsion loses its power. The first hour of the film is an uncommonly intelligent and disturbing film noir, followed by thirty minutes or so of a routine courtroom drama. The movie more or less abandons the two killers at the start of the trial, in much the same way Leopold and Loeb were overshadowed for a while, obscured by the light shining on their celebrity lawyer. But just as in real life, we return to them when the movie is over and ask ourselves the same urgent, unanswerable question: how could they have done this terrible thing?