Swoon's Tom Kalin

“Swoon” premiered at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and also played other major festivals, such as Toronto, before getting theatrical release by Fine Line.

In the chilly, elegantly shot black-and white meditation “Swoon,” Tom Kalin re-examines the infamoous case of killers-lovers Leopold and Loeb, against the context of l920s homophobia.

When first-time director Kalin was confronted with this idea by co-writer Hilton Als, he had to consider the obvious question: “Does the world really needs another film about Leopold and Loeb”

After all, the young thrill killers have been the subject of Hitchcock's “Rope” (l950) and “Compulsion” (l958), with Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell. But then he realized that the film he wanted to see–“celebrating the disturbing, romantic, unconscious elements of the case”–had never been made.

In 1924, against backdrop of Chicago's underworld violence, two precocious college students, Nathan Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb, kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy. When the haphazard trail of evidence they left was followed and they were picked up for questioning, their smug, artless confession caused a national media controversy, focusing on their youth, wealth, Jewishness, and homosexuality.

By now the “crime of the century” has largely faded from consciousness, with the exception of those who grew up near Chicago, as did Kalin. Such curios as a grandmother's Leopold and Loeb scrapbook may not be uncommon in that region, but the fact that Kalin's father, a social worker, was employed in prison reform and later in the state parole department, and that Kalin was pen pals with a penitentiary inmate, may have particularly predisposed him to the topic.

For Kalin, the untold story is in the public's eagerness to point to homosexuality as the cause of their criminal behavior. In the trial, this attack was waged by “alienists” (an early type of expert witnesses on mental competence), who testified that failure to separate from the mother would preclude a heterosexual object choice in adulthood. “But the fault wasn't in Leopold's object choice,” says Kalin. “It was in the fact that he lived in a time when he couldn't imagine negotiating a relationship with a man.”

Kalin got his first grants for Swoon based on his success with a 13-minute museum-circuit video piece, “They Are Lost to Vision Altogether,” which criticizes the media's treatment of the AIDS epidemic. But it was producer Christine Vachon, known for her ability to find the commercial potential in edgy, offbeat projects, like Todd Haynes' “Poison,” who urged Kalin to make a theatrical feature.