Compulsion (1959): Richard Fleischer’s Taut Thriller of Loeb and Leopold Murderers

Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion is a hard-hitting, skillfully directed, stylish black-and-white thriller.

The tale is loosely based on the famous murder trial of thrill-killers Nathan Loeb and Richard Leopold, two homosexual students who murdered a young boy in order to demonstrate their intellectual superiority in executing the “perfect murder.”

Hitchcock had used the same factual incident for his experimental thriller, Rope, in 1948, starring John Dall and .

In Richard Murphy’s script, Artie Straus (Bradford Dillman) is a tough, sadistic, mother-dominated bully. Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) is a submissive, introverted, more effeminate guy. Having been raised by wealthy, arrogant families, both Artie and Judd consider themselves superior in every way–they are above and beyond conventional morality.

Arrogant and unfeeling to a fault, the boys take perverse delight in offering to aid in finding the culprits after a murder, which ultimately leads to their capture and prosecution.

Strauss tries to cover it up, but they are caught when police find a key piece of evidence–Steiner’s glasses, which he inadvertently left at the scene of the crime

Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles), playing a Clarence Darrow-like attorney, takes on the case, and puts on a defense, without the cooperation of his clients, who offer no explanation for what they have done.

Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell (a child star who had excelled in Joseph Losey’s The Boy with Green Hair) give compelling performances as the  unsympathetic murderers.

Orson Welles is flamboyantly imposing as Wilk, a lawyer who must use all his wits and skills to try to save the boys from execution.  To that extent, he makes an impassioned closing argument against capital punishment.

Dillman, Stockwell, and Welles won collectively the Best Acting Award at the 1959 Cannes Film Fest.

Diane Varsi, in a follow-up to a stunning debut in Peyton Place, shines as Ruth Evans, a girl who is infatuated with Judd and refuses to believe he is guilty.  Their scenes together are replete with erotic charge and ominous menace.

The first part of Compulsion is brilliantly gripping, before it turns by necessity in the second half to a more standardized courtroom drama (albeit one that’s very well-edited).

Tautly directed by Fleischer, still one of the most underestimated Hollywood directors, this suspenseful thriller benefits from great production values, especially William C. Mellor’s black-and-white imagery.  There’s admirable attention to period décor in both the exterior and interior scenes. 

End Note:

At Oscar time, Compulsion was ignored by the Academy voters, but Fleischer was nominated for best director by his colleagues at the DGA, and Richard Murphy received a nod for best screenplay from the WGA.

Orson Welles as Jonathan Wilk
Diane Varsi as Ruth Evans
Dean Stockwell as Judd Steiner
Bradford Dillman as Artie Strauss
E. G. Marshall as District Attorney Harold Horn
Martin Milner as Sid Brooks
Richard Anderson as Max Steiner
Robert F. Simon as Police Lt. Johnson
Edward Binns as Tom Daly
Robert Burton as Charles Straus
Wilton Graff as Mr. Steiner
Louise Lorimer as Strauss’s mother


Running time: 103 minutes.

Directed By: Richard Fleischer

Written By: Richard Murphy

Release date: April 1, 1959

DVD: May 23, 2006