Swoon (1991): Tom Kalin’s Explicitly Gay Version of Real-life Killers Leopold and Loeb

Tom Kalin’s radical perspective in Swoon established a link with the other films of the New Queer Cinema, such as Poison, The Living End, The Hours and Times, which are all revisionist in their own way.

Our Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Kalin revisits the infamous case of real-life killers Leopold and Loeb against the context of rampant homophobia.

Note:

If you want to know more about queer cinema please read my book:

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press)

Prior to undertaking the project, Kalin and co-writer Hilton Als asked themselves whether “the world really needs another film about Leopold and Loeb” After all, the “thrill killers” have been the subject of Hitchcock’s Rope (1950) and Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1958). Realizing there hasn’t been a film about “the disturbing, romantic, unconscious elements” provided the extra persuasion that they needed to fully commit to the indie project.

Taking a different track from Hitchcock or Fleischer, which viewed the killers from the outside, Swoon pulls the viewers inside the killers’ minds, reveling in their passion. While it doesn’t undermine their horrific crime, the movie is mostly concerned with the surrounding homophobia–past and present.

Kalin exposes the era’s prejudices and their effect on the present, though the polemic satire is less convincing than the period details. The movie doesn’t want the viewers to sympathize with murderers, but like Poison and Araki’s movies, it forces them to face a society that brands all deviance as homicidal.

In 1924, against the backdrop of underworld Chicago, two precocious students, Nathan Leopold, Jr. (Craig Chester) and Richard Loeb (Daniel Schecter), kidnapped and murdered a 13-year-old boy. When the haphazard trail of evidence was discovered, their vain confession caused a media uproar that focused on their youth, Jewishness, and homosexuality.

What concerns Kalin is the killers’ “otherness”–being “geniuses,” “Jews” and “queers”–and the way society framed their crime as a direct outcome of their deviance. For Kalin, the couple are as much victims as they are victimizers. By now what was the “crime of the century” has largely faded from public consciousness, except for those who grew up near Chicago, like Kalin’s grandmother who had a Leopold and Loeb scrapbook.

Kalin’s father was a social worker in the state parole department, and he himself was pen pals with a penitentiary inmate, which predisposed him to the topic. For Kalin, the real, untold story is in the public’s eagerness to see homosexuality as the cause of criminal behavior. In the trial, this attack was waged by “alienists” (early expert witnesses on mental competence), who testified that failure to separate from the mother precludes a heterosexual choice in adulthood. For Kalin, “the fault wasn’t in Leopold’s object choice, but in the fact that he lived in a time when he couldn’t negotiate a relationship with a man.”

The film’s moral stance is audacious, asking audiences to empathize with propagators of an abhorrent crime. Both killers were prodigiously intelligent–at 18, Loeb was the youngest graduate ever at the University of Michigan. They killed, as Michael Wilmington noted, for kicks, for aesthetics, and to seal their bond as two imaginary Nietzschean Ubermenschen. Challenging the notion that they were driven to murder by “inversion,” Kalin rejects Rope’s Nietzschean rationale, but he doesn’t dig deep enough into the idea that class, not homosexuality, might have been the real problem.

Loeb is seen through Leopold’s rapt vision–as an Adonis. Kalin strips the relationship to its primal sado-masochistic core: “Dickie” Loeb is a narcissistic stud who gets off on crime, and “Babe” Leopold is the infatuated admirer, enslaved to the confident, amoral Loeb. In the end, only Clarence Darrow’s courtroom eloquence saved their lives. Loeb was later killed in prison in a shower brawl, and Leopold went through rehabilitation and served as a missionary in Puerto Rico.

Centering on a doomed couple united by lust, whose idyll is cut short by the outside world, the elegant black-and-white film is made in the noir tradition of deviant couples (Gun Crazy, The Honeymoon Killers, Bonnie and Clyde, and Badlands). The film blends real and mockumentary footage with eerily inventive images by cinematographer Ellen Kuras: a ring exchange in a cavernous cityscape, horrific woods that backdrop the murder, a campy theatrical with flapper transvestites, and the sudden, surreal appearance of the lovers’ bed in the courtroom.

As a dark poem of love and madness, Swoon is powerful; as social polemic, it’s strained. Ironically, the imagined scenes–the murder, the lovemaking–seem real, and the documentary footage and trial recreation are too campy, aggravated by the actors’ declamatory style.

Despite modest budget, the movie was a commercial failure, after playing the festival circuit.

Cast
Daniel Schlachet as Richard Loeb
Craig Chester as Nathan Leopold Jr.
Ron Vawter as State’s Attorney Crowe
Michael Kirby as Detective Savage
Michael Stumm as Doctor Bowman
Valda Z. Drabla as Germaine Reinhardt
Natalie Stanford as Susan Lurie
Glenn Backes as James Day

Credits:

Directed by Tom Kalin
Produced by Christine Vachon
Written by Tom Kalin and Hilton Als
Music by James Bennett
Cinematography: Ellen Kuras
Edited by Tom Kalin

Distributed by Fine Line Features
Release date: September 11, 1992
Running time: 82 mins