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Case Number 09653: Small Claims Court

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Compulsion (1959)

Fox // 1959 // 103 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // July 12th, 2006

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All Rise...

Is wealth, alcohol, jazz, and sex behind Judge Brett Cullum's bad behavior—or was he just born naughty?

Editor's Note

Our review of Compulsion (2008), published October 20th, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

You know why we did it? Because we damn well felt like doing it!

The Case

Being brilliantly smart is a curse. Most of the population seems like simpering idiots in the wake of superior intellect, and a high IQ could well drive you to a life of crime out of sheer boredom. On a surface level, the 1959 film Compulsion examines this concept. Two wealthy college men kill a classmate to prove superiority over their peers and the police, but things don't go as planned. Guilt causes the boys to slip; soon, the pair finds out their plan to emulate Nietzsche's ideals of the "superman" is an impossible dream. The movie is based on a infamous court case which inspired many movies such as Alfred Hitchcock's Rope and Swoon. In real life the trial was known as the Leopold and Loeb case, and the two monstrous young men were represented by Clarence Darrow. Here the pair are fictionalized as Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell, Quantum Leap) and Arthur Straus (Bradford Dillman, In Love and War) with Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) as their attorney Jonathan Wilk.

Compulsion makes for interesting viewing today when teenagers seem as dangerous as ever. Even though the movie was made in the late '50s when "juvenile delinquents" were all the rage, it ponders something that remains dark and disturbing. Evil kids are frightening, and we worry about raising a soulless generation that can allow murder without remorse. It's something each generation wrestles with, the seemingly inescapable corruption of youth and loss of innocence due to advances in culture. Teenagers are always in danger of becoming immoral monsters who champion lewd music, and embrace radical ideas. Jazz, booze, and German philosophers seem to motivate these teenagers to kill. The most offensive angle of the projects made about the Leopold and Loeb case are inferences that the boys were gay, and somehow this contributed to their criminal behavior. Compulsion flirts openly with the concept, making both boys dandies who have eyes for each other without admitting it outright. Yet what does their sexuality have to do with any of this? Compulsion paints the Dean Stockwell character in an intensely lavender light, and offers this as the reason he goes along with his cohort's murderous indifference.

The real reason to check out Compulsion is the fine acting offered up by the three leads. The trio shared the "Best Acting" award at the 1959 Cannes film festival. Stockwell, Dillman, and Welles turn in natural performances with just the right amount of theatricality to make Compulsion compelling. Welles ultimately lost his salary for the picture due to back taxes owed, and his dejection and anger seem palpable under a calm exterior. Stockwell and Dillman have a perfect yin and yang chemistry as two boys in love with each other because they represent qualities the other does not possess. People who claim that black and white movies from the '50s eschew realistic acting should check out Compulsion, which should change their minds.

Fox offers the movie on a bare bones DVD which has the good fortune of a solid transfer. The black and white Cinemascope widescreen image seems solid enough, even if it does shimmer when preppy plaids are worn. Interestingly enough a four channel stereo surround mix accompanies the film. It doesn't sound unnatural, and effectively adds oomph to many of the sonic sequences such as the opening tire squealing affair in the car with the boys. All in all fans of the film should be happy to finally have it in a proper aspect ratio with punchy sound. It's a fine release all in all, even if there are no supplemental offerings save for a vintage trailer.

Compulsion was based on a book and a play, and it retains its literary heritage even when translated to film. The movie makes for a smart evening of entertainment which ponders if wealth, alcohol, jazz, and sex make for further bad behavior. Heavy handedly the picture seems to be saying these factors definitely contribute, but the fine performances elevate the simple message. There is something more poignant bubbling under the thoughtful performances of the leads. Something tells me the thespians realized this could never be a simple story, and refused to make it such. Whatever compels men to do evil, you won't find answers here. Yet Compulsion raises enough questions to make it a worthy meditation on the subject. It's certainly worth seeking out.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 4.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Theatrical Trailer


• IMDb

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