Compulsion (1959)

103 or 105 mins | Drama | February 1959

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HISTORY

Compulsion was based on the notorious 1924 case of Nathan Leopold (1904-1971) and Richard Loeb (1905-1936), who were eighteen-year-old law students at the University of Chicago when they killed fourteen-year-old Robert Franks for thrills. Renowned attorney Clarence Darrow defended them, and his closing argument lasted for two days. Several verbatim passages from Darrow's closing were included in the film. Leopold, on whom the character "Judd Steiner" was based, was freed on parole in 1958 after serving almost 34 years in prison. According to an Oct 1959 LA Mirror News article, in 1959, Leopold sued author Meyer Levin, Darryl F. Zanuck and Twentieth Century-Fox for $1,405,000 in damages, claiming that the film was an invasion of his privacy. According to an Apr 1968 Var news item, Leopold won a summary judgment in 1964, but it was overturned in 1968 when the court ruled that the case was in the public domain. Leopold died of natural causes in 1971, but Loeb was killed in a prison knife fight in 1936.
       Author Levin also wrote a play based on his novel which opened in New York on 25 Oct 1957. According to studio publicity contained in the film's production files at the AMPAS Library, Levin sold the literary rights to Zanuck under the proviso that Zanuck wait to produce the film until the play's Broadway run was completed. Zanuck turned the production reins over to his son Richard because he was busy working on Roots of Heaven (see below). Compulsion marked Richard Zanuck's first effort as a producer. Although a Dec 1958 HR news ... More Less

Compulsion was based on the notorious 1924 case of Nathan Leopold (1904-1971) and Richard Loeb (1905-1936), who were eighteen-year-old law students at the University of Chicago when they killed fourteen-year-old Robert Franks for thrills. Renowned attorney Clarence Darrow defended them, and his closing argument lasted for two days. Several verbatim passages from Darrow's closing were included in the film. Leopold, on whom the character "Judd Steiner" was based, was freed on parole in 1958 after serving almost 34 years in prison. According to an Oct 1959 LA Mirror News article, in 1959, Leopold sued author Meyer Levin, Darryl F. Zanuck and Twentieth Century-Fox for $1,405,000 in damages, claiming that the film was an invasion of his privacy. According to an Apr 1968 Var news item, Leopold won a summary judgment in 1964, but it was overturned in 1968 when the court ruled that the case was in the public domain. Leopold died of natural causes in 1971, but Loeb was killed in a prison knife fight in 1936.
       Author Levin also wrote a play based on his novel which opened in New York on 25 Oct 1957. According to studio publicity contained in the film's production files at the AMPAS Library, Levin sold the literary rights to Zanuck under the proviso that Zanuck wait to produce the film until the play's Broadway run was completed. Zanuck turned the production reins over to his son Richard because he was busy working on Roots of Heaven (see below). Compulsion marked Richard Zanuck's first effort as a producer. Although a Dec 1958 HR news item stated that Darryl Zanuck was to supervise the final editing, the extent of his contribution to the released film has not been determined.
       Dean Stockwell reprised his Broadway role of "Judd Steiner" for the film. According to an Apr 1958 HR news item, Roddy McDowall was originally slated to play "Artie." According to studio publicity, director Richard Fleischer tried to create an impression that something was wrong or out of balance in the scenes in which the two murderers appeared by tilting the camera or throwing the composition off balance. After completing the film, Diane Varsi abruptly left Hollywood to retire in Vermont. Varsi did not appear onscreen again until 1967. A modern source adds that Welles, Dillman and Stockwell shared the Best Actor award at Cannes. Voltaire Perkins, who played the judge in the film, was a practicing attorney as well as an actor. He was best known for his role as the presiding judge on Divorce Court , the popular, long-running, daytime television program that began in the late 1950s.
       Several other films have used the Leopold-Loeb case for inspiration: the 1948 Warner Bros. production Rope , directed by Alfred Hitchock and starring Dick Hogan and John Dall (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50 ); the 1992 Alta Films release Swoon , directed by Tom Kalin and starring Craig Chester; and the 2002 Warner Bros. release Murder By Numbers , directed by Barbet Schroeder and starring Sandra Bullock and Ben Chaplin. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
16 Feb 1959.
---
Box Office
2 Mar 1959.
---
Daily Variety
4 Feb 59
p. 3.
Film Daily
5 Feb 59
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
30 Nov 56
p. 1
Hollywood Reporter
1 Apr 58
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
3 Oct 58
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
7 Nov 58
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
12 Dec 58
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
4 Feb 59
p. 3.
Life
13 Apr 1959.
---
Los Angeles Times
19 Apr 1964.
---
Mirror News
3 Oct 1959.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
14 Feb 59
p. 157.
New York Times
2 Apr 59
p. 26.
Newsweek
13 Apr 1959.
---
Time
13 Apr 1959.
---
Variety
4 Feb 59
p. 6.
Variety
8 Apr 1968.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCER
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
COSTUMES
Exec ward des
Cost des
MUSIC
MAKEUP
Makeup
Hair styles
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Compulsion by Meyer Levin (New York, 1956).
AUTHOR
DETAILS
Release Date:
February 1959
Production Date:
early Oct--early Nov 1958
Copyright Claimant:
Darryl F. Zanuck Productions, Inc.
Copyright Date:
1 April 1959
Copyright Number:
LP13441
Physical Properties:
Sound
Westrex Recording System
Black and White
Widescreen/ratio
CinemaScope
Lenses/Prints
lenses by Bausch & Lomb
Duration(in mins):
103 or 105
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
19194
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In 1924, Judd Steiner and Artie Straus, two young University of Chicago law school geniuses from socially prominent families, steal a typewriter from a campus fraternity house and then drink to the execution of the perfect crime, which they consider a true test of their superior intellect. In their jubilation, they nearly run over a drunk, and when the man yells at them, the domineering, sadistic Artie orders Judd to turn around and run him down, but Judd swerves at the last minute, allowing the drunk to jump out of the speeding car's path. The next day in class, Artie challenges his professor's conception of justice, and instead advocates the Nietzschean idea of a superman detached from all human emotions. After class, Sid Brooks, one of the poorer students who works as a reporter to pay for his education, goes to the newspaper office and is assigned to cover a story about a drowned boy found in the park. Once the medical examiner pronounces that the boy was killed by a blunt instrument, Sid matches the victim's description to that of the unsolved kidnapping of Paulie Kessler and notifies Tom Daly, the reporter covering the kidnap story. A pair of glasses were found near the body, and when Paulie's uncle states that his nephew never wore glasses, Sid realizes that they must belong to the murderer. Afterward, Sid joins his girl friend, Ruth Evans, Artie, Judd and a few other students at a nightclub, and after he reveals that a pair of glasses were found near the body, Judd discovers that his own glasses are missing. Upon returning home, Judd frantically searches for his spectacles ... +


In 1924, Judd Steiner and Artie Straus, two young University of Chicago law school geniuses from socially prominent families, steal a typewriter from a campus fraternity house and then drink to the execution of the perfect crime, which they consider a true test of their superior intellect. In their jubilation, they nearly run over a drunk, and when the man yells at them, the domineering, sadistic Artie orders Judd to turn around and run him down, but Judd swerves at the last minute, allowing the drunk to jump out of the speeding car's path. The next day in class, Artie challenges his professor's conception of justice, and instead advocates the Nietzschean idea of a superman detached from all human emotions. After class, Sid Brooks, one of the poorer students who works as a reporter to pay for his education, goes to the newspaper office and is assigned to cover a story about a drowned boy found in the park. Once the medical examiner pronounces that the boy was killed by a blunt instrument, Sid matches the victim's description to that of the unsolved kidnapping of Paulie Kessler and notifies Tom Daly, the reporter covering the kidnap story. A pair of glasses were found near the body, and when Paulie's uncle states that his nephew never wore glasses, Sid realizes that they must belong to the murderer. Afterward, Sid joins his girl friend, Ruth Evans, Artie, Judd and a few other students at a nightclub, and after he reveals that a pair of glasses were found near the body, Judd discovers that his own glasses are missing. Upon returning home, Judd frantically searches for his spectacles as he and Artie blame each other for their loss. The boys then concoct an alibi in which Judd will say he dropped his glasses while bird watching in the park and that on the night of the murder, they were cruising for girls in Judd's Stutz Bearcat. The next day, the police are questioning potential witnesses at Paulie's school when Artie intrudes and volunteers his help as a former student. Lt. Johnson then inquires if there were any odd teachers at the school, and Artie relishes impugning the reputation of several of his old instructors. Later, Ruth meets Judd at a diner and is intrigued when the introverted boy invites her to go bird watching with him. Artie, meanwhile, delights in phoning in false leads about the murder and pumps Sid for news about the case. When Sid mentions that the typewriter on which the ransom note was written has been identified, Artie, who had been avoiding Judd's calls, hurries to the Steiner house, where he berates Judd for failing to dispose of the typewriter. After Artie learns that Judd has a date with Ruth to go bird watching, the diabolic Artie orders Judd to rape her, thus "exploring all the possibilities of human experience." Later, while in the park with Ruth, Judd begins ranting about beauty in evil and then tries to sexually assault her. When Ruth responds not with fear but compassion, Judd breaks down in tears of shame. Soon after, the police come to question Judd about the glasses found at the murder scene and escort him to see State's Attorney Harold Horn. After Horn informs Judd that the glasses have been identified as his because of their unusual hinges, he interrogates the boy throughout the rest of the afternoon until Judd finally recounts his alibi. Summoned to Horn's hotel suite, Artie asserts that he was at the movies alone that night, thus undercutting Judd's alibi. Artie then cleverly recants his story and admits that he was with Judd, thus convincing Horn of their veracity. Horn is about to release the boys when the Steiner's chauffeur inadvertently mentions that the Stutz was out of commission on the day of the murder. Determined to get the truth, Horn tricks Judd into confessing by claiming that Artie named him as Paulie's killer. Crazed by betrayal, Artie blurts out that Judd is the real murderer. After each of the boys accuses the other of murder, famed attorney Jonathan Wilk is hired by their families to defend them. The state's doctors have decreed that the boys are sane, thus depriving Wilk of an insanity plea. When Horn argues that the death penalty can be the only just verdict, Wilk, realizing that he has no chance of a jury acquittal, unexpectedly enters a plea of guilty with unmitigating circumstances, thus avoiding a jury trial and putting the verdict in the judge's hands. After the psychiatrists testify that Judd is paranoid and Artie schizophrenic, Wilk calls Ruth to the stand, and when Ruth voices her empathy for Judd, Judd passes out in the courtroom. In his lengthy summation, Wilk appeals to the judge's conscience and regard for human life. In an emotional plea, Wilk argues that cruelty only begets cruelty and that mercy is the highest attribute of man. After careful consideration, the judge sentences Judd and Artie to life in prison, but Artie remains bitter and unrepentant. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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