The Leopold-Loeb case is one of the most famous American crimes. Two students – intelligent, but not as intelligent as they believed themselves to be – abducted and murdered a young man as a Nietzschean ‘experiment’ in committing the perfect crime in 1924. Of course, it was far from perfect. They were duly caught and convicted, but Clarence Darrow’s advocacy saved them from execution. Loeb was murdered by a fellow prisoner, but Leopold was released after 33 years and died in 1971.
The story inspired Patrick Hamilton to write the famous play ‘Rope’, filmed equally famously by Alfred Hitchcock. Meyer Levin based his book and play Compulsion on the story, and I’ve just watched the film of the same title, starring Orson Welles as Darrow, made in 1959. Apparently, Leopold tried to prevent the film’s release, arguing that it breached his privacy. This may be why the characters are named Steiner and Strauss rather than Leopold and Loeb.
Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman do a good job as the selfish young men, and convey the gay undercurrents of their relationship reasonably well, given the constraints that existed at the time the film was made. But it has to be said that they are unappealing characters, and although their motivation was fascinating, it is less than fully explored. The abduction and murder of the victim is not shown at al, and I felt that was a structural weakness since the central horror of the story is dealt with at one remove. I do not suggest that the crime should have been depicted graphically – that would also have been a mistake – but to omit it altogether struck me as odd, though it is a reminder that the focus of the film is different from that of most crime-based movies. Further weaknesses are the duo’s attempts to avoid arrest are puerile, and the action is rather slow at times.
However, Welles gives a towering performance as Jonathan Wilk (the Darrow equivalent) and his passionate opposition to capital punishment is so effectively conveyed that it is the highlight of the film and the reason why, more than half a century after it was made, it remains well worth watching to this day.