Early in the twentieth century, there was a crime that shocked the nation. It was not a case of mass murder, like that ordered by Al Capone on St. Valentine’s day, which resulted in the machine-gun deaths of seven members of Bugs Moran’s North Side Gang. Instead, only one person had been murdered. Nor was that person someone of note like President William McKinley, shot to death by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Nor were those responsible for the crime well-known to the public like Fatty Arbuckle, who was said to have accidentally caused the death of actress Virginia Rappe by means too sordid to be repeated here. And in any event, each of the crimes had a motive that people could understand: power, ideology, sex.
What was shocking about the crime in question was that it was a senseless, thrill-killing of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks by two young men of exceptional intelligence from wealthy families, Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. And as if this were not enough to capture the nation’s attention, they were defended by Clarence Darrow, famous defense attorney, soon to become even more famous by his role in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
There have been four movies based on this case, but the best of these by far is Compulsion. The names were changed to allow some latitude for the sake of storytelling. Richard Loeb is Arthur “Artie” Straus (Bradford Dillman); Nathan Leopold is Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell); and Clarence Darrow is Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles).
Because this movie was made in 1959, there is no indication of a homosexual relationship between Artie and Judd as there was between Loeb and Leopold. And there is no reference to Judd’s being sexually abused by his governess when he was twelve, as was the case with Leopold. But aside from a few liberties taken here and there, the movie does a pretty good job of sticking to the facts.
When the movie begins, we see Artie and Judd in the act of burglarizing a fraternity house, in which they steal some money and a typewriter. As they drive away from the house, Judd says, somewhat lightheartedly, “The perfect crime,” although Artie is contemptuous of the small amount of money they stole. He is also contemptuous of Judd’s bungling and timidity. It is clear that Artie is the dominant character, and Judd likes it when Artie commands him to do things. As they drive down the road, Artie tries to run over a drunk, to kill him, because, as he explains to Judd, “I damn well felt like it.”
In a small way, this opening scene and the one that follows give us their motivation for the big crime to come. Artie wants to commit the perfect crime, something really dangerous, one that everyone will be talking about, but which the police will not be able to solve. Judd wants to commit a great crime as the true test of the superior intellect, to prove that they are Nietzschean supermen. (Whatever Friedrich Nietzsche wanted us to understand by his concept of the superman, anytime someone in a movie is an admirer of this philosopher, he typically believes he is free to act in a way that ordinary people would regard as immoral.) Artie is thinking of the thrill of committing such a crime. As Nietzsche would say, he wants the “bliss of the knife.” But Judd wants to do it “as an experiment, detached, with no emotional involvement,” he tells Artie, “and no reason for it except to show that we can do it.”
The next day, Sid Brooks (Martin Milner), who is a friend of Judd, is late for class. While the professor is lecturing on the tribal laws of ancient civilizations, he signals Judd, who is already in the lecture room, to create a distraction. Judd does so by challenging the professor on whether the leaders he is discussing, such as Hammurabi, Solon, and Pericles, felt obligated to obey the very laws they laid down for others. Citing Nietzsche, Judd argues that they did not. When the professor asks about Moses as an example, Judd responds, while looking at his watch, somewhat bored with having to school the professor on the matter, “He had a motley crew on his hands, and he had to get them through the desert somehow.”
The professor asks if Judd can cite a single example of any of these ancient leaders that did not feel obligated to obey their own laws, if Nietzsche can explain that. “Oh, I think so, sir,” Judd replies, “if you’ve read him, sir” (the professor flinches), “you remember that he conceives the superman as being detached from such emotions as anger and greed and lust and the will to power.”
The professor concedes, with just a touch of sarcasm, that this modern way of thinking is beyond his comprehension, though not, apparently, Judd’s or Nietzsche’s. Still, he says, that even if we evolved into a race of superior intellects, we would still establish our own code of laws. “Superlaws, sir,” Sid wisecracks, having slipped into class while this was going on, though not unnoticed by the professor. After class, Sid asks Judd if he really believe there are superior intellects. Judd answers that he does, which is not surprising, since he has himself as proof of such. Judd and Sid join Artie talking to some friends, but soon they excuse themselves, for there is something they had planned on doing. But they all agree to meet that night at a speakeasy, where we see young people dancing the Charleston. The jazz age is the perfect setting for this story, with its connotations of bootleg gin and loose morals.
Sid works as a cub reporter and finds himself helping out on a kidnapping case, to see if there is any connection to a dead boy found in a culvert, supposedly drowned, but the coroner he interviews makes it clear that the boy was murdered, hit several times in the head with a blunt instrument. Some glasses fall to the floor, which the coroner thinks belong to the boy, but Sid figures out that they really belonged to the murderer.
Because Sid was working, he knew he would be late meeting the gang at the speakeasy, so he agreed with Artie’s suggestion to let Judd bring Sid’s girlfriend Ruth (Diane Varsi). While the others are dancing, we see Judd explaining to Ruth some of the ideas put forward by Plato in his Republic. In particular, he is talking about the part where Plato thought that the state should decide who mated with whom, especially in the ruling class and the warrior class. The children would be separated from their parents and raised by the state, so no one would know who gave birth to whom, except one or two bureaucrats in charge of making there is no inadvertent incest. Children born by parents not approved of by the state would be put to death. At first, it seems strange that Judd would be talking to Ruth about Plato instead of Nietzsche. However, as we know, fairly or unfairly, Nietzsche’s philosophy was appropriated by the Nazis. Therefore, the fascist elements of Plato’s Republic are being connected in this movie to the subsequent fascist interpretation of Nietzsche by Nazi Germany.
As Judd and Ruth begin to form a friendship, he invites her to go to the park with him where they can observe the birds, for Judd is an amateur ornithologist of some note. When Artie finds out, he tells Judd this is his opportunity to have the experience of raping a woman, detached and without emotion. Artie cynically observes that girls never want to talk about it afterwards. Judd is reluctant. But then, just as at one point in the beginning, Artie commanded Judd to run over the drunk, so too does Artie have to command Judd to rape Ruth. It might seem strange that someone like Judd, who is all into Nietzsche and his will-to-power philosophy, would want to be the one to obey rather than command. But commanding and obeying are just the two sides of the fascist soul. What the fascist cannot abide is cooperating with others, reaching a compromise that is satisfactory to all concerned. However, Judd fails in his attempt to rape Ruth, because she cares more about what Judd will be doing to himself than what he does to her, and such sympathy and understanding is more than he can bear.
One of the great ironies of the Loeb and Leopold case is the way these two geniuses planned their perfect murder for seven months, and yet they made one stupid mistake after another, so many in fact, that not all of them could be represented in this movie. The most damning piece of evidence was the glasses that Sid discovered. It had a special hinge that only three people in the area had purchased, and the other two were easily eliminated as suspects. But the final flaw in their plan comes when the chauffeur says that Judd’s car, the one Judd said the he and Artie had used the day of the murder to pick up a couple of girls, was in the garage all day while he worked on the brakes. Artie confesses first, admitting that they rented a car for the kidnapping and murder, after which Judd accuses him of being a “weakling.”
Wilk is hired as their lawyer, with much reluctance on the part of their parents, however, because he is an “atheist.” Actually, the real Clarence Darrow considered himself an agnostic, as does Wilk in the movie, but one suspects that people who did not like Clarence Darrow preferred the more pejorative term “atheist,” refusing to mince words on the subject. Given the enormity of the crime committed by Artie and Judd, along with a full confession from both of them, a trial would seem to be pointless, at least from a dramatic standpoint. And yet, such is the screen presence of Orson Welles, that as soon as he walks through the door as Jonathan Wilk, we experience a reversal of attitude, reinforced by following scene in which we see the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross outside of Wilk’s residence.
Artie and Judd never characterize themselves as either agnostic or atheist, but it would be hard to believe that they were anything but atheists, given their admiration of Nietzsche and their willingness to commit a horrible murder just to prove that they were superior. Regardless of what the final words actually were between Darrow, on the one hand, and Loeb and Leopold, on the other, it was still necessary in the late 1950s for movie agnostics and atheists to make amends. The agnostic had to indicate that he still regarded the existence of God as a genuine possibility. Traditionally, the atheist had to admit that he was wrong, that God really did exist, but by this time it was enough for the atheist either to show signs of doubt or to be miserable.
We see both in the final scene. After the judge rules that Artie and Judd will not be hanged for their crime, but will spend the rest of their lives in prison, which was the only outcome Wilk could reasonably hope for, the following dialogue takes place:
Artie: So we sweat through three months of misery just to hear that. I wish they’d have hung us right off the bat.
Wilk: I wasn’t expecting you to fall down on your knees and thank God for deliverance.
Judd: God? That sounds rather strange coming from you, Mr. Wilk.
Wilk: A lifetime of doubt and questioning doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve reached any final conclusions.
Judd: Well, I have, and God has nothing to do with it.
Wilk: Are you sure, Judd? In those years to come you might find yourself asking, if it wasn’t the hand of God dropped those glasses. And if he didn’t, who did?
To that question, Judd hesitates, and then has a look of fear and bewilderment.
Now, it is hard to take the suggestion that it was the hand of God who dropped Judd’s glasses. I mean, as long as God was going to get involved, why didn’t he prevent the little boy from being murdered in the first place? But some people would say that that way of thinking is typical of an atheist like me, who just doesn’t understand that God works in mysterious ways. So, even if I think Wilk’s suggestion is absurd, most people watching this movie in 1959 would have found it perfectly reasonable.
Alternatively, one might go all Freudian and say that Judd had an unconscious desire to be caught. That would seem to be the significance of the last question, “And if he didn’t, who did?”
Personally, I think it was just an accident. We don’t need God or Freud to explain that. But the main thing is that for those in the audience who needed to see the atheist realize that there might actually be a God, Wilk’s first hypothesis about the hand of God dropping the glasses would have been the preferred interpretation.