There are a lot of movies featuring a character who is an atheist, but movies in which the atheist is a follower of Friedrich Nietzsche are in a special category. Most such movies are based on the Loeb and Leopold murder, which shocked the nation in 1924. Two men in their late teens, geniuses who had already graduated from college and who came from wealthy families, committed a coldblooded murder of a fourteen-year-old boy. Richard Loeb was primarily interested in committing the perfect crime; Nathan Leopold wanted to prove that they were Nietzschean supermen, whose superior intellect freed them from the moral restraints that ordinary men were expected to adhere to. Now, most scholars would agree that Nietzsche would never have sanctioned such a coldblooded murder, but the fact that some people, like Loeb and Leopold, interpret Nietzsche that way is undeniable.
Occasionally, a movie will not refer to Nietzsche directly, but his influence is implied, as in the movie Strange Cargo (1945), where the villain is referred to as “superman.” And in the movie The Fountainhead (1949), one almost gets the sense that each of the major characters feels compelled to announce which version of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power he or she represents. But mostly, movies with Nietzschean atheists are based on the Loeb and Leopold case. And of those, the best of the lot 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, the famous lawyer who defended them, is Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles).
One of the great ironies of the story is the way these two geniuses planned their perfect murder for seven months, and yet they made one stupid mistake after another. One of the most damning pieces of evidence was Judd’s glasses, which he accidentally dropped where they disposed of the boy’s body. It had a special hinge that only three people in the area had purchased, and the other two were easily eliminated as suspects. After Artie and Judd have finally confessed to their crime, 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.
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 1959 for movie agnostics and atheists to make amends: the agnostic, by indicating that he still regards the existence of God as a genuine possibility; the atheist, by recognizing that he has been wrong in thinking that God does not exist.
We see both in the final scene. After the judge rules that Artie and Judd will not be executed 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.