Rope (1948), Compulsion (1959), and Swoon (1992)

Early in the twentieth century, there were several crimes that shocked the nation.  There was the assassination of President William McKinley, shot to death by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.  There was the case of “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was charged with the rape and accidental death of actress Virginia Rappe by means too sordid to be repeated here.  And there was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, ordered by Al Capone, which resulted in the machine-gun deaths of seven members of Bugs Moran’s North Side Gang.  In each case, the crime involved someone well-known to the public:  a president of the United States, a movie actor, a notorious gangster.  And each of the crimes had a motive that people could understand:  ideology, sex, power.  But there was another crime involving people no one had ever heard of for a motive that didn’t make sense.

What was shocking about the crime in question was that it was a thrill-killing of a fourteen-year-old boy by two young men of exceptional intelligence from wealthy families.  The boy was Bobby Franks.  The killers were Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.  As if this were not enough to capture the nation’s attention, they were represented by Clarence Darrow, famous defense attorney, soon to become even more famous for his role in the Scopes Monkey Trial, which became the basis for the movie Inherit the Wind (1960).  The fact that Loeb and Leopold were both Jews may have contributed to the fascination people had with this crime, in that it could feed off attitudes of antisemitism.  Added to that was the fact that they were homosexuals, regarded as a perversion in those days, one that Darrow himself said contributed to their act of murder.

Rope (1948)

The first movie based on these events was Rope, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which in turn was based on a play by Patrick Hamilton.  It distills the story down to its essence.  Two characters, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), correspond to Loeb and Leopold.  They murder a friend of theirs, David, to prove that they are Nietzschean supermen, men with superior intellects, unfettered by moral fictions of right and wrong.  Brandon revels in what they have done.  Phillip, on the other hand, immediately starts feeling guilty.  As Nietzsche would say, his character wasn’t equal to the deed.

Those who are alert to such things can tell that these two men are homosexuals.  As for me, I wouldn’t know that to this day if I hadn’t read it somewhere.  I thought they were just friends.  And there is even a reference to the fact that Brandon once dated Janet, David’s girlfriend, put in the movie just to fool people like me, I suppose.  As another hint, the actors Dall and Granger were either homosexual or bisexual, but I would never have figured that out on my own either.  Just one more proof of my heterosexual blind spot.

But while the suppression of their homosexuality might be regarded as an unfortunate requirement by the Hays Office, its full expression in this movie would have had the effect of displacing the influence of Nietzsche on these two men, and suggesting instead that it was their homosexuality that was the real reason for their crime.  What was then regarded as a sexual perversion might in turn have been taken as an explanation for their perverted understanding of Nietzsche’s philosophy.  Or maybe that was the point, and I’m just being naïve again.

Anyway, the two men stuff David’s body in a chest, and then throw a party with food and drink set on the chest for the guests, consisting of David’s father, David’s aunt, Janet, Janet’s previous boyfriend, and Rupert, a college professor from whom Brandon and Phillip first learned about Friedrich Nietzsche and his concept of the superman.  Rupert is played by Jimmy Stewart.

Jimmy Stewart?  You mean George Macready or Otto Kruger wasn’t available for this role, and Hitchcock had to pick an actor whose persona absolutely precluded the possibility that he was anything but a paragon of moral rectitude?  As a result, when Rupert holds forth on his view that those who are superior have the right to kill those who are inferior, we never take him seriously for a moment.  And as if Stewart’s persona were not enough for us to see through his discourse on murder, Rupert’s flippant words and frivolous manner would have made it clear that he was being facetious even if Macready or Kruger had played this role.

But when Brandon takes over the ideas being advanced by Rupert, he is quite serious.  David’s father remarks that Hitler also agreed with Nietzsche’s theory of the superman, to which Brandon replies that he would have hanged all the Nazis, not because they were evil, but because they were stupid and incompetent.  I guess he was contemptuous of them because they lost the war.

Little by little, Rupert begins to suspect that a real murder has taken place, eventually leading him to lift the lid of the chest to see David’s body.  When he does so, his philosophy flips like a Necker cube.  Suddenly announcing that he is now ashamed of his belief that the superior few have the privilege of killing those who are inferior, he starts talking about morality, love, and God.  And then he makes reference to the fact that society will punish Brandon and Phillip for the murder they have committed.

So, he goes to the telephone to call the police, right?  Wrong!  Having taken possession of Brandon’s revolver, Rupert goes to the window, opens it, and fires three shots in the air.  That way when someone on the street below hears the shots, he will go to a telephone and call the police.  And why would that person on the street use a telephone to call the police?  Because he doesn’t have a gun to fire three shots in the air.

Compulsion (1959)

Of the movies that have been based on the Leopold-Loeb murder, the best 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.  (At least, there is no indication that I’m aware of, but I suppose to others it is as obvious as in the movie Rope.)  Furthermore, there is no reference to Judd’s being sexually molested 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 irritated with 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 so that he can submit.  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 what is 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, as in the movie Baby Face (1933).

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 so that he can slip into class unnoticed.  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, 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 believes there are superior intellects.  Judd answers that he does, which is not surprising, since he has himself as proof of such.  Along with Sid, Judd joins Artie, who is 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 belonged to the boy, but Sid figures out that they really belong to the murderer.

Because he had to work, Sid 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.  The children would be separated from their parents and raised by the state, so no one would know who gave birth to whom.  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, though long after the Leopold-Loeb murder took place.  Therefore, the fascist elements of Plato’s Republic are being implicitly connected in this movie with the subsequent fascist interpretation of Nietzsche during the Third Reich.

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 of the movie, when 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 two sides of the fascist soul.  What the fascist cannot abide is democracy, equality, cooperation, and compromise.  However, just as he failed to run over the drunk, 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 Leopold-Loeb murder is the way these two geniuses planned their perfect crime for seven months, and yet they made one stupid mistake after another, so many, in fact, that not all of them could be depicted in this movie.  One that was not included was where they drive the car they rented for the murder to Leopold’s garage in order to clean out the blood.  The chauffeur sees them cleaning out some red stuff, which Loeb says is wine.  (This event was depicted in the movie Swoon (q.v.)).  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 that 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.  Confronted with all the evidence against them by District Attorney Harold Horn (E.G. Marshall), 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 matter.  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 the 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 the time this movie was made, it was enough for the atheist either to show signs of doubt or to be miserable.  A similar formula was employed in the above-referenced movie Inherit the Wind (1960).

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.

In the trial of Loeb and Leopold, it was actually the State’s Attorney Robert Crowe, corresponding to District Attorney Harold Horn in the movie, who saw Divine Justice in Leopold’s eyeglasses.  Speaking to him directly, he says:

I wonder now, Nathan, whether you think there is a God or not. I wonder whether you think it is pure accident that this disciple of Nietzschean philosophy dropped his glasses, or whether it was an act of Divine Providence to visit upon your miserable carcasses the wrath of God in the enforcement of the laws of the State of Illinois….  I think that when the glasses, that Leopold had not worn for three months, glasses that he no longer needed, dropped from his pocket at night, the hand of God was at work in this case.

This speculation about the hand of God doesn’t make any sense.  If God was going to get involved, why didn’t he protect the little boy and keep him 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 Crowe’s (Wilk’s) suggestion presupposes a dilatory deity, most people reading about this case in 1924, or 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 Wilk’s last question, “And if he didn’t, who did?”

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.

Swoon (1992)

Now imagine that the story of Loeb and Leopold is made into a weird foreign film of the sort produced back in the 1950s and 1960s, full of symbolism and anachronisms.  It would be in black and white with subtitles.

Now imagine that the movie is made in 1992 by a weird foreign-film director wannabe right here in America.  In this case, there would be no subtitles.  This the movie Swoon.

Even if you like weird foreign-films, that style completely undermines our ability to accept anything we see in this movie as being a faithful depiction of what actually happened.  With Compulsion, we know we have to make allowances for the Production Code and the liberties that must be taken to turn any true story into a movie, but we believe that most of what we are seeing is true.  With Swoon, we are presented with so much that is absurd, such as Loeb using a touchtone telephone or Loeb and Leopold in bed together in the middle of the courtroom during their trial, that the movie loses all credibility.  We only believe what we already know to be true from other sources.  For example, there is a scene in this movie in which the chauffeur sees Loeb and Leopold cleaning blood out of their rented automobile.  If I hadn’t already known about this from what I had read elsewhere, I wouldn’t know if this actually happened, or whether it was just something dreamt up by the director.

While the homosexuality of the two killers in Rope and Compulsion was only hinted at, and so subtly that it went right over my head, here it gets enough emphasis for all three movies.  And while this might seem to be the movie’s strongpoint, finally depicting on the screen the real nature of the relationship between Loeb and Leopold, it might have the opposite effect from what was intended.  While proudly displaying an honesty and openness about homosexuality that wasn’t possible before, this movie might well have the effect of justifying attitudes of homophobia, leading the audience to conclude that their homosexuality was the ultimate cause of the murder of Bobby Franks, with Nietzsche’s philosophy being nothing but a superficial way to dress up a murder.  Maybe not even that.  Nietzsche is just barely referenced in this movie.

2 thoughts on “Rope (1948), Compulsion (1959), and Swoon (1992)

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