Compulsion (1959) 3.29/5 (2)
3.29/52

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.3
Genre: Crime, Satire
Duration: 103 mins
Director: Richard Fleischer
Stars: Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, Orson Welles

Richard Fleischer serves up a worthy take on the Leopold and Loeb case starring Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell as two blue blood overachievers who decide their superior intellects entitle them to the privileged experience of murder. However, it’s not long before the clues they inadvertently leave behind and their low emotional intelligence betray their perfect plan. With the arrival of Orson Welles as their defence attorney, the film then takes an unusual turn and attempts to parallel their premeditated killing with the prosecution’s case for the death penalty as Welles’ character attempts to help them avoid just that.

Compulsion is really two films in one, maybe even three. Like Hitchcock’s Rope (which was based on the same case), it picks up directly after the murder and as the two men gloat their way home, the dynamics of their relationship are revealed. Dillman is the leader while Stockwell follows. However, unlike Farley Granger’s character in Rope, Stockwell’s sinister streak is more exposed and he has some claws too. This opening act progresses at a leisurely pace as killers’ personalities are further revealed during their interactions with their wider circle of college friends. It delves deep into the killers’ psyches and pulls no punches in its conclusions. The homosexuality is only really skirted around and, thankfully, their personalities and intellectual failings are implicated as more likely causes. This gives Compulsion a rather perceptive quality and ranks it above most serial killer films. The two leads give their characters’ skewed view on reality a chilling credibility even if Stockwell’s contribution is sometimes dialled a tad high.

The court case is a dramatic change of pace culminating in a protracted monologue elegantly delivered by Welles and with Fleischer using a well constructed extended cut to pay homage to Hitchcock’s earlier Rope. Welles makes a massive contribution to this film and from the moment he makes his trademark boisterous entrance, he almost single handedly slows the pace of the film down to match the more weighty and considered final act which is about to begin. To turn an intriguing and clinical examination of two killers on its head and partially humanise them was a very brave decision and it can catch one off guard. Of course, there’s no better time to make a controversial argument and it’s fair to say that Richard Murphy’s intelligent and eloquent monologue drives the nail home in damning fashion. It’s to everyone’s credit that the killers aren’t let off the hook while this is going on and that integrity is maintained and indeed championed right through to the end.

Compulsion isn’t perfect. It can feel slightly trite at times and there’s an even slighter underlying confusion as to what type of film it wants to be. It opens with a strikingly comical vignette wherein, the filmmakers seem to be laughing at the two young men. It then shoots straight as a typical detective story would and then, after a more earnest final act, it closes with that same sarcasm it demonstrated in the opening scene. It’s not that these different approaches can’t be mixed, it’s just that Fleischer didn’t really massage them together cogently enough. That said, even if it is somewhat confused, the film has personality and it tells one hell of a compelling story while giving the audience much to consider.

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