When Orson Welles speaks in any of his films, he makes words sound as if they were born of lightning. It is the same in “Compulsion” where he, as Jonathan Wilk—representing Clarence Darrow in this examination of the famous Leopold-Loeb murder case in 1924 Chicago—works not to understand the young men (Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman) who heinously murdered a young boy, but to seek for them the justice that is deserved without resorting to the death penalty, as Darrow was known for being against.
Welles doesn’t walk in until late in the movie when, after Judd Steiner (Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Dillman) confess, his services are obviously needed. Before him, his growing girth and his rumbling, thunderous voice, the burning questions about Steiner and Strauss rush forth in our minds when, cleverly by the efforts of director Richard Fleischer and screenwriter Richard Murphy, we thankfully don’t see the actual murder take place, but find out about it when Sid Brooks (Martin Milner, who photographed well in black-and-white and color, by way of “Adam-12”), a budding newspaperman and fellow classmate of Steiner and Strauss, is sent by one of the writers of the Globe to the morgue to see about the young victim’s body, the condition of it, and if there are any clues to give way as to how it happened.
Gradually, the case becomes clear.
Steiner and Strauss are of no ordinary breed. They are highly intelligent (Steiner claims to speak 14 languages), but look down upon the rest of the world as inferior because they feel there is no one that can match them in who they are. That’s not to say they are egotistical, though there is certainly a bit of that in both of them, but that because of their feelings, they are emotionally detached from all that’s around them. Why they murdered the young boy turns into questions about why these men are who they are and it is with this that “Compulsion” is at its most intriguing, especially when the State’s Attorney, Harold Horn (E.G. Marshall) strides in with a puffed-out chest, sure that any publicity in this case involving him will only be positive if these two boys are hung for their crime.
Fleischer turns the screws hard in “Compulsion.” There are never any easy answers in a murder case. The only people who know why a murder was committed are those who actually did it. The reasons are in their heads, never to be revealed because it wouldn’t be helpful toward the case, and why would they want to tell others? So that it can be put down for the record that it was done for this reason and that reason? Not that simple, at least here. Stockwell and Dillman follow this edict to the shortest lines of dialogue, as Dillman remains calm throughout it all and Stockwell frets and worries here and there, but is telling in his performance when Steiner is asked by Strauss if he wants to be told what to do. A homosexual element is definitely in place throughout many of the scenes that contribute to the low-down feeling successfully evoked.
Then, there is the well-known monologue by Welles as Wilk, calling for the lifelong imprisonment of Steiner and Strauss instead of the extreme alternative. Listen to each word. It’s as if those words had never been heard properly before Welles spoke them. Each utterance, each silent beat in his speech, is commanding and compelling. It’s ten of the best minutes Welles offered in his career, among countless other minutes which are also of much value. He was an actor, a director, a writer, all involving words and it’s clear here that they still retained their importance with him. Fleischer’s good fortune was in having Welles right there on the screen and today, that same impact remains true. It’s what makes “Compulsion” ever compelling, and worth the time to ask the questions that should always be considered in a murder case. Actual motives are not always known, but damn if it isn’t worth trying to figure it out!