So I just finished reading Compulsion, the novel Meyer Levin made out of the Leopold and Loeb case, so it occurred to me to re-watch this, a somewhat queer retelling of the case. In a nutshell, the story is: Two rich kids saw themselves as Neitzschean supermen, which is, they are so superior to everyone else that the rules of society don’t apply to them. Like me, for instance. They decided to commit “the perfect crime,” which would be perfect because it had no motive, and the victim have no connection to them. Obviously things went awry, they got caught, and as they confessed, their homosexual affair came out. They narrowly avoided execution by hanging by a famous anti-capital punishment courtroom speech by Clarence Darrow. There was a film made out of Compulsion, and the case also served as the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Rope, and lingers in any story about a couple committing a “thrill killing.”
During the DVD menu we have a song from the movie, which offers the only opportunity to hear the lyrics clearly. It is a 20s song about how a man’s life ends, and he begins to wish for death, upon getting married. The movie begins in a pretentiously arty way [that WORKS and lets you know you’re watching something a little smarter] with 20s characters in crisp B&W footage reciting a romantic passage from a novel, including descriptive passages between dialogue. I haven’t been able to learn what the passage was from. We notice in here that the women seen are drag queens, and some characters glide by in the background on some sort of conveyor. Yay, artiness! When it’s interesting, that is. The pretty, bulky Dick Loeb is approached by the snooty, intellectual, also handsome but queenlier Nathan Leopold, says Dick is late. They run to an abandoned warehouse where they kiss, and Dick removes a pair of rings from his mouth, and they have a minor marriage ceremony. Later we see one of them lying in bed, with a push-button phone on the bed and several remotes, purposeful anachronisms, as this movie takes place in the early 1920s. They have somewhat dom/sub sex, and give up religion [both are Jewish].
They are at a part where again the women are played by drag queens. The movie skimps on many aspects of their intellectual lives—the whole superman concept is mentioned but not with the importance it had in the case—and we see evidence of true aspects, like Leopold’s fascination with birds, although they remain undiscussed. The movie never announces that they’re planning a murder, it just shows them buying supplies and then carrying it out. Immediately after, Loeb starts taking risks, purposely flirting with getting caught, like when they drive right through a group of road workers with the bloody body plainly visible in the back seat. More incidents like this lead Leopold to snap: “You WANT to get caught, don’t you? If you could get pregnant, you would!” Um, okay, I’m not sure I’m seeing the connection, but apparently someone wants to trump up the homo connection to their flouting of legality and courting punishment.
SPOILERS > > >
Well, it turns out that Leopold dropped his glasses out by the body—and it turns out there are only three pair like that in the area. The glasses are a huge deal in the case, but I seem to recall in reality they were store-bought and not unique. Captured, they both soon turn on each other. Dick says that Nathan planned everything and carried out the actual murder. Nathan says that Dick did the actual murder. Nathan has a good interrogation scene in which he smokes in a blasé way and speaks in a bored voice as he says yes, he played a dominant sexual role over Dick, and yes, they planned this or that about the murder.
The trial begins. There is a sequence of all the actors sitting perfectly still in the courtroom to mimic still photos. Testimony about the guys’ relationship soon starts to emerge, including that Nathan was going to get to “stick his penis between Dick’s legs” for each crime the two committed together. At this point a big deal is made out of the fact that the women are asked to leave the courtroom. In the minutes that follow, a lot of sexual secrets about the pair come out, helping the prosecution to build their case: that these guys are sexual perverts who molested the kid before killing him. The opposing lawyer is chastised by the judge for saying that the victim’s anus was dilated when it is blatantly not true, and yet the lawyer goes ahead to repeat that assertion, without rebuke, during the trial. During the trial the guys go out and speak to reporters, again while smoking and speaking in a blasé way, claiming responsibility but not seeming very concerned about anything. They are both sentenced to life plus 99 years.
They go to prison. One is shown having his head shaved while the other is allowed to retain his longer hair. There are suggestions that they are abused in prison. Soon Dick is killed by a white redneck guy who seems to have his own issues surrounding homosexuality. The story goes out to the press that Dick was killed by a “negro” because he tried to fuck him. After Dick is killed, Nathan is shown screaming in his cell out of abject grief.
A brief coda shows the real Nathan as an older man, who moved to Puerto Rico upon release. There is an interesting little note about how he willed his eyeballs to science and after his death they were successfully transplanted to a black woman. Doesn’t really mean anything, but it’s interesting.
< < < SPOILERS END
It’s good, it’s interesting, it suggests a lot of interesting things—and yet somehow it just doesn’t fully connect to anything. It seems that the challenge of presenting the facts of the case while emphasizing the homo aspects and throwing on a sheen of artiness and still remaining at about 90 minutes running time were too much, and they just couldn’t draw all this stuff together to make a cohesive statement. For example, all of the detail about their relationship and the way the public responds to it is very interesting—but what are you trying to say with it? The movie wants to put it out there—to glance at the idea that something about their warped sexual dynamic tilted them toward murder, but without going too far in any direction that might seem to be demonizing homosexuality—so it kind of ends up saying nothing. It’s a bunch of interesting sentences without an overall thesis. So in the end all of the artsy touches—the drag queens, the anachronisms, the unusual editing—just end up as artsy touches, not smart, intentional choices that illuminate the ideas. In fact, ultimately the movie emerges as just too timid to articulate an overall idea, and a hint that perhaps the filmmakers thought that simply PRESENTING the facts and touching on the lesser-seen aspects of this relationship was enough, and should be praised for that alone.
Nevertheless, it is consistently interesting, and that’s more than you can say for the majority of movies. The director, Tom Kalin, also directed Savage Grace and co-wrote Office Killer, both of which were also a bit loose and unfocused. So this is an interesting guy. Maybe he has a few too many ideas than he knows what to do with or how to arrange and structure, but ultimately better a movie that results from that approach than one with too few ideas frothed up to fill out a feature running time.
I think so, it consistently interesting and pleasant to watch.