Sunday, December 21, 2008

Compulsion (1959)

Compulsion, based on the Leopold/Loeb murder case and directed by Richard Fleischer, is a tight little movie whose performances by Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman and Orson Welles elevate it above some less-talented bit players and conventional surroundings. It was the last film Welles made in Hollywood for some years, and though he enters an hour into it, his performance as a Clarence Darrow-inspired lawyer is unforgettable.

Though the film opens and closes like a rather cheap thriller, and offers some fairly uninspired camera work, it is in fact a successful piece of anti-death penalty propaganda and character study. The story concerns the fascinating personalities of two college students, Steiner (Stockwell) and Straus (Dillman), whose particular psychoses ignite only in the presence of one another. Straus is arrogant, spoiled, and whimsical, while Steiner is serious, obsessed with Nietzsche, and desperate for an "intellect" to attach himself to and be led by. Both have genius IQs and neither seems able to fit into the society of their peers, albeit for different reasons. Stockwell is particularly effective here, anticipating Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in his quiet good looks and social anxiety--not to mention the oddly affecting quality of the unreformable who cannot seem to help himself. Interestingly, the film contains a character who embodies a segment of the audience's misplaced sympathy for the man, a sympathy I share despite recognizing the stupidity of it.

The film makes the interesting choice not to show any of the action; the heinous deeds performed by the pair are either off-camera or aborted when we do see them. According to Frank Brady's biography of Welles, this was done to help the anti-death penalty tenor of the film. But watching it, I was entertained by the way the movie doesn't show us what the boys did, but lets us know immediately that they're the culprits. We're watching the fall-out, and propaganda aside it's effective and arguably more interesting than seeing the violence itself. One certainly cannot accuse the filmmakers of sensationalism, at any rate, and it's likely that this film would have been unable to present the deeds in any other light.

In that same vein is Welles' performance as the lawyer brought in to defend Straus and Steiner. Though his physical presence made it impossible for Welles to disguise himself effectively, his performances are varied and nuanced, ranging from hammy (Trouble in the Glen) to blustering (The Long, Hot Summer) to sympathetically corrupted (Touch of Evil), all in one five-year period. In Compulsion, he's subtle, sweaty and unkempt, quietly delivering a masterpiece of oratory that reminded me of his radio performances. There is no trace of bravura in his performance, though it is a bravura performance.

Knowing that there is a trial at the end of the film should be no deterrent to your enjoyment; there is plenty to be surprised by here, even if most of it is lent by the real-world circumstances that have been adopted (and, I am certain, altered). Even so, the film lays them out in a workmanlike fashion, with touches that raise it above that level to add it to the list of movies I'm surprised I hadn't seen before. Read more!

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Sometimes, a film requires a review to make sense of it, or to examine what the reader, and subsequent viewer, ought to get from the film. But in this case, I'm not certain Aguirre needs sense imposed; it's an experience, a nightmare played out in slow motion. You might not even know you're dreaming until you wake up.

From everything I can find, the making of the film was just as bizarre and nightmarish as the film itself. Part of this was due to the volatile relationship between director Werner Herzog and star Klaus Kinski, and part was undoubtedly due to it being shot with some spontaneity on location in the jungle of Peru. The story concerns a splinter group from Gonzalo Pizarro's search for El Dorado, sent off to find supplies and, if possible, the City of Gold itself. Floating down river in a raft, things quickly go awry for the group of soldiers, native slaves, and two women (the mistress of the leader, Ursua, and Aguirre's daughter). Aguirre, though he refrains from taking control in name, moves among the men like some cross between Richard III and Kurtz, hunched and brooding and seemingly arbitrary in his ever-more-grandiose plans. It's unclear whether Aguirre is the wrath of God, or is experiencing it.

The secret to this film, I think, is in how quietly Herzog deals with events and moments that, in another director's hands, would have been show pieces designed to rope in the audience. Herzog never does; the long takes are anti-climactic but add to the sense of realistic unreality. In the meantime, human nature is on full display, as ugly as Herzog can make it. But he does not let us get too involved. The film is cold, distant, and never exploitative. I was astonished by two more things when I saw it: that I had never seen it before, and that it was made in 1972. It's a gorgeously filmed movie, but requires some patience; while it is never boring, it is not Hollywood's romantic historical adventure. Klaus Kinski's bizarre performance is indescribable, and the film hangs together so well that it is indeed an escape, albeit to a place one does not wish to visit. At least not permanently. Read more!