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.