The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time: Compulsion (1959)

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There are so many great lawyer movies. Which ones are the best? That’s what I’m trying to find out. This week, I watched…

Compulsion
1959 dir. Richard Fleischer

“Compulsion” is a fictionalization of the 1924 murder of Robert Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The crime grabbed headlines because of the troubling motivations the murderers: Leopold and Loeb were wealthy and brilliant and claimed to have been inspired by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. They killed Franks, a 14 year-old boy and Loeb’s second cousin, in a bid to commit the “perfect crime” and confirm their status as superior beings above normal moral or legal constraints.

In “Compulsion,” Judd Steiner (played by Dean Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (played by Bradford Dillman) stand in for Leopold and Loeb. The film starts as they pull off a robbery at Artie’s frat house, then shows them plan and carry out a grisly murder, and ends with their trial. It’s more of a crime thriller than a lawyer movie, at least until the last third, when their sentencing becomes a showdown over capital punishment.

Overall, this is an incredibly creepy and off-putting film, though I don’t entirely mean that in a bad way. The movie really tries to get in the heads of the two killers and to fully explore the logic of their relationship and obsessions. Most sicko crime movies look at evil and sadism from the outside, but “Compulsion” explores it from within.

That kind of approach can be incredibly rewarding – think “Crime and Punishment” and “Lolita.” But, wow, it is hard to pull off. “Compulsion” is not a bad movie, but it’s not a convincing one, either. At the end of the day, it’s incredibly hard to make a cold-blooded killer sympathetic. “Compulsion” fails trying.

I often had the same feeling watching this movie as I did watching the show “Dexter”: whose side are we on, here? The two main characters are, at bottom, vile human beings, but the film is constantly pleading their case. At one point, as Judd attempts to rape a friend of his, she tells him that she’s more scared for him than she is of him. Later on, Judd and Artie’s lawyer offers an early version of the “affluenza” defense. Especially at the present moment, the film’s politics are extremely uncomfortable.

LSAT students would get the most out of the movie’s final half hour, in which the murderers’ wealthy parents hire a famed lawyer named Jonathan Wilk (based on Clarence Darrow) to defend them. As Wilk, Orson Welles delivers an impassioned closing argument for life in prison rather than death. He argues that the death penalty is degrading to civilization, appealing to our worst instincts for violence and revenge. This section of the film works fairly well, and Welles makes for an effective legal crusader.

Still, I don’t think I’d recommend “Compulsion.” If you’re interested in the case, I think you’re better off reading Darrow’s actual summation (warning: it’s long). But if you do decide to check it out, “Compulsion” is currently streaming on Amazon.

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