The Crime of the Century

The curious economic logic of streaming services has had a pretty devastating effect on the availability of classic cinema.  I’ve written before about how streaming media should have created a situation in which any movie of any kind from any era would be available for anyone to watch any time they wanted; and, in fact, it advertised itself as having accomplished this.  Instead, though, it served only to put physical media retailers out of business and leave the only alternative a Balkanized landscape of dueling content providers driven by naked demographic pandering and ruthless algorithms that leave viewers scrambling to find their way through an ever-changing labyrinth of expired rights and fickle licensing deals.

One manifestation of this is the near-banishment of Golden Age Hollywood from practically every streaming service.  Ever since the Criterion Collection, long the only bastion of art film to be found in the digital media world, left Hulu for the Turner offshoot FilmStruck, it’s been almost impossible to find any evidence whatsoever that the world even existed prior to 1983 outside of a handful of garbage World War II documentaries.  Since Netflix and Amazon entered the studio system, the need to pay for all that ‘original’ content (mostly licensed product, dull comedy specials, and new series that encourage binging when they really should be purging), combined with the aversion of most Millennial males to recognize the existence of any cultural manifestations dating from the pre-Ghostbusters era, has made the existence of classical cinema a Nessie-level myth.  Looking for film noir on any of the major streaming services is like finding a broadcast network willing to televise Stan Brakhage films during prime time.

This accounts for the existence of Compulsion, a 1959 thriller that’s practically the only pre-color crime drama on Netflix at the moment other than Sunset Blvd. (which will itself probably be excised to make room for a John Early stand-up special any day now); it isn’t really a noir film at all — more of a minor suspense tale that transforms rather awkwardly into a courtroom drama — but given the state of the competition, it’s practically the only game in town.  Compulsion tells the familiar story of the infamous thrill-killing of Bobby Franks by Leopold and Loeb, which was the “crime of the century” around a century ago; while it hides their identities behind pseudonyms, it actually has better credentials than most tellings of the story, as its source material — Meyer Levin’s 1956 novel of the same name — was built around numerous and unprecedented interviews by the author with Nathan Leopold himself.  It became a somewhat notorious production, with many delays in filming, on- and off-screen drama, and a reputation that preceded its release and probably kept it from becoming either an artistic or a financial success, even though it works reasonably well as both art and entertainment.  For all its flaws, though, it’s a movie worth seeing, rough around the edges but with a gilded heart that flaunts a lot of the conventions of crime dramas at the time and often scans like a prescient version of legal thrillers of the 1990s.

The case of Leopold and Loeb — a pair of brilliant but egomaniacal college students drunk on a half-assed interpretation of Nietzsche who determined to murder a 14-year-old neighbor just to see if they could get away with it — was probably the most famous legal case in pre-war America.  The two are portrayed here, in the guise of Judd Steiner and Artie Strauss, by the team of Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell.  Both actors (still around) are terrific in their roles, in entirely different ways; Stockwell, who went on to have  a colorful career, is all primness and  insufferable smugness, while Dillman, who became a television stalwart and classic “That Guy!”, is full of coiled menace and ego.  Compulsion doesn’t make a lot of risky visual choices, and it’s lensed in a pretty predictable way by veteran cinematographer William C. Mellor, but one of its best moments comes when Dillman, after nearly running down a derelict in his car, turns to Stockwell and cackles about his future plans for mayhem.  In a lesser movie, he’d come across like a hammy, mustache-twisting serial villain, but his robust performance, combined with some inventive lighting and film work, makes him look like a deranged monster from the id.

Compulsion is helmed by Richard Fleischer, who’s rather subdued here, but produced a number of excellent classical-period noir films, including Armored Car RobberyThe Narrow Margin, and Violent Saturday.  He was working with a stacked deck.  The movie had been troubled from the start; Levin alienated Leopold while researching the book, leading the notorious murderer to file a lawsuit and threaten to write his own version of events.  What’s more, Orson Welles — who in the final version of the film plays Jonathan Wilk, standing in for Clarence Darrow, in a performance that does not number amongst his best — was originally promised the director’s job, and when he didn’t get it, he basically threw an extended tantrum and made everyone else on the set’s lives a living hell.  Good ol’ Orson.  (To be fair, given what he had to work with, he probably wouldn’t have turned it into a great movie, but it at least would have been a better movie.)  So it was a production that was probably doomed from the start, but at a certain point, about midway through the movie — after the tastefully off-screen murder, and immediately following the first appearance of Welles — everybody seems to visibly stop trying.

Mostly of interest as a historical curio, Compulsion has a few good qualities, mostly in the cast and a handful of well-shot scenes.  It’s far too talky, and the courtroom scenes eat up most of its third reel, keeping things from ever getting too interesting.  Coming on the heels of Touch of Evil and Odds Against Tomorrow, it doesn’t do much to keep the fire of noir alive, and even as a courtroom drama it seems like an oddly dated throwback to the kind of trial films made in the 1940s before Anatomy of a Murder — released only two months later — would change the game.  But it’s worth a cursory look, and if you’re craving noir an Netflix is all you have, it’s pretty much your only option.

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