“Compulsion,” a 1959 psychological drama about a couple of confident killers, gives us a glimpse of the arrogance of the rich and youthful in mid 1920s Chicago. Dean Stockwell plays Judd Steiner and Bradford Dillman plays Arthur A. Straus, who study law at a local college. They become convinced of the superiority of some men over others, and decide to kill a neighborhood boy for a thrill. While placing the boy’s body in a quarry, Judd drops his classes which are later discovered by the police. Arthur then remains in constant contact with the police to see what they know.
Based on a true story — the Leopold-Loeb murder case of 1924 — the movie is part police procedural, part courtroom drama and part thriller. It begins with Judd and Arthur breaking into a house for kicks, where Judd steals an Underwood typewriter. Their obvious glee after their getaway reveals an extremely close bond between them. Judd seems to idolize Arthur, and quickly agrees to his plan to commit a murder for the thrill of the experience and an opportunity to commit the perfect crime. Of course, everyone at the college can see Judd’s weakness, and Arthur comes across to them as an obvious manipulator. For the most part though, Arthur manages to fool the police.
The cast of the film, directed by Richard Fleischer, also includes Martin Milner as Sid Brooks, a hard-working and honest cub reporter who mistrusts Arthur and is unsettled by Judd. Sid’s girlfriend, Ruth (Diane Varsi), feels sorry for the maladjusted Judd and agrees to go birdwatching with him near the quarry where they found the boy. Judd plans to rape and murder Ruth, but botches the attempt when she expresses compassion for him. Judd’s definitely unhinged but she carries a compulsion to protect him.
E. G. Marshall plays District Attorney Harold Horn, a man who relishes the unraveling of the case. His easy-going manner disarms Arthur, but Horn cracks the case through an accidental conversation with a servant. Arthur’s family hires a high-priced lawyer, Jonathan Wilk, played excellently by Orson Welles. In the actual case, the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow took the defense for Leopold and Loeb. Wells directed the courtroom scenes in the movie, with Fleischer’s amiable consent. Wilk knows the defendants cannot win the case, so he gets them to plead guilty and argues against a death sentence. His concluding speech is beautifully passionate, but not loud. The portly Welles moves sparingly but effectively, hitting his marks at the proper beats.