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Monday, July 13, 2015

True Crime Dug Up To Shock A New Audience


Compulsion Is Fox's Thrill-Kill Diller for '59

Objective here was to renew shock of a murder case heard thirty years before that stunned a public and made Leopold-Loeb synonymous with things sick and twisted. Those names which were altered for the film weren't critical to selling, as it was parents, if not grandparents, of a 1959 audience who'd recall L&L or care less if they were fictionalized here. Details of the actual event were used, and since there'd been no high-profile killings along same line since Leopold-Loeb, we'd not call Compulsion obscure despite names changed. Pic would need teen patronage to get back $1.3 million spent on the negative, Fox not wanting to stumble as Warners had with The Spirit Of St. Louis, where casting of overage James Stewart as Lindbergh helped send that period craft crashing to earth. Still and all, there seemed a hex on 20's-set stuff, for Compulsion lost money too, though not so much that 20th couldn't recover via network sale to ABC in 1968 (for 1/69 broadcast, plus a repeat).


Promotion was set on stun --- You Know Why We Did It? Because We Damn Well Felt Like Doing It! --- this may have been a first time profanity was utilized so freely for ad copy. Some newspapers, of course, wouldn't accept these, so there'd be alternatives, but Fox meant to give notice that Compulsion would be no-holds-barred, even as they shrunk from seamier aspect of the Leopold-Loeb relationship and on-screen depiction of little Bobby Frank's killing. You could, in a way, think of these two as an older generation's extreme of juvenile delinquency, a reminder that our 50's line in bad lads had nothing on truly twisted Leopold and Loeb. Compulsion stayed safely above the fray of exploitation it could easily have descended to, considering the subject matter. In fact, a more explicit telling might have helped a fallow boxoffice.


Richard Fleischer wrote a very entertaining memoir called Just Tell Me When To Cry. In it, he tells of directing Orson Welles in Compulsion. Scarce is mention of Bradford Dillman or Dean Stockwell, who played (and well) the characters based on Leopold and Loeb. Welles was the acting fascination so far as Fleischer, and probably most of critics, were concerned. His entrance delayed till a final third, OW dominated Compulsion from there as the Clarence Darrow-inspired defense attorney, his highlight a marathon speech running past twelve minutes. It's the expected bravura highlight, and probably Welles' most effective work in front of a camera. What better than a largest-of-life actor to play a same sort of lawyer, especially as public performing was/is integral to both professions?

Supplemental Ad Art Stresses Sex Angle for Stronger Selling

Welles was contrary at times, according to Fleischer, who opened his Compulsion chapter with reference to Orson as "huge," "grotesque," and "monstrous," that being just starters to describe the actor's physical countenance. By modern (and much revised) standard, Welles seems not so oversized. He'd certainly be bigger later on, though we may safely assume he was well corseted to play Darrow (OW acknowledged that he'd been strapped in as far back as Jane Eyre, and most of acting occasions since). There was also reliance on a teleprompter, which Welles "had brought in." Much post-dubbing and the courtroom finale done in chunks made life tough for editors, but what survives looks seamless. Fleischer noted flairs of jealousy where Welles realized (often) that he wasn't directing Compulsion, only acting for hire. Tax trouble limited OW to ten days on American soil, which limited options. This is probably good as any reason why he got minimal US work, for the game seemed always afoot with an unforgiving IRS. Fortunately, a Euro demand for Welles stayed strong enough to keep him busy through the 60's, and there would be opportunity there for him to direct as well. Compulsion is available on DVD, and streams at VuDu in HD.

3 Comments:

Blogger Mike Cline said...

I love this movie. Once had a gorgeous 16mm SCOPE print of it.

And you're correct in saying that OW waddles in very late, picks up the movie and walks away with it.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

One of my first "grown up" movies, and still a pleasant memory. Brad Dillman is an underrated actor, and I always looked forward to seeing him in any movie afterwards.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Have not seen this one in years, but just last week some friends were talking quite excitedly about it. Must have run the other night on cable. Of course it compels comparison with another one I haven't revisited in decades, ROPE. Both are fictions inspired by L&L case, both, apparently, wobbled at the box office and both enjoy more retro respect now than at the time of release. I am probably in the minority, but have always thought great director Hitch whiffed with ROPE which, for me, despite taboo teasing content and stunt technique, is one of his weakest American films. Whereas I remember good director Fleischer really knocking it outta the park with COMPULSION. Guess I'll have to chase down COMPULSION and see if my opinion has changed. Will probably pass on the idea of sitting through ROPE again.

11:40 AM  

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