Compulsion (1959); Dir. Richard Fleischer

Compulsion, 1959 – directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell, and Bradford Dillman. The names are changed – but it’s the story of the Leopold/Loeb murders. First half of the film: the crime. Second half: the trial, where Orson Welles comes in – as the atheist infamous brilliant Clarence Darrow defense attorney.

Dean Stockwell plays Judd, the weaker more shattered member of the crime duo – the follower, the one with all the Nietzschean theories, and yet – he’s lost when it comes to acting alone. He hates this part of himself. He sees it as weak. Of course it is his most human side, and that is what he despises. There is an overt homosexual energy running through the whole thing – amazing how overt it actually is, considering the year it was made.

Bradford Dillman, who plays his partner in crime, the leader – the suave operator – was the weak link in the film, and did too much maniacal “oooh I’m craaaaazeee” laughter to show his mental instability. But there are moments between the two of them – Stockwell and Dillman – that shows quite clearly the almost sado-masochistic bond between them. Stockwell is in thrall, he wants to please, he begs Artie (Dillman), “We’ll do it together, right?” Any whiff of independence or singularity throws him into a panic. And yet the panic is something he can barely admit to himself – first of all, because it shows his weakness. Second of all, because (and this is the subliminal thing going on) – it reveals to him, way too plainly, his feelings for Artie. This is not spoken, but it is played. Judd’s brother tries to talk to him about his relationship with Artie – not saying, “Dude, are you gay?” but skirting around it, definitely implying it. “Don’t you ever want to go to a baseball game, Judd? Don’t you ever want to chase girls? I could tell you some stories from when I was your age–” Judd cuts him off, icy, “I am sure you had some fascinating experiences.”

He feels superior to most everybody, and only Artie is his intellectual equal. Artie plays Judd like a violin, withholding love and approval until Judd is twisted up with neuroses, and then Artie fondly chucks him on the chin, letting him back into the circle of light. (This is very similar to the erotic atmosphere between the two characters in Heavenly Creatures. Alone, neither of the girls could ever have committed such a heinous crime. But together? They are deadly. They push each other further into cruelty, narcissism, self-absorption).

Artie says to Judd in the first scene, “You told me that you wanted me to command you to do things.” Judd replies, eager, serious, “I do.” This comes up again and again, when Judd hesitates, or seems unable to go through with something – Artie’s face will get cold, and he will say, “Do you need me to order you?” The power politics are potent.

When Orson Welles comes in to interview the two boys for the first time, he observes, “The hardest thing about this trial is that neither of you appear to have any friends – besides each other. Finding positive character witnesses is going to be difficult.” Artie says, expansive, bragging, “I have a little black book with the names of 40 or 50 girls I’ve gone out with in the last 2 years. You can call any of them.” Orson looks at Judd, who is pacing and smoking. “How about you, Judd?” Judd says, “No. I don’t have any little black book.” Orson then says, in a casual manner, “No girls?” He’s not accusing (at least not openly), he’s not openly insinuating anything about Judd’s sexuality – but he certainly is doing so subtextuallly. Judd stops pacing and stares at Orson, with this horrible horrible vulnerability on his face. It’s like he’s been punched in the gut. He’s been found out.

There is something here that cannot be spoken. It can’t be spoken because it was filmed in 1959. That’s true. But it can be implied (in the same way that in the film version of Streetcar, the homosexuality was toned down, nearly erased – the stage version is completely explicit about what “went wrong” with Blanche’s husband. It wouldn’t get by the censors, though – so Williams had to struggle to somehow get the point across, and yet not SAY it. The studio wanted Blanche’s husband to be discovered “with a Negress” – implying that that would be a perfect stand-in for him being found with another man. How awful to have your husband be “with a Negress”! So you can see the issues storytellers had in those days. The studio also wanted it to have a happy ending. Louis B. Mayer saw Blanche as an evil woman trying to break up “that nice couple”. Ha. However: even without the explicit reference, you “get it”. It’s there. Even if it’s not exactly in the language, Vivien Leigh is playing it.) Same is going on here in Compulsion. Implications are all over the place, but nobody really says it out loud. Stockwell, however, is playing it. That storyline is completely clear, even though it’s not in the language. It’s all in the look on his face when Orson Welles says to him, casually, “No girls?”

Artie orders Judd to rape Ruth, a girlfriend of an acquaintance of theirs. (The word “rape” is used openly – which makes me wonder how rare it was at that time. Not rape itself, but using the word in a film. I’ll do some research. Ruth’s boyfriend says to her later, when she tells him what happened and she actually tries to brush it off – because she felt so sorry for Judd, the boyfriend says, furious, “He tried to rape you, Ruth!” It’s the word that struck me – even in movies where rape occurs, Streetcar, for example – the word itself was never spoken. But here it is.) Anyway, when Artie tells Judd to do it, and Judd balks, doesn’t want to (“I hadn’t thought of that,” he says) – Artie says something to Judd like, “We promised ourselves that we would search out every human experience possible.” To me, that was a subliminal, “You gotta get laid, Judd” message. I would imagine Judd was a virgin. At least in terms of sleeping with a woman. It’s a wrenching scene, terrible – he can’t go through with it. He cries. The shame is intense.

I liked this shot. It’s showy, yes, tricky – but it’s brief. Not lingered over. I thought it was cool.

Oh – and freakin’ Gavin MacLeod was apparently in this movie – but I can’t figure out which part he played. I’ll have to look closer, just to see Mr. Love Boat in action. [Update: I looked closer. FOUND HIM. He plays one of the cops. Voila.]

I can feel the aura of a captain’s uniform around him already.

And here is Judd, sitting on his bed, waiting to be ordered by Artie to rape Ruth. Artie came up with the idea, and tries to persuade Judd how good it will be for him, how girls “never talk about it afterwards”, how he needs to experience this. Judd is all messed up. He’s in love with Artie. Never spoken, of course, but it is obvious that that is what is going on. But you can’t even admit that to yourself, not in THIS world anyway … The threat is so huge, the wrong-ness so palpable, it truly is a love that dares not speak its name. So it becomes twisted, perverse. Artie keeps teasing Judd about Ruth, “Are you falling for her?” Judd throws Artie a look that says it all. No way is he “falling” for Ruth – how could she ever compete with the tangled web of THIS relationship? But the dynamic has been set, he has to do what Artie says, but he won’t do it without the order. He needs to hear the magic words, “I order you to …” There’s a masochism in him, it’s incredibly creepy to watch. There’s a sexual quality to the whole exchange, a master and slave kind of thing. Artie says, cold and slow, “Do you need me to …. order you to?” And Stockwell, as always, doesn’t ever over-act or ham or telegraph his inner life to us. He is still, watchful, worried, painfully open. Looking up at Artie, waiting for the order.

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15 Responses to Compulsion (1959); Dir. Richard Fleischer

  1. Ken says:

    I’ve seen Rope, but not Compulsion. Another one for the list….

  2. red says:

    That’d be a great double bill at some old movie house!!

  3. Su says:

    Well, after all these wonderful posts of yours I’m gonna have to confess I did not know who Dean Stockwell is. In the sense that I had HEARD the name but couldn’t place it.
    I think you’ll be satisfied to hear you got me interested in the man…;-)
    That face, that expression. It’s as if I ought to know him, but don’t. And I sure feel I’ve missed something.

    Any suggestions where to start maybe?

  4. steve on the mountain says:

    15 year old me saw that movie the week it came out. Afterwards, went directly to the library to check out the book. It fit in well with my then burgeoning 1920s obsession (still going strong). Dean Stockwell’s performance was my favorite, and thanks to you, now I know why. Possessing no analytical or critical skills whatsoever, I appreciate those who do.

  5. red says:

    Su – I’d probably say start with Married to the Mob – since that was a leading role, and he’s great in it. But there’s so much else – he was a terrific child actor, too. He’s made 100 movies or something like that. The Boy with Green Hair is great, Secret Garden is a classic. He’s a total natural as a little boy, no mannerisms, no child actor ikky-ness. But then there’s his neurotic 20s – where he’s marvelous – like Compulsion, and then Long Days Journey Into Night where he is the consumptive alcoholic whoring poet of a son. The movie is a wrenching ride, with not one laugh in it – but with 4 star turns, and he more than holds his own. He’s wonderful. I also am partial to his role in Quantum Leap.

    He’s in his 70s now – still acting. I first watched him in Secret Garden, I think – when I was a little kid – I saw Boy with the Green Hair as a little kid, too – and then somehow became aware of him again in the 80s, with Paris, texas and Married to the Mob … but I’m not sure that I actually put it together that that middle-aged dude with the big eyebrows was the same person as the little boy in those movies I had loved as a kid.

  6. red says:

    Steve – Compulsion only recently became available on DVD so I’m quite psyched I got a chance to see it. I love to hear a first-hand perspective of seeing it!!

    I reallly liked the movie – it wasn’t too lurid, or obvious. A psychological portrait of two sick individuals and their relationship.

  7. Su says:

    Thanks for the overview, Sheila, I appreciate that. Reading the list of his work I realize I have certainly seen him before (I watched Blue Velvet and Paris-Texas years ago, but remember neither one particularly well I admit).

    Compulsion sounds interesting (loved your impressions) and I’ve been meaning to get my hands on Long Day’s Journey Into Night for ages now, so that’s even better. Never having seen the original Secret Garden I’ll add that to the list and we’ll see.

    “but I’m not sure that I actually put it together that that middle-aged dude with the big eyebrows was the same person as the little boy in those movies I had loved as a kid.”
    I can absolutely understand that. And I’m still intrigued by that face. It’s mesmerizing. And your screenshots capture it superbly!

  8. red says:

    By the way, Steve, I ordered the book Compulsion yesterday – is it any good?

  9. Alex says:

    I remember this movie. I loved Stockwell here. And the gay theme is so intense, and so buried in the story line because of the time it almost becomes invisible.

    But Stockwell is LIVING in it. From the moment you see him, he’s tortured by it. It doesn’t matter whether or not the writer’s wanted, needed, or made it it happen, Stockwell began the movie immersed in a secret and illegal life that plagued him. You can see it in his physical shape, his Gestures (in the courtroom) and in his eyes toward the end of the movie.

    This is a great, great performance.

  10. steve on the mountain says:

    All 63 year old me can remember about the book is that 15 year old me loved it. True crime, ’20s and all. Quality of writing? Not a clue.

  11. red says:

    Alex – I knew you’d have something to say about his gestures! He’s like a coiled spring – any quick or spontaneous movements could perhaps give his horrible secret away.

    One of the things I thought really interesting here was that this didn’t occur to me as a homophobic movie at all – like so many others at this time. Yes, they’re murderers – but it wasn’t like (oh, hm, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS???) – where their sexual orientation is seen as the direct cause of their evil. No. Again, it’s all very subtle and unspoken – but here’s what I felt: their evil is in the fact that they have become in love with detachment, they want to experience horrible things like rape and murder with no emotional involvement. THAT is their pathology – not their homosexuality. Does that make sense? You might have another take on it – because granted, I’m not gay – so I might miss some of the signals – but I truly felt that the film, on some level, had compassion for that tormented element of their lives … it didn’t make a point of it (it couldn’t) – it didn’t play it up. It just presented it, in a remarkably clear way. I don’t think that even if it were present-day, these two would be a good match – They are sick people. NOT because they are gay – but because they are sick.

    So often when I see movies of a certain era – either the racism or the homophobia is something you have to deal with (you know, like that evil queen in Adam’s Rib – who nearly ruins the movie for me, it’s so homophobic) – but here I didn’t feel that. It was remarkably open about what was really going on – and it didn’t seem to judge them for it. It judged their murder – but not THAT.

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