Two university students, influenced by a warped interpretation of the works of Nietsche, kill a school friend to demonstrate their superiority, convinced that it is possible to commit the perfect crime.
This film by Richard Fleisher is taken from the theatrical work by Meyer Levin which in turn was inspired by a real case, the famous crime by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb (which had already inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s sensational movie ”Rope” and recycled at a later stage by Barber Schroeder in “Murder by numbers”). Richard Fleischer’s film attempts to probe the minds of the two criminals and to find reasons for their actions, beyond their mindlessness.
The general lines of “Compulsion” differ from Hitchcock’s movie formulation which was based on a single and long-lasting sequence long shot, set entirely in an apartment in real time, and which preferred to focus more on the investigation and on the appeal of the detective (played by James Stewart). Fleischer, as in some of his other films, prefers to pour into the minds of his main characters and show us the humanity inside their inhumanity, shocking us through an understanding of two intricate minds that are lost in a megalomaniac fury.
This anxious and impassive movie is anything but spectacular in its formulation and shows us the actions and interactions of the two characters, one of which drags the other to carry out the criminal act. As in other occasions (“The Boston strangler” and ”10 Rillington Place”) to Fleischer the analysis of the behaviour of the characters and the psychological drama seem much more important than the police investigation.
In the closing statement of their defence attorney (played by an extraordinary Orson Welles, in the role of the lawyer Clarence Darrow whose monologue on it’s own is worth viewing), even an assumption of innocence is conveyed. And the more reasonable it sounds, the more disturbing it is: reasonable in the way it is portrayed by the character played by Welles, who makes use of an extreme appeal to reason.
Certainly “Compulsion” is not Fleischer’s best movie and is on the whole inferior to “Rope”. It is, in any case, worth watching, above all because it makes us think.
Translation by Clara Arosio (edited by Ester Tossi)