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The 1924 murder trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two Chicago teens convicted of kidnapping and killing a 14-year-old boy from one of Chicago's most prominent families, shocked the nation. The details, involving Franks' brutal murder, the killers' means to dispose of the body, and a suspected homosexual relationship between the two convicted men, were sensational enough, but the trial got an even higher profile when the families of the accused hired attorney Clarence Darrow. A notable opponent of the death penalty, Darrow had the boys plead guilty, effectively turning the trial into a sentencing hearing during which he gave a lengthy, impassioned summation so strongly in support of sparing the killers' lives and in opposition to the notion of "an eye for an eye" that, according to one newspaper account, tears were streaming down the face of the presiding judge and many courtroom spectators. Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life in prison. Loeb was killed in a prison fight in 1936; Leopold was released in 1958 and moved to Puerto Rico to escape public harassment and the publicity for this fictionalized film account of the trial.
Although in the movie the two boys are called Judd Steiner and Arthur Strauss, and Darrow's name was changed to Jonathan Wilk, Leopold sued for invasion of privacy. The case was dismissed eleven years later, in part because Leopold had already published his own autobiography detailing the same facts.
Richard Zanuck, son of Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck, got his first break as producer with this picture. He and director Richard Fleischer, working from the novel by Meyer Levin, turned out a stylish piece that garnered mostly positive reviews, modest box office, and several important award nominations. It also won a joint Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for the three male leads: Orson Welles as Wilk/Darrow, Bradford Dillman as Strauss/Loeb, and the most inspired casting of all, former angelic child star Dean Stockwell as Steiner/Leopold. In her capsule review of the film for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael said Welles "as a spokesman for humanity and humility" is "a terrible humbug" but that Stockwell gave the film's one truly remarkable performance.
Stockwell came to the screen role having already created his character for the stage, opposite Roddy McDowall as Strauss, in the problem-plagued Broadway production written by Levin from his own book. Fox had purchased the "documentary novel" in December 1956 with the stipulation that the author turn it into a stage play by the following December. Levin wanted to wait for Welles to play the lawyer on stage, but the actor was embroiled in ongoing financial problems at the time, so Frank Conroy was cast. Before the play even opened, it was getting a lot of negative press over a lawsuit between Levin and the Broadway producers. Stockwell got a severe case of the flu during previews, and Conroy suffered a heart attack and had to be replaced. When the play opened in October 1957, it got mixed reviews, and it closed the following February.
Stockwell and Bradford Dillman met the day they were to shoot their first scene together, and Dillman found his co-star aloof at first, which he attributed to Stockwell's disgruntlement that his friend Roddy McDowall had not been cast in the screen version. Right before they were to shoot a scene in which the two characters go at each other during an interview with the district attorney, Dillman said Stockwell laid into him with "the longest litany of vilification that you could possibly imagine." After shooting the scene, Stockwell apologized for his behavior, explaining he needed to "stoke his fires" before shooting the intense scene. The two got on well after that.
The real problem actor was Orson Welles, who clashed frequently with Fleischer and everyone else on the set, exhibiting behavior Stockwell described as sadistic. Furthermore, Welles' tax situation prevented him from spending more than a set amount of time in the U.S. Before shooting was complete, he left the country without finishing the voiceover recording of his character's climactic twelve-minute summation speech, forcing the sound editor to piece together words, phrases, and sounds uttered by Welles during the shoot, even grabbing some dialogue from other films in which Welles had acted.
About that speech: Although reportedly one of the longest monologues in film history, the closing arguments actually took up just a fraction of the time spent by Darrow (two days) in the real-life trial.
The stage version had a modern-day sequence showing some of the characters thirty years after the story takes place. This was not used in the film.
The film was a good boost for Stockwell as an adult actor. In addition to many television appearances following this, his next two films were prestige productions: Jack Cardiff's D.H. Lawrence adaptation Sons and Lovers (1960) and Sidney Lumet's film version of Eugene O'Neill's play Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), in which the young actor held his own with such heavyweights as Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, and Jason Robards, once again earning a joint Best Actor award at Cannes with his two male co-stars.
The Leopold and Loeb case provided the material for two other films, Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Rope (1948), which played on Leopold's attraction to the philosophy of Nietzsche, and Tom Kalin's independent feature Swoon (1992).
Director: Richard Fleischer
Producer: Richard D. Zanuck
Screenplay: Richard Murphy, based on the book Compulsion and Free Will and the play by Meyer Levin
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Editing: William Reynolds
Art Direction: Mark-Lee Kirk, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Lionel Newman
Cast: Orson Welles (Jonathan Wilk), Dean Stockwell (Judd Steiner), Bradford Dillman (Arthur Strauss), Diane Varsi (Ruth Evans), E.G. Marshall (District Attorney Harold Horn), Martin Milner (Sid Brooks).
by Rob Nixon