Compulsion

Compulsion. 20th Century Fox 1959.

Before watching the movie:

I have no idea what to expect. This was an algorithmically generated recommendation I’ve never heard of, and all I have to go on is that it’s a courtroom drama about some amoral law students who believe they’re above the law. And Orson Welles is in it.

After watching the movie:

Artie Straus and Judd Steiner are law students from wealthy families, experimenting with lawbreaking because they feel they’re too intelligent to be bound by it. Artie has his Nietzschean ubermensch philosophies and is a complete psychopath, Judd believes Artie to be the smarter one and has sworn to follow Artie’s orders, but mostly believes in what they’re doing, even if he falters with some of the more extreme moralities. After some “perfect” petty thefts, they advance to a foolproof plan to disguise a cold-blooded killing as a ransom kidnapping, but are tripped up by some less than perfect details, and so their crime is discovered sooner than expected, and undeniable evidence tying them to the scene is found. As the public outcry demands blood, eminent anti-death penalty lawyer Jonathan Wilk is brought to their defense.

Though presented as a courtroom drama, only the last act is actually the trial, and so Orson Welles only appears in less than half of the movie. Most of the story is just college students being suspicious of each other. Once Welles’s character does appear, he dominates every scene he’s in, usually with extreme subtlety. As soon as he was introduced, I thought of Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind, and that was exactly the correct reference to come up with, because Henry Drummond and Jonathan Wilk are both fictionalizations of Clarence Darrow.

The central theme of Wilk’s case is that public opinion is unjustly turned against his clients because of their wealth. However, I didn’t feel that the story did much to make Artie and Judd feel like wealthy elites, or to illustrate that the crowd thought of them that way. The former may have been to make them sympathetic, but the latter just makes Wilk’s entire defense feel disconnected from anything else. I’m not even convinced by his distinction between “emotional disturbance as a mitigating factor in guilt” and “innocent for reason of insanity”, even though he admits it’s entirely motivated by his fear that any jury would only be a lynch mob.

Perhaps to create further sympathy, I didn’t get much indication that Judd was particularly sick himself. He is shown to be entirely taken in by Artie’s logic, but not himself lacking in empathy or scruples. He merely suppresses them in the face of the argument that they must be better than the others, and so must be able to take reprehensible actions clinically. This is something he constantly struggles with, until the police investigation closes around him and he’s suddenly able to convincingly lie just as well as Artie is.

I basically just don’t feel like the themes presented mesh with the themes discussed. The dialogue is well-written and well-performed, but the story is at odds with it. As an adaptation of a novelization of real life events, something got lost somewhere. Orson Welles provides a beautiful speech about anti-rich prejudice and the abhorrence of capital punishment, but it feels like it belongs in another movie. None of the points it was making left any impression on me, and it feels like a waste of all the performances. In a movie about characters who don’t care about human life, I don’t care about any of them.

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