Orson Welles plays Clarence Darrow in Compulsion

Compulsion is one of several stage or screen productions based on the Leopold and Loeb trial. Other trial-inspired productions include Alfred Hitchcock's The Rope, Tom Kalin's impressionistic, black and white film Swoon (1992), and John Logan's play Never the Sinner (1997).


     Compulsion was the title of a fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb trial , written in 1956 by Meyer Levin. The story concerns two wealthy Chicago teenagers, Judd Steiner and Artie Straus, who kidnap and murder a young boy, become suspects because of glasses found with the boy's body, confess, and are defended by the brilliant lawyer, Jonathan Wilk.

     Compulsion contains many other parallels to the real Leopold and Loeb story, including Steiner's (Leopold's) obsession with the philosophy of Nietzsche, the theft by the boys of a typewriter used to type the ransom note, the inadvertent destruction of the boys' alibi by the Steiner family chauffeur, and the use of verbatim passages from Darrow's trial summation.

     Nathan Leopold said that reading Compulsion made him "physically sick," caused him to feel "terrific shame," and induced a "mild melancholia." He felt as "if he were exposed stark-naked under the strong spotlight before a large audience." He also complained that the book depicted the murder in sexual terms. Steiner saw the murder as a way to kill the girl within himself; Leopold dismissed such a motive in his own case as preposterous. (In 1959, Leopold filed suit against the producers of the movie Compulsion. His suit was dismissed eleven years later.)(LINK TO CASE)

     The success of the book led quickly to a Broadway play and acquisition of screen rights in 1957 by Darryl F. Zanuck. Director Richard Fleischer cast Dean Stockwell as Steiner (Leopold), Bradford Dillman as Straus (Loeb), E. G. Marshall as District Attorney Horn (Crowe), and Orson Welles as Jonathan Wilk (Darrow). Compulsion received mostly positive reviews and was a modest financial success, finishing 48th on Variety's box-office charts for 1959.


1959 black/white

Running time: 103 minutes

Director: Richard Fleischer

Producer: Richard D. Zanuck for Twentieth Century-Fox

Screenplay: Richard Murphy, based on the novel by Meyer Levin

Orson Welles (Jonathan Wilk), Diane Varsi (Ruth Evans), Dean Stockwell (Judd Steiner), Bradford Dillman (Artie Straus), E.G. Marshall (Attorney Horn), Martin Milner (Sid Brooks), Richard Anderson (Max Steiner), Robert F. Simon (tenant Johnson), Edward Binns (Tom Daly), Robert Burton (Mr. Staus), Wilton Graff (Mr. Steiner), Louise Lorimer (Mrs. Straus), Gavin MacLeod (Padua), Terry Backer (Benson), Russ Bender (Edgar Llewelyn), Gerry Lock (Emma), Harry Carter (Detective Davis), Simon Scott (Detective Brown), Voltaire Perkins (the judge), Peter Brocco (Albert, the driver), Wendell Holmes (Jonas Kessler), Dayton Lummis (the doctor), Henry Kulky (the hotel maitre de), Jack Lomas (the coroner)


"Compulsion, which made fascinating reading, has been made into a compellingly frank and exciting, film....The production brings the two brilliant sex deviates to life with searching clarity, a superb sense for dramatic pacing and a certain bold honesty that culminates in the final, unabashed, message against, capital punishment. "Bradford Dillman (as Artie Straus) emerges as an intelligent, convincing actor. Despite the distinct negative qualities, Artie has a human dimension....As Judd Steiner, Dean Stockwell plays an impressionable, sensitive youth, caught up in the spell of his strong-willed companion. If not sympathy, at least he evokes sympathy...Welles, delivering one of the longest monologues ever filmed, is admirable in his restraint...." ~ Variety (2/4/59)

"Its artistry lies in the outstanding performances by the leads, the crisp and natural dialogues, and the highly efficient direction of Richard Fleischer. They are never blatant but nearly always fascinatingly professional in their deft handling of the causes and effects of an outrageous act of violence in a civilized society." ~ A. H. Weiler, New York Times (4/2/59)

Fours Stars Received (out of Four) "The courtroom scenes are electrifying as Welles struggles to save the bodies, if not the minds of the defendants, raging against the philosophy of an eye-for-an-eye, condemning capital punishment....Welles' cunning, flamboyant lawyer is met well by the opposing state's attorney, Marshall, who gives an understated, excruciatingly patient performance of a man who knows his quarry is mortally wounded and behind which bush it hides. "The three male leads shared the best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Only Diane Varsi in a part with very little substance-a kind of middle-class redeeming angle who Judd tries to rape and who ends up comforting him-got poor reviews....One way in which the film has not aged well is in its cautious treatment of the homosexuality of its two central protagonists. Hailed as courageous at the time, the film in fact portrays Judd's and Arties' homosexuality as very little more than an adjunct to their psychopathic behavior, every bit as sinister and even, perhaps as dangerous. In almost all other respects, however, Compulsion is an intelligent, committed thriller...."