The murder of Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb has been the subject of more novels, plays, and movies than any other murder of the twentieth century, and there is a good reason for this. There is also a bad reason. The good reason is that most noteworthy murderers work alone, but it’s hard for an author to move the plot along if his main character doesn’t have anyone to talk to. No creative workaround, whether monologue, voiceover, or the talking dog in Son of Sam, will ever be as satisfactory as a story with two killers in it to begin with.
The bad reason is that Leopold and Loeb’s high-IQ Nietzschean madness is exactly the sort that would appeal to the kind of man who writes plays and novels. It isn’t just that L & L allowed an entirely justified feeling of superiority to become dangerously exaggerated—brainy writers know what that feels like, but so do most people (a fact that intellectuals usually fail to grasp). No, the most appealing aspect of their madness, to an intellectual type, is its genesis in books. “Nathan Leopold is not the only boy who has read Nietzsche,” said Clarence Darrow in his closing statement on the boys’ behalf, “but he may be the only one who was influenced in the way that he was influenced. . . . Here is a young boy, in the adolescent age, harassed by everything that harasses children, who takes this philosophy and believes it literally. It is a part of his life. It is his life.”
Very few people restructure their lives and personalities based on something they have read, and with the exception of religious fanatics, intellectuals are the only people who ever do it. In their darkest mental recesses, I would bet that most of the artists who have written about L & L think to themselves: These boys took ideas that seriously? Well, I wish more people would.
As far as I know, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) is the only version of the L & L story to put Nietzsche at the center of the story. It is in every other respect vastly inferior to Compulsion (1959).
Like Norman Bates in Psycho, Dean Stockwell’s character in Compulsion collects stuffed birds. This was not a Hollywood embellishment—the real Nathan Leopold was an accomplished ornithologist, the nation’s leading expert on the rare Kirtland’s Warbler, and kept over 2,500 bird specimens in his study. (After being paroled in 1958 and moving to Puerto Rico, he authored A Checklist of Birds in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.) A novelist couldn’t have invented a better hobby for a refined young murderer. Little songbirds are beautiful and curious, but their black eyes, if you’ve ever looked into them, are emotionally dead. They have a sense of aesthetics but no ethics. Birds are exquisite sociopaths, is what I’m trying to say.
The Windy City, capital of gangsters, corruption, and slaughterhouses—why wouldn’t you set your murder story in Chicago? Thanks to Carl Sandburg, its most famous nickname has the word “butcher” in it. I don’t know why Hitchcock put himself on the wrong side of historical accuracy once again and moved the setting to New York City. If I had to guess, I would blame the author of the play on which Rope was based, Patrick Hamilton. As an Englishman, he might not have been quite up on the cultural resonances of various American metropolitan areas. He was also a drunkard who was said to “consume whiskey as a car consumes petrol,” but that’s hardly an excuse. There is no such thing as too drunk to appreciate Chicago.
At the end of Rope, Jimmy Stewart summons the police by shooting a gun out the window. That never would have worked in Old Chicago.
3. Less campy, more straight-up twisted.
Yes, Leopold and Loeb were gay, but that’s no excuse for Farley Granger’s overacting. The boys’ sexuality was certainly an important part of their dynamic, but any writer who ignores the sadomasochistic side of their relationship is telling less than half the story. Nathan Leopold never would have said to his master, as Farley Granger says to John Dall, “Don’t you ever again tell me what to do and what not to do.” Nor would Dickie Loeb have had this conversation with his slave:
“You’re not frightened anymore, are you?”“No.”“Not even of me?”“No.”“That’s good.”
No, that’s not good, not to you! These lines from Compulsion are much more faithful, both to the historical Leopold and Loeb and to human psychology:
“When we made the deal, you said you could take orders. You said you wanted me to command you.”“I do, as long as you keep your part of the agreement.”
“Please, Artie, I’ll do anything you say.”“Anything?”
“You want me to order you to, Judd?”
4. Clarence Darrow.
Clarence Darrow was an odd person. For one thing, he was a hard-core determinist, which is why he was such a good defense lawyer—he literally did not believe in the concept of guilt. He didn’t necessarily think that, in different circumstances, his clients would have been angels, but at least they would not have been criminals.
Apart from the master-stroke of casting Orson Welles, I don’t think Compulsion necessarily handles the Darrow character very well. The script preserves his impassioned courtroom peroration against the death penalty (YouTube), but fails to mention that he still thought Dickie Loeb ought to have been put to death: “For the good of society and for the good of the boys . . . Loeb would be quietly, painlessly put to sleep—not as a punishment, for he is already doomed and life holds nothing for him. Death would be a merciful release.” (Determinism has a dark side.) But Rope does not have Darrow at all, and the philosophy professor is a poor substitute. Jimmy Stewart has only one moment half as compelling as anything Orson Welles does, and that is his interview with Farley Granger when he keeps stopping and releasing a metronome.
5. Dean Stockwell.
Did you really think Blue Velvet was as creepy as he could get?