Orson Welles For the Defense

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One Friday night in 1959 my mother closed up her beauty shop around nine o’clock and asked me if I wanted to go to the movies. So we went to Richland’s Neptune Theatre to see Compulsion starring Orson Welles.

Up to that time I don’t think I had ever heard of the Leopold-Loeb case, but apparently it was something that fascinated my mother, as she told me at the conclusion of the movie that it was based directly on that sensational murder case of 1924.

Orson Welles as a Clarence Darrow type lawyer in CompulsionOrson Welles as a Clarence Darrow type lawyer in Compulsion

To briefly recap, two homosexual Jewish teenagers from extremely wealthy families had developed a very distorted understanding of Nietzsche’s philosophy and decided that since they were smarter than everyone (or so they thought), the ordinary rules of society didn’t apply to them. So they set out to commit a “perfect murder” by kidnapping and killing a young neighborhood boy. In the process they made so many mistakes that they were quickly apprehended. The most famous lawyer of the day, Clarence Darrow, was hired to defend them at what became the first “Trial of the Century”. Hal Higdon wrote an excellent book about the case.

Anyway, Compulsion (based on Meyer Levin’s best selling novel of the same name) was a fictionalized retelling of the whole sordid tale with Orson Welles playing the character based upon Clarence Darrow. Although Welles received top billing in the movie, he doesn’t appear until one hour and seven minutes into the one hour and forty three minute film.

The film left a deep impression on me, so much so that when I saw it on television about ten years later, I recognized that some scenes depicting an attempted rape had been cut, probably to fit it into a specified time slot with commercials.

The actor sitting next to E.G. Marshall became famous a few years later. Recognize him?The actor sitting next to E.G. Marshall became famous a few years later. Recognize him?

I just watched it again, and it’s another film from the 50s that I think holds up quite well. And for a fictionalized depiction, it sticks pretty close to the facts of the case, though of course it downplays the homosexual aspect. The big clue that gives them away is historically accurate.

E.G. Marshall plays the prosecuting attorney, and it’s apparently the role that got him the part in the superb television series The Defenders. Do you recognize the bald headed actor who plays his assistant?

And while the final line of the movie is quite dramatically effective, I don’t think it’s something that Clarence Darrow might actually have said. But who knows?



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