This odd 1959 movie was one of two popular movies about the famous 1924 “Crime-of-the Century” Loeb-Leopold thrill-killing . (The other was Rope directed by Hitchcock, which focused on the suspenseful lead-up to the discovery of the murder victim’s body.)
Compulsion is broken up into three parts: 1) getting to know the teenage killers (nastily played by Bradford Dilllman and Dean Stockwell) after they have committed murder, 2) the identification of them as the murderers by the prosecution (veteran actor E.G. Marshall), and 3) their defence by their Clarence Darrow-like lawyer memorably played by Orson Welles, who is said to have directed the courtroom scenes.
There is a fair bit of suspense in part 2 and (spoiler) part 3 focuses on the strategies used by the defence lawyer to dodge the death penalty. In fact, the movie settles in by the end to become a liberal plea for mercy and a more civilized justice than the bloodthirsty hanging the ‘mob’ and biased jury would have preferred, and the murdered boy, ironically, got.
The acting is uniformly good except for a strange, ambiguous portrayal by Diane Varsi who is nearly raped by one of the bad guys and yet forgives him. (Though that choice is reflected later in the ending and the script’s and director Fleischer’s sympathies.) One oddity is the film’s title which doesn’t fit the boys who committed murder as a cold-blooded experiment. The title possibly refers to both the mob and prosecuting lawyer that have ‘compulsions’ to see the murderers get the death penalty, or the defence lawyer’s compulsion (which was historically true for Darrow) to take on the most sensational or most challenging defenses in his long career.
55 years later, states with the death penalty outnumber those without 32 to 18. Three of those states without favored the film’s main purpose and thesis long before this film: Michigan 1846, Wisconsin 1853, Maine 1887 (state license plate: Live Free or Die).