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Compulsion (1959) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

welles speech punishment richard

Principal social theme: capital punishment

20th Century Fox. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Bradford Dillman, Dean Stockwell, Orson Welles, E. G. Marshall, Martin Milner, Diane Varsi, Richard Anderson, Robert Simon, Edward Binns, Voltaire Perkins, Wilton Graff, Louise Lorimer, Gavin MacLeod, Russ Bender, Gerry Lock, Harry Carter, Terry Becker. Written by Richard Murphy based on a novel by Meyer Levin. Cinematography by William C. Mellor. Edited by William Reynolds. Music by Lionel Newman. Produced by Richard D. Zanuck and Darryl F. Zanuck (executive). Directed by Richard Fleischer. B&W. 103 minutes.


Meyer Levin attended college with the notorious Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the brilliant teenage pair who conceived the thrill killing of a child in Chicago in 1924. The two young murderers were given life sentences after one of the most publicized trials of the twentieth century, which hinged almost exclusively on the issue of capital punishment. Years later Levin wrote both a novel and a play about the famous crime, only altering the names of the characters but not the events. After Leopold was paroled from prison in 1958, he attempted to sue Meyer over his work, but his case failed. (Loeb died in prison). Compulsion , the screen version of the story, was both an artistic and financial success. More importantly, Compulsion served as the clearest and most intellectually disciplined examination of the topic of capital punishment on film.


For all intents and purposes, Compulsion is the authentic story of the famous murder case that rocked Chicago in the 1920s, but with the actual names altered: the arrogant Nathan Leopold, played by Bradford Dillman, is called Artie Straus; the hypersensitive Richard Loeb, played by Dean Stockwell, is now Judd Steiner; the famous attorney Clarence Darrow, played by Orson Welles, is transformed into Jonathan Wilk, and the young victim, Bobby Franks, is called Paulie Kessler. In structure, the drama is divided into two halves, somewhat in the format of various noted television series such as Arrest and Trial or Law and Order . The first half shows the conception of the crime as the two brilliant students decide to prove their natural superiority by executing a perfect crime, the heinous murder of a local child. Soon, however, their scheme unravels as they blunder and are caught due to Steiner’s dropping his glasses (with a frame featuring a distinctive hinge) at the scene of the crime. Under questioning, the two boys are trapped by their inconsistent stories, which lead to their arrest. Their families hire Jonathan Wilk, considered to be the country’s leading defense attorney and opponent of capital punishment.

The second half of the film concentrates on the trial and legal maneuverings. The prosecuting attorney, excellently played by E. G. Marshall, fears that Wilk will use an insanity defense and builds his case to withstand that ploy. Instead, Wilk switches his plea to guilty after a jury is seated, since he concludes that there is no way he could persuade the men selected to vote otherwise. He chooses to plead before the judge alone to determine the punishment. After calling a few witnesses to detail possible mitigating circumstances, Wilk’s main thrust is his final appeal to the bench, a calm, sincere plea examining the issue of capital punishment. He also stresses the age of the defendants, legally minors when they committed the terrible crime. At the conclusion of his lengthy address, the prosecutor stands in tribute to the eloquence of Wilk’s presentation. The judge gives Straus and Steiner life imprisonment. Unrepentant, Strauss mocks Wilk, a known agnostic, for his mention of God in his plea to the judge. In reply, Wilk asks who Artie believed was responsible for the key piece of evidence, the glasses, being dropped at the scene of the crime.


Orson Welles was uniquely qualified to deliver the spellbinding address on capital punishment that provides the climax of the film. In his youth, Welles met and knew Clarence Darrow, and he was able to draw on that experience to craft his performance in Compulsion . The actual Darrow address lasted two days, and it was distilled into a fourteen-minute speech, one of the longest speeches in cinema history; Welles’ oratory was also issued as a long-playing record at the time of the film’s release. It is interesting to note that Darrow’s original speech, perhaps the most influential airing of the issue in the twentieth century, and the trimmed down version delivered by Welles, owe much to the famous speech by Maximilien Robespierre before the Constituent Assembly of France on May 30, 1791, in which he proposed the abolition of the death penalty.

When shooting this crucial scene, Welles knew the production was behind schedule, so he agreed to do the scene not in sequential order, but in order of the camera setups. This saved tremendous time, and it was only possible because Welles knew the speech so thoroughly. Nevertheless, Welles’ perfect delivery, including the proper flow of the speech, is considered a remarkable achievement. Jonathan Wilk’s address to the court is very basic and down-to-earth, without histrionics. It is straightforward, heartfelt, low-key, and logical, and Welles presents the arguments in a most effective manner. Students could analyze this speech on a number of different levels. Which of the arguments of the address apply exclusively to the case at hand and which to the issue at large? Why do the points raised by Robespierre and Darrow have such a universal appeal? Why is the speech delivered by Welles so persuasive and memorable in comparison to other screen presentations of social issues that seem stuffy or preachy? Would Welles’ speech carry a lesser impact if the case were fictitious? Finally, does the fact that the murder is so heinous either help or hurt the arguments in the final address?

Compulsion received a unique honor at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival when Orson Welles, Bradford Dillman, and Dean Stockwell received a three-way award as best actor in a feature film.

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