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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.
Compulsion is based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Jewish-American novelist Meyer Levin who based his story on the trial of Nathan Leopold, Jr and Richard Loeb, two wealthy law students who murdered 14-year old Bobby Franks in 1924 in order to stage the 'perfect crime.'
Those who have seen the movie and are familiar with the case of Leopold and Loeb say that the movie is extremely accurate in its portrayal of the real story. Some events may be simplified and/or skipped over, but watching the movie is like reading a detailed account of the case. Only the names have been changed. Leopold's autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years (1974), may give further insight into the case from Leopold's point-of-view.
Nathan Leopold is represented as Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell), a child prodigy, ornithologist, and speaker of several languages. Richard Loeb is represented as Arthur 'Artie' Strauss (Bradford Dillman). Clarence Darrow, the attorney in the actual case of Leopold and Loeb, is represented as Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles). Bobby Franks, the victim, is represented as little Paulie Kessler, but Kessler does not appear in the movie.
Friedrich Nietzsche [1844-1900] was a German philosopher who espoused the idea that 'God is dead', therefore life is without meaning (nihilism) and is purely a result of experience (existentialism). Another of his tenets was that of the Ubermensch or the 'superior man', a concept that figured highly in the views of Strauss/Loeb and Steiner/Leopold.
A plea of insanity required a jury trial. Darrow/Wilk knew his clients would be convicted by a jury due to overwhelming evidence (including confessions) and would get the death penalty. By changing the plea to guilty at the last moment, he circumvented a jury trial and hoped to get the judge to consider psychological evidence in mitigation before sentencing. Darrow opposed capital punishment and hoped this evidence would spare his clients from the gallows. The judge decided to give the killers life in prison because they were under 21 years old.
As presented in the movie, both Steiner/Leopold and Strauss/Loeb were sentenced to life in prison for murder plus 99 years for kidnap. Loeb was murdered in 1936 in the prison showers at Stateville Penitentiary, Illinois, by a fellow inmate. Leopold, despite the length of his sentence, obtained release after 33 years. After parole, he moved to Puerto Rico, married, and spent the rest of his life [until his death in 1971] working as a technician at a Catholic hospital.
Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film Rope, Tom Kalin's 1992 film Swoon, and Murder by Numbers (2002) are all based on the Leopold/Loeb case, although they emphasize different aspects of the story. Hitchcock's film highlights their belief in their own intellectual superiority and Kalin's emphasizes the sexual aspect of their relationhip; this film focuses on the way their "thrill" crime unravelled and the innovative approach Clarence Darrow (renamed for this film as Jonathan Wilk) took to their defence.. The TV movie Darrow also deals in part with Clarence Darrow's involvement in the Leopold/Loeb trial.
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