Theatrical release poster
Directed byRichard Fleischer
Screenplay byRichard Murphy
Based onCompulsion
1956 novel
by Meyer Levin
Produced byRichard D. Zanuck
StarringOrson Welles
Diane Varsi
Dean Stockwell
Bradford Dillman
E. G. Marshall
Martin Milner
CinematographyWilliam C. Mellor
Edited byWilliam H. Reynolds
Music byLionel Newman
Distributed by20th Century-Fox
Release date
  • April 1, 1959 (1959-04-01)
Running time
103 minutes
99 minutes (FMC Library Print)
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.8 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)[2]

Compulsion is a 1959 American crime drama film directed by Richard Fleischer. The film is based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Meyer Levin, which in turn was a fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial. It was the first film produced by Richard D. Zanuck.

Although the principal roles are played by Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman, top billing went to Orson Welles.


Close friends Judd Steiner[a] and Artie Straus[b] each believe they fit Nietzsche’s philosophy of a “superman” (Übermensch) and thus are above the law. From wealthy, socially prominent families, both are graduate law students, under age 20, at the University of Chicago (Artie tells investigators that he began undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan at age 14). Both believe themselves able to outsmart the “inferior” persons surrounding them.

Challenging a professor’s classroom lecture on “tribal codes”, Judd asserts that Nietzsche claimed tribal leaders did not feel compelled to obey the laws they set:

Professor (in disagreement): “Did Moses consider himself above the laws that he laid?”
Judd: “He had a motley crew on his hands, and he had to get them through the desert somehow.”

Sid Brooks, a classmate earning his way through college working at a newspaper, expresses wonder at Judd’s interactions with the esteemed professor:

Sid: “Every time I stick my neck out, he chops my head off. You get away with murder, how come?”
Judd: “I don’t know, he just doesn’t seem to think very fast.”
Sid: “He’s supposed to be one of the brightest men in the faculty.”
Judd: “I suppose he is.”

To please Artie, to whom Judd is submissive, Judd goes along with Artie’s increasingly criminal commands, such as stealing $67 and a typewriter from a campus fraternity house. When Artie commands Judd to run over with his car a hitchhiking drunk they have run off the road, Judd loses resolve and narrowly misses the drunk. Artie berates Judd for his lack of conviction, which proves he is not superior. To restore himself in Artie’s regard, Judd proposes to demonstrate their "superior intellect," by killing a boy, demanding a ransom, and outwitting the police. Cruising in their car for a victim, they lure Paulie Kessler, a neighbor on his way home from school, and kill him. Artie believes they have committed the "perfect crime." When police question Paulie’s neighbors, a cocky Artie “helpfully” engages with the investigators, spitefully giving them false leads. Asked about suspicious characters around the neighborhood, among others, Artie suggests a teacher at Paulie’s school—which he and Judd attended four years previously—who always told the kids they were spoiled brats who had too much money.

When assigned a beat about a drowned boy that was found in the park, Sid discovers the eyeglasses found near Paulie’s body, assumed to be his, are too large to be Paulie’s and are key evidence. The glasses have a distinctive hinge, with only three pairs purchased in the Chicago area, Judd having purchased one pair. Judd, whose glasses dropped out of his pocket at the scene of the crime, is unable to produce his. Questioned, Judd claims he dropped them a few days earlier when bird watching with his group of ornithology students. It now becomes urgent to dump the typewriter stolen from the fraternity house that they used to type the ransom note sent to the Kesslers.

Needing to give each other alibis, Judd and Artie claim to have been out the evening of the murder with girls they picked up named May and Edna whose full names they never learned. The alibi falls apart when the Steiner chauffeur unintentionally reveals he was working on repairs to Judd’s car the entire evening that Judd and Artie claimed to be cruising in it with the girls (they had rented a car that could not be traced to them for the crime, but their alibi involved riding around in Judd’s car). Eventually, the “superior” Artie cracks under interrogation and implicates Judd, who then confirms the details of Artie’s confession but insists that Artie committed the actual murder.

Famed attorney Jonathan Wilk[c] takes their case, saving them from hanging by making an impassioned closing argument against capital punishment. Steiner and Straus are given life sentences instead.[3] [4]



Welles, whose recent thriller Touch of Evil was overlooked in America (though appreciated in Europe), was bitter at not being selected to direct Compulsion. His time on the set was tense, and he threw frequent tantrums.[5]

In the early 1950s, Meyer Levin visited Nathan Leopold in prison and requested that Leopold cooperate with him on writing a novel based on the murder (the other murderer, Richard Loeb, was dead by that time). Leopold declined saying he did not wish his story told in fictionalized form but asked Levin if he could help him write his memoir. Levin was unhappy with that suggestion and wrote the novel anyway, releasing it in 1956. The novel was called Compulsion, the book the film is based on. Leopold read the book and reportedly did not like it. Leopold later wrote that reading the book made him "physically sick ... More than once I had to lay the book down and wait for the nausea to subside. I felt as I suppose a man would feel if he were exposed stark-naked under a strong spotlight before a large audience."[6]

In 1959, Leopold sought unsuccessfully to block production of the film on the grounds that Levin's book had invaded his privacy, defamed him, profited from his life story, and "intermingled fact and fiction to such an extent that they were indistinguishable."[7][8] Eventually the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against him,[9] noting that Leopold, as the confessed perpetrator of the "crime of the century" could not reasonably demonstrate that Levin's book had damaged his reputation.[10][7]


At the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, Dillman, Stockwell, and Welles won the Best Actor Award.[11] The film was nominated for the BAFTA best picture of the year, Richard Fleischer was nominated for best director by Directors Guild of America, and Richard Murphy was nominated for best screenplay by the Writers Guild of America.

In The New York Times, A. H. Weiler gave the film a positive review, especially praising the performances of the actors: "In Compulsion they have made a dark deed into a bright and fascinating picture."[12] The film holds a critics' approval rate of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.[13]


  1. ^ Based on Nathan Leopold.
  2. ^ Based on Richard Loeb.
  3. ^ Based on Clarence Darrow.

See also


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p252
  2. ^ "1959: Probable Domestic Take", Variety, 6 January 1960 p 34
  3. ^ Jake Hinkson (October 19, 2012). "Leopold and Loeb Still Fascinate 90 Years Later". Retrieved October 23, 2012.
  4. ^ "Compulsion (1959) - IMDb". IMDb.
  5. ^ Leaming, Barbara (1985). Orson Welles: A Biography. New York: Viking. pp. 439–43. ISBN 978-0670528950. Retrieved 19 February 2017.
  6. ^ In Nathan Leopold's Own Words.UMKC archive. Retrieved August 1, 2014.
  7. ^ a b "E-mailed comment". Archived from the original on February 3, 2011. Retrieved October 29, 2012.
  8. ^ Leopold v. Levin, et al. (Supreme Court of Illinois 1970), Text.
  9. ^ Leopold v. Levin, 259 N.E.2d 250, 255–56 (Ill. 1970); GERTZ, supra note 48, at 166.
  10. ^ Larson EJ. Murder Will Out: Rethinking the Right of Publicity Through One Classic Case. Rutgers Law Review archive Archived July 7, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved February 11, 2015.
  11. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Compulsion". Retrieved 2009-02-14.
  12. ^ Weiler, A. H. (April 2, 1959). "The Screen: 'Compulsion'". The New York Times.
  13. ^ Compulsion, retrieved 2021-12-19