Clarence Darrow might be the most famous real attorney in American history. In addition to his legendary defense of evolution in the Tennessee “Scopes Monkey Trial” (made into the play and film, Inherit the Wind), Darrow also defended the notorious young geniuses Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold who killed a third young man to make manifest an intellectual theory that if one is smart enough, common morality no longer applies. If, then, you can commit the perfect crime, you are, in effect, entitled to do so.
The killing of young Bobby Franks in 1924 is believed to have inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 experimental film, Rope, and it was most certainly the basis for the 1959 award-winning movie, Compulsion, as well as the 1992, edgy and award-winning film, Swoon.
Despite having the same crime as the basis for the drama, the three films are nothing alike.
Rope, starring Farley Granger and James Stewart, is largely regarded as Hitchcock’s foray into experimental filmmaking and the famous director himself, thinking he’d failed, kept the movie from circulation for twenty years. Happily, time proved him wrong. It is a fascinating movie, cinematically as well as dramatically. It is hard to tell whether the real genius in the film is the cinematography or the clever subtext that allows the homosexuality of the main characters to ride just below Hollywood’s stifling puritanical code. Highly recommended.
Sadly, Compulsion, which was more faithful to the facts of the actual crime and trial, wouldn’t or couldn’t reveal the full, complex nature of the characters about whom the film was made. Though the crime was murder and not a sex crime, the relationship between Loeb and Leopold, their shared philosophy and love or obsession for one another, is at the heart of the matter and made their defense — in front of a jury of their “peers” — much more difficult because there were no peers. Whether, as a film, this was any better than a standard episode of Law & Order is a question in my mind. However, it is a pleasure to see Orson Welles, however briefly, and E. G. Marshall engaged in courtroom battle.
Swoon is something else altogether. It neither shies away from the characters’ sexual attractions as Compulsion did, nor did it turn a gruesome murder into an interesting intellectual parlor game as was done — and done well — in Rope. At the time of its release, Swoon was heralded as a landmark in the “new queer cinema” and might still have the capacity to shock some viewers. Director Tom Kalin, who later would direct another real life crime story, Savage Grace, seemed to focus on the homosexuality of the characters and the homophobia of both the prosecution and the times rather than the crime for which they were indeed guilty. However, looking at how the other two films evaded or avoided the boys’ relationship altogether lends a bit of credence to the film’s innate criticism — or perhaps over compensation.
Pick any two of the above black & white films; but remember, in the 1920s, Prohibition was still in effect. You may have to settle for bathtub gin or something illegally purchased in a foreign country. Absinthe, perhaps. Or do we have to save that drink for the trial of Madame X?