13 January 2010 | secondtake
At times gripping and moralizing, and always intriguing and dramatic wide screen b&w
Orson Welles gets top billing but he only shows up near the end--just as he did in The Third Man--and he changes the tenor of the movie a lot. I like Welles as an actor, but he dominates the two young men who made the film click earlier. At first, it seems that the movie is about a pair of brainy (and slightly cold) college students who intellectualize their way into a nasty crime. The tension between them, the hints of doubt and the overcoming of guilt, and just about the townspeople and how they handle the crime and the investigation. It's not a perfectly smooth exploration, but it's interesting and even edgy at times, and has a great late 1950s black and white clarity to the filming that makes everything stark.
With the lawyer played by Welles we are shifted into a more conventional courtroom drama, a good one, but with some common tactics (the courtroom scene in Lady from Shanghai blows it away for originality, if you want one comparison), and with a long long long capstone speech by our man Orson. It's easy to like, very easy from start to finish with some nice visual clarity and lively soundtrack, but it does stutter enough to keep you aware of what might have been done differently.
And what about the idea of crime as a mental exercise, of a person being so superior he or she rises above culpability? Well, it's not a new idea, and Hitchcock's Rope from a decade earlier goes there in a similar way (Rope is a curious film, and Jimmy Stewart acts his heart out, but Compulsion actually has more life to it because the two young men are more interesting). Both probably owe something to the sensation 1924 Leopold and Loeb killing, and of course to other murder mysteries that go into the psychology rather than the gore (from Dostoyevsky to Highsmith). It's tantalizing stuff.