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NITA Movie Review: TOO CRAZY FOR EXECUTION?

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

compulsionPosterIn the August, 2015 edition of the ABA Journal, there’s an excellent article titled “100 Years of Law at the Movies.” I’ve reviewed many of the movies listed, but realized I’d neglected a number of great ones.  I’m going to try and remedy that, starting with a 1959 movie about murder, insanity and the death penalty that will have real resonance for me and my fellow Coloradans who’ve recently watched with fascination the death penalty trials of James Holmes, the Aurora theater shooter.

Compulsion (20th Century Fox, 1959) tells the story of two rich, amoral Chicago law students, Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Artie Straus (Bradford Dillman).  Judd and Artie consider themselves superior beings, supermen who are not controlled by the laws and mores that other people have to follow.  They decide to kill someone, just to see what it feels like.  They plan their murder and commit it, abducting a random schoolboy and slaying him in gruesome fashion. Not surprisingly, their “perfect crime” isn’t and they are caught and put on trial.  Their wealthy fathers hire the well-known criminal defense attorney, Johnathan Wilk (Orson Welles) to defend them.  Wilk decides on a drastic strategy: he admits his clients committed the murder, dispenses with a jury and fights against the execution of his clients before a judge sitting alone, claiming that his clients are insane, the product of warped values exacerbated by their wealth and social position.  Wilk and prosecutor Harold Horn (E.G. Marshall[1]) then go to war for Judd and Artie’s lives.

This movie is one that is actually “based on true events.” In 1924, two rich young men from Chicago, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb kidnapped and killed a fourteen year-old boy named Bobby Franks.  They were put on trial and were defended by the great lawyer, Clarence Darrow.[2] Darrow was perceived as a champion of the downtrodden and overlooked of society, and his defense of two children of the wealthy raised eyebrows.  The Leopold and Loeb case was a national sensation, with extensive – and lurid – media coverage. The case continues to fascinate people. If you don’t believe me, type “Leopold and Loeb” into your search bar.

This movie is one well worth watching.  The trial scenes are riveting and the acting is first class; Welles, Stockwell and Dillman collectively received the Best Actor Award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Compulsion is number 19 on the ABA’s 25 Greatest Legal Movies list that was published in 1959.

But have no illusions.  Compulsion is a movie with explicit agendas: it is clearly and unashamedly against the death penalty and also argues forcefully that legal definitions of “insanity” are inadequate.  But it also brilliantly creates the dilemma faced by the supporters and the opponents of both concepts.  The crime committed here is random, heinous, frightening, incomprehensible. And the murderers are utterly unsympathetic. They are obnoxious rich kids who believe themselves to be the intellectual superiors of everyone else on earth, but on the surface they look completely normal, a couple of spoiled jerks. Compulsion forces the viewer to confront how he or she feels about these issues and to think about how our society deals with them. For those of us in Colorado who just lived through a close-up view of a trial with incomprehensible murders, where sanity  or insanity was the key to the Defendant’s case, these questions are still fresh.

And still unanswered.

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[1]  Marshall also played Juror #4 in 12 Angry Men.

[2]  Darrow was the model for Spencer Tracy’s character, Henry Drummond, in Inherit the Wind.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
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  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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