Compulsion Blu-ray Review

Outstanding, unusual approach to a real-life murder trial. 4 Stars

The notorious 1924 trial of killers Leopold and Loeb, disguised somewhat as cinematic historical fiction, gets something of an unusual treatment in Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion.

Compulsion (1959)
Released: 01 Apr 1959
Rated: APPROVED
Runtime: 103 min
Director: Richard Fleischer
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Cast: Orson Welles, Diane Varsi, Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman
Writer(s): Richard Murphy (screenplay), Meyer Levin (based on the novel by)
Plot: Two wealthy law-school students go on trial for murder in this version of the Leopold-Loeb case.
IMDB rating: 7.5
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Fox
Distributed By: Kino Lorber
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 43 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD25 (single layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 03/07/2017
MSRP: $29.95

The Production: 4/5

The notorious 1924 trial of killers Leopold and Loeb, disguised somewhat as cinematic historical fiction, gets something of an unusual treatment in Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion. Letting a brilliant trio of leading actors take center stage to the exclusion of showing visually much about the planning or execution of the actual crime or the detective work which uncovered its culprits, Compulsion may not be the juiciest trial film in the movie history books, but the personalities of its subjects more than make up for any lapses in conveying the intellectual and emotional fundamentals of this unusual story.

Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) are both teenaged graduate students whose intellectual superiority causes them to assume that their actions are above reproach. In killing a fourteen-year old neighbor of theirs simply as a way of experiencing every sensation life has to offer and assuming their superior intelligence will allow them to hide in plain sight as the police investigate, the boys make one little slip, a misplaced pair of glasses left at the crime scene, that will lead the police to Steiner’s door and ultimately bring both boys in for arrest. Internationally renowned lawyer Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles) is brought in to defend the boys, one found paranoid and the other schizophrenic, to prevent their going to the gallows.

Due to the Production Code of the era, the homosexual relationship between the two young murderers is never addressed (one must look closely for subtext since the movie goes out of its way to insist the boys have more than a passing interest in women even though Steiner does seem to hungrily hero worship the extroverted Strauss), and the murder of the young boy is neither shown during the event itself nor is his lifeless corpse shown afterwards in the morgue, all of the killing’s gruesomeness portrayed on the faces of various actors who either see it or recount the murder. Richard Murphy’s screenplay based on the book by Meyer Levin doesn’t even have the trial sequences become a back and forth maelstrom between the bloodthirsty prosecutor Harold Horn (E. G. Marshall) and the wily legal eagle Jonathan Wilk (based, of course, on Clarence Darrow), thus lessening the potential for courtroom theatrics which would be satisfied the next year with another famous Darrow trial fictionalized somewhat for Inherit the Wind. Instead, once Orson Welles enters the picture in the last half hour, the focus turns mostly to him: his interviews of the boys and with the media and, naturally, his famous ten-minute soliloquy pleading for mercy for the two mentally deranged lads (cleverly, the defense isn’t one of insanity which would have required a jury trial but instead pleading the boys guilty with a plea to the judge for a merciful judgment). Throughout, director Richard Fleischer uses the Cinemascope screen interestingly by stretching group scenes to fill the frame and forcing close-ups to dominate encounters between the two young men especially as they spar and parry with one another for attention.

Orson Welles gets top billing though he’s only in the last third of the movie giving a masterful performance that never resorts to overt flourishes or bombast in his courtroom scenes and showing much more restraint than he was usually known for. Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman (who shared the Best Actor prize with Welles at the Cannes Film Festival) play their roles with terrific passion, Steiner with the 212 I.Q. who over intellectualizes the duo’s every move and Strauss who loves to showboat and basks in the attention of his peers and elders. Diane Varsi is somewhat tentative as Ruth Evans whom Judd takes a shine to and who has the same feelings of compassion and mercy that Wilk exhorts in the courtroom which brings her at loggerheads with Sid Brooks played by Martin Milner, a graduate student and reporter who actually undercovers the clue that eventually leads to the boys’ arrest. E.G. Marshall is dynamic and forceful as the wily prosecutor, Richard Anderson offers a commanding presence as Judd’s mistrustful older sibling, and Robert F. Simon as Lieutenant Johnson gets amusingly duped, led around by the nose by the arrogant Artie.

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

The original Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is offered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Based on a new 4K restoration, Compulsion looks spotless with dynamic detail to be seen in close-ups and not a hint of twitter, flashing, or aliasing in all of those tweed and hounds tooth jackets the men seem to favor. The grayscale offers solid black levels (except in some of the rear process shots where blacks are somewhat milky, not a fault of the transfer) and crisp whites with excellent shadow detail. The film has been divided into 8 chapters.

Audio: 4.5/5

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix offers very good fidelity. Dialogue has been expertly recorded and has been blended with surety with Lionel Newman’s jazzy score and the atmospheric effects into a solid audio track with the elements all working harmoniously. There is no evidence of any age-related problems with hiss, crackle, flutter, or thumping.

Special Features: 2/5

Audio Commentary: film historian Tim Lucas offers an expert discussion of the film noting the careers of the stars and supporting players and analyzing the similarities and differences between the true life story and the screen adaptation.

Theatrical Trailer (1:01, SD)

Promo Trailers: 23 Paces to Baker Street, Five Miles to Midnight, The Stranger.

Overall: 4/5

Great performances and a fascinating tale of arrest and trial make Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion a rather unique example of historical crime fiction. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of this new high definition restoration is aces all around and worthy of much praise. Recommended!

Published by

Matt Hough

author,editor

14 Comments

  1. That's odd it would be in mono as you can stream it on Netflix in 5.1 with a very directional soundtrack. Also I had the DVD which had the directional sound as well (it might have been pro-logic or 4.0)

  2. Jimbo64

    That's odd it would be in mono as you can stream it on Netflix in 5.1 with a very directional soundtrack. Also I had the DVD which had the directional sound as well (it might have been pro-logic or 4.0)

    The DVD was discrete 4.0. I've ordered the U.K. Blu-Ray and will report back if the 5.1 track is a remix or actually the 4.0 mix in a 5.1 configuration.

  3. Mark-P

    The DVD was discrete 4.0. I've ordered the U.K. Blu-Ray and will report back if the 5.1 track is a remix or actually the 4.0 mix in a 5.1 configuration.

    Reporting back, as promised. The 5.1 track on the Region B (locked) Blu-ray is indeed the original 4.0, configured as 5.1 with surround channels identical (mono). Comparing it to the 2.0 mixdown which is also on the disc and I presume the same as the Kino mix, I found the 5.1 to be superior simply because playing the 2.0 stereo mix in pro-logic results in way too much dialog leaking into the surround speakers. Discrete is the way to go because you have a clean front soundstage with directional dialog and a unique surround channel with no crosstalk.

  4. Mark-P

    Reporting back, as promised. The 5.1 track on the Region B (locked) Blu-ray is indeed the original 4.0, configured as 5.1 with surround channels identical (mono). Comparing it to the 2.0 mixdown which is also on the disc and I presume the same as the Kino mix, I found the 5.1 to be superior simply because playing the 2.0 stereo mix in pro-logic results in way too much dialog leaking into the surround speakers. Discrete is the way to go because you have a clean front soundstage with directional dialog and a unique surround channel with no crosstalk.

    I agree with you there Mark-P.
    What I cannot understand is how Hollywood Classics, the distributor of the UK disc, received the HD master with the two feature audio streams, unless they, HC, specially requested the 5.1. Yet on the Kino, the HD master has only the 2.0. For what reason would Fox leave off the 5.1 on one master and not the other? Unless Kino requested leaving it off, which is unlikely, but possible.

  5. Now I’m confused, the review said the Kino audio was 2.0 mono but the comment above says the UK disc has 5.1 and 2.0 stereo… Is the 2.0 on the Kino mono or stereo?

  6. Jimbo64

    Now I'm confused, the review said the Kino audio was 2.0 mono but the comment above says the UK disc has 5.1 and 2.0 stereo… Is the 2.0 on the Kino mono or stereo?

    I did find one online review that attributed "a pleasing amount of channel separation" to the Kino Blu-ray, so it is possible that Matt could be mistaken. Someone else will need to verify. If in fact the Kino disc is not just down-mixed to stereo but is actually down-mixed to mono, then that really would be a shame. It wouldn't be the first time Kino has mono-ized a stereo film, e.g. Taras Bulba and The Falcon and the Snowman.

  7. Mark-P

    Reporting back, as promised. The 5.1 track on the Region B (locked) Blu-ray is indeed the original 4.0, configured as 5.1 with surround channels identical (mono). Comparing it to the 2.0 mixdown which is also on the disc and I presume the same as the Kino mix, I found the 5.1 to be superior simply because playing the 2.0 stereo mix in pro-logic results in way too much dialog leaking into the surround speakers. Discrete is the way to go because you have a clean front soundstage with directional dialog and a unique surround channel with no crosstalk.

    I have an issue with the 5.1 on the UK Blu Ray.
    We are automatically assuming that it is the original 4.0. On listening to the track, I found the directional dialog was not as prominent as other older 4.0 Fox releases. Muting the center channel I discovered that the phantom center information volume seemed about the same level as the discrete center channel. Upon examining another release ("GARDEN OF EVIL") and muting the center, the dialog, when positioned in the center of frame, correctly reduced in level as provided by the perspective of the left and right microphones as it should do.
    I'm fairly sure "COMPULSION" used the three-microphone technique (I believe "FROM THE TERRACE" (1960) was the last) but from listening to the left and right channels of the 5.1 it sounds as though more level from the center channel has been mixed into the left and right channels, diminishing the effect of the directional dialog considerably. Whether this was done deliberately in 1959, or adjusted by Fox home video, I have no idea.
    Mark-P, as I do not own the original dvd release, could you spot check the dvd against the blu ray 5.1 to see if the level of the phantom center level is identical?

  8. Stephen PI

    I have an issue with the 5.1 on the UK Blu Ray.
    I have deleted my original post as I have discovered upon listening to the 5.1 left and right channels only, at least in the first ten minuted or so, so far, the left channel is considerably low in level and I have compensated for this and will watch the film through to the end to see if it is consistent.

    I have just finished watching the film listening to just the left and right channels and according to my receiver, the left channel is down 6 to 8db throughout. Then I played "GARDEN OF EVIL" the same way and set the left channel back to 0db and the balance was correct.
    So anybody with the UK disc, if they wish to hear the LCR correctly balanced, mute the center, raise the left level until the dialog placement is correct then add the center channel. The adjustment made a huge difference.

    Just for you Steve, I did a quick A/B comparison of the DVD and Blu-Ray soundtracks. To my ear they are identical. This is exactly what I was referring to in the Peyton Place thread as "sloppy" localization that comes with 3-boom recording technique (and I know you heartily disagree). They are unable to nail down voices to a specific location in the front soundstage. While the 3-mic technique might work wonders through a pair of headphones as it would replicate the aural acuity of a pair of ears, it really doesn't work well for a soundstage with an array of speakers. The voices are more amorphous blobs rather than pinned down to specific locations which is how sound is mixed today.

    Edit: Eek, I just noticed that you deleted your original request for me to compare the discs for you. So my response was to your original post rather than what you replaced it with.

  9. Thanks for checking Mark-P. I deleted my original message because I had discovered what the problem was after I had sent it.
    I agree that there are very minor errors with the three-microphone technique and they are masked mostly by the center channel.
    That is nothing compared to the problem that I am referring to and that is Fox home video's sound department's lack of effort to ensure that the LCR channels are correctly configured and assigned, (which they completely messed up on the "BLU DENIM" dvd) and that the channels (left and right) are balanced correctly by making sure that the center information, from the left and right, is audible from the center area of the screen, from beginning to end, before assigning the center channel, which is not difficult to do.
    I have done some Fox titles myself and I always made sure of the above simple rules.
    It is pure incompetence on the part of Fox's department to make sure errors like this don't get out on the market.

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