The Noir File: Welles burns up the courtroom in ‘Compulsion’

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).


Compulsion” (1959, Richard Fleischer). Thursday, March 21, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). Based on the Loeb-Leopold “thrill kill” murders and adapted from Meyer Levin’s best-selling novel on the grisly case, here is a true-crime drama to make your blood run cold, directed by a master of the form, Richard Fleischer (“The Boston Strangler,” “10 Rillington Place”). Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman admirably play two brilliant but immoral Chicago collegiate rich boys who take Nietzsche’s “superman” theories too seriously and decide to commit the perfect murder, simply to prove they can.

Shot in realistic yet eerie black-and-white, this movie is one of the screen’s most convincing portraits of pure evil. And it also contains one of the movies’ very best trial scenes: an astonishing tour de force by that sometimes amazing actor, Orson Welles.

The lead actors (Orson Welles is shown above) won honors at Cannes.

With only one big scene, Welles burns up the screen as defense attorney Clarence Darrow, delivering (in one take) Darrow’s legendary “plea for life” speech, and making every word and sentiment echo and re-echo through his magnificent voice, his grand hamming and his deep theatrical soul. All three of these actors shared the Best Actor prize for “Compulsion” at the Cannes Film Festival. And they deserved it.

Thursday, March 21

5 a.m. (2 a.m.): “Port of Shadows” (French. Marcel Carne, 1939). A moody French army deserter (Jean Gabin, in one of his prototypical roles) hides out in Le Havre – port city of shadows, sin and impending danger – and falls in love with a beautiful victim (Michèle Morgan), who is also pursued by a poseur (Michel Simon) and a crook (Pierre Brasseur). A dark destiny awaits them all. One of the godfathers of film noir was the ’30s French sub-genre called “poetic realism,” and “Port of Shadows” is a classic example. Directed and written by the great poetic realist stylists Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert, who went on to make together the immortal (and noirish) films “Le jour se lève” and “Children of Paradise.” (In French, subtitled.)

Friday, March 22

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “I Confess” (1953, Alfred Hitchcock). Montgomery Clift plays a Catholic priest in Quebec, who hears the confession of a murderer (O.E. Hasse) in the confessional and then faces a terrible dilemma when he’s accused of the same killing. He can only clear himself, it seems, by violating his vows of silence. Anne Baxter plays the woman who loved (loves?) the priest; Brian Aherne is a dexterous lawyer and Karl Malden is the policeman determined to imprison the Father. Hitchcock based this film – not a complete success but one of his most unusual pictures – on Paul Anthelme’s play “Nos Deux Consciences.”

Saturday, March 23

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Gun Crazy” (1950, Joseph H. Lewis). With John Dall and Peggy Cummins. Reviewed on FNB April 19, 2012.

Sunday, March 24

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “Notorious” (1946, Alfred Hitchcock). With Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. Reviewed on FNB February 12, 2013.

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Dial M for Murder” (1954, Alfred Hitchcock). Reviewed on FNB September 11, 2012.

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