Artie (Bradford Dillman) is compelled by dangerous, violent, and perverse whims. Judd (Dean Stockwell) is compelled by Artie. Whatever Artie desires becomes Judd’s goals. Artie has gained so much power over Judd that it’s as if he thinks for him and controls his actions. This makes for a very deadly pair. Artie may think for Judd but his conscience has been completely seared and his emotions have become completely numb. So Judd is left feeling for himself, feeling his own feelings while someone else thinks for him. Because of this, though they’re a deadly pair, they’re not unstoppable. Judd’s fears, hurts, and occasional lapses of conscience hinder Artie’s desire for a completely amoral existence, and it’s also those things that Judd possesses but Artie doesn’t that eventually gets them caught.
Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion is a fictionalized version of a real murder case. The first half of the movie follows the criminal partners. It takes us deeply into Artie’s own world where morality doesn’t really exist and all that matters is what he thinks he wants at any given moment. It takes us even deeper into Judd’s process of being brainwashed into acceptance of and submission to Artie’s beliefs. As he falls deeper in compulsion to Artie’s thinking, he becomes Artie’s pawn, fulfilling Artie’s every demand. Judd does all of Artie’s dirty work until he has one of those lapses of conscience, but after each one he always quickly re-submits to Artie’s massive hold on him.
Artie and Judd are both law school students who have determined themselves above the law. One of their fellow students is suspicious of the viewpoints they express in class but not to the degree that he expected they were capable of the crimes they had already committed. This student is dating a girl who develops feelings for Judd. She has difficulty expressing or even knowing for sure if they are romantic feelings or intense sympathy for Judd. She doesn’t recognize Artie as the source of the problem, but she recognizes that he is in need and not always in control of his actions.
The second half of the movie takes us into the murder trial. The lawyer uses the girl’s sympathy for Judd as the only hope to evoke that same sympathy in the judge who had the power to sentence both boys to death. Orson Welles is credited first in the movie, though he doesn’t show up until the second half, kind of like The Third Man. He plays the boys’ attorney. He knows they’re guilty. He has no evidence to work with to make any kind of plea for them other than a guilty plea with a life sentence. He has successfully prevented previous clients from getting a death sentence, and the second half of the movie hangs entirely on the question of whether or not they will be sentenced to death.
Compulsion is as believable and as gritty as any movie about violent crime could be in 1959. It never softens the reality of what the murderers have done. It allows us to feel the weight of their destruction. We are to feel whatever portion of the victims’ terror, grief, and trauma is possible, never for a second minimizing their suffering. But first through the girl who felt sorry for Judd and secondly through the lawyer, Compulsion also asks us to feel sympathy for the perpetrators. The lawyer’s closing argument is not so much a plea for his clients as it is a very persuasive argument against the death penalty. Wherever we might land on our convictions about that issue, the movie is helps us navigate our own thoughts and beliefs about justice, about the rights (or lack of rights) of criminals, and about the value of all human life. It asks big questions that it’s not willing to answer. We have to make up our own minds, but the movie helps us to weigh both sides of the debate very thoroughly.