Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Compulsion Movie Poster Image
Black-and-white classic about the Leopold-Loeb murder case.
  • NR
  • 1959
  • 103 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

It's not easy to commit a perfect crime. Being smart doesn't mean you can outwit the police. You can't kill evil through more killing, but through charity, love, and understanding. Killing murderers can't bring back their victims.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Arthur is a self-absorbed egomaniac with delusions of greatness and power. He treats others dismissively and believes that his role as a superior being entitles him to do harm to others without punishment. He enjoys watching animals killed at a slaughterhouse (not shown). Judd is also extremely bright and detached but less sure of himself socially, which is why he worships Arthur. Wilks famously doesn't accept fees from his poor clients.


A young boy is randomly selected to be murdered, although the act is not shown. Goaded by his friend, a teen starts to drive his car into a pedestrian but dodges the man at the last moment. A teen tries to rape a woman he likes to impress his friend but stops after a rough kiss. The covered body of a murder victim is seen in a morgue. A group dressed like the KKK leaves a burning cross in front of the defense attorney's office.


Arthur encourages Judd to sexually attack a female friend during a wilderness walk they have planned. Judd jumps the girl but stops before a rape occurs.


"Damn," "ass."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults and teenagers drink champagne and smoke cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Compulsion is a 1959 black-and-white film based on the 1920 Leopold-Loeb murder case in which two exceptionally intelligent, wealthy, and sociopathic Chicago law students in their teens felt it would be an interesting experiment to plan and execute the perfect murder of an innocent young boy. The emphasis is on the anti-death penalty defense offered by the renowned attorney Clarence Darrow, memorably fictionalized here by Orson Welles. The murder is not shown but it's described. One of the killers tries to force sex on a classmate but quits after a kiss. Goaded by his friend, a teen starts to drive his car into a pedestrian but dodges the man at the last moment. The covered body of a murder victim is seen in a morgue. A group dressed like the KKK leaves a burning cross in front of the defense attorney's office. The case also provided the source material for the 2002 movie Murder By Numbers.

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What's the story?

COMPULSION is based on the real life 1920 Leopold-Loeb murder case, in which famed attorney Clarence Darrow (the fictional Jonathan Wilks played by Orson Welles) represented the defendants in a canny effort to get them life sentences rather than the death penalty. Artie (Bradford Dillman) displays hollow charm and wit and a deep sense of resentment over neglect by his busy wealthy parents. Judd (Dean Stockwell) is the shy and sensitive genius who hides any human feelings in his effort to emulate the German philosopher Nietszche's "superman." Both seem devoid of love or empathy and casually pick a neighborhood boy they know as their victim. They cruelly kill him and leave him naked in a ditch, certain that they've left no clues and bested a bunch of cops whose intelligence won't be sharp enough to pin the crime on them.

Is it any good?

This classic courtroom drama may not appeal to teens but could engage those who give it a chance. A great deal of Compulsion is dedicated to a long, impassioned anti-death penalty homologue delivered by the defense attorney. He argues that evil is not snuffed out by killing but through kindness and love, and that killing the admitted murderers would accomplish nothing but more violence. The film is talkier and slower paced than younger audiences may be used to. Also the smug, superior, privileged ways of 1920s wealth, as portrayed by Dillman and Stockwell, may seem off-putting to the point of unbelievability to modern audiences.

Welles, in putty nose and heavy makeup, plays Wilks with his own brand of understated superiority, always ready with an apt retort. When he invokes the name of God, a defendant calls him a hypocrite, citing the lawyer's famed position as an atheist. Wilks replies that he has given the existence of God a lot of thought but has "come to no conclusions." In real life, Loeb (Artie) was murdered in prison. Leopold managed parole after 33 years.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the way Compulsion shows why being extra smart doesn't make a person extra nice.

  • The term "sociopath" refers to those with a presumed medical condition that is manifested in extreme antisocial behaviors and thoughts. The movie discusses an insanity defense that hinges on a defendant's ability to tell right from wrong, a theory rejected by the prosecution. Why do you think the defense attorney distinguished between defendants knowing right from wrong and defendants caring about whether an act was right or wrong?

  • Why do you think it's so inherently disturbing when smart people use their intelligence to do wrong?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramas

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