Compulsion and(Fox Home Entertainment, 5.23.2006)
These Thousand Hills
When Richard Fleischer died a few months ago, most of the obituaries portrayed him as a director known for making science fiction films and little else. Of course, I know where they're coming from. After all, he did direct 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green, Amityville 3-D, Conan the Destroyer, and several other vehicles in a sci-fi and/or fantasy vein. But Fleischer's filmography is also littered with examples of pretty much every other genre, including musicals (Doctor Dolittle, the ill-conceived Neil Diamond version of The Jazz Singer), serial killer films (The Boston Strangler, 10 Rillington Place), film noir (The Narrow Margin), biblical epics (Barabbas), war films (Tora! Tora! Tora!), and various other historical works (The Vikings). Hell, he even made a movie about Che Guevera (Che!).
In other words, it should come as no surprise that this skillful and varied filmmaker cranked out these radically different films back-to-back in 1959. Clearly the better of the two, Compulsion is an intricate dramatization of the famous Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924. Compared to the similarly-themed In Cold Blood -- which hit theaters 8 years later -- this film plays like an after school special, but it's an engaging piece of socially-minded true crime filmmaking, nonetheless. Carefully structured, the film follows the killers from the conception of their crime through its execution and into the court case that followed. Compulsion really comes into its own in the last third, due largely to a charismatic, low key performance by Orson Welles (as the killers' attorney).
Compulsion also succeeds because of its level-headed, yet pointed, handling of a difficult subject: the death penalty. Fleischer and screenwriter Richard Murphy portray the killers in an aggressively unsympathetic manner, even though their overall intent is to make an argument against the death sentence that these killers face. But this approach isn't an obstacle to the fim's argument, it actually enriches that argument. The film's basic point is that, while these killers are arrogant, delusional, and cold-blooded, any legal system that sees fit to murder them is similarly arrogant, delusional, and cold-blooded. Yes, the film relies a little too heavily on the naive, preachy brand of Hollywood liberalism that was so prominent in the late '50s and early '60s -- the films of Stanley Kramer come to mind -- but it's still an entertaining and disciplined effort.
These Thousand Hills is a significantly less sophisticated film and a fairly typical western of its time (the scoring is maddeningly routine), but Fleischer elevates this genre effort with a few unexpectedly affecting touches. Fleischer was a severely underrated filmmaker, largely because he gravitated toward unpretentious, mainstream genre material like this. But he had an exacting visual sense and an occasionally poetic approach to filmmaking that, at its best, recalls the no frills poetry of John Ford's best work.
There's a terrific moment early in These Thousand Hills involving a music box and two characters (a romance is blooming) separated by a few rooms. There's absolutely no narrative reason for this scene to exist -- and it would probably be excised from most Hollywood films today -- but it's arguably the best, most potent scene in the film.
Unfortunately, Fox hasn't seen fit to offer any noteworthy features on these discs -- we get some trailers and photo galleries -- but the anamorphic 2.35:1 transfers (Flesicher was one of the masters of widescreen) are first-rate. If you're a Fleischer fan with a desire to see a fuller range of the late filmmaker's numerous talents, this is a great place to start. These discs are available at bargain basement prices and, taken together, they make for a nice little DVD obituary. But don't stop there. Flesicher had one of the most diverse and entertaining filmographies around and many of those films are also available on DVD. -- Jonathan Doyle