In 'Swoon,' Leopold, Loeb and their murderous love

December 02, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Perhaps no movie speaks more eloquently to the changing of the times than Tom Kalin's "Swoon." This is a story that's been told many a time, but almost always from a mainstream perspective.

Its hero is always the eloquent Clarence Darrow, that arch liberal and beaming humanitarian, who by the eloquence of his utterances and the passion of his conviction manages to convince a hanging jury in the Chicago of the '20s to show some mercy to two twisted and misguided young men who have committed a revolting crime. The killers are almost always minor players in their own story, earnest young intellectuals who have taken the wrong path, whether enacted by bland Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell in "Compulsion" or foppish John Dall and Farley Granger in "Rope."

In Kalin's view, Darrow is a minor character, a folksy boob not even worth identifying except in the credits. Instead, Kalin focuses on Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, intellectuals, child-killers and homosexuals -- particularly homosexuals.

The movie, which opens today at the Charles, is a part of what's being called the new gay cinema: It's a stylized, if claustrophobic and somewhat threadbare, re-creation of their relationship that demonstrates how its hidden eddies of lust and envy drove the two to commit the most grotesque of murders -- Bobby Franks was 13 years old when bludgeoned to death in the back seat of a rented car by Nathan Leopold, who was 18, and, like his friend Richard, a brilliant college student at the University of Chicago and from a wealthy family.

When Meyer Levin's "Compulsion" was filmed, it turned the event into an anti-capital punishment crusade; Hitchcock, in "Rope" was more fascinated by the intellectual underpinnings of the act, how a fascination with Nietzsche's wilder ravings spooked the two youths to murder as a statement of superiority.

Kalin could care less about either of these elements.

Instead, he reclaims to the two their homosexual identity; he makes them a part of gay culture, for good or bad. The killers, brilliantly enacted by Daniel Schlachet as the beautiful but passive Loeb and Craig Chester as the more dynamic and aggressive Leopold, are the whole story. Kalin makes us feel the utter totality of the relationship, how the two young men (pictured explicitly as physical lovers, though I believe the physical consummation of the relationship has never been proven) goaded and nudged each other to the crime, and then watched in befuddlement as it fell apart.

The murder itself is inescapable: Kalin forces us to watch it and refuses to turn Leopold and Loeb into martyrs. They were the authors of their own fates. Nor does he sentimentalize them: They were despicable, particularly the icy Leopold, who clung to his reserve through trial and 33 years of imprisonment and close to 20 years of post-release freedom. (Loeb was murdered after 10 years in prison.)

The wider point, of course, is that in an oppressive society, the oppressed, with no other forms of expression open to them, are likely to express themselves pathologically, as here. Yet what remains about the film in the mind isn't the wider point at all, but the sense of clammy gloom. It gave me the willies.



Starring Daniel Schlachet and Craig Chester.

Directed by Tom Kalin.

Released by Fine Line.

Rated R.


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