The Horror Honeys: The Perfect Crime, the Perfect Criminals...

The Perfect Crime, the Perfect Criminals...

True Crime History in Horror Films with Revenge Honey Linnie!

Is there such a thing as "the perfect crime?" Wealthy teenage intellectuals Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb set out to prove there was, and in doing so, became two of the most prolific murderers in American history. So join us, as we look through the history and pop culture influence of a notorious pair of thrill killers, Leopold and Loeb...

The Real Leopold and Loeb

Young men Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were known among the wealthy of Chicago for their intelligence, as well as their movie-star good looks. Loeb, despite having graduated from University of Michigan at 17-years-old, was disinterested in work, preferring to read crime novels all day. Leopold, a child prodigy with an IQ of 210, was planning to attend Harvard Law, having already graduated college by the age of nineteen. However, Nathan Leopold became convinced that he was a "superman," by Nietzsche's definition, which meant he was a man so intellectually superior to those around him, he wasn't bound by morals or society's laws. Once he convinced Richard Loeb that he, too, was a "superman," they decided to test the boundaries of their abilities by committing the perfect crime... a murder.

Richard Loeb, lawyer Clarence Darrow, & Nathan Leopold
Leopold and Loeb decided to abduct and murder Loeb's second-cousin, a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks. They picked up Franks on his way home from school, killed him the car, and then concealed the body near the Pennsylvania Railroad, after attempting to remove any distinguishing characteristics. Once they believed they had hidden the body, they called Franks' family and demanded a ransom. However, Franks' body was discovered fairly quickly, and because Leopold wouldn't stop talking to reporters and police about his, "theory of the crime," it wasn't long before officers placed the blame for Franks' murder on the two men.

Robert "Bobby" Franks, 1910-1924
One surprising way in which the Leopold and Loeb trial has become historically significant is that the duo was represented by Clarence Darrow, one of the most noted defenders of civil rights in legal history. Darrow delivered a twelve hour long summation at the trial, focusing on the indignity of the death penalty, and the lack of humane methods of punishment in the American justice system. In one of the most impassioned speeches in legal history, Darrow concluded by saying,

"I feel that I should apologize for the length of time I have taken. This case may not be as important as I think it is, and I am sure I do not need to tell this court, or to tell my friends that I would fight just as hard for the poor as for the rich. If I should succeed, my greatest reward and my greatest hope will be that for the countless unfortunates who must tread the same road in blind childhood that these poor boys have trod—that I have done something to help human understanding, to temper justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love."

Leopold and Loeb were spared the death penalty, and sentenced to life imprisonment, with an additional 99 years attached for the kidnapping of young Bobby Franks. In 1936, Richard Loeb was murdered by a fellow inmate when he refused to succumb to his advances. After 33 years in prison, Nathan Leopold was released in 1958, at which point he moved to Puerto Rico and married a widow. He died of a heart attack in 1971.

(All information on Leopold and Loeb from For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age Chicago (2009) by Simon Baatz)

Leopold & Loeb in Film and Television

Rope (1948)

Without a doubt, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope is the best known adaptation of Leopold and Loeb case. It is also one of Hitchcock's most controversial films, in that it directly implied a homosexual relationship between the main characters at a time when such things were implicitly banned. In Rope, Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) believe they are smarter than their friend David (Dick Hogan), and decide to kill him to prove they are intellectually superior. Then, to add insult to permanent injury, they throw a dinner party with David's body front and center, jammed in an old chest. The bulk of the film focuses on the dinner party, as Brandon and Philip's professor, played by Jimmy Stewart, starts to suspect something is amiss. Based on play by Patrick Hamilton, Rope is eerie, tense, and brilliantly acted, while still remaining faithful to the true story.

True Crime Rating: 5 cocky bastards out of 5

Compulsion (1959)

Based on the novel by Meyer Levin, Richard Fleischer's Compulsion is the runner-up for best movie version of the Leopold and Loeb case. Here, Judd (Dean Stockwell) and Artie (Bradford Dillman) are our Leopold and Loeb stand-ins, but unlike Rope, Judd and Artie kill a child, which is more accurate, and more upsetting. Compulsion is also memorable for featuring Orson Welles as Jonathan Wilk, the Clarence Darrow stand-in, and having (at the time) the longest movie monologue in film history. For a time, there was a rumor of a remake in which River Phoenix was meant to play the role of Judd. I'll never stop being bummed that we didn't get to see it.

True Crime Rating: 4 1/2 cocky bastards out of 5

Darrow (1991) (TV Movie)

This television movie starring a pre-Swimming with Sharks/The Usual Suspects Kevin Spacey focused more on civil rights attorney Clarence Darrow than Leopold and Loeb, but given the importance of the duo to Darrow's career, they still play a major part in the film. The movie is a fascinating portrait of one of America's greatest legal minds, and a great glimpse at Spacey's skill before he was the Kevin Spacey we know now. Interesting fact: Just this year, Spacey performed a second run of the one-man show, Clarence Darrow, at the famous Old Vic theatre in London.

True Crime Rating: 4 cocky bastards out of 5

Swoon (1992)

Tom Kalin's Swoon is, without a doubt, the most accurate adaption of the Leopold and Loeb murder, but because it was made in 1992, it wasn't bound by the Hayes Code. Swoon spends more time on the details of Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet) and Nathan Leopold's (Craig Chester) romantic relationship, and as such, Kalin's film is concerned one example of the "New Queer Cinema" of the early 90s. Filmed in black and white, Swoon is a beautiful movie... if not the most convincingly acted.

True Crime Rating: 3 1/2 cocky bastards out of 5

Funny Games (1997) and (2007)

Michael Haneke's Funny Games is our lone example of films "loosely based" on Leopold and Loeb. Less a biopic and more a commentary on the over-saturation of media in society and our resulting numbness to violence, Funny Games still draws easy parallels in that our main characters kill for fun, just to see what they can get away with. While the original remains a benchmark of truly brutal and unenjoyable cinema, Haneke's own English-language remake never felt as vital or as fresh as its predecessor (keeping in mind, Haneke called both films "violent, but pointless"). Since both films are only inspired by the original case and not faithful adaptations, we'll rate them on quality and not accuracy.

Not-Quite-True Crime Rating for Funny Games ('97): 5 cocky bastards out of 5
Not-Quite-True Crime Rating for Funny Games ('07): 3 cocky bastards out of 5

Murder by Numbers (2002)

Eesh. While Barbet Schroeder's Murder by Numbers has its fans, and a cast including Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling, and Michael Pitt (dude... try a romantic comedy or something... I'm legit afraid of you) is undeniably stellar, something about this movie has never rung true for me. While an obvious attempt to modernize the Leopold and Loeb case, the addition of the female detective struck me as a cheap means of negating the relationship between the pair in reality. Additionally, a rift is formed between the pair when they both start lusting over the same female classmate, which also annoyed the crap out of me. Murder by Numbers may have its charms, but its teen-movie subplots render it the least of all the Leopold and Loeb films.

True Crime Rating: 2 cocky bastards out of 5

Which is YOUR favorite Leopold & Loeb movie?
Who would you like to see featured next in the series?
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