This true crime movie less ‘Swoon’ and more smirk

Taking the 1914 opera “The Only Girl” song “Fresh, Corksey and Bunkie” as a theme song for their DVD and movie, director writer Tom Kalin sets the mood for his 1992 movie “Swoon.” You can imagine things won’t end well.

“My blood froze in my heart,” are the first word’s spoken by a handsome man. There are women–two white and one black, floating fashion heads in cloche hats with long strands of pearls of which the bottom loop we do not see. And there are men, too. One black, two white. Drawing back, we see that these young men and women are the actors in some movie.

Bachelors don’t learn a bit of sense from their married friends’ experience!

They just stick they head into the noose

Like a silly sentimental goose.

Each one thinks the other man’s a fool!

He’s the one exception to the rule!

He’s says, “I’m happy when I’m wed!”

Later on he makes it “when I’m dead!”

For when you’ve got the ball and chain around your ankle

and the stoney-hearted jailer is your wife, there’s no virtue in repentance.

You have got to serve the sentence, which is “labor hard for life!”

It is, as you might guess, the white men we shall folow as they wander into some ruined part of the city, hiding near a field of weeds and what seems to be a deserted factory or wearhouse. One runs his hand through the other’s bangs and they kiss. From the mouth, one takes a simple wedding band and they walk arm and arm.

The two men are Richard Leob (Daniel Schlachet) and Nathan Leopold Jr. (Craig Chester) and, their crimes, Kalin assures us didn’t begin with the deed they were best known for: the murder of a young boy. Narrated by Richard, this movie looks at the homosexual relationship between the two men.

Filmed in black and white, with a mixture of archival footage, the film won the Caligari Film Award for Best Feature at the Berlin International Film Festival and at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie won a Cinematography Award. Part of the New Queer Cinema, the film doesn’t feature nudity, but makes clear that Leopold and Leob were lovers and associated with other parts of the upper class fringe such as well-dressed transvestites. Kalin drops names of famous homosexuals such as Oscar Wilde (surely educated young men like these would have known, read and appreciated him) and includes segments about Leob’s enslavement fantasies.

Leopold and Leob have been the topics of movies before, most notably in the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play “Rope” which later became an Alfred Hitchcock film with James Stewart in 1948.  Leopold and Loeb were two wealthy law students at the University of Chicago who decided to murder the 14-year-old Robert “Bobby” Franks on May 21, 1924. Franks was a neighbor and (second) cousin of Leob so it was easy to get him into their rented car. Although the two had spent over half a year planning their perfect crime, the two made many miscalculations.

Both would eventually be sentence to life for the kidnapping and murder; they avoided the death penalty most likely because they were legally minors–both being under 21 at the time of the murder. Loeb would be killed in prison in 1936. Leopold would be released in 1958, move to Puerto Rico and marry. He died in 1971 from a heart attack.

In 1958, Meyer Levin’s 1940 fictional novel “Compulsion” was made into a film.

Kalin’s account is tasteful, but it lacks any real tension of a crime thriller or deep psychological examination of these two troubled men who only wanted a thrill. We get the sense of their intellectual life and their ennui, but this mannered movie portrayal doesn’t give the passionate drive that might make one truly swoon. More than a “Swoon,” this movie is a simper or smirk.

Kalin’s most recent project is the 2007 movie “Savage Grace” with Julianne Moore and in 2011 he was a Guggenheim Fellow. You might be familiar with Craig Chester who was in the 2007 movie “Save Me” and wrote and directed the 2005 “Adam & Steve.”

“Swoon” is available on DVD from Netflix or for purchase on Amazon.

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