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'Numbers' Joins List of Dramas Based on Loeb-Leopold Murder Case

April 19, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The grisly plot of the new Sandra Bullock film "Murder by Numbers" is torn from the pages of both American and cinema history.

Two brilliant but twisted teenage boys, played by Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt, commit the "perfect murder." Then, to prove their mental superiority, they play cat-and-mouse games with the police.

The movie puts a contemporary twist on a crime that resulted in an early "trial of the century"--the infamous 1924 case revolving around wealthy Chicago teenagers Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, who murdered Bobby Franks, a 13-year-old from a prominent family, just for the thrill.

The crime captured the attention of the world during the Roaring '20s. The driving force of the pair, Loeb was the 18-year-old son of a retired Sears Roebuck vice president. He was obsessed with crime. The youngest graduate ever of the University of Michigan, he read crime novels, planned crimes and committed them. He wanted to commit the perfect murder just to prove it could be done.

Leopold, 19, was the son of a box manufacturer and was interested in ornithology and philosophy. He had a stormy relationship with Loeb. But despite their arguments, Loeb had a firm hold over Leopold.

In 1924, Leopold was a student at the University of Chicago and was scheduled to attend Harvard Law School that fall. At the time of the murder, he was already the nation's leading authority on the Kirtland warbler, an endangered songbird. Leopold was also an advocate of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, especially his criticism of moral codes.

Before "Murder by Numbers," the Leopold and Loeb case had been the subjects of plays, novels and movies.

In 1929, British writer Patrick Hamilton ("Gaslight") penned the play "Rope," about two Oxford undergraduates who kill a third boy. Hamilton, though, denied the Leopold-Loeb case inspired his play. Alfred Hitchcock was interested in transforming the play into a movie and finally brought the story to the big screen in 1948. "Rope" was Hitchcock's first film in Technicolor and is best known for being shot in continuous eight-minute takes.

Hitchcock turned "Rope" back into an American story. Farley Granger and John Dall play two brilliant young men who strangle a friend with a rope and then stuff him into a big wooden chest. For a thrill, they then invite friends and family over for a party. Throughout the party, the chest remains in the living room. One of the guests, the boys' former headmaster (James Stewart), outwits his former charges and guesses their crime.

"Compulsion" also was a fictionalized version of the Leopold and Loeb case. Meyer Levin wrote the best-selling novel in 1956. "Compulsion" became a Broadway play the next year and a film in 1959. In this film version, Dean Stockwell played the Leopold character, renamed Judd Steiner, and Bradford Dillman was Loeb's alter ego, Artie Strauss. Orson Welles played the defense attorney Jonathan Wilk.

Directed by Richard Fleischer, the film received generally positive reviews and was a modest box office success. Leopold, though, said that reading the book made him "physically sick" and made him feel "terrific shame." He also was angered because he felt the book depicted the murder in sexual terms. He ended up filing a suit against the producers of the film, but it was dismissed 11 years later.

"Swoon," released in 1992, examined the Leopold and Loeb case from a homoerotic point of view. Daniel Schlachet and Craig Chester play the infamous killers in this low-budget, black-and-white independent production directed by Tom Kalin.

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