PRINT September 1992


Tom Kalin's Swoon

ON MAY 21, 1924, Nathan Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb murdered Robert Franks, their 13-year-old neighbor, in the back of a rented pale-blue Willys-Knight while motoring along a busy Chicago highway. They then made a failed attempt to extort ransom money from the dead boy’s father, a wealthy entrepreneur. Eight days later both were arrested, brought in on circumstantial evidence—Leopold had inadvertently left his custom-made eyeglasses at the marsh where the naked and mutilated body had been secreted. Two days later the friends confessed. Subsequently tried and convicted, they were sentenced to life imprisonment plus 99 years.

Some 70 years after the fact, the force that the Leopold and Loeb case had at the time is difficult to grasp, given that tracking serial murder has become something of a national pastime. In 1924, the killing seized the public imagination with an intensity bordering on frenzy. It was reported and editorialized internationally in scrupulous detail, the New York Times alone publishing over 80 articles on it during the 50-day trial. Dubbed “the crime of the century,” over time it would inspire books, plays, and several feature films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 _Rope and now Tom Kalin’s Swoon, an elegant, icy re-creation of the murder and its aftershocks.

Both Leopold and Loeb were Jews and the sons of millionaires. Nineteen and eighteen respectively, both were also surprisingly youthful postgraduate students at the University of Chicago. News accounts initially seized on wealth and “overeducation” as explanations for the crime. The sense of bewilderment that two scions of privilege would kill for thrills, however, paled in significance, at least in the press, once it was revealed the two had been sexually intimate.

Perverts. Mental defectives. Vicious degenerates. Conservative venues such as the Hearst papers weighed the wages of sin with fiendish glee, but the response covered the political spectrum, as a headline in The Daily Worker made clear: “Two Sons of Multimillionaires Commit Atrocious Murder as Climax to Career of Perversion.” In his closing argument the pair’s lawyer, Clarence Darrow, proposed a constellation of mitigating circumstances: youth, education, the Nietzschean ideal of the Übermensch, chance, and even the Great War were to blame. For Darrow, the toxic alchemy of sodomy and philosophy may have nurtured perversion, but could never form the crux of his defense strategy. Indeed, the apparent hinge of his 12-hour summation appears as a virtual aside: “In the strange compact that the Court already knows about between these two boys . . . each was to yield something and each was to give something. Out of that compact and out of these diseased minds grew this terrible crime.”

Details of the “strange compact” weren’t disclosed in court, but word of a sex pact was leaked to the press. “The real dirt was coming now,” Meyer Levin writes in his 1956 “documentary novel” about the case, Compulsion (later made into yet another movie, with Orson Welles as Darrow). “There lay the sickness, finally frankly exposed before us. Was it so dreadful a thing?” A mere 30-odd years after the Wilde trials, the love that dared not, still could not—even if terms such as “perversion” told all to those versed in Freud and in the fine art of metaphor.

Where the trial itself was shrouded in allusion—Leopold’s calcified pineal gland, Loeb’s twitching and fainting—Swoon is suffused with imagery of disclosure, of making the hidden visible. On the side of historical evidence the film underscores Leopold’s work as a bird-watcher and his prison career as an X-ray technician, as well as both men’s sessions with alienists .and their oddly careless disposal of the body. Then, too, there are the horn-rimmed spectacles so crucial to breaking open the case, not to mention the various cameras that chronicled the duo much as Leopold classified his birds. On the side of poetry, Kalin imagines Loeb pulling a wedding band from his mouth, and Leopold, in a Cocteau-like gesture, plucking stiff little birds from his trousers. These images of revelation are critical, for in a very real sense the murder of Robert Franks made Leopold and Loeb manifest, allowed them, as it were, to come out to the world.

Swoon sizzles in whites and bottomless blacks. At the same time, the film’s ravishing esthetic attenuates the pair’s sadism, a central issue of the case. In the murder scene the jittery camera remains fixed on Loeb (the literal killer) and Leopold. At the moment of his death, Bobby Franks has no subjectivity. He’s reduced to flailing limbs and splashes of gore art-directed against Loeb’s face and the horrified Leopold’s hand.

To a certain degree, Kalin’s audacious debut suggests such other voguish gonzoisms as Jim Thompson reprints, Charles Manson T-shirts, the interest in John Wayne Gacy’s paintings on velvet, and midnight screenings of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Kalin’s interest in the case is informed more by radical historiography, however, than by subcultural fetishisms. Although Swoon is a somewhat sympathetic, at times romantic meditation, it is also emphatically a political coup de main. Above all else, this is a film about the contemporary notion of queerness, about a difference emerging today that has yet to be catalogued, contained, or conspicuously consumed. (Not that there aren’t noises from the advertising front—consider, for example, the Levi’s Silver Tab ad campaign, in which queer identity is as attainable as a pair of jeans.) Leopold and Loeb weren’t queer; they probably didn’t even think of themselves as falling under that then-new subject position “homosexual.” For Kalin it’s this very indeterminacy that fascinates, and that makes Swoon a film not so much about two queers as about the deconstruction of identity.

Queer is difference that’s liminal, not marginal, dialogic, not dialectic. In the narrower sense it means sexualities—or perhaps sex roles—as ambiguous processes rather than totalized identities, at least so far. It’s a bold and wholly imprecise word, one that reflects a radical sea change in the political vanguard’s conceptualizing of identity. To reclaim a degraded term like “queer” or “cunt” or “nigger ”is to take up a gauntlet thrown down by those who have historically, politically, and legally invoked them. It’s an assault on the boundaries of orthodoxy, a border challenge to an increasingly protean mainstream. The problem, of course, is how those willfully apart from civil society can finesse its rights, can be equal but never identical. This is the Gordian knot that makes Swoon into a moral rebus. Hewing to neither of the stock paradigms of gay signification—homosexuality as either marginal (deviant) or mainstream (life-style)—the film reaches back into history to a moment in which desire had yet to ossify into identity, a strategic move that untangles desire from both deviance and explanation.

At the same time, by attending so artfully, and intimately, to Leopold and Loeb’s relationship, the film needlessly constructs an ethical hierarchy that forces the question of which was the greater crime—the murder or the trial itself. Whatever the pair’s tortured logic—Nietzsche, or the unconscious certainty that homicide was a more tolerable crime than homosexuality—the death of Bobby Franks was brutal. The administered violence of the trial, in the court and in the press, was clearly as base. In the end, the two violences had nothing, and absolutely everything, in common.

Given the ongoing representation wars—state-sponsored censorship on the one hand, protest on the other—Swoon is brazen. Debates over “positive” versus “negative” gay images in Hollywood movies like Basic Instinct unhappily evoke similar internecine battles in ’70s feminist film theory and criticism, an important and thoroughly wretched consequence of which had too many feminists discovering passion and politics only in Hollywood history (leaving porn to cultural warriors like Andrea Dworkin and the avant-garde to languish). Swoon takes on the thorny point of good/bad imagery with a vengeance. By focusing on two murderers, Kalin forecloses the possibility that his subjects can be claimed as either sentimental figures or mere victims. His film isn’t about the rehabilitation of this pair of killers, only their desire for each other.

The Leopold-and-Loeb case was not only a prototype for the modern construction of homosexuality as deviance, but a cruel instance of the heterosexual will to blindness. There are men who love one another and men who murder, and then there are men who murder and love one another, but not necessarily because of that love. Leopold and Loeb imagined themselves outsiders, and so they were. Their great mistake wasn’t their desire but the idea that murder is aberrant, rather than essential to the very fabric of the society they so obviously despised. In Swoon, desire is always queer it’s murder that’s bland.

Manohla Dargis is a writer who lives in New York.