DOASKDOTELL DRAMA, MUSICAL OR PLAY REVIEW of Never the Sinner, film Swoon, Murder by Numbers  (and In Cold Blood, Rope)


Author:  Logan, John

Title: Never the Sinner

Where seen: Actors Theater of Minnesota, Loring Playhouse, Minneapolis, March 2001

Director: Gregg peterson

Performance time:  2 hrs


Recording available:

Relevance to doaskdotell: homosexuality and “character”

Review: Drama review of John Logan’s Never the Sinner

Never the Sinner, by John Logan, produced by the Actors Theater of Minnesota, performed at the Loring Playhouse in Minneapolis March-April 2001, directed by Gregg Peterson


This non-fiction play is based on the abbreviated trial of the infamous Leopold-Lobb “thrill” murder in Chicago in 1924.


The subject matter will be revolting to some. Two homosexual “spoiled rich kids” get carried away with Nietzchean philosophy (as they see it, quite contrary to The Gay Science), their own narcissism and “philosophical superiority” to murder a little boy “for nothing” (perhaps out of compulsiveness or “harming obsession”) as the defense attorney (Jay Nickerson) claims.  It takes a while for it to sink in that the fact of their crimes is irreversible.   Of course, it’s easy to say that the story panders to the worst stereotypes that can be imagined about gays, when in fact the incident is very much an anomaly.


The technique of script-writing uses encapsulation and flashbacks, tracing the discovery of the young men’s relationship, and how they talk themselves into committing the crime, which is shown essentially in pantomime.  The sets are very simple, with placeholders for the press, the prosecutor and defense, and “the boys” in court, without the hanging judge. The gratuitous nature of the crime and the incredulity of an insanity plea make a good case for the death penalty (as it would have for Damher) but they do wind up with life + 99 years. At one point, the prosecutor justifies the death penalty in a circular fashion, by referring to the doughboys that our country sacrificed in the carnage of World War I.


The “boys,” always fully dressed in tweed suits, come across as all-American.  The affection between them comes across as clearly wholesome, not really sexual.   Loeb (Nathan Suprenant) comes across as more exuberant than the initially nerdy Nathan Leopold (Stephen Frethem), who, lost in his intellectual world of ornithology, could hardly have conceived of the crime; but as the play progresses, Leopold comes across as forceful as Loeb, and turns out to be almost as amoral.  Frethem seems almost too robust to portray the supposedly skinny, “sissy-boy” Loeb.


There was a book about this case called Compulsion by Meyer Levin, with a film by that title, directed by Richard Fleischer from 20th Century Fox in 1959, 


Another brutal crime film released in 1967, In Cold Blood, based on a two-man crime (against a whole family) in Kansas.  I saw that film my first weekend while on pass in Army basic training in early May, 1968, right after a run-in with the downtown Columbia, S.C. (Ft. Jackson) “uniform police.” The film is in black and white CinemaScope, and was directed by Richard Brooks (Columbia). It is based on a famous book by Truman Capote, whose work itself generated two films around 2005 (below).


Review of 2005 film Capote is at this link.


In 2002, Sandra Bullock produced (and starred as a detective in) a film with a similar story, Murder by Numbers (Warner Brothers/Castle Rock) in which the two privileged young men are played by Ryan Gosling (the extrovert) and Michael Pitt. Oitt’s character makes the statement in a class debate: “Freedom is a crime because it first thinks of itself instead of the group,” and then Pitt later tells Bullock that he enjoys taking “indefensible positions: (left-wing or not). The victim here is a young woman, and the boys are supposedly openly heterosexual, with an erotic tension between them developing during the movie. There are a couple of confrontations between the two boys where Gosling’s character seems to be teasing Pitt’s into surrendering into an intimate relationship; one wishes they had become lovers and stopped at that that.The film was compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and has a climax remind one of Vertigo (the greatest film ever made!)


Swoon (1992, Strand/Killer Films, dir. Tom Kalin, 82 min, R) is a film dramatization of the 1924 Leopold-Loeb case. It is filmed in stark black-and-white to keep a certain level of abstraction, but the “gay couple” seems more repulsive in this film than in the stage rendition reviewed above. They went on a crime spree before the murder, and gloated about not being caught. When they are suspects and then during the trial, the society around them shows its usual phobia of what is different. The men are called "inverts" and "perverts." At one point there is an animated anatomical explanation of their "pathology." At one point, the testimony recalls to mind the crimes of Jeff Dahmer in 1991. The film compares the crimes to other crimes of the day, associated with Prohibition. The film dwaddles on rather simple things, like typewriter keys. It seems amazing that they do not get the death penalty, which at the time was hanging, as they are considered deficient or "insane." Like Dahmer, Loeb would be "executed" by a prisoner (his body did not get extreme unction because "he's Jewish"), but Leopold would eventually get out. His book would be called Life Plus Ninety Nine Years.      


A famous Alfred Hitchcock film with this theme is Rope (1948, Warner Bros., 80 min) in which two men (James Stewart, John Dall) decide to murder another young man and hide his body in an apartment just to see what it feels like and express their superiority. A disturbing notion to be sure. The film is shot in one continuous take, and is famous for that reason. Later critics would consider the two young men to be homosexual, although that could not be made explicit in 1948. If so, it is not a good reflection on the gay male community, so I tend to discount this claim.


Related films:  Capote, Infamous

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