GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Strand Releasing, 1992
Starring: Craig Chester, Daniel Schlachet, Michael Kirby, Michael Stumm, Ron Vawter
Unrated, 90 minutes
of the Century
The early 90s was a fertile time for independent queer cinema. Gregg Arraki was paying homage to Jean-Luc Godard while making agitprop comic in The Living End, and Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) was channeling Jean Genet in Poison. In perhaps the most avant-garde of the lot, the Leopold/Loeb murder case was revisited by writer/director Tom Kalin. His film, Swoon, is making its first appearance on DVD.
In 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two young men from wealthy Jewish families, kidnapped and murdered a 14 year old boy named Bobby Franks. Their motive was to commit the perfect crime. Loeb was fascinated by criminal behavior, and Leopold subscribed to Nietzsche's theories of the Superman. Their intellect, they believed, rendered them above the law. They were defended by Clarence Darrow, who came out of retirement for the opportunity to air his objections to capital punishment. Anti-Semitism ran rampant in both the prosecution's case and the media's coverage. The newspapers covered every lurid detail. But, except for an obscure mention of a mysterious "pact" between the two men, the newspapers failed to report that they were partners in bed as well as in crime.
Arrogant intellect was the motive in Alfred Hitchcock's 1947 film, Rope. The motive became more about mere "thrills" in 1958's Compulsion, a sensationalized melodrama distinguished mainly by Orson Welles' performance as Clarence Darrow. In Tom Kalin's controversial Swoon, the boys' sexuality is brought to the forefront and made the focus of the movie.
Swoon opens with a bizarre tableau in which Richard Loeb and his friends recite passages from Sacher-Masoch's paean to S&M, Venus in Furs, while Fellini-esque flappers glide past in the background. Then, walking together through ruined buildings, Richard and Nathan smash bottles while a hand-held camera records their childlike revels. Excited, they duck into a corner and kiss. Richard removes two rings from his mouth and places one on Nathan's finger. A voice-over, describing their crimes, is intercut with newsreel footage from the 1920s and camera pans across their nude forms in bed.
Their dysfunctional relationship, as presented here, is complex and rife with ambivalence. Actual court records report that Nathan was a willing accomplice in exchange for sexual favors, which Richard provided - sometimes reluctantly. "I'll do what you want," Nathan says after they exchanged rings earlier, and a rather blase' Richard replies, "And I'll do what you want." We watch Richard, relaxed and smiling in bed, calling out "I suppose you want your payment now" before giving himself in payment for crimes committed. Later, as they prepare to bury the murdered boy, Nathan stops to kiss Richard, who at first returns the kiss and then pushes him away. Tenderness alternates with violence. During key moments a whip will crack on the soundtrack. Nathan tells a psychiatrist that he fantasizes himself as a king who buys "Dickie" as a slave. When arrested, both blames the murder on the other.
Kalin is less concerned with the killers' embrace of Nietzsche and dwells instead on their stormy relationship. At no point does the film suggest that the murder was committed because the men were gay. Instead, it illustrates how one person can control another by using sex as a weapon. Nathan is the weak partner and Richard controls him through giving and denying sexual favors. As envisioned by the director, their scenes together are both erotic and disturbing. Daniel Schlachet, as Richard Loeb, resembles Cary Grant and his beauty renders his evil all the more chilling. Craig Chester, in his first (and best) film role, complements Schlachet perfectly as his doormat. The electricity between the two leads is such that we are both repulsed and awed.
To its credit, the film doesn't shy away from showing the murder. The sheer pointlessness of the act is conveyed and the audience isn't manipulated into seeing the killers as poor victims of society. Richard emerges as a complete sociopath, albeit a very charming one, and Nathan is his willing acolyte.
Filmed in grainy black and white, Swoon might strike some as being overly "artsy." The visuals are filled with crucial information that can be missed by an inattentive viewer. The photography and the editing is carefully calculated for artistic effect. Those unfamiliar with the case might find it confusing on a first viewing but this isn't CourtTV. Swoon's unconventional narrative challenges its audience and those willing to go the mile will find many buried insights and pleasures. A virtual catalogue of filmic effects, Swoon will new remind viewers of a time when queer filmmakers were pushing the envelope rather than trying to rule the box office with safe, accessible films. Kalin also pays a visual homage to Hitchcock, re-creating the famous close-up kiss between James Stewart and Grace Kelly (including the same dialogue) from Rear Window. (See photo above.)
Those who are politically correct may object to its unflattering look at male-to-male love. But, then again, Bonnie and Clyde is hardly a healthy expression of heterosexual coupling either. This is a part of history, and hence fair game for filmmakers. Swoon is not for everyone, but it's worth a look for its merits as cinema and for its portrayal of the killers' sexual dynamics.
The DVD includes a commentary with the director, producer, cinematographer, and actor Craig Chester. This commentary is actually worth listening to, unlike many others. That, and the film's crisp widescreen transfer, make this minor classic a keeper.