NEW YORK -- "Swoon," a chilling film portrait of two of the century's most notorious murderers, is a project that, aptly enough, began 22 years ago with a photograph.
As a 7-year-old growing up in Chicago, something stopped Tom Kalin as he leafed through an old illustrated history of crime and spied the cool, defiant faces of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
"It was just a cheap little book, but I remember being curious about them even then," recalled the writer-director. "They seemed to be unlike any of the other criminals I read about in the book, so articulate and intelligent.
"Yet people would shudder and say to me, 'They killed a child.' In my mother's generation, they would scare a kid who was being bad by telling him that Leopold and Loeb would get him, like the bogeyman. I came to feel as I got older that there had to be more to the story, and all I found when I started to look was more rumor, bias and euphemism."
There is certainly more to "Swoon," Mr. Kalin's striking and provocative examination of the infamous 1924 case, which deconstructs all the usual assumptions made about Leopold and Loeb and ranges far beyond glib pop psychiatry. Like "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," "Swoon" plunges us into the dark recessess of the murderers' minds. In the process, a killing that still appalls decades later is plausibly explained and some pertinent questions of prejudice are explored.
The movie, which created a stir on the film-festival circuit for months, disdains convention -- just like Leopold and Loeb. Here, in an oddly effective blend of swooning eroticism and cool analysis, love and death are inextricably entwined .
"If you were using today's terminology, Richard Loeb was a sociopath," said Mr. Kalin, who began working on "Swoon" in 1989 and shot it in 14 frenzied days in New York last year. "He was charming and seductive, but there was an element of madness in him. Nathan Leopold was in love with Richard in an obsessive way. He wanted to be closer to Richard in any way he could."
The story of what they did to attain that union inspired Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" (1948) and Richard Fleischer's "Compulsion" (1959). Leopold and Loeb were only 18 themselves when they randomly selected 13-year-old Bobby Franks, of Chicago, as their victim. After kidnapping and killing the boy, then hiding the body, they demanded ransom from the wealthy Franks family. An incriminating pair of glasses at the murder scene led to the pair's arrest and the police soon broke down their flimsy alibis.
"They had no need for money, of course," said Mr. Kalin. "Their families were rich. They had no reason to kill the child. You could say that they both got what they wanted: Richard wanted to be a famous criminal and Nathan wanted their love to be public."
In the sensational trial that followed their arrest, the great Clarence Darrow defended the confessed killers. They were spared the gallows and given life plus 99 years after Darrow mustered all of his storied eloquence to plead that their homosexuality was unassailable proof of insanity. Therefore, he reasoned, they deserved clemency.
While he thinks the case "helped to introduce the myth that homosexuality is pathological," Mr. Kalin concedes that there is a certain irony in this argument. "I think if they had been heterosexual they probably would have been hung, although the judge later claimed that he spared them because of their age, not their homosexuality. I think the public at the time was in such a bloodlust that they demanded the gallows. But it turned out that prison was a greater punishment."
Loeb was knifed to death in a prison brawl 10 years into his sentence and Leopold lived to earn parole in 1957. He moved to Puerto Rico, worked as a medical technician and died in 1971. In an early precursor of the cult of criminal-as-media-celebrity, Leopold wrote his autobiography, "Life Plus 99 Years," while in prison.
"It only got a very limited publication," noted Mr. Kalin. "He was very disappointed."
Mr. Kalin's command of the facts of the case is encyclopedic. He has researched every available archive, including the 2,000-page trial transcript, newsreels and press clippings from the often-hysterical coverage of the case. A video artist who made AIDs education films before he scraped up the $1 million budget for "Swoon," Mr. Kalin exudes a driven intensity when he talks about the case and its implications.
Both "Rope" and the fictionalized "Compulsion" were filmed when Hollywood censored itself with the Hayes Code. The gay sex scenes in "Swoon" would have been unthinkable in their era, and Mr. Kalin believes that omission made for a fatal limitation in understanding the killers.
"I don't think 'Rope' really had a lot to do with the actual case, and in 'Compulsion' you get to dabble briefly in this dandified relationship," he suggested.
In "Compulsion," "once Orson Welles comes on (as the Darrow figure) the film shifts into his territory, and what there is about sex in the book (by Meyer Levin) was completely excised in the movie. Darrow is saying, 'We have contained this menace. We have locked them up forever.' 'Swoon' doesn't do that. It shows how this kind of thing is spilling out everywhere."