In 1924 Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb committed the crime of the century. Or at least they tried. They were students at the University of Chicago and they kidnapped and killed a 14 year old boy called Bobby Franks in an attempt to carry off the perfect crime. Their endeavour was months in the planning. They wanted to show that their attention to detail was proof of their intellectual superiority. However, leaving a set of eyeglasses next to the body that had been bought by only three people in the entire city, one being Leopold, is hardly apex predator territory. I’ll spare you the details of poor Bobby Franks’ demise except to tell you that both men were convicted of his murder. Loeb was killed in prison in 1936 and Leopold was eventually released on parole in 1958. I’ve thought a lot about this crime this week, particularly in the light of the decision not to allow Kenneth Noye, one of the men behind the Brinks-MAT robbery, to move to an open prison. Leopold was granted parole despite being sentenced to life, plus 99 years. Noye was sentenced to a minimum of 16 years. Parole for him seems further away than ever after this week’s ruling.
The murder of Bobby Franks is famous for several reasons. Firstly and most importantly because the murder of a 14 year old boy is not the crime of the century, it is an utterly reprehensible act. In court Leopold and Loeb were defended by Clarence Darrow who would go on to the appear in the Scopes Monkey trial, the inspiration for Inherit the Wind, the following year. Anyone who saw Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Darrow in this year’s Old Vic revival of David W Rintels’ 1974 play Clarence Darrow would know why the two chose him to represent them. Darrow argued passionately against the death penalty in what would become known as the greatest speech of his career. It was billed as the trial of the century. I wasn’t there for that but I was there for Spacey’s portrayal and spines definitely tingled. His plea was successful and a jail term for the two men was issued instead.
The main reason that poor Bobby Franks’ death is so famous is because it was immortalised by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film Rope. Hitchcock’s version of the story was not the first, nor the last. But it is by far the best. Patrick Hamilton wrote the stage play in 1929 and Hitchcock adapted it for his silver screen classic starring James Stewart, and John Dall who would go on to appear in Kubrick’s Spartacus. It is a masterclass in film. Set in real time its techniques have been copied by filmmakers ever since, most of whom have had the luxury of using digital rather than actual film. In Rope Hitchcock shot 10 minute sequences, moving the camera from actor to actor. The camera would then rest, usually on the dot of 10 minutes, on an inanimate object thus allowing him to restart the sequence without the sense of having cut the action. In 1948 a reel of film lasted, yes you guessed it, for 10 minutes. In the 80 minute Rope there are only 10 shots. Hitchcock really was that good.
The best homage to Rope that I have seen comes in the most unlikely form of the BBC Two cult classic show Psychoville released in 2009. Creators Steve Pemberton and Reece Sheersmith are self-confessed Hitchcock nuts. Episode 4 of series 1 is titled Give ’em enough rope and it is a brilliantly affectionate tribute to Hitchcock’s genius. It is also deeply disturbing. But then so was the murder of Bobby Franks and fortunately Hitchcock, and the creators of Psychoville, chose not to have their on-screen victim as a young boy. Despite the near 25 year gap from the real murder to the release of Rope many US towns chose not to screen the film even though it passed the censor’s sniff test. When it comes to the murder of a child the notion of too soon takes on a different meaning.
Which brings me back to Kenneth Noye and the astonishing intervention in his case this week by the Justice Secretary. Noye, as we have seen, is serving a life sentence for the murder of Stephen Cameron. He was denied parole but the board recommended he be transferred to an open prison. Fewer than 1% of these recommendations have been overturned by a sitting secretary of state in the last 5 years. Forty out of approximately 6,000 as it turns out and Noye’s case was the latest addition to that list.
In 1956 a Chicago Daily News journalist called Meyer Levin wrote Compulsion, a novel based on Bobby Franks’ murder. The book was later made into a film starring Orson Welles and Dean Stockwell and was released a year after Leopold was set free. Leopold petitioned the court to get the film blocked on the grounds that it, and the book on which it was based, would negatively impact his reputation.
I would love to have been in court to hear Clarence Darrow make the speech of his life at the trial of the century. But not nearly as much as I wish I could have been there when the court told Leopold that having confessed to being involved in the crime of the century his reputation was not really a consideration.
Leopold died in 1971 and his body went to medical science. His eyes were used to restore the sight of a blind woman. Ironic when you consider that the discovery of his glasses at the crime scene was what got him arrested. Bobby Franks and his murderers were teenagers when these events changed all their lives irrevocably. Had it not been for Clarence Darrow’s intervention they’d all have died as teenagers.
I’d urge you to watch Rope as it’s a brilliant film. But I’d rather you read about Bobby Franks. He deserves much more than to be remembered as the inspiration for a film.