Based on Meyer Levin’s novel, two precocious graduate students persuade themselves they are so intelligent that they can commit violent crimes to prove their superiority.
In 1924 in Chicago at night Arthur A. Strauss (Bradford Dillman) waits outside a window and has Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) come out with his portable typewriter. They get in a car, and Artie drives. Judd pulls out a flask and drinks to the perfect crime. Artie refers to his wealthy fraternity brothers and laughs. He tells Judd he should have left his second-hand typewriter alone. Judd says it was the first time, but next time will be better. Artie says that Judd agreed to take orders from him and wants to be commanded. He takes a drink. Judd says he will as long as Artie keeps his part of the agreement. They see a man hitchhiking on the road, and Artie nearly hits him as he speeds on. Artie stops the car and gets stuck in the mud. He tells Judd to drive, and they change places. The man asks if they were trying to kill somebody. Artie tells Judd that the man is asking for it, and he orders him to give it to him. Judd drives back, and Artie tells him to hit him. Judd tries to drive into the man, but he manages to jump out of the way of the car. Judd drives on and says they almost killed him. Artie says he is a drunk and that no one would care. Judd says it would have been murder. Artie says he tried it because he felt like it. He laughs.
Judd tells Artie they are home, and Artie plays at shooting Judd with his hand. Artie laughs thinking about the fraternity brothers running around asking who it was. Judd wants to talk about the drunk on the road, but Artie says to forget it. He will get another crack at him some night when he is alone. Judd asks if he was fooling about there being a next time. Judd says he will do anything he says. Artie says he wants to do something very dangerous that will get the attention of more people. Judd wants to do something together that is brilliant, the true test of a superior intellect with every detail worked out. Artie says it has to be truly dangerous, but he is afraid that Judd will panic again. Judd says he won’t and that it has to be done as an experiment with no emotional involvement. They agree they can do it together. Artie goes into his house.
Judd comes home, and his older brother Max Steiner (Richard Anderson) asks where he has been. Judd says they don’t have anything in common anymore. Max grabs his arm, and Judd tells him to let go of his arm because he does not have to answer to him. Max says he answers only to Artie and his birds. Max is glad he is a success at ornithology, but he does not like seeing him make a jackass out of himself with Artie Strauss. Judd says Artie has one of the most brilliant minds. Max recognizes that Judd and Artie are smarter than he is, but he does not like seeing him using his brains to scheme. He asks if he ever does normal things like go to a baseball game or chase girls. Judd is sure that Max has had interesting experiences, but he does not care. He defends Artie as a gentleman and says Max does not understand. Max says Artie is evil-minded, and Judd shouts at his brother to keep his mouth shut. They quarrel, and Max tries to get him to calm down and not wake people up. He asks him to listen to him, but Judd goes upstairs.
Sid Brooks (Martin Milner) is late to class and signals to Judd who asks a question about Nietzsche. While Professor MacKinnon is answering, Sid sneaks in and takes a seat by the door. MacKinnon mentions various lawgivers, and Judd says he wants to know if Moses and the others had to obey those laws. The professor says everyone has to obey the laws, and he asks Judd if thinks that Moses did not have to obey his own laws. Judd says that Nietzsche considered the superman detached from such emotions as anger and greed and lust and the will to power. The professor believes that even if we were supermen, we would still evolve our own code of laws. Sid says they would be super-laws. The professor assumes that Sid was not there earlier in the period, but Sid says an assumption can not be admitted as evidence. The professor says he will place himself above the law and grade him accordingly. The bell rings, and the students leave.
Outside while walking Sid tells Judd that he gets his head chopped off while Judd seems to get away with murder, and he asks how come. Judd says he does not think very fast. Sid says he is one of the brightest on the faculty. He asks if Judd believes that there are people with super intellects, and Judd says he does. They come to a group of students who are listening to Artie tell how he was grazed by a bullet from a 38. Sid challenges him, and Artie shows him a hole in his coat. Sid says it could be from moths. Artie suggests they all go down to the Four Deuces tomorrow night. Judd says they are almost late now. Artie tells them where to find the speakeasy. Artie introduces Ruth Evans (Diane Varsi) to Judd, and they agree to meet there. Artie leaves with Judd. Sid tells Ruth that is like talking to a Roman candle. He puts his arm around her and asks why she agreed to go because he does not have that kind of money. She suggests they let Artie pay, but Sid reminds her he likes to pay his own way. He says he won’t be able to eat dinner for a week, and she says her mother will feed him again.
In a newspaper office an editor tells Sid to investigate a drowned kid they pulled out of a culvert in Hegewisch Park. He tells him to check with Tom Daley who is working on a kidnapping that may be tied in. Sid walks over to Tom Daley (Edward Binns) who is on the phone getting information about cash for a ransom. He says he will keep the story confidential for now. Sid asks about a possible connection, and Tom gives him a description of the kid.
Sid comes into a room, and a medical examiner shows him the corpse of the kid. As he uncovers the body, a pair of glasses falls on the floor. He shows the bruises and says the kid was slugged, and there is dried blood. Sid picks up the glasses. The examiner believes the cause of death was a blunt instrument to the head. The examiner is called out of the room, and Sid asks if he can use a phone. Sid sits down and calls Tom at the Chicago Globe. He says the description fits. The boy did not drown but was killed. Tom tells him to stay there and not say anything. Tom wants to ask someone from the Kessler family go there with him to make a positive identification. Sid says okay and hangs up. He tries on the glasses and tries putting them on the corpse too.
Tom, Sid, and Mr. Kessler come out of the room, and Sid asks if the boy wore glasses. Kessler says no, and then reporters surround him and ask questions. Kessler says he has no doubt that the boy is his nephew. Tom asks Sid about the glasses, and Sid says they did not fit on the boy. He hid them under the sheet. Tom says they have a clean beat for the morning edition, and Sid may get a bonus.
A jazz band is playing as people dance. Artie dances by Judd as he tells Ruth about how Plato recommended educating everyone as wards of the state. She asks if that would be too impersonal. She asks if children have feelings and emotions. Judd admits they do, but he asks why they should be for their parents. They did not choose them, and he did not choose his. He says it is a biological accident. She asks if he feels that way about his father, and he says he has little in common with him. He says his mother died when he was eight years old. Sid, Artie, and others sits down at their table, and Artie asks if they know about the Kessler kidnapping. He says all the stories had to credit the Globe reporter with finding out the kid was murdered, and he puts his arm around Sid and asks who they think it was. He says Sid is the hero of the hour and takes a bottle of liquor from the waiter to celebrate. Artie stands up and proposes a toast to Sid, but Sid says it was a lucky break. Artie says if Sid had not discovered it was murder, the Kesslers probably would have paid the ransom. He asks Sid if he got a bonus. Sid says not just for that, and they want to know. Sid says it will be in the morning edition, a lucky break about the glasses. Artie asks about the glasses, and Judd checks his coat pocket and realizes he is missing his glasses. Sid says he tried them on the body and says they did not fit and could not have been the kid’s. Artie looks at Judd. Ruth asks if they could have belonged to the murderer. Judd says anyone could have dropped them. Artie says they must belong to the murderer, and he slams his glass against the table, breaking the glass and cutting his hand. Sid asks what set him off, and Artie asks what they put in that drink. He stands up, and Judd comes over with a napkin. Artie pushes him away and says he will just wash it off. Artie walks away, and Ruth tells Judd that he should have that looked at. Judd follows Artie. The others leave Sid and Ruth at the table, and a man presents the bill for $23.80 to Sid. Ruth says the party was on Artie, but Sid uses his bonus to pay it.
At home Judd tells Artie that he can’t find his glasses. Artie is playing with a teddy bear as he criticizes Judd for losing them and for suggesting an easy place to put the body. Judd says he did not drop them, but Artie picked up his coat by the tail which caused them to fall out. Artie talks to his teddy bear about Judd suggesting that they put the kid in the culvert instead of in the lake as Artie had wanted. He says that Judd said they would never find the body there. Judd tells him to shut up, and Artie says they are not talking to him. He says the first guy who went by there on his way to work found the body. Artie has the teddy bear agree with him that Judd picked that place because he was scared. Artie says Judd never wanted to go through with it anyway. Judd says that is not true; they agreed it was a true test of the superior intellect. Artie laughs at that and blames Judd for messing up. They hear a knock, and Max comes in. Judd says he was looking for something, and Max says at two in the morning. Artie says Judd was looking for a corkscrew he loaned him. Artie says Judd was going to drive him home. Max says it is only two blocks, but Artie says the neighborhood is swarming with kidnappers and degenerates. Max asks if the teddy bear is for protection. Arties says he is indispensable, and he removes the head and takes out a flask. Artie says girls get a big kick out of him. Max tells Judd to be back in five minutes. Judd asks or what and walks away.
Judd drives Artie home and asks how he could have been so stupid. Judd suggests he could go in and claim the glasses tomorrow, saying he read about them in the papers. He goes to the park with his students and could have dropped them. Artie says he will butcher it up. Judd explains his alibi about taking his bird classes on field trips while Artie plays the role of a policeman questioning him. At the time in question Judd says he and his friend picked up a couple of girls on Lakeshore Drive. Judd says they agreed on the names Mae and Edna. Artie says they will know it is an alibi from the details. Judd says they may pick him up and question him, and Artie said he would stick by him. Artie agrees to stick to that story for one week but no more. After that he will make up his own alibi. Artie tells him it is not easy to trace an ordinary pair of glasses. He says they are not his glasses and goes inside his house.
Artie walks to the park and talks to Sid as investigators are talking. They hear a policeman say there was a big black sedan cruising around, and they ask what time. Artie says if they are talking about Paulie Kessler, it was about 4:10. He says the older kids stay until five. Police Lt. Johnson (Robert F. Simon) asks how he knows so much about it. Artie says he went there for six years. Sid says he is Artie Strauss who is now in graduate school with him. Johnson asks to talk to Artie, and they step aside. Artie says he went there four years ago. He says he went to the University of Michigan when he was fourteen. Johnson asks if any strange characters hang around after school, and Artie says the teachers would not allow that. Artie says the teachers are odd and mentions Mr. Henderson calling the kids brats because they have too much money. He points out that teacher and mentions Pop Wiggin too, identifying him playing with kids too.
In a restaurant Sid in a booth is talking with Ruth about his studying birds. She would like to go out there with him. Sid sits down, and Artie leaves. Judd says he has to go and hopes she will make it on Thursday. Judd leaves. Sid asks Ruth about her going out with Judd. She says he wants her to go with him to Hegewisch Park. He makes fun of how strange Judd is with his birds, and she tells him to stop it and says he is not so strange.
Men are working on the street, and Artie comes out of his house and sees Lt. Johnson, asking what is going on. He says someone said they saw a man throw something in the sewer there on Wednesday night; so they have to dig it up. He asks Artie if he knows anyone around there who talks with a German accent. Artie says the Wainwrights live across the street, and they have a Prussian chauffeur named Rupert. Johnson says he is going to talk with him. Tom Daley and Sid arrive, and Tom asks Johnson if he found anything. Johnson says they found what one would expect to find in a sewer, and he walks away. Tom asks if there is a phone around there, and Artie offers to let him use one in his house. The three walk to the house, and Artie tells how he has given Johnson some ideas. He says he remembers the Kesslers had a nurse for Paulie who was very weird.
They go in the house, and Artie closes a door where women are playing cards and takes them into an elegant room and offers them a drink. Artie pours Scotch while Tom asks for Ryan. Artie asks Sid about the nursemaid, and Sid says she will sweat as much as the schoolteachers. Artie asks if he thinks he told Johnson about them to get them into trouble, and Sid says they did get into trouble. Artie says he hadn’t thought of that and admits that was a terrible thing for him to do. Sid says not if there was any chance of them being guilty. Artie asks Tom if there is anything new. Tom says they are looking for people who had mud on their shoes last Wednesday night. He says they did make a positive identification of the typewriter that was used to write the ransom note. Artie mentions the Corona, but Tom says they are sure it was an Underwood portable with a bent key. Mrs. Strauss (Louise Lorimer) comes in and says Artie scared her. He introduces her to the reporters Tom Daley and Sid Brooks who are working on the Kessler case. Artie says he was telling them about Margaret. She says he has so many theories and has been talking about the case constantly since it happened. She says it is tragic for the poor Kesslers. She asks Artie to get sherry for Mrs. Bainbridge. Artie brings it and kisses his mother on the forehead. She says no one will get any sleep until this fiend is captured. Tom asks if she has any idea why the Kesslers were the victims. Artie says Paulie is just the kind of punk a kidnapper would pick. Tom says they are imposing on her and starts to leave. Artis invites him for dinner, but he say he is going to start checking on that nursemaid. Artie offers to go with him. Tom says that is not necessary, and he leaves with Sid. She tells Artie not to drink any more before dinner because of how it affects him. He asks how, and she tells him not to pout. She says Judd has been trying to get ahold of him all afternoon, and he should call him. Artie does not want to, and she suggests he see the ladies who want to learn what he knows about the case.
Judd at home picks up the phone to make a call and hears a voice ask him when he got that typewriter. Artie comes out of the closet, and Judd says he was just trying to call him. Artie angrily says he does not keep an Underwood portable with a bent key. He tells him to get rid of it and warns they might search all the houses in the neighborhood. Judd says he will find a place for it. Artie does not trust him and says he will hide it himself. Artie suggests that tomorrow afternoon they could drive out by the stockyards. Judd says not then, and Artie asks if he has another date and if he is ditching him for some girl. Judd says he has not been able to find him for three days. Artie says he has been watching the cops run around in circles, and he asks if the girl is Ruth. He guesses that he is taking her to the park to see birds. He says he will be perfectly safe there without any witnesses. He says girls never talk about it afterwards; she could scream her head off. He asks if that is what he is planning. Judd says no, and Artie asks if he is falling for her. Judd says of course not, but he had not thought of that. Artie says this is his chance; they agreed to explore all human possibilities while being emotionally detached. Judd says they agreed to do things together. Artie says he has done things alone, and Judd can too. He asks if he has the nerve. Artie says it is perfect because Ruth won’t be expecting a thing. Artie asks Judd what is the matter and asks if he wants him to order him to do it.
In the park Judd points out a bird, and Ruth sees it with the field glasses. She is glad he brought her there. She says he seems sad, and he calls that a sentimental term. He says the only reality is things happening. He points to where they found the body of the Kessler boy and asks her if that is sad. She replies it is terribly sad. He asks if it is sad that she is there alone with him and Paulie’s ghost. She says he shouldn’t joke about that. He asks what one life means when there were nine million people killed in the war. She says he is not that cruel. He kneels by her and says murder is nothing but a simple experience, murder and rape. He asks if she knows what beauty there is in evil. She questions that. He says yes, and she says he is trying to frighten her. He asks why she does not run. She asks if that is what he wants her to do, and he says yes. She asks if he has to attack her, and he replies he does not have to do anything. If he attacks her, it is because he chooses to do so. He pushes her down on the grass and kisses her hard. He asks if she is afraid of him. She says she is afraid for him and repeats it. He cries and swears and moves away from her, lying on the grass and saying he is so ashamed.
Judd finds Artie sitting on a fence at the stockyards holding sheep. He explains how a black sheep leads the other sheep to the slaughterhouse without going in himself. He says the black devil knows it. Judd asks if he got rid of the typewriter, and Artie says he threw it in a pit in the back where they bury the entrails. Artie asks how Judd made out and asks why he is not sweaty like he was after Paulie and when he found out about the glasses. Judd says he was not rational then, but then he thought that the glasses are distinctive. Artie says there are 4,200 of them. He asked Johnson why they were not following that lead. Judd calls him a fool, and Artie says he is sweating again. Artie says the case will blow over in a couple weeks.
Judd comes down the stairs at home and tells two men he does not know what happened to the glasses. He asks the maid, but she has not seen them. Two assistants of the district attorney tell him that he wants to talk to anyone who does not have his glasses. Judd says he is a law student and admires him and asks if they want to take him to the hall of justice. They say that the D. A. has taken a hotel suite to avoid reporters. Judd says that is very considerate.
In a hotel room District Attorney Harold Horn (E. G. Marshall) questions Judd while the two assistants listen. Judd says he usually carries his glasses in his jacket pocket, and he was at the park on Tuesday with his class of students. Horn trips on purpose and says the glasses did not drop out of his pocket. Judd laughs and says it looked like he was acting that out for a jury. Horn asks him to show them how the glasses might have fallen out of his pocket. Judd stands up and demonstrates how he could have tripped. The glasses do not fall out. Horn asks to see his coat and asks if he could have taken it off and picked it up later. As Horn does this, the glasses fall out. Judd says he would not pick up his coat by the tail. Horn says he may have been in a hurry in the dark. Judd says this is academic unless they are his glasses. He says there must be a thousand pairs of glasses like those in Chicago. Horn says they know they are his glasses because the firm developed a new hinge and sold only three in this area. They accounted for the other two, and so these must be his. Horn asks him to tell them about Wednesday afternoon.
Later Horn turns on a light, and Judd says he gave them his account ten times. Horn says the details are not easy to check, and Judd says they could find Mae and Edna. Horn says they need their last names, and they may not even be their right names. Horn knows how he feels about involving a friend, but he has to check this story. He promises he will never say anything to either family if he tells him his friend’s name. Then he can go home for dinner. Judd says his friend is Artie Strauss, and Lt. Johnson says that is the kid who has been helping him all along. Horn tells him to pick him up and bring him in so that he can help them some more. Johnson goes out.
Johnson brings Artie to the hotel room, and a mob of reporters push their way in. They demand to know what has been going on for two hours. Horn says there will be no reporters in his suite, and two policeman push them out the door. Artie sits in a chair, and a man points a lamp at him and turns it on. Horn comes in, and Artie stands up. Artie asks him to make it as quick as possible because he answered the door and came along without bothering his mother. Horn says it will only take a few minutes. Artie walks by Horn and says they are having Judge Conway as a guest for dinner tonight. Horn says they will make it extra-brief. Artie says he prefers to stand and offers the chair to Horn. He moves the lamp down and asks about his movements last Wednesday night. Artie says that is over a week ago and hard to remember. Horn says Judd said the same thing. Artie asks if Judd said he was with him, but Horn says they want to know what he recalls. Artie tries to remember and says that was the day the Kessler boy was kidnapped, and he asks if that is why they want to know. Horn nods, and Artie says he had better get it right. Artie says he went to the movies alone. They hear a knock, and Johnson gives Horn a message from Judge Conway. Horn asks about Mae and Edna, and Johnson says they are working on it and goes out. Artie asks about the names. Horn says they interviewed them as secretaries. Artie says that is not true and that Judd broke his word to him because he promised him he would never tell anyone. Artie admits that is where they were that night; they picked up two girls on Lakeshore Drive. He asks what will happen if his family finds out. He asks what else Judd told him. Horn asks Artie if he has been lying to him. He says this is a murder case and asks if he realizes what the consequences could be. Artie says his father’s punishment will be worse. Horn says he does not have to find out and asks if he wants to tell him about it now. Artie says they were cruising in Judd’s car, and they met girls named Edna and Mae.
Tom on the phone says they went down a freight elevator, and Horn took them to dinner. He has the kid making the rounds of the restaurants.
A waiter shows Judd, Horn, Artie, and three others to a table in a nice restaurant. Judd orders for them in French. Asked, he says he speaks fourteen languages. He says he is hoping to work on them on his trip to Europe next week. Horn says with his car and this place they have a hard life. Horn says the car is a two-seater, and Artie says the girls sat on their laps. Artie says he did not think Judd was going to back out of their agreement. Artie asks to be excused to wash up, and Judd gets up too. A man starts to go with them, but Artie persuades Horn to let them go alone. The other men express their doubts that these two kids did it because of the difference in their stories and because they are intelligent. Horn says the glasses have been bothering him.
Reporters crowd around as Horn, Johnson, and another man escort Artie and Judd into an elevator. Horn stays out and says there have been no charges filed. Horn says he is trying to get information on the kidnapping and takes the next elevator. The other man says they are right and that he will have to release them soon. Horn says all right.
Horn comes out of the elevator, and Johnson introduces the Steiner’s chauffeur Albert to him. He says he brought some things down in case they are going to keep them overnight. Horn says he can stay and drive them home. The chauffeur says he knew they could not have done it, and Horn asks how. He says the Judd’s Stutz Bearcat was in the garage all afternoon, and they could not have gone to the park unless they walked. The chauffeur says he knows because he has Wednesdays off, and he stayed home to change the brake linings. Horn thanks him. Horn tells his assistant that it proves they lied, and he wants to get the truth. Horn sends his assistant to keep Judd happy because he intends to bust Artie apart. Horn goes in the room, and Artie says he feels sleepy after the dinner.
Later Horn tells Judd that his partner confessed everything. Judd does not believe him. He says Artie is far too intelligent to be trapped by them. Horn reads from the paper that Artie told him that his friend wrote the ransom note on a stolen typewriter and rented a black sedan from a drive-yourself agency on May 16. He thought that might jog his memory. He says that Artie said he drove the car while Judd was in the back with Paulie Kessler. He said that Judd hit Paulie very hard. Judd calls him an inferior weakling and a child. He asks where he is and tries to leave. The two assistants grab Judd by the door and bring him back. Judd says that he drove the car and that Mr. Strauss killed Paulie. He shouts he is lying.
While Max listens, a man tells Mr. Steiner that Jonathan Wilk is the best criminal lawyer. Mr. Steiner does not like him because he is an atheist, but the man says he has fought the death penalty all his life. He does not know if he will take the case, and Mr. Steiner says the fee must be a consideration. The man says he has known him thirty years, and money never has been an issue. Max asks if he can get him on the phone. Mr. Steiner says he will do it and calls Jonathan Wilk.
Horn is reading Artie’s confession to the reporters from behind a desk while Artie and Judd sit in front of the desk. Horn asks if they have anything to add, and Artie shakes his head. Judd takes exception to Artie’s statement that Judd killed Paulie and says he did a brilliant job otherwise. Artie blames Judd for involving him in his foolish alibi. He says at first that he was sitting in the back seat and then tries to correct himself to say he was in the front seat. Horn smiles and asks if they have been treated fairly by him without violence or intimidation, and they both agree. Horn says that is all. He gives the reporters five minutes to question them. As they crowd around, Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles) comes in and says he went to the jail where he usually finds his clients. He pulls out a writ for counsel and city jail. Horn says he was about to do that. Horn tells his men to take them through the freight elevator. Wilk says he had them for twelve hours and asks if he can have twelve seconds. He learns who Artie and Judd are and tells them his parents have retained him for their defense. Judd says he has always admired him, and Wilk says he can prove it by saying nothing to anyone until he instructs them to the contrary. He tells Horn that is it. Horn says it is a little late to silence them now. Wilk says he does what he can; he is glad they were not hanged before he got there. Horn says they will hang soon enough, and Wilk says luckily that is not his decision. As Wilk starts to go, Horn says that two psychiatrists have been observing them and have found that they are both completely sane. Wilk says it would be more interesting to hear the conclusions if they were to observe each other. The reporters laugh.
On campus Ruth comes over to Sid and asks if it is true. She says she can’t believe it. He says the confessions they signed will take them to the gallows. He tells her to be sensible because they are murderers. He asks how she thinks the Kessler family feels. She knows how they must feel, but she can’t help feeling sorry for Judd and Artie. He says they plotted a cold-blooded killing and carried it out as if it were a chemistry experiment. She believes that Judd is not like that. He does not believe her unless something happened, and he asks what it was. She thinks for a while and says he tried to attack her. He turns away and gets angry. She pleads that it was not like he thinks. She says he was like a frightened child and could not go through with it. Sid says he does not understand how she could defend him after he tried to rape her. She realizes it is difficult to understand, but he was not there. If he had been, he would have some compassion for him. He says she is acting like she is sorry he did not go through with it. She slaps his face, and he says he hopes they hang him. She walks away.
Sid runs into the press room and on the phone says that Wilk pleaded them not guilty. The judge set the trial for four weeks from today. He sees Wilk come in and says he will call back. Horn says the state psychiatrists have determined they are sane. Wilk says that was after an exhaustive study, ten minutes in a crowded hotel room. He says he is up against some brilliant minds, and he does not have a minute to lose. A reporter asks if he will plead insanity, and Wilk says they will not divulge their tactics to the prosecution. He says their defense will be based on the result of their study, and he offers to join forces with Horn’s psychiatrists. Horn smirks, and Wilk says it might have been a real contribution to criminology. Wilk leaves and a reporter asks Horn why he refused the joint study. Horn asks if they need to study two evil minds who do not deserve to live a day longer. He asks if they think these two boys do not know the difference between right and wrong, and that is the legal definition of sanity.
At night three men from the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in the front yard, and Wilk looks out the window.
The next morning Wilks comes out and tells Lt. Johnson not to guard his house. He is not worried about men whose reaction to an emotional situation is to pull a sheet over his head. He says it is much too warm for an open fire. He is asked if he can get an impartial jury, and he says he has been worrying about juries for forty years. He is asked if it is a hopeless case, and he says he will leave the decision to a judge, not their editors. Sid asks if he is getting a million dollars for this case; but Max Steiner says the State Bar Association will determine fee. Sid asks why he took the case. Wilk says to deny the rich as good a defense as the poor get might be to give in to the kind of thinking that started that fire. Wilk says good morning and gets into the car with Max.
In a corridor a doctor tells Wilk that the Stanford-Binet intelligence test does not have a high enough scale to register Judd’s I. Q.; but on several others he and Artie showed no more emotional maturity than a seven year old. Wilk asks about the conclusions. The doctor says most agreed that Judd is paranoiac and Artie is schizophrenic. Wilk asks about being declared medically insane. The doctor says they prefer him to draw his own legal conclusions. The doctor says they are not in complete agreement.
Wilk is let into a room to see Artie and Judd. He sits down, and Judd asks about the report. Judd says it is the most fascinating four weeks he ever spent. Artie suggests he tell him the truth that it adds up to six feet of rope and a hangman. Wilk says the report may be useful. Artie says they are betting twenty to one they hang. Artie says he has a long shot and tells Wilk that he knows the guard could be given $5,000 and look the other way. He describes the escape, and Wilk asks if he will make a mad dash to the Canadian border. Artie says they will do it his way and go to trial in the morning. Wilk says they do not have any close friends besides each other. Judd says they did not think anyone else had enough intelligence to be worth cultivating. Wilk says if they call hostile witnesses, he would like to have somebody speak for them. Artie says he has a book with the addresses of forty or fifty girls he has been out with in the last two years. Wilk asks Judd if he knows any girls, and he says he has been out with Ruth lately. He does not want her involved in this, and Wilk says he would not call her without his permission. Wilk gets up to go, and Artie asks if his mother and father will be there. Then he remembers they are both busy on Tuesdays and thinks they would be suckers to sit in a crummy courtroom.
Horn tells the jury that there is no other penalty for this brutal, inexcusable, premeditated murder. He says they must be convicted and hanged as soon as possible. Wilk says the defense will waive its remarks to the jury. He walks up to the judge and says they are changing their pleas to guilty with mitigating circumstances. Horn tells his assistant that he will have that jury back if the mitigating circumstances even sound like insanity. Judge Matthews tells the attorneys to approach the bench and says he accepts the change in pleas. He asks to see them in his chambers.
In his home Charles Strauss demands to know from Wilk why he made such a sudden change, and Wilk says he has a right to question his judgment. Wilk says that if he is going to persuade anyone of the boys’ emotional instability, it must be the judge alone. They say they hired him as an expert at manipulating juries. Wilk says he studied the jury, and they would have no chance with them. Mrs. Strauss asks if what he did today will help Artie. Wilk sits down next to her and says he hopes so. He explains that he will be talking to the judge, and he hopes he will be more tolerant than any jury. They discuss the insanity defense and learn that that would have to be decided by the jury. Mr. Strauss says a sane person cannot commit an insane act. Wilk says they can get another lawyer, but Mr. Steiner says there is not time for that. He says they are committed to Wilk, and he believes they made a tragic mistake. Wilk says he hopes he is wrong.
Horn objects to any testimony on insanity without the jury, and Wilk argues they just want to hear testimony on their mental conditions as a mitigating circumstance. The judge over-rules Horn and has Dr. Allwin take the stand.
Wilk asks Dr. Allwin to tell how far the schizophrenia had progressed in Artie. He says the habit of lying and indulging in fantasies had progressed to the point that he was having difficulty determining what was true and not true. Horn asks for the jury. They argue, and the judge denies the motion.
Horn questions another doctor about paranoia and admits he has been having feelings that he is right and that he is being persecuted by the defense. He asks if he is paranoid. Wilk says he agrees with Horn on this question of determining Horn’s sanity which only a jury could decide. People laugh.
Wilk asks Ruth if she had a romantic attachment for another boy and for Judd. She says she felt Judd was alone and very unhappy. He asks if Judd indicated that he liked her as a woman. She says he kissed her. He asks if there were further advances. She says there were, but they stopped. Wilk asks if they made her decide never to see him again, and she says no. He asks if her feelings changed after she learned he had been arrested. She says they did because she realized that his unhappiness had caused him to commit a violent and insane crime. She felt sorry for him and would have seen him again. Wilk says he has no more questions. Judd stands up and starts to walk but faints and falls on the floor. Max goes to him, and they give him water.
Wilk reads that Horn told this court that this is the most fiendish crime ever committed. He says he has been practicing law for 45 years, and they always say it was inexcusable. He admits there was no excuse for their killing Paulie Kessler. Also there was no reason for it. It was not done for spite or hate or for money. He says if he dooms them to die, it will because their parents are rich. He does not need to mention that he fights as hard for the poor as he does for the rich. He refers to the publicity in the newspapers and says that in a usual case like this no objection would be made to life imprisonment. No one under the age of 21 has ever been sentenced to death before in Chicago. For some reason in the case of the boys with diseased minds they say they can only get justice by taking their lives. He asks if a lifetime behind prison bars is not enough for this mad act. He asks if the public must be regaled with a hanging. For the last three weeks he has heard nothing but the cry for blood and ugly hatred from the state’s attorney. He asks if they are crazy. He says if they hang these boys, it would mean that a court of law bowed down to public opinion. He says the state’s attorney made as cruel a speech as he could to make them believe they pleaded guilty because they were afraid to do anything else. He admits that is true. He is afraid to submit this case to a jury that divides the responsibility by twelve. No, if they are to hang, the judge must do it alone. It must be his own cool, deliberate, premeditated act. He asks if any of them have not been guilty of some kind of delinquency in their youth, of some wild act. If the consequences did not amount to much, and they didn’t get caught, it was their good luck. This was the mad act of two sick children who belong in a psychopathic hospital. He asks if there is anyone with a decent regard for human life with the slightest bit of heart who does not understand this. We are told it was cold-blooded killing because they planned and schemed, but here the officers of the state for months have planned and schemed and contrived to take the lives of theses boys. He has become obsessed with this deep feeling of hatred and anger, and he has been fighting it until it has driven him mad. He says that through the centuries our laws have been modified so that now we can look back at the horrors of the past. He says it has been proven that as the penalties are less barbarous the crimes are less frequent. Does he have to argue that cruelty only breeds cruelty when every religious leader has taught that the way to kill evil is not by killing men. If there is any way to destroy hatred, it is not through more hatred and cruelty but through understanding, love, and charity. He says this is called a Christian community and asks if there is any doubt that these boys would be safe in the hands of the founder of the Christian religion. He says that anyone who knows him knows that he is sorry about Paulie Kessler. When he struggled in the car, they hit him over the head and killed him. They poured acid over him to destroy his identity, and they threw his body in a ditch. If killing these boys would bring back to life Paulie, then he would say let them go. He believes their parents would agree. Neither they nor he would want to release them. They must be isolated from society. He is asking the court to shut them up in prison for life. Any cry for more reverts back to the hyena and the jungle. The court is told that they should give them the same mercy they gave their victim; but he asks if the state is not more kind and human and intelligent than the mad act of these two sick boys, then he is sorry that he has lived so long. He knows that any mother might be the mother of Paulie Kessler when he left home and went to school and never came back. Any mother might be the mother of Artis Strauss and Judd Steiner. Maybe in some ways the parents are more responsible than their children. The truth is that all parents can be criticized. These might have done better if they hadn’t had so much money. The state talked about how they put the boy in a ditch. He can only think now of the state penning these 18 and 19-year-old boys up and counting off the days until they are wakened and led to the scaffold with their feet tied and black caps drawn over their heads, stood on a trap, and the hangman pressing the spring. He can see them fall through space and stopped by the rope around their necks. He says it would be done in the name of the justice. He asks who knows what justice is. He asks the judge if he knows what it is. Can he tell him what he deserves? Does he think he can cure the hatred and maladjustments of the world by hanging them? Mr. Horn said if they hang Artie and Judd, there will be no more killing; but the world has been one long slaughterhouse from the beginning until today, and the killing goes on and on. He asks why they do not read something or think instead of blindly calling for death. Must they kill them because everyone is talking about the case? Kill them because their parents have money. He asks if that will stop other sick boys from killing. He walks up to the judge and says it has taken the world a long time to get to where it is today. He says that if he hangs these boys, he turns back to the past. He says he is pleading for the future, not merely for these boys but for all boys and all the young. He is pleading not for these two lives but for life itself, for a time when they can learn to overcome hatred with love, when we can learn that all life is worth saving and that mercy is the highest attribute of men. He is pleading for the future, and in this court of law he is pleading for love. Wilk walks back to his seat, and the judge recesses the court until tomorrow morning.
In the hallway Sid tells Ruth that after listening to Wilk, he is glad that she went on the stand. He says it took a lot of courage, and he wanted to tell her that. He turns to go, and she calls to him, walks to him, and takes his arm.
In court Judge Matthews sentences them for the crime of murder to spend the rest of their natural lives in prison, and for the crime of kidnapping they are sentenced to 99 years. Artie says they sweated through three months of misery just to hear that. He tells Wilk he wishes they had hung them right away. Tom Daley asks if he feels any remorse. Artie scoffs, and Wilk says he did not expect them to fall down on their knees and thank God for their deliverance. Judd says that sounds kind of strange coming from Wilk. He replies that a lifetime of doubt and questioning does not mean that he has necessarily reached any final conclusions. Judd says he has and that God has nothing to do with it. Wilk asks if he is sure. In the years to come he may wonder if it was the hand of God that dropped those glasses, and if he didn’t, who did. Police take them away as pictures are taken.
This fictionalized drama is like the infamous case of Leopold and Loeb, and the defense attorney in that case was the renowned Clarence Darrow. The two young men are socially maladjusted because of their arrogant intellects and emotional immaturity. Their attempts to have their minds dominate their feelings proved to be psychologically sick. Because of his admiration for his friend’s intellect, one boy let himself be persuaded by the other to commit violent crimes. They also misread the philosopher Nietzsche who tried to get people to think beyond conventional morality, not ignore ethics altogether.