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Death and the Compass (1995)

Cast: Peter Boyle, Peter Boyle, Miguel Sandoval, more...
Director: Alex Cox, Alex Cox
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Rating: Not Rated
Studio: Anchor Bay
Genre: Foreign, Cops, Latin America, Mexico
Running Time: 86 min.
Languages: English
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Synopsis
Death and the Compass is a loose adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges short story from eccentric British writer-director Alex Cox (Repo Man). Treviranus (Miguel Sandoval), disheveled and haunted by the past, narrates the story of the last great case of a famous detective, Lonnrot (Peter Boyle). In a vaguely futuristic unnamed metropolis (most of the film was shot in Mexico City), Lonnrot investigates the case of a murdered rabbi, who was a Kabala scholar. Treviranus, Lonnrot's commander, quite rationally believes the murder was a botched robbery, and the work of the insane masked local crime lord Red Scarlach. But Lonnrot finds the last words the rabbi wrote, "The first letter of the name has been spoken," and thinks there was a more complex, kabalistic motive to the crime. Lonnrot asks a journalist, Zunz (Christopher Eccleston), to help him unravel the mystery. Soon, another murder and a disappearance lend credence to Lonnrot's mystical theory, and the clever detective believes he can predict and prevent the next crime. As the disgraced Treviranus tells the story, his jealousy and resentment of Lonnrot's powers of deduction and his popularity with the public become evident. After making El Patrullero (Highway Patrolman), Cox was commissioned by the BBC to do a short Borges adaptation for television. He later got additional funding (partly for directing The Winner, which he later disavowed after the producers made changes without his consent) to expand Death and the Compass into a feature. He added all the scenes of Treviranus' narration, and an elaborate scene in which he himself plays a blind detective cut down by Red Scarlach. ~ Josh Ralske, All Movie Guide

GreenCine Member Reviews

interesting--but the short film smokes the feature by AWalter February 7, 2005 - 12:18 AM PST
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4 out of 4 members found this review helpful
Though "Death and the Compass" was reworked into a feature from a short project--and shows telltale signs of this--it might have succeeded better if only director Alex Cox had been content to allow the film's sound to come through clearly. The film has some great images and performances as well as funky avant-garde elements to both the visuals and story structure. However, when you're doing all that, you can only get yourself in trouble by also monkeying with the sound; here the dialogue is sometimes garbled, sometimes muffled, and sometimes mumbled (pick your poison).

Based on the Jorge Luis Borges short story of the same name, "Death and the Compass" follows a detective who has chosen an "intuitive" path of detection, finally risking losing himself deep in a labyrinth of speculation as he attempts to guess, second-guessing, and out-guess the criminal pattern unfolding before him. Unfortunately the film, largely due to the sound trouble, ends up nearly as jumbled as the story. The film is commendable for its referencing of many other Borges stories, but ultimately it leaves one wishing for a great deal more cohesion.

One can look to Lars von Trier's "The Element of Crime" as a film that was, both in terms of story and stylistic flair, a comparable but far more successful venture. More obviously, one can look to Paul Miller's excellent "Spiderweb," a short film with a sort of "Guy Maddin" feel. "Spiderweb" is also based on Borges' "Death and the Compass" and stars Nigel Hawthorne. It is included on the DVD release of Cox's film (but somehow there is no reference to "Spiderweb" on the IMDB!).




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(Average 4.32)
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