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Death And The Compass
Death And The Compass
Actors: Pedro Armendáriz Jr., Bruno Bichir, Peter Boyle, Karl Braun, Claudio Brook
Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama, Mystery & Suspense
UR     2001     1hr 26min

Alex Cox (REPO MAN) directed this stylized adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges labyrinthine detective story about a totalitarian city of the future plagued by a rash of bizarre crimes. Peter Boyle stars as Lonnrot, a decidedly...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Pedro Armendáriz Jr., Bruno Bichir, Peter Boyle, Karl Braun, Claudio Brook
Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama, Mystery & Suspense
Sub-Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama, Mystery & Suspense
Studio: Starz / Anchor Bay
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen,Anamorphic
DVD Release Date: 04/24/2001
Original Release Date: 01/01/1999
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/1999
Release Year: 2001
Run Time: 1hr 26min
Screens: Color,Widescreen,Anamorphic
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 0
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Continuously Fascinating
ficta | Columbia, MD USA | 05/04/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)

"At first glance, Alex Cox would seem the least likely interpreter of Jorge Luis Borges. Cox, best known for his Punk/New Wave era classics Repo Man and Sid and Nancy has a messy, overflowing visual style; where as the Argentine master's enigmatic puzzle-box stories are always meticulously constructed. On the other hand, Death and the Compass, one of the great short stories of the 20th century, is a piece drenched in the Kabbalah and the search for order in chaos and it is one of the more curious tenets of several mystical traditions that Wisdom may be hidden in the trash pile; or, as in another of Borges' stories, the manifestation of the omniprescence of God may show up in an unremarkable basement in Buenos Aires. Cox's film is full of action and life, his sets overflowing with visual detail and just plain junk very reminiscent of Gilliam's sets for Twelve Monkeys (done on a much smaller budget, however). The movie is remarkably faithful to the particulars of the original story. Peter Boyle is very good as the obsessed and unorthodox police detective Lonrott who is way too clever for his own good. Miguel Sandoval is perhaps a bit too eccentric in his performance in the narrative framing sequence added by Cox, and the whole framing sequence may be overly "punched up" with odd sound effects and random jump cuts. But overall it's an excellent if unexpected interpretation of a classic story.The disc sports a solid anamorphic transfer. There are a few specks at reel changes and some grain in the night shots (not an effect of the transfer, though, this was a fairly low budget film), and some nice extras: commentary from Cox and one of the members of Pray for Rain who composed the lovely gothy/techno vaguely retro-80s score, and an early 30 minute short of Cox's called Spider Web.This is a lost gem of a movie that deserves a much wider audience. Terry Gilliam fans, in particular, should enjoy it."
Skip the Feature, Watch the Short (which is NOT by Alex Cox)
xsnail | Chicago, IL | 02/27/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)

"For any aficionado of Jorge Luis Borges' writing, "Death and the Compass" by Alex Cox is a must skip. Any trace of Borges' subtle fantasy and intricate intelligence is lost in the glut of this unsuccessful Terry Gilliam-wannabe. Its post-apocalyptic setting, flashy colors and characters, warped camera angles and close-ups may all stylistically remind viewers of Terry Gilliam films such as "Brazil". Except unlike a Terry Gilliam film, I can't seem to find a point to this movie. There's a complete lack of intelligent dialogue, even the actors appeared stumped by the lack of interesting or realistic lines. All of its flashy techniques and synthesizer sounds give the impression that Cox aimed too hard to make this film an instant "cult" classic. Along the way, the original short story is lost all together. The sole redeeming point of the movie comes at the finale, where an impressive vision of the labyrinthine Triste LeRoy is recreated. I really liked two of Alex Cox' other movies, "Repo Man" - which is about the supernatural adventures of a newcomer in the car repossession business, and "Sid and Nancy". I think both movies have incredible merit, but "Death and the Compass" is a miss.
So why am I giving this DVD five stars? Well, the previous reviewer was correct in that this DVD contains a "lost gem". It's just that this "gem" is not the feature film most would suspect; it is instead the "bonus" short film by Paul Miller called "Spiderweb", also based on Borges' story "Death and the Compass". Though according to the audio commentary by Alex Cox, this 20-minute short film was made in the seventies, it is shot in clear black and white, reminiscent of a 1930s' film. It's steeped in visual symbolism that interpret literary expressions. The entire film is thoughtfully shot and carefully edited. Unlike often-seen student shorts, it feels more like a mini feature film. Like a Borges story, it is short and sweet. And similarly, I will keep my review of it short. For any Borges aficionado, "Spiderweb" is a rewarding treasure find. For any movie aficionado, it is an intelligent adaptation of a Borges story that the author himself would have approved of."
C. Scanlon | among us humans | 02/01/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Peter Boyle really is amazingly versatile. According to the director's commentary he did this work shortly after his heart attack, and, yes, there is some heavy lifting involved, but nothing fatal as in the making of Il Postino. The director also mentions that Boyle, once his character gets caught up in the investigation's occult aspects, wanted to do the rest like the bald Brando in Apocalypse Now but was dissuaded not to; any director able to dissuade Boyle of anything is mighty good. Alex Cox is of course far far better than we have been permitted to notice. Peter Boyle also worked with him playing a notably flatulent Commodore Vanderbilt in Cox's Nicaraguan film soon to be released as Walker - Criterion Collection.

The director's commentary on this disk is unusual in that, having the composer of the score along rather than Peter Boyle who was on hiatus from Raymond and with family in Long Island, they focus mainly on the music, sound effects, instruments (including how to get the early 80's sound the "retro" electronic instruments - hard for an old guy like me to think of the 70's and 80's as retro - for an authentically cheesy sound. An old guy like me thinking of retro electronic music remembers the Theremin and the Farfisi. And why anyone would layer a great movie with cheesy noise, well, it's pretty well done anyway - even if it intentionally recalls early blown-dry MTV videos - quick - hasten to end parentheses).

In order to understand what is behind this movie, I went ahead and ordered as well here on amazon Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings (New Directions Paperbook), which like all New Directions books, including the Thomas Merton poetry, is beautifully published, built to be felt and to be held and to be read, with everlasting love. The old copy I got still has countless years in it, but I do have a question about a typo or two in the Latin line (Judacorum instead of a Judaeorum; ad where an ab or even an a would do). Nevertheless I find it very helpful for understanding the development of this film. Also helpful is the equally loose or looser adaptation re-entitled Spiderweb starring Nigel Hawthorne (later the unflappable civil servant on Yes, Minister and other PBS/BBC offerings) which bravely accompanies this disk, not by Cox as alleged in another review here but done as a student film in apparently the late sixties or early seventies by a Peter Miller or some such name.

Spiderweb is marked by a very loose approach to the story, probably compelled by low student budgets and the impossibility of representing an omniscient narrator making esoteric allusions. Thus much the narrator tells us indirectly is stuffed uncomfortably into the mouths of Lonnrot or Treviranus, who is given another, more savory name. Much of the location is changed as well, and a Trinidadian steel carnival jumps in introduced by a Chinese New Year's dragon. I estimate it was made around 1970 not only for the haircuts, but also for the Chambers Brother's Time Has Come Today echoed cowbell beat to build suspense at the end. The dialogue has been horribly redubbed, preserving only Nigel's distinctive voice but changing everyone else to a rough New Yorker accent. It is odd how we see the opening convention assembling at the Astoria Hotel and later hear they are in the Grand Hotel (Mr. Cox wonderfully preserves the name Hotel du Nord, which goes directly as the only beginning clue to the compass, and Mr. Cox preserves the orignial prismic shape, if not the symbolic, metonymic neighboring buildings of the story). Nevertheless, it does remain faithful to the ending request of Lonnrot, by half at least, leaving out the mathematical equation but including the general request and response, unlike Cox, who works in another Borges story.

The great Mr. Cox adapted the ending to allude to another story El Aleph, repeatedly mentioning in Lonnrot's words a mosque in Cairo. Borges in this story has the impersonal and all-knowing narrator present the point of eternal vision's convergence as laying within Alexander's crystal sphere in Persia, now called Iran. In fact the original is more stuffed full of esoteric allusions than any tale by Edgar Allan Poe, or James Joyce.

With Mr. Cox's filming in 1995 or 1996, this ending indicating an Egyptian mosque did not have the same political weight and overtones which it would today; today after Bush it reads even more outre and revolutionary and against the grain of our day. Mr. Cox has ever been visionary, and prophetic and his movies all show it.

Mr. Cox remains faithful to many of the details of the original tale by Borges, including the naming of the Liverpool House. Anyone who knows Mr. Cox to be Liverpudlian would believe it was his own chauvinist insertion but in fact it is faithful to the story. Mr. Cox throughout is more faithful to the story in many ways than Spiderweb was, although encountering the same narrative constraints, requiring characters to throw off casually insights shared coldly by the impersonal narrator.

You will see in this film allusions to several other films, including Dick Tracy's costume, the finger drumming, etc., of Spiderweb, etc., etc., as many allusions as the story makes to earlier occult literature. This review only begins to scratch the surface. The narrative frame introduced by Mr. Cox, of a robbery at a currency incinerator, a blind detective named Borges, of the older Treviranus (and please do examine carefully and at your leisure the tripartite Latin sense of that name) compulsively recounting as a wealthy and corrupt madman his sense of culpability for the destiny of Lonnrot (was he paid to leave Lonnrot alone?), it is all very ingenious and does extend faithfully the sense of Borges into the land of Edgar Allan Poe's bizzarrely and elderly confessed Cask of Amontillado, and yet one might have enjoyed viewing on this disk as well the original, shorter, tighter television version, as another reviewer mentions.

One sees here as well the true versatality of Miquel Sandoval, from Repo Man's punk, through Sid & Nancy - Criterion Collection's delightful producer, through Three Businessmen, through Jurassic Park and Clear and Present Danger and a few TV series playing grim detective supervisors. Here he plays an over the top and very complex supervisor of "perhaps a million detectives" and it is delicious. I somehow do not doubt the director's commentary that Miquel was at first a concert pianist, as he bangs the keys in an appropriately decrepit fashion. I do howver doubt the director's suggestion that we pan and scan to read the brand name of the peanuts Lonnrot consistently consumes; at no point could I find it sufficiently in focus to do so, and feel that perhaps this is his red herring cast to all those of us who make a cult seeking clues to the universe within his films: a plate of shrimp. If anyone CAN read those peanuts, please post their brand name here!

Interesting viewing while awaiting the release of Criterion's Walker. Good reason to return to Borges. As ever with Cox, mild to obviously staged violence, no nudity to speak of, and no vulgar language. For all his status as a bizarre director, his films are surprisingly free of these now trite and banal cliches. A movie urgently seeking its cynical and sophisticated audience.

The final scenes in the abandoned Baroque convent in Mexico make one weep for the religious communities which once walked in silent procession there. Once a wonderful place to rest, and to remember. Where have they all gone?"
Interesting Take on Crime Novels (or Borges), But Too Long
Tsuyoshi | Kyoto, Japan | 04/24/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)

"Things started like this. BBC asked Alex Cox to make a made-for-TV film based on a novel of Jorge-Luis Borges, and the finished original version (55 minutes) was televised on August 5th, 1992. I regret to say that I haven't seen this, but it seems it was received with good reviews. (Interestingly, Cox first wanted Harry Dean Stanton as the lead, which eventually went to Peter Boyle.)

Later on, however, the extended version (88 minutes) was made, which I have seen. It's still not bad, but it is clear that the shorter format was more suitable for the material. The film suffers from too many talks and no actions, but some parts are still fascinating in their own ways.

[IT'S ALEX COX, IT'S PUNK] Like his more recent film 'Revengers Tragedy' the world of Alex Cox is a punk-rock world even if he is using the book of Borges. The film is set in the near future, when one master criminal Scharlach leads his gangs in tow, and robs the bank. Though he is a killer, the film says, he does it with some devilish charms so some people think him as a hero. The film reveals it's tongue-in-cheek attitudes when one 'Borges' appears (and he is blind), and he is played by Alex Cox himself.

But ... well, here's the weakness of the film. For the film is actually about another case, leaving the evil Batman behind. The protagonist and detective Lonnrot (Peter Boyle) is to investigate another murder in a downtown hotel. A Jewish scholar was killed, and though police chief Treviranus (Miguel Sandoval) believes the victim was mistaken for another guest at the hotel (a plausible explanation), Lonnrot insists 'I'm looking for a more rabinnical explanation.'

And another murder occurs, probably related to the first one. Helped by a young journalist Zunz (Christopher Eccleston), Lonnrot seeks for the truths, going through the labyrinth with the clues left on the crime scenes, and using the theological knowledge gained from Zunz.

We should know Cox is using a very intelligent method, knowing the original writer's intentions about the inverted rules of detective novels. The original meaning of 'clue' is literally interpreted, and the detective wanders the labyrinthine world. The inside of a police station is shot in one long shot, with the camara following the policemen going through the numerous turns and narrow alleys of the place, making us lose the sense of direction. OK, I see.

For all its good intention and good location (in Mexico, Cox's favoorite place), the film is extended too long, with too many dialogues and unnecessary flash-forward sections. The problem is Miguel Sandoval's character whose part makes a frame of the story of Lonnrot. Naturally Lonnrot should be the main character, but the police chief, who should be the secondary character, interrupts too much. Moreover, the main story itself does not interest us enough until the very final moment, in which we see everything in the right way. Until then, the 'truths' about the crimes, the identity of the criminal, or the unusual method of the detective all only help confuse our mind, instead of drawing us into the world of the film.

Of course, these apparently unrelated factors all fit in the end, but to see them in the right places we have to wait almost 80 minutes, which is 30 minutes too long. Then we come back to the origin of the film. Why not 55 minutes?"