- Actors: Peter Boyle, Miguel Sandoval, Christopher Eccleston, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, Pedro Armendáriz Jr.
- Directors: Alex Cox
- Writers: Alex Cox, Jorge Luis Borges
- Producers: Karl Braun, Alejandra Liceaga, Andrés Vicente Gómez, Diego López Rivera, Katsumi Ishikuma
- Format: PAL
- Language: English
- Region: All Regions
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9 - 1.78:1
- Number of discs: 1
- Classification: 15
- Studio: Ilc
- DVD Release Date: 15 Feb. 2005
- Run Time: 82 minutes
- Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
- ASIN: B000058DG5
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 145,488 in DVD & Blu-ray (See Top 100 in DVD & Blu-ray)
Death And The Compass [DVD]
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Alex Cox's adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges' fantasy crime thriller. Lonnrot (Peter Boyle) is a great detective in the Sherlock Holmes mould. He is on the trail of the notorious Red Sharlach (Christoper Eccleston) and will stop at nothing to bring him to justice. But when he finally tracks the villain down to the Villa Triste-Le-Roy, what he encounters there will tax his celebrated reasoning power to the very limit.
An adaptation of the José Luis Borges short story, Death and the Compass is a baroque murder mystery with a comic touch. Plagued by his involvement in a prior investigation, weary and embittered Police Commissioner Treviranus (played by Cox regular Miguel Sandoval, Straight to Hell, Three Businessmen) attempts to set a peculiar history straight. When his star detective Lonnrot (Peter Boyle), an intuitive, blue-suited Buddhist, is stumped as to the motive behind a series of unsolved psycho-geographical murders with Kabbalistic overtones, Treviranus suspects master criminal Scharlach (Christopher Eccleston), at large in the city. But Lonnrot rejects this thesis and, with the aide of enthusiastic, atheist journalist, Zunz (Chistopher Eccleston), he is lead to believe that the crimes are allied to points on the compass. Drawn fatefully to where he believes a final crime will be committed, Lonnrot and Zunz search for the solution within a mysterious deserted mansion to the South of the city.
Shot with a comic book sensibility (like a 1930s movie serial) on richly coloured modernist sets with futurist flourishes, Cox's film looks sumptuous and follows the style of Borges' labryinthine scenario to the letter without losing the plot. The three leads all acquit themselves admirably. Boyle's mystical detective is awkward and aloof in contrast to Sandoval's cunning, career-minded police inspector, while Ecceleston shape-shifts between three roles with alarming ease.
On the DVD: An audio commentary by Alex Cox and composer Dan Wool of Pray for Rain (who also scored Cox's Straight to Hell and Three Businessmen) primarily examines the relationship between sound and setting. Paul Miller's "Spiderweb", the featurette advertised on the sleeve and liner notes, does not appear on this disc. --Chris Campion
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Top Customer Reviews
Sometime after the film was broadcast, the opportunity arose to extend the film to feature length for the Japanese market. But whereas the confines of the fifty minute format seem to have brought the best out of the director, the luxury to open up the material and play with it again sees him lapsing into self-indulgent mode. New material was shot (largely consisting of Miguel Sandoval as the chief of police reminiscing about the case from the vantage point of some date after it's all over) and spliced into the existing film. The result is a floppy non-mystery with characters delivering their lines in an "ironic" manner that ends up being little more than a painfully familiar hipster pantomime. Perhaps Cox was tickled by the whole Borgesian game of remaking his own movie, but the talky, static result seems (in perhaps another Borgesian conceit) to prove that Alex Cox might not be the man to make an Alex Cox movie.
I'm pleased to have seen it and it's a pleasure to own although I probally wouldn't watch it for a while again, but it'll be nice to go through my extensive DVD collection and look at it in the distant future and see it again.
I recommend you watch this, not the highlight of Eccleston's career, but "Fantastic" none-the-less.
Keep up the good work Doctor!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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?
Peter Boyles stars, but Christopher Eccelston steals the show here with his stunning performance of the Red Scharlach, the real protagonist of the story. This might be the best film Alex Cox will ever direct, it's that good, and boasts a visual style unlike any other. You're going to find yourself excited over the possibilities of cinema after watching this great fusion of Borges and Cox!
I was shocked by Alex Cox's interpretation when I saw it. It seemed everything opposite to what Borges was. It was loud, bombastic, short on attention, overly colorful, brash, and totally in-your-face. It would be equivalent to GG Allin doing J.S. Bach's Goldberg Aria. It may be a good film, but clearly, Cox's personality dominated (and suffocated) a Borgesian story.
Paul Miller's version, on the other hand, is much closer to what I personally feel are qualities associated with a Jorge Luis Borges work: Quiet, introspective, intellectual, multi-dimensional, multi-cultural, non-linear, with a strong, grainy, element of a nightmare.
I can't count how many times I have come across reviews of this DVD where people go on and on about Spiderweb as if it were the main movie. If you can put aside your prejudices against film length and black-and-white cinematography, then for all intents and purposes, Spiderweb IS the main movie you would purchase this dvd for.
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-guess, 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!).