Death and the Compass (1992)

Lonnrot poring over a giant book.

Lonnrot poring over a giant book.

I sometimes wonder why Alex Cox isn’t a more prominent cult figure. Q believes it’s because Straight to Hell was such a devastating mess, cult fans must have assumed Repo Man was a fluke; the only good thing Cox is capable of. I suppose that’s possible. After all, I had to turn off Straight to Hell after about 30 minutes; how one can mess up a psychedelic western with Joe Strummer still remains a mystery to me. Even so, it never turned me off from the rest of Cox’s films, and I’m glad it hasn’t. Which brings me to Cox’s interpretation of Jorge Luis Borges’s Death and the Compass.

I’ve never read any Jorge Luis Borges. People tell me I’m missing out, and I’m inclined to believe them. So, when we set down to watch Death and the Compass, we started off by watching a short film from 1977 included on the dvd, Spiderweb. I’m told this is a relatively faithful, straight adaptation of

Red Scharlach

Red Scharlach

the Borges story. I’m definitely glad we watched this first, otherwise, as Q knew beforehand, I would have been all worried about plot mechanics and I would have missed all the interesting stuff in Cox’s version. That should be an indication that this film is sort of all over the place.

Peter Boyle plays Erik Lonnrot, a quirky detective working in a dystopian future. The regime is totalitarian, his city is poor, and there’s a crazed madman named Red Scharlach on the loose. When a rabbi is murdered in his hotel room, they put

Treviranus, our narrator.

Treviranus, our narrator.

Lonnrot on the case. His boss, Treviranus (Miguel Sandoval), thinks this case should be pretty open-and-shut, but Lonnrot is convinced there’s something larger at play here. Some cryptic words on the Rabbi’s typewriter launch Lonnrot into the world of Jewish mysticism, believing this to be the key to solving the crime. 

Honestly, I am not sure exactly what I think of this movie. At times the low budget was painfully visible and did detract a little bit from the overall feel of the film. Still, I think Boyle and Sandoval are both a lot of fun to watch, and it’s fun to watch this movie and say “oh, that’s so Alex Cox.” Do I think this movie will convert folks into giant Alex Cox fans? Probably not, but it’s definitely worth watching; I’m glad I did. In fact, I think this is one of those movies I need to watch over again, because I know a second viewing would open my eyes to a lot of things I missed the first time around. But next time, I’ll make sure to have read the short story first!


2 Responses to “Death and the Compass (1992)”

  1. 1 ladyfaceladyface
    May 10, 2013 at 3:34 am

    Remember when I was in a band called Death and the Compass? I do.

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