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Anchor Bay presents

Death And The Compass (1996)

"Though blind, I am an expert sharpshooter. Tell your men to put their weapons on the ground."- Commander Jorges (Alex Cox)

Stars: Peter Boyle, Miguel Sandoval, Christopher Eccleston
Other Stars: Pedro Armendariz, Roberto Sosa, Alex Cox
Director: Alex Cox

Manufacturer: Grace & Wilde Interactive Development
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, surreal and disturbing images)
Run Time: 01h:25m:10s
Release Date: 2001-04-24
Genre: mystery

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B C+B-C+ B+


DVD Review

Alex Cox's bizarre mystery film, Death And The Compass is based on the short story by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is a relatively unknown author in the United States, mainly because his work seems to never have really caught on in any way, despite his legendary status in his home country. Regardless, many consider him one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and there's been a few other films made based on his work, including one by director Bernardo Bertolucci. The vision Alex Cox presents us with is something distinctly different and very daring, to be sure, but it's also a bit confused and extreme. Cox goes to great lengths to dissect the strange, subtle details of Borges' writing style, but in a sense, replaces his own ideas for too much of what made the original story work.

The core story of Death and the Compass is the investigation of a murder that takes place in a weird, anonymous society filled with all sorts of evil doers and trigger-happy policemen. A Jewish rabbi is murdered and Police Commissioner Treviranus (Miguel Sandoval) assumes it was simply a case of mistaken identity. Investigator Lonnrot (Peter Boyle), however, thinks it had something to do with some kind of strange occult sacrifice, possibly involving a group of people trying to make Kabbalistic prophecies come true. The police are forced to go along with the cult theory, despite the fact that the most obvious criminal, notorious robber Red Scarlach, is not considered a valid suspect.

With that, Inspector Lonnrot goes on a strange odyssey into the underworld of the city, in an attempt to uncover some sort of murderous conspiracy. While this plot is fairly straightforward (and is the basic concept behind the original short story), the style and setting is where the real meat is. Alex Cox places the characters into a nightmarish, surreal and campy realm where the most outlandish things happen and the visuals come from the darkest parts of the brain. Some scenes are black&white, others are normal color, while some are sepia and/or washed out and blurred. It's a dreamlike vision of a fictional society where perhaps Luis Borges saw himself fitting in perfectly. What made me uncomfortable, though, was the extremes to which Cox went to create this world.

The sheer level of surreal insanity makes the story very hard to follow and grasp. There are moments of brilliance, where Cox obviously has a handle on the story, but then loses his grasp by going into some wild, ludicrous, self-indulgent element of freaky imagery. It's too intense and wild for the subtle, puzzle-like beauty of the plot's mystery. The jerky cuts and camera tricks just frustrated me, more than grabbing me. I like a film that can be compelling and visual, but it would seem the cost was a coherent story.

Actually, the whole thing would have been much better had it not been for a few, very awkward technical flaws. Above all else stands the virtually inaudible dialogue, apparently recorded with extremely poor, on-set microphones (possibly in the camera rather than on booms). It's literally impossible to understand what's being said in too many scenes without heavy rewinding or turning the volume up to an impossible level. This might sound like something best suited for an audio mix criticism, but in this case, it's clearly a problem for the structure of the film, since you can't always hear what's going on. I also didn't like the wild camera usage, despite the technical brilliance of having such long cuts. Too much is filmed using handheld equipment with little attention given to how well the style fit the movie. I dislike neck-breaking techniques (especially in editing) that disorient the viewer continuously without much point. It's neat when sparsely used, but doing it in almost every scene goes a bit overboard.

In the end, the elegance of the unusual world these characters inhabit seems muddled in an attempt to create something deliberately "weird" for the sake of being weird. I appreciate the unusual worlds Alex Cox has created in previous movies, but here, I think he just went overboard with style over substance, and altered the tone of the story far too much to make it credible.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Death And The Compass uses a lot of different camera styles and film stocks, and as such, has a very uneven quality, but this was done on purpose. While the source print is very dirty and damaged, it seems like an intentional move to create the distorted, dreamy world. The transfer manages to capture all this without too much trouble. There's a good deal of grain and occasional artifacts, but overall, nothing to complain about. The original source, however, is much too dark, with often many details being lost in the black&white scenes.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: As I indicated, there is a big dialogue problem with the film. It doesn't seem to be the fault of the transfer or the mix, but rather a problem with how the audio was originally designed. The sound effects and musical score are very high quality, and easily drown out the incredibly harsh and barely-there speaking track which, as I said, must have not been cleaned up with dubbing or mixing at all. So, much of the film is very hard to understand or get the hang of; easily one of the worst dialogue tracks I've ever heard. On the upside, though, everything else sounds good and there's even some creative surround usage for a few special effects.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+ 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 19 cues and remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Director Alex Cox, Composer Dan Wool.
Packaging: Alpha
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Additional short film Spiderweb
Extras Review: The most intriguing twist to this disc is the inclusion of a 33-minute, short film by director Paul Miller, entitled Spiderweb. The short is an interpretation of the same Jorge Luis Borge story that Death And the Compass is based on, and to be honest, does it much more brilliantly. The film is amazing and well-crafted, despite it's short running time. It uses the original story as a direct basis (without the changes and add-ons Alex Cox put into to his version), and sets itself in the black&white, moderately surreal world entitled "Borgesia." Inspector Lonnrot (played by veteran actor Nigel Hawthorne) investigates the familiar murder which leads him to suspect a strange, Jewish conspiracy to commit murder for Kabbalistic prophecy. The short totally washed away my disappointment with the feature film, and really is almost worth renting the disc just to see this interpretation of the story. I came away from the short VERY impressed with this take on the Compass storyline.

The next major feature is an audio commentary by Alex Cox and composer Dan Wool, who went by his band name "Pray For Rain" in creating the score for Death And the Compass. The commentary is, as usual for Alex Cox, very well done. I might not particularly like Death And The Compass, but Cox is a lot of fun to listen to, especially when he's talking film. The commentary is "live" and Cox and Wool are actually together viewing the film, which gives a nice, personal touch to the track. Dan Wool discusses various topics, not just the music, but mainly focuses on how much work he did for the final cut of the film (which went through many changes). According to Alex Cox, the DVD version is a new master that fixed many physical problems with the print, problems that were not intentional.

The case itself has a cardstock replica of the original poster and also includes a small Death And The Compass sticker. The reverse side of the outer cover has a short interview with Alex Cox regarding the film's early days in production. Interestingly, when asked about previous films based on Jorge Luis Borges' work, there is no mention made of the Spiderweb short.

Extras Grade: B+

Final Comments

Death And The Compass is certainly worth watching because, undoubtedly, it will appeal to certain people. I believe it deserves to see the light of day, I just think Alex Cox took the unusual aspects to an extreme that ill-fitted the tone of the story. Try a rental, if anyone dares carry it.

Dan Lopez 2001-05-02