In a nightmare city inhabited only by criminals and police... a mystic detective finds a tool to catch a villainous outlaw.
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.