Death and the Compass is a little known but wonderfully composed noir film based on a short story of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges. The film is told as a story within a story, partly narrated by Treviranus, the chief of police in the film’s unnamed city. Treviranus’s narration comes in the form of a conversation with an unseen interviewer, and in it he is seen discussing the events surrounding the death of a police detective, Erik Lönnrot (played by the magnificent Peter Boyle).
The rest of the story is told in a lengthy flashback, punctuated by the occasional snippet from Treviranus’s interview. It is revealed the Lönrot had developed a vengeful obsession with bringing down the mysterious crime lord Red Scharlach. Lönrot’s final investigation begins with the senseless murder of a visiting Rabbi. The detective’s curiosity is aroused when he sees the sentence “The first letter of the name has been spoken” typed on a piece of paper. The rest of the police dismiss this as a coincidence, pointing out that the room across the hall held a great quantity of diamonds and that the murderer probably broke into the wrong room and was forced to kill the rabbi to escape identification. But Lönrot is not convinced, and with the aid of a young reporter named Zunz (Christopher Eccleston), he sets out to find the mystical significance behind the killing. His obsession with an occult explanation only increases as more murders and similar cryptic messages appear.
Death and the Compass is truly a magnificent film. In addition to solid acting and crisp pacing, the setting is incredibly atmospheric. It is pure detective noir set in an ambiguous South American city filled with political intrigue and shadowed by the sinister crime boss Red Scharlach. Arguably, it does for Buenos Aires what classical noir does for New York, Chicago, or LA. The fictional world is filled with suspicion bordering on paranoia, and there is a strong sense that Lönrot can never be quite sure who to trust and it always seems that the killer is one step, and one missing person, ahead.