In the Spotlight: The Ninth Gate
by Mat Weir
Dean Corso is the type of cutthroat dealer you only want to meet when you’re giving him money. Even then, you only hire him because he’s the best at hunting down and assessing rare books, not because you like him. He’s a man driven by greed who isn’t afraid to screw over his competition to make his client happy.
Played by a young(er) Johnny Depp, Corso is the protagonist for Roman Polanski’s 1999 thriller, The Ninth Gate. Loosely based on Arturo Perez-Reverte’s 1993 novel, The Club Dumas, the movie follows Corso as he’s hired by wealthy book collector Boris Balkan; a man with little personality and few morals to offset his billions of dollars. Balkan instructs Corso he has acquired a copy of the priceless The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows—a seventeenth century book written by Aristide Torchia (who was burned at the stake for the manuscript) based on an earlier manuscript authored by the Devil himself. The Nine Gates has the power to summon the Demon and even give the bearer immortality, if and only if, the spells are done correctly. Balkan tells Corso there are only two other manuscripts in existence (three total), but rumor has it only one of them is genuine. It’s Corso’s job to locate the other two, in the private collections of equally rich and eccentric characters, and assess for himself if there’s any validity to the rumors.
Spoiler Alert!!! Do NOT enter the Circle of Knowledge if Thou is not prepared!
Almost immediately after taking the job, strange things begin happening to Corso. Upon visiting with the Balkan manuscript’s previous owner, the lusty, young (well, much younger than her late husband, anyway) trophy widow, Liana Telfer, he’s followed by several people and keeps seeing the same, strangely beautiful woman—who seems like she might be helping him somehow.
Corso flies to Europe in search of the other two copies, learning the differences between each lies in the engravings. While each book has nine similar engravings, each copy has three that are slightly different from the others—and the differences are signed “LCF.” Think of it as a Highlights Magazine “Spot The Differences in These Two Pictures” for Satanists.
With the mysterious deaths of the other two collectors who own The Nine Gates, Corso is able to grab the LCF engravings and delivers them to his client. Balkan then unsuccessfully tries to summon The Beast and burns in the fires of Hell, leaving Corso to have random sex in front of an old castle with the woman who’s been helping him. The movie ends with the woman telling Corso that the final engraving Balkan used was a forgery. Corso returns to the original documented owners of the manuscript to find they had been killed but just so happens to find the real engraving (what a lucky break!) The final scene is of Corso walking through the Ninth Gate at the old castle from previous. The anti-climatic ending is only one of many flaws riddled throughout a movie that should’ve resembled a masterpiece instead of Swiss cheese.
I originally saw The Ninth Gate in the theaters at the ripe age of 15 and I was stoked. A new thriller by legendary director, Roman Polanski, featuring my then favorite oddball actor (by 1999 Depp had solidified himself with movies like Fear & Loathing, Dead Man and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape without becoming a cliché with later roles like Captain Jack Sparrow and Tim Burton’s not-so-secret-crush)—I mean, how could I not be stoked?
It would turn out to be the time I learned a valuable lesson in cinema. As I watched the film roll by, I grew more and more confused at the transparency of the screen, hoping to learn at the end that Polanski had sent the audience on a red herring hunt. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
As I like to pretend to dabble in optimism, let’s start with the good points. First, Ninth Gate actually starts off strong. Our introduction to Corso is him assessing a private collection as priceless, telling the inheritors not to sell the collection for anything less then eight figures but they have a few “more common” titles he’ll gladly take off their hands for more than their worth. Of course, he’s lying through his teeth, screwing his competition and the collectors. The pace is moderate and utilizes many noire elements that continue throughout the film: shadows, lines, hardened characters, seductive females, a quick tongued protagonist who isn’t quite sharp enough to put all the pieces together until the end and even the detective motif (even if Corso is a book detective).
That’s pretty much where the good ends. While one-dimensional characters work in noire films due to context, they don’t work for Polanski. With no character depth, one of the first blaring questions peeks at the beginning: Just who is Balkan and what does he do to have so much power and money? When he first shows Corso the tome, it’s locked away in an atmosphere controlled, private library. Something not very many collectors in my financial bracket own. Just saying.
As mentioned, the major flaw of the film is transparency. Towards the beginning we see a shot of a tattoo on the widow Telfer’s shoulder, later to be told in weak dialogue that is almost forgettable, that’s the mark of an underground cult for the rich & elite. But why is this even important? Everything is explained later in the film and we see Telfer in the cult. The movie could’ve been much more thrilling without the knowledge at the beginning of the film, leaving the audience to guess about who’s after Depp’s copy and why.
The worst crime of transparency is about three quarters of the way in, when Corso is chased through the streets of Paris and the mysterious woman (who you always suspect is the Devil in a series of not-so-subtle suggestions about her ulterior motives) rushes to his rescue BY ACTUALLY FLYING IN AND SWOOPING DOWN on the assailant. I mean, COME ON!! Yes, the film’s subject matter is based around religious phenomena, but Polanksi still had the viewer believing the film was based in reality. This scene was so horribly done it actually had me laughing in the theaters.
Honestly, I’m still not even sure about the significance of the castle in the film. I mean, why that place? What happened there that the Devil just can’t get away from? With absolutely no explanation the portal o Hell could easily have been the French woods or, more accurately, a McDonald’s.
All that said, The Ninth Gate is a flick worth watching simply to see what it could’ve been. The cinematography is beautifully done and Polanski’s noire feeling throughout is worth it. The potential for an amazing film is all there, but instead of pushing the boundaries, Polanski believed his own hype and allows the movie to coast through mediocrity. The Devil is in the details.