Johnny Depp and the devil star in a European film noir. Roman Polanski’s THE NINTH GATE is a deliciously fun and beautifully crafted fairy tale for adults. It is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’ll tell you why.
I have a weird obsession with this movie. I’ve seen it well over 50 times since its 1999 release that I probably warped the VHS, the DVD, and now the less than stellar version that’s on Blu-Ray. But when you see a film this many times, you not only memorize the lines, but the camera angles, the edits, lighting, costumes, props-everything.
You start to feel like you were on-set.
I’m not even sure why I love it too — it’s rated 41% on Rotten Tomatoes (which isn’t necessarily the best indicator of a good film), but Roger Ebert only gave it **, and that’s Ebert — but I guess certain movies strike a chord more than others. This one did.
I think critics [Ebert included] got it all wrong. I would argue this film is close to a masterpiece and definitely a masterclass on filmmaking. In fact, most of Polanski’s movies are. For this reason, I’m going to write why I love this movie and hopefully, this will convince you to go and see it.
BORIS BALKAN: “There’s nothing more reliable than a man whose loyalty can be bought for hard cash.”
JOHNNY DEPP [before he became JOHNNY DISNEY] plays Dean Corso, a hard-nosed book dealer who specializes in buying and selling rare books. Corso meets with wealthy scholar Boris Balkan (the great FRANK LANGELLA), who hires him to authenticate a book he believes to be a forgery: The Nine Gates and The Kingdom of Shadows. Balkan claims only one of the three surviving copies in the world is real and it’s up to Corso to find out which one. Simple, right?
Not quite. The book is reputed to be written by Satan himself and if its riddle is solved, will grant absolute power and equality with God.
The book trail leads Corso on a journey to Spain, Portugal, and France where he meets eccentric, austere characters and a female drifter who always seems bump into him “unexpectedly.”
This setup is like many noir films where the lead is put on a seemingly innocuous case and gets thrown into exotic locales as well as a deadly web of femme fatales, intrigue, and in this case, the supernatural.
This is where I believe critics went wrong.
They expected a modern day horror/thriller (akin to Polanski’s previous 1968 masterpiece, ROSEMARY’S BABY) when they should really be viewing this as an homage to the hard-boiled noir of the 1940s but with a supernatural twist.
Take for instance a scene when Corso is visited by a wealthy widow Liana Telfer (played by the ridiculously sexy LENA OLIN). Take note of the dialogue. The film is supposed to take place in 1998 but they sound like characters straight from a Raymond Chandler novel. They even mention this parody in the dialogue between them (in the director’s commentary, Polanski himself notes Chandler’s influence in this scene and the overall film).
CORSO: I make a living…
LIANA: I could throw in a bonus (her eyes locked at Corso; he pauses)
CORSO: …I’ve seen this before someplace.
LIANA: I know…in the movies.
CORSO: — she had an automatic in her stocking…
(she smiles with a cigarette in her mouth, then lifts skirt revealing bare legs)
LIANA: …no automatic…
The way this scene is acted and directed is sublime. Polanski manages to fuse both sexual tension and danger that is reminiscent of the great noir films like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) or DETOUR (1945) and it’s very simple. A tête-à-tête between man and woman who both want something from each other, yet it’s so entertaining to watch.
Another complaint was how every character drinks and smokes in front of century old textbooks. But in the world of noir, paired with a fast tongue, everyone’s got either bad lungs or a rotten liver. I can forgive these ‘unrealistic’ notions because I understand what Polanski was going for. I think critics were not expecting a noir film back in 1999 or felt cheated when they didn’t get another ROSEMARY’S BABY.
That’s a big reason why THE NINTH GATE is brilliant. It takes something as classic as film noir, adds a supernatural element to it, and moves it toward the modern era while maintaining the same cynicism and paranoia in tone and atmosphere.
Specifically, the latter. Polanski is a master when it comes to setting a mood for a scene. I often study his choice of blocking, lens choice, and framing. Let’s face it, mood is the reason you physically respond to a movie, so you must have a proper one.
Roman Polanski says he intended to make a “fairy tale for adults” with this movie. This idea sounds strange but it is true. The narrative of THE NINTH GATE is similar in arc to the journey of fairy tales, where an ordinary character is catapulted into an extraordinary situation. But don’t let that deter you. This is a film for mature, intelligent movie viewers. While there are comical elements to it, its perfectly balanced by an underlying darkness and mystery.
I also love how the mythology of the prince of darkness is treated unlike any other film. Too many movies treat the devil as some kind of bogeyman. In Polanski’s film, Satan is neither seen nor heard. He (or she) takes the form of real beings in the world. This directorial decision makes it far more effective and creepy than flashing the image of a centaur-like beast with horns and a pitchfork.
That would be silly.
Wojciech Kilar’s score is one of my favorite movie soundtracks. It’s jaunty, yet menacing. Ominous, yet playful. Almost bohemian. The woodwinds evoke a regal atmosphere that blends well with the peculiar characters Corso encounters on his journey. There’s a wonderful track ‘Vocalise’ featuring Korean opera singer Sumi Jo that’s absolutely incredible.
The film is adapted from Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel, THE CLUB DUMAS, but Polanski and his team of writers pared down the subplots and kept the meat of the story to fit Polanski’s paranoid style.
If you read my CHINATOWN review, I talked a bit about his impeccable craft and his use of wide lenses and over-the-shoulder shots. As usual, he’s in top form here. His camera slithers along and creeps up on the viewer. Fools would call his films slow. ‘Paced’ is the appropriate word.
Actor Stuart Wilson (who starred in Polanski’s DEATH AND THE MAIDEN) describes the filmmaker as ‘shallow water pretending to be deep water.’
That describes Polanski perfectly. His movies always have this uneasy feeling to them. Almost like a dread that entices the viewer to walk further into its narrative, but keeps them at just enough a distance to avoid predictability or boredom.
And of course, Darius Khondji’s (SE7EN, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, DELICATESSEN, to name a few) work must be commended. His lighting is beautiful and nostalgic, evoking an atmosphere of smoke and mirrors that befits the noir tone. I believe he used Cooke lenses which give a soft look to the image.
The ending — I’ll admit — is where the movie does not deliver completely. But given all the events that led up to the finale, it could only end this way. However, I found myself wanting more than just the lasting image though I’m not sure exactly what. Either way, the film has major rewatch value. If I’ve seen this over 50 times, it’s got to at least be a good film.
In fact, I would rather make a ‘okay’ film that people watch dozens of times and remember, than a film that people call ‘great’ but only watch once and forget.
Like its lead character, THE NINTH GATE is one of the rare times when it’s all about the journey rather than the payoff.
- If you like this film, I highly recommend Polanski’s 2010 film, THE GHOST WRITER; it’s very similar in tone and storyline and oddly enough, garnered 83% on RT and a 4 Star Review from Roger Ebert
- I love the ancillary characters Corso meets: a one-armed Baroness, the Spanish Ceniza twins, the Dennis Rodman henchman, a half-paralyzed book dealer, etc. The actors in this film are all perfectly cast and they are wonderfully entertaining and fit the eeriness of the movie
- New York, Toledo, Lisbon, Paris, and rural France —much like actors — having great settings tend to produce great films. I also love the idea of creating a universe where the setting is as expansive as its mystery.
- Corso’s messenger bag is so cool; I bought one like it when I travel
- I’m a word fetishist and the dialogue in this film lets me indulge my desires; also, I love the names in this movie — Dean Corso, Liana Telfer, Boris Balkan, Aristade Torchia, Frida Kessler, Andrew Telfer, Victor Fargas —are wonderfully theatrical.
- I also love the attention to detail in the set and production design; props to Dean Tavoularis
- Through Polanski’s direction, Hervé de Luze’s editing so perfectly tight and seamless that I often study it for my own work
- The mansion scene is hilarious; watch this and EYES WIDE SHUT’s orgy scene for comparison (1999 was a great year for movies)
- I love how snide Corso is. For example, in a post-coital scene, he has one of my favorite lines in movies:
SHE: Don’t fuck with me.
HE: …I thought I already did…
**Note: 1999 had many films about the devil/supernatural (THE HAUNTING, STIGMATA, END OF DAYS, STIR OF ECHOES); particularly, late 90s thriller/horror had very similar bogeyman tropes. In other words: Satan was a rockstar in the 90s.
This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.