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August 16th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Ninth Gate 1999 Johnny Depp

Roman Polanski was born August 18, 1933 in Paris. The sordid details of his flight from the United States in 1978 have often overshadowed discussion of the director’s work, which at the age of 77, includes one of the best films of 2010. Is he a world class filmmaker? In the month of August, I take a look at ten directed by Roman Polanski.

Ninth Gate 1999 poster Ninth Gate dvd

The Ninth Gate (1999)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Screenplay by Enrique Urbizu and John Brownjohn & Roman Polanski, based on the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Produced by Roman Polanski
133 minutes

Every filmmaker can be excused for making a terrible movie or two. For Roman Polanski, one of those excuses is titled The Ninth Gate. Nine days before photography was set to begin in July 1996 on a black comedy titled The Double, John Travolta dropped out of the dual lead role over creative differences with Polanski. Steve Martin agreed to step in, but the project was scrubbed by Mandalay Pictures before shooting could start. Desperate to get his next film going, Polanski turned to a script adapted by Enrique Urbizu from Arturo Perez-Reverte’s intricately plotted supernatural mystery El Club Dumas. Working with John Brownjohn over the course of the next year, Polanski dumped Perez-Reverte’s subplot about a lost chapter of The Three Musketeers and focusing on more commercial elements, arrived on the title The Ninth Gate.

A Spanish-French co-production financed by Artisan Entertainment at $38 million, The Ninth Gate alternates between a nap and a kind of stupor. Resembling a detective mystery, what’s most mysterious is the lack of clarity over the most basic details, like whether the girl is real or a figment of the protagonist’s imagination. The effect is less artistic and seems more like sloppy filmmaking. Costumed in glasses, goatee and combed back hair in an effort to look adult, Johnny Depp is miscast as a slick book dealer. The talents of cinematographer Darius Khondji (City of Lost Children, Seven) are wasted on a film that looks flat and disinterested throughout. Polanski just never gets anything in tune, settling on bouncy musical cues that recall Elmer Bernstein’s score for Ghostbusters without anything remotely amusing happening on screen.

Ninth Gate 1999 title card

In present day New York, rare book dealer Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) swindles a four-volume set of Don Quixote printed in 1780 from the family of a dying collector. A wealthy client named Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) — whose collection is devoted to the subject of the devil — hires Corso to appraise his latest acquisition, Aristide Torchia’s 17th century work The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, which contains engravings Torchia is said to have adapted from the Delomelanicon, a mythical book penned by Lucifer himself. Only two other copies of The Nine Gates exist and Balkan suspects his may be a forgery. After stashing the Torchia with his partner Bernie (James Russo), Corso is visited by Liana Tefler (Lena Olin), widow of the book’s previous owner. Seeking it back, she seduces and attacks Corso, then apparently ransacks his partner’s store and kills him.

Arriving in Toledo, Spain, Corso visits bookbinding Ceniza brothers (José López Rodero in a dual role) who reveal that three of the Torchia’s engravings bear the cryptic initials “LCF”. With a mystery girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) following him, Corso seeks out the owners of the other two books: Victor Fargas (Jack Taylor) in Sintra, Portugal and Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford) in Paris, both of whom are killed in rapid succession. Studying their copies of The Nine Gates, Corso notices variations in their “LCF” engravings, illustrations of castle keeps, gateways and keys. He concludes that all three books are genuine and Balkan believes that when the nine “LCF” engravings are reunited, the prince of darkness will be revealed to him. Liana Tefler and her bodyguard manage to steal one of the books, which Corso’s mystery girl appears eager to help him get back.

Ninth Gate 1999

Ninth Gate 1999 Frank Langella Johnny Depp

Ninth Gate 1999 Lena Olin

Ninth Gate 1999 Emmanuelle Seigner

Ninth Gate 1999 Johnny Depp

Ninth Gate 1999 Johnny Depp Jose Lopez Rodero

Ninth Gate 1999 Johnny Depp Emmanuelle Seigner

Ninth Gate 1999

Ninth Gate 1999 Emmanuelle Seigner Johnny Depp

Ninth Gate 1999 Emmanuelle Seigner

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 52,840 users: 60% for The Ninth Gate

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 44 for The Ninth Gate

What do you say?

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Based on novel · Dreams and visions · Femme fatale · Murder mystery · Road trip · Supernatural · Train

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.D. // Aug 25, 2010 at 6:42 am

    I dunno, I really like this film a lot. I love the mood and atmosphere of it and really feel that in some ways it is a throw back to FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS in that it tries to be a scary horror/supernatural film while also gently parodying it – hence the sometimes jaunty music that plays during scenes. Obviously, Polanski was doing that for a specific effect and, for me, it works.

    I also really love Darius Khondji’s richly textured cinematography and how it contributes to the overall mood of the world that Polanski creates. For example, the New York City scenes have a very 1940s vibe to them, utilizing brown and blacks with a warm gold glow from the street lamps. This is, in turn, contrasted with the green and red in the phone booth when Corso is trying to contact Balkan.

    As for the cliché aspects of the film, I always felt that you need to be less concerned at anticipating plot twists and predictable elements in favor of simply enjoying the ride. Polanski probably was aware of this and decided to have fun with them. There is Balkan’s “666” password, Corso’s perchance for getting the crap kicked out of him, and the one-armed woman book dealer that all contribute to a playful mood that punctuates the film whenever it runs dangerously close to being too pretentious or self-important. The film has a playful tone but Polanski knows when to rein things in. As the horror is heightened so is the film’s dark comedy during the climactic moments.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Aug 25, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    J.D.: That’s an awful lot of “buts” to put on a movie, but I have to give you credit for generating the most cogent defense of The Ninth Gate I’ve read so far. I haven’t seen Fearless Vampire Killers yet, but it’s for me to believe this movie was managed satire as much as it was mismanaged. Thanks for commenting!

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