Today I watched Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999)
Dean Corso is something of a book detective, tracking down and finding rare tomes for rich collectors, but he is also an unscrupulous swindler who will go to any lengths for said employers. He is hired by one Boris Balkan,a wealthy man with an enviable collection of rare works on one subject, the Devil. Balkan has a particular book, The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, of which only three original copies exist, but Balkan thinks there is actually only one true copy of The Nine Gates. He wants Corso to investigate the other two copies and find out what he can but as soon as he takes the job, Corso becomes consumed with well placed suspicion. There are people following Corso and an auspicious number of the people Corso corresponds with in this investigation turn up dead.
The Ninth Gate is not quite a horror or thriller but also not quite a comedy, finding a quirky middle ground where the two meet and crossover with the brooding mystery of neo-noir. Any one of these elements would be unsatisfying on it’s own, but together they strike an odd balance and give the film a very unique tone. The noirish mystery definitely benefits from the horror edge, lending the film a deeply foreboding atmosphere, while never needing to indulge in extreme scares. The sense of humour here fits into Polanski’s general style of being dark, understated, and slightly strange, hardly the winking irony of modern horror/comedy. I think a big part of what holds all these components together is Wojciech Kilar’s fantastic score which plays like a darker take on Danny Elfman’s fusion of bombastic and quirky.
Along with the fantastic score, this film is propped up by the performances of Johnny Depp as Dean Corso and Frank Langella as Boris Balkan. Depp helps make Corso a very compelling protagonist, he may be a bastard but he is damn good at it and that competence makes him stand out. Corso is a shark, a predator, whose prey is rare books; this makes him a wonderful amalgam of natural predation and intellectualism. Langella’s Balkan is like an even darker version of this, hungry for knowledge of things perhaps left unknown. Langella gets some of the funniest moments, especially some phone conversations in which he is the epitome of deadpan.
While I do think this is a very solid movie, I have to admit that it plays with symbols and story tropes that really work for me. Books and satanism all presented with humour that can be both sardonic and silly when needed. There is also a wonderfully colourful supporting cast whose unusual characters reminded me somewhat of a Coen Brothers film. I heartily recommend this film for those who can appreciate a more understated and subtle mystery with an off kilter sense of humour. 5/5