I don’t usually watch film noir, but I was intrigued to see THE NINTH GATE included on a genre list. I love this film so I gave it another watch, and yes, it definitely qualifies. Then again, if film noir is about pessimism and fatalism, one could argue most of Polanski’s work qualifies. And what could be more fatalistic than trying to conjure the Devil?

The film is based on the book “El Club Dumas,” written by Arturo Perez-Reverte. It follows Dean Corso, played by Johnny Depp, a rare book dealer who is commissioned by collector Boris Balkan, (Frank Langella,) to authenticate his copy of an obscure occult book, “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows”. He managed to get it from another collector, Telfer, before his suicide. Now Balkan wants Corso to compare his copy with the only other two copies that exist. This book is supposed to conjure the Devil, but as Corso jests, He didn’t show up.

Corso immediately realizes this is no normal job and this is no normal book. As he travels to Portugal and France to hunt down the other two copies, he finds himself being pursued by Telfer’s “dishy”, but viscous, widow (Lena Olin,) who has a secret interest in retrieving her husband’s book. He also has The Girl, (Emmanuelle Seigner.) She is his tag along/protector, who seems to have a secret interest in helping him succeed. As he is able to compare all three copies, he stumbles upon a hidden code unknown to any of their owners and finds himself drawn into a mystery that leaves dead bodies everywhere he goes.

Telfer’s widow calls Corso a “book detective,” and the film does remind me of the old Bogart movies. In one scene, we see Corso’s apartment with a desk against a window and the neon light from a street sign is shining through the blinds. The color scheme is subdued with earthy browns, blacks and greens. It’s like a mystery set in a labyrinthine library; one with Satanists waiting for you behind the stacks.

Polanski co-wrote the screenplay with John Brownjohn and Enrique Urbizu. The dialogue is
clipped and full of caustic wit, punctuated by a lot of smoking and drinking. It is especially fun watching Depp and Langella bouncing off of each other. The sets are wonderful; tucked away, unassuming places in the middle of beautiful locations. They add to the feeling of a very old menace that has been lurking in the dust, biding its time.

Corso is a typical hard boiled detective type who doesn’t buy into the Satanist agenda. Books are a commodity to be bought and sold; as he tells Balkan, “I believe in my percentage.” As the film progresses, he realizes he can’t walk away, even though The Girl encourages him to many times. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you believe in the Devil if She falls in love with you.

 

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