The Ninth Gate

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THE NINTH GATE creaked open to weak reviews and lackluster boxoffice in 1999, the rare Roman Polanski film to receive jeers rather than cheers (paging Pirates). Producing as well as directing, he also co-wrote the screenplay, adapting the acclaimed novel “The Club Dumas”, written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

Scruples-optional rare book dealer ‘Dean Corso’ (Johnny Depp) knows his stuff, but his mercenary side gets him in over his head when he agrees to work for cultured if ruthless ‘Boris Balkan’ (Frank Langella, well cast), who desires possession of the remaining copies of “The Nine Gates Of The Kingdom Of Shadows”, which purportedly contain the missing links that can summon the Devil. Corso’s trail through Europe has him dealing with rich, sexy, supercilious and casually vicious ‘Liana Telfer’ (Lena Olin, cast to a tee) and ‘The Girl’ (Emmanuelle Seigner—Polanski’s wife), a mysterious vixen who shadows his search.

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Handsome production design (Dean Tavoularis) adorns the location shooting in Spain, France and Portugal, and the music score by Wojciech Kilar leans to the ominous, but the initially intriguing setup is hamstrung by a tone that changes from dead-serious to seriocomic and back, and finally spins into silliness (as most of these Devil-tales finally do), with a “huh? finale that feels like a cheat after an investment of 133 minutes. It looks swell, the actors are keen, but the pacing is off, Corso/Depp/s actions are driven by plot rather than thought, and it finally just doesn’t make enough sense. *

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Budgeted at $38,000,000, it grossed $58,400,000 internationally, with just $18,661,000 of that ringing green in the States, where it’s refined aura and erratic mood-swinging was left in the wake of The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, Eyes Wide Shut and Stigmata. The controversial director’s next picture, dealing with real-life horror, was an unqualified success: The Pianist.

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With Barbara Jefford (hissing up a German accent like she’s in a WW2 movie), James Russo (a different casting choice for this typically unnerving actor), Jose Lopez Rodero (playing the twin brothers in a fun bit), Allen Garfield (a cameo that lasts about 15 seconds) and Jack Taylor. Co-writing the script with Polanski were noted British translator John Brownjohn and Spanish director Enrique Irbizu.

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 * Polanski: “The Ninth Gate is fun, it’s nice, I think it’s a good movie, but after all, what is it about? It’s like every other movie that is made nowadays. It may be different in style, but it doesn’t make any important statement. It was something that could be done quickly, I needed work, I had to do something. It was too long a time since my last film and a lot of projects were canceled.”
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“Evil and the Devil are two different things. The Devil is how humans like to imagine evil, with horns and a tail. Evil is part of our personality. I’ve never believed in occultism or the Devil, and I’m not at all religious. I’d rather read science books than something about occultism. When it comes to cinema, evil is simply a form of entertainment to me.”
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