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Cinophile: The Ninth Gate

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Johnny Depp is knows for marching to his own drum, portraying strange and elaborate characters, but he also has a knack for playing the straight guy. This doesn’t always work – just watch Public Enemies or The Tourist – but the Deppster can do everyman as long as there is something not quite right about the character. Point in case: a book dealer with limited morals and just enough greed.

Depp’s Dean Corso is a shady character who will happily swindle hapless people out of their priceless books. His ruthlessness attracts the interest of a wealthy businessman who has a special job. He has obtained a copy of a book said to have been authored by the devil and the man wants it authenticated as not being a forgery. So Corso is paid to find the other two books and compare them. But soon he finds himself embroiled in something much more sinister: could one of the books explain how to summon Satan and have all your desires granted?

The Ninth Gate is another take on the famous Faustian yarn: the offer of a diabolical deal in exchange for something valuable – usually a soul. Every now and then a movie trots it out for a run, delivering masterpieces like The Devil’s Advocate. But most of the time these stories deal with the making of the deal or its consequences. The Ninth Gate takes a different route, namely the journey towards the meeting. Depp’s character is reluctant but greedy, so he steers the course and becomes more embroiled with a series of people obsessed with the book and its mooted secrets. All around him are characters willing to kill for the chance to meet the devil and make a deal. Corso is more interested in staying alive and coming out on top. He doesn’t believe there is actually such a thing as the devil. But could he be wrong?

This creates a slightly confusing plot, but The Ninth Gate can be forgiven for putting style ahead of substance. Directed by Roman Polanski, it is by every measure a European film and willing to sacrifice a bit of coherency for atmosphere. In a way this movie feels like a love letter to the occult thrillers of the Seventies, right down to a robed cult scene and endless pop-Satanic iconography.

It’s almost just too absurd, until you put an actor like Depp in the middle of it. He has help, not the least from the imposing Frank Langella, but The Ninth Gate‘s strange nonchalance is perfect for Depp to play a character that lesser actors would have ruined. Sadly critics of the time did not agree, praising the style but still gagging for meaning. Fortunately that shouldn’t dissuade fans of Faustian lore from watching this under-rated gem.

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The Ninth Gate is based on The Club Dumas, a novel about a man investigating a mysterious occult book. The book is in many ways a homage to the work of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count Of Monte Cristo. But The Ninth Gate removed those elements, focusing instead of the thriller plot. The nine engravings seen in the movie are all actually from the original novel.
Johnny Depp got the job because he really wanted to work with director Roman Polanski and even declined expecting his then-$10 million fee. Polanski didn’t initially want to cast Depp, feeling he was too young, but eventually the actor was cast in the lead. Depp met his longtime partner Vanessa Paradis on the set. Polanski approached Frank Langella to play the businessman Boris Balkan after seeing his work in Lolita.
The castle used in the climatic scenes is called Chateau Puivert, which literally means “the devil’s tower.” It was used by Gnostic Christians in the 13th century, but the pope considered them satanists. The Gnostics were soon massacred by Catholic forces.The castle can also be seen in a painting in the businessman’s office.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: November 17, 2014


  1. This is one of my favourite Depp movies.


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