The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Ninth Gate

Based on a novel called The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, 1999's The Ninth Gate is an oddity among books-turned-movies. It's rare -- for me at least -- to like a book more than its source novel, but this definitely qualifies. More stream-lined and sinister than the novel, this relatively low-key thriller is a trippy, even odd, movie but in the end a good one.

An unscrupulous individual willing to work for the highest bidder, Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is a book detective, specializing in tracking down and "acquiring" rare and expensive books. His most recent hire though is both lucrative and highly dangerous. A millionaire, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), has hired Corso to track down and compare the three known, existing copies of The Nine Gates, a book believed to have been co-authored by the Devil himself. Balkan wants to know which one is authentic sending Corso on his way, but this detective has no idea what awaits. People around him are suddenly brutally murdered, and Corso can't help but feel he's next. What exactly has he stumbled into?

Quick comparison to the novel, and then we'll put that aside. In the novel, there are two storylines. One, Corso is investigating a copy of a supposedly lost chapter from Three Musketeers writer Alexandre Dumas, and two, similarly searching for the three copies of The Nine Gates. The book has a bit of a literary snob feel to it, showing off how smart it is. It's good, but some passages get bogged down in the details. Even skipping these passages, I felt like I missed little. Now the movie wisely and thankfully sticks to the darker Devil plot so here we go with that.

From controversial and highly talented director Roman Polanski, 'Ninth' is a smart thriller. Like its main character in Corso, it is low-key and rarely obvious while also being able to pick its moments as to when to scare or at least surprise you. With its basis in aged literature going back to the 1500s, there is a Gothic feel to the developing story. The globe-trotting investigator rings similar to a more intellectual Indiana Jones, and the shadowy, sinister characters has the feel of a film noir. Composer Wojciech Kilar's score is a gem, especially the main theme which I can only describe as playful. Give it a listen HERE. The whole score has a knack for lulling you to sleep, only to pull the rug out from under you. From Polanski's score to Kilar's score, the movie has a smart style to it, a self-assured feeling of knowing where it wants to get.

Part of that easy-going style comes from Johnny Depp as Dean Corso. Depp is a little too young to play the character, but he makes it work. Some of that stems from his look, his appearance. He has graying hair, a cigarette is always hanging from his lip, he always wears a bag over his shoulder, and his unkempt college professor look has a way of disarming whoever he's talking to. Underplaying the part of this very intelligent, conniving mercenary, Depp's talent still allows him to be at least a tiny bit likable. He's in it for the money but quickly sees he's getting more than he bargained for.

Because it is Corso's investigation, the other players are smaller, supporting parts, but they don't disappoint. Langella is basically there for three scenes, giving off such a decidedly and even evil air that the impression is a lasting one. Lena Olin plays Liana Telfer, a rich widow Corso meets in his investigation. Emmanuelle Seigner (Mrs. Roman Polanski) is the Girl, a mysterious woman who keeps popping up in Corso's travels. She clearly knows more than she's letting on, and the reveal doesn't come as a complete surprise, but it's a good one nonetheless. Also look for James Russo as Bernie, a dealer in rare books and friend of Corso. The odd thing with the casting is that Depp is too young for his part while Olin and Seigner are too old -- according to the novel anyways -- but all three put their own spins on their characters.

What has appealed to me on repeated viewings here is the unique feel to the whole movie. With the story, you're never quite sure where it's going. Is it really just a search for an ancient book supposedly written by Satan? If it's more, what's the end result? Go along for the ride because it's a good one. The acting and performances are uniformly good, the filming locations in Portugal and Paris are perfect, the score a great scene-setter, and the ending a whopper that is left open to your interpretation. A noir-Gothic thriller, and how often can you see one of those?

The Ninth Gate <---trailer (1999): *** 1/2 /****

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