20 August 2008

Movie Review: "The Ninth Gate"

Rating: 3.5/5
Director:Roman Polanski, (1999)
Actors: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin
Run Time: 133 Minutes

Roman Polanski’s “The Ninth Gate” provides a glimpse into an ostensibly small niche in modern filmmaking. Resembling classic Noir films of the 1940’s and films by Alfred Hitchcock much more than today’s average thriller, “The Ninth Gate” is somewhat of a unique film going experience for the contemporary viewer. Released in 1999, “The Ninth Gate” received mixed reviews, and while not a failure at the box office, performed somewhat poorly. Since its release the film has been mostly forgotten, lost between discharge of action packed thriller after action packed thriller. However, what this film lacks in action and special effects, it more than makes up for in tantalizing Noir like suspense, great characters, and the overall atmosphere of classic 1940’s cinema.

“The Ninth Gate” begins in suspenseful fashion with an old man (Mr. Telfer) hanging himself in his library. This sets the thick suspenseful atmosphere in which the film unfolds. We are then introduced to the unscrupulous protagonist Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), rare book dealer and sometimes swindler, whose sleazy charm defines the anti-hero. Corso is hired by a multimillionaire business tycoon named Boris Balkin (Frank Langella) with more than a slight obsession with the devil. Balkan hires Corso to travel to Europe to verify the authenticity of his most sacred book (purchased conveniently from Mr. Telfer the day before he kills himself) called “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows.” According to Balkan “The Nine Gates” is adopted from a book written by Satan himself, and when the proper rituals are performed the devil can be conjured up in person. There are two other existing copies, the Kessler and the Fargus, and Balkan believes that only his copy is authentic.

As Corso accepts Balkans task and begins on his quest, the strange, unusual, and dangerous emerge; people are killed, Corso’s apartment is sacked, and the difference between friend and foe is blurred. Throughout Corso’s mysterious adventure he is relentlessly followed by a blonde woman with the uncanny ability of being at the right place at the right time, guiding him on his path. Ultimately, the final struggle comes as Corso attempts to unwind the mystery of “The Nine Gates,” outsmart his enemies and possibly confront the Devil himself.

One of the strongest features of Polanski’s film, and one closely related to its Film Noir heritage is the way in which suspense is implicated through the utilization of camera and sound. Similar to Hitchcock’s use of camera, this film builds great suspense by relying on slow, deliberate, and fluid movements of longer takes and minimal cutting. A great example of this is found in the very first scene in which Telfer hangs himself in his library. In this scene, terribly chilling suspense is generated by the camera as it moves deliberately from object to object throughout the room; from the stool, then to the noose and finally to the missing book on the shelf. Polanski lets the camera do all of the talking.

Another way in which the camera creates suspense is through the use of a subjective point of view, and the utilization of point of view shots. Polanski uses this technique for a significantly singular purpose; to embody the presence or influence of the devil in the film. Almost all of the point of view shots occur through mysterious or unknown characters who either have evil intent, or perform a violent or malicious act. An apt example occurs as Corso is studying Kessler’s copy of The Nine Gates in her library. The camera creeps up slowly behind an unaware Corso, suspensefully building tension, as if we, the audience, are the ones creeping up on him. A dull thump is heard and the camera switches to Corso’s point of view as his face slumps into the table in front of him, unconscious. Polanski is implicating the viewer in the devil’s shadowy influence, bringing the devil into the action without ever letting us see him in person, which creates an atmosphere that is extremely unsettling.

To further the suspense, Polanski employs the use of a musical score to near perfection. With the almost singular purpose of heightening suspense, the soundtrack sadistically dances along, combining joyous glee with wicked mischief to create a greater sense of tedious unease.

There are many great characters in Polanski’s film. Yet another quality abundantly prevalent in the classic noir thriller that is used to great success in “The Ninth Gate.” Perhaps the most recognizable of such characters is Liana Telfer, the femme fatale, embodied finely by Lena Olin. Olin’s character successfully exudes the attractive yet deceptive nature of the femme fatale as she sinks her claws into Corso. Polanski even makes a direct reference to this noir archetype as Liana seductively speaks with Corso: “This has happened before someplace.’ ‘I know, in the movies.’ ‘She had an automatic in her stocking.” This scene typifies the classic Noir relationship between protagonist and fatale.

Finally, there is the protagonist himself, Dean Corso, played to great effect by the talented Johnny Depp. The success of Depp’s character comes from a slippery undefinability. Corso is callous, manipulative and selfish, but in a slick and charming way. Called many things by many different characters throughout the film, including unscrupulous, a vulture, and most appropriately, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Corso is by no means a hero, nor is he a good guy. This makes for a dynamic and interesting protagonist who is at the center of a mystery full of trickery and deception, very much a modern day Philip Marlowe.

“The Ninth Gate” won’t give you amazing special effects, nor will it impress you with ostentatious action sequences. But, it’s a great throw back to 1940’s noir thrillers, where the credits roll before the film, everyone smokes, no one enters a room without being offered a drink, and the cab rides use rear projection for the New York city landscape. For Polanski it’s all about atmosphere, intrigue and suspense, and thats what you get with this film. “The Ninth Gate” is a refreshing return to the classic thriller genre, and remains intriguing each time you see it.