High on the list of underrated—perhaps even misunderstood—Roman Polanski films is his 1999 diabolical thriller The Ninth Gate. Ten years ago, most critics seemed to want to dismiss the film out of hand with the typical (and wrongheaded) outcry of it being inferior to his Rosemary’s Baby (1968). In other cases, it was decried as being less successful than its source novel. Note, if you will, that neither assessment actually addresses the film on its own merits, which are considerable—even remarkable.
The Ninth Gate is the story of a not wholly scrupulous dealer in rare books, Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), who is hired by the enigmatic, sinister and filthy rich Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to discover which of three copies of a book from 1666 (of course) is real. The book was supposedly virtually co-authored by Satan himself—and, it’s said, can be used to summon the old boy. Balkan has just acquired one of the copies; the other two are in Europe. It is there that he sends Corso, but not before strange things start happening in the States.
In some ways, the film—although unusually heavily literary—is a reasonably straightforward Satanism yarn, but Polanski’s approach to the material makes it different. The film proceeds in much the manner of a regular—almost noir-ish—mystery for a good length, only to suddenly and casually introduce a supernatural element, which I suspect threw people. It drew a laugh from the audience I saw it with in 1999—and I’m not sure that it wasn’t meant to. Polanski has crafted a film that in part pokes fun at its horror-story basis, but he does so only to turn around and play the later scenes for real horror, before moving into the realm of the truly mystical at the end. This last troubled a great many critics in 1999, but if you’ll look at the film carefully, you can see that it was set up—pre-ordained—during the opening credits sequence. It’s actually a much better work than a number of Polanski’s more acclaimed films—and time has been kind to it.