Friday, October 27, 2017

The Devil and Johnny Depp

 A film lover’s Halloween would not be complete without an annual horror movie film festival—mine usually lasts the entire month of October, as the genre is near and dear to my heart. And so is the devilishly attractive Mr. Johnny Depp, so I knew exactly which film I wanted to celebrate this year.

Though not on a scale with modern horror masterpieces like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen and The Shining (all among my favorite films), the 1999 Roman Polanski/Johnny Depp collaboration The Ninth Gate is one of my top guilty pleasures. It’s a movie with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, a darkly comic romp chock full of accoutrements that horror film fans hold dear, including a few spectacularly ghastly murder sequences that plant it firmly in the horror category.

Based upon the 1993 novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Ninth Gate pays clever homage to Polanski’s earlier successes, with nods both to Rosemary and to Chinatown, which in turn was deeply influenced by John Huston’s classic The Maltese Falcon. At its heart, it is a mystery thriller adventure brought to life through archetypal characters, played by wonderful actors against a picturesque European backdrop. 

Johnny Depp as Dean Corso

The plot centers around a seductive Black Widow whose über-wealthy husband has just hanged himself, but not before selling her most prized possession, a book that’s purported to summon the Devil. The super-rich businessman who has purchased the supposed magick talisman engages rare book detective Dean Corso to track down the other existing copies to authenticate his own. Cue the cat-and-mouse!
A calm, cool and collected Johnny Depp forms the apex of the proceedings, despite the drama and treachery he finds himself immersed in. This is one of Depp’s best performances—his understated interpretation of freelance rare book dealer Dean Corso is quietly magnetic, a far cry from his blustering Captain Jack Sparrow and over-the-top Mad Hatter and Willy Wonka. As a shrewd and brilliant buyer and seller of rare books, Depp’s Corso is a mercenary—heartless and inscrutable, his handsome face a mask— we don’t know what he’s thinking and that is exciting indeed.

Frank Langella as Boris Balkan

The marvelous Frank Langella gives one of his most florid and unrestrained performances as Boris Balkan, the wealthy book collector who hires Corso to compare his copy of the book to two others. It’s clear Langella’s having a ball being bad, especially against the self-possessed and taciturn Corso as skillfully underplayed by Depp.
Lena Olin has one of her best roles as a modern-day film noir femme fatale, in the grand tradition of leading ladies from Mary Astor to Rita Hayworth to Faye Dunaway. As deadly ice queen Liana St. Martin Telfer, Olin wants her magickal tome back and will stop at nothing to obtain it, beginning with sexual favors, progressing to scratching and biting Depp with leonine ferocity, and finally knocking him cold with a vicious conk on the head—no postcoital cuddling for this Black Widow!

Lena Olin as Liana St. Martin Telfer
Emmanuelle Seigneur as..."the Girl"

Emmanuelle Seigneur, the wife and muse of director Polanski since the late 1980s, is effective as the mysterious girl who shadows and shepherds Corso throughout his journey, from New York to Spain to Paris and the French countryside. (Indeed, Seigneur’s enigmatic character and the fast-paced Parisian chase scenes recall her debut film with Polanski, Frantic starring Harrison Ford.)

Made the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the themes of elites indulging in orgiastic and occult rituals to gain power, pleasure and influence are also apparent here, albeit in a more satirical fashion, with Depp, Olin and company donning campy black cloaks in the obligatory Black Mass sequence for the love of Lucifer. 

All in all, it’s an exciting adventure, the steadily building suspense punctuated by murder, metaphysics and the quirky performances of an international cast of marvelous character actors including Barbara Jefford, James Russo and José López-Rodero, hurtling to a satisfying if not startling climax.

Though it’s chiefly a comic mystery thriller with supernatural overtones, The Ninth Gate is laden with more than enough occult motifs to please the die-hard horror buff. And if you’re a fan of the star, you’ll get a kick out of Depp’s dabblings in the Dark Arts.

All that, and a little eye candy too!

Happy Halloween!