Denis Meikle

Born: 1947 | Birthplace: Glasgow | Educated: Alleyn's School | Spouse: Jane | Children: Sarah, James | Resident: East Sussex

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The Ninth Gate, 1999

The flash projected the outline of the hanged man onto the wall. He hung motionless from a light fitting in the centre of the room, and as the photographer moved around him, taking photos, the flash threw the silhouette onto a succession of pictures, glass cabinets full of porcelain, shelves of books, open curtains flaming great windows, beyond which the rain was falling...
                                                                       --Arturo Pérez-Reverte, El club Dumas (1993)
NO film director in the modern world attracts the ready wrath of the liberal consensus as assuredly as Roman Polanski, who remains the subject of an American arrest warrant on a charge of drugging and raping 13-year-old Samantha Gailey at the home of actor Jack Nicholson in March 1977. The swell of outrage against Polanski (who skipped bail in the US following his trial and 42-day incarceration in a California state penitentiary and has been exiled in Paris and Switzerland ever since) has increased in the interim in direct proportion to the growth of the ‘victimhood’ syndrome and the burgeoning of the #MeToo brigade in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal. Viewed initially, in some quarters, as a justifiable - albeit unrepentant - fugitive from draconian legal overreach and treated, to some degree, with sympathy due to the murder, in 1969, of his wife and unborn child by followers of deranged hippy cult-guru Charles Manson, Polanski has continued his career in films relatively unchallenged. An Oscar for Best Director for The Pianist in 2002 was a high point, even if he could not present himself in person to collect the award, but a cultural shift in attitude towards historic sex crimes since then has hardened opinion against him, and his latest directorial outing, An Officer and a Spy - a new take on the Dreyfuss affair - was being denied a release, despite being hailed as a masterpiece, just as the global pandemic of coronavirus ironically put paid to every film being exhibited theatrically.
      Before all the brouhaha about Polanski’s past had once more come to the fore, his name had been linked with a more sinister nemesis: religious fundamentalists in the States had laid the blame for the heinous slaughter of the new Mrs Polanski - actress Sharon Tate - on the fact that three years prior, her husband had directed Rosemary’s Baby, which was based on a best-selling novel by Ira Levin about a coven of devil-worshippers operating out of a brownstone apartment in New York - the Devil, having been mocked, had come to collect his due. Nonsense, of course - but those same fundamentalists would have expressed little surprise when Polanski returned to the satanic theme in 1999, picking up where he had left off in 1968 and adapting a book in which the Devil again played a central role.
      Aside from the clear Gothic overtones of Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski’s associations with the horror genre had been tangential. His first wife was Basia Kwiatkowska (aka Barbara Lass), who had appeared in a horror-comedy called Beware of the Yeti (Ostroznie yeti) in 1960, as well as a more straightforward Austro-Italian werewolf opus entitled Lycanthropus later the same year. Along for the ride in the latter were Carl Schell and Curt Lowens who, rumour had it, had turned down a film for Visconti in order to play the monster for director Paolo Heusch. On release in the States, Lycanthropus underwent a change of title to Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory, which pretty much summed up the plot, but it failed to show in the UK until 1964 (when it surfaced briefly as I Married a Werewolf). Polanski himself inaugurated his international career by directing Repulsion (1965) in London. This adult social drama of an unstable young female hairdresser teetering on the verge of madness due to isolation and sexual repression edged into horror territory with two gruesome murders, but the more ostensible genre offering of Dance of the Vampires in 1967 was mounted simply as an excuse for parody, which its mocking American title - The Fearless Vampire Killers - made unequivocal. Sharon Tate had featured in a horror-thriller of her own the previous year: Eye of the Devil, a thematic precursor to The Wicker Man, in which a French grandee (David Niven) finds himself predestined for sacrifice by a coven of devil-worshippers. The punishment meted out to Tate by a whip-wielding Niven fell foul of the British censor, but her fate at the hands of the Manson gang three years later was met with world-wide abhorrence, and it set her distraught husband’s career on a more wayward path.
      In 1974, Polanski popped up in cameo in Paul Morrissey’s Blood For Dracula during one of several creative down-times, and he returned to the familiar trope of alienated insanity in The Tenant (1976) - a cross-dressed revamp of Repulsion in which he directed himself as the hallucinating recluse confined to a Paris apartment-block on this second outing. But after exorcising his demons through a blood-soaked but spectacular set-text version of Macbeth in 1971, he had ‘supped full’ enough of horrors and dabbled variously in noir machinations (Chinatown, 1974), literary adaptation (Tess, 1979), high seas slapstick (Pirates, 1986) and political parable (Death and the Maiden, 1994). Along the way, he had married for a third time - to Emmanuelle Seigner, whom he had directed in Frantic (1988) - and another hiatus after Death and the Maiden had seen him embark on a thriller called The Double, which was intended to star John Travolta. However, Travolta had got cold feet and pulled out, as did Polanski in consequence, and while suit and counter suit were flying back and forth, he turned his attention instead to El club Dumas, a novel by a renowned Spanish author about a quest for a rare book, which chimed with Polanski’s love of layerings and sub-text and intellectual puzzles. But with the debacle over Travolta still exercising legal combatants, finding another American star to carry the film did not look entirely promising.                 
      Into the frame for the occasion stepped Johnny Depp, a Hollywood maverick whose eclectic career choices had seen him working with directors as idiosyncratic as Lasse Hallström (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, 1993), Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, 1995) and Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998) before superstardom was to find him in 2002, in Disney’s never-ending Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. During his usual attendance at the Cannes Film Festival, Polanski had been approached by Depp, whose self-directed The Brave was in competition at the venue. Polanski had a more mature lead in mind for his prospective film and he was unconvinced at first by Depp’s age and youthful appearance, but when the 33-year-old Kentuckian was given a copy of the script to read, he was able to persuade the director that he was right for the part.
      The part in question was that of antiquarian book-dealer Dean Corso, who is tasked to search out a rare grimoire purported to have been written by the Devil himself! This plot was but one element of El club Dumas, the novel that Polanski had now chosen to adapt, but he had discarded the rest in favour of an unusual, semi-Hitchcockian murder-mystery - and one with an occult undertone. Polanski’s title for the film was The Ninth Gate, and while it would lack - true to its creator’s philosophical credo - anything overtly diabolic (aside from a few final frames), it would ultimately rank alongside Rosemary’s Baby as one of the best and most original supernatural dramas in the cinema of the 20th century.   
‘Do you believe in the Devil?’
‘I’m paid to believe in him. On this job anyway.’
                                                                                                                  --Arturo Pérez-Reverte, El club Dumas (1993)
      Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel is a brilliantly-realised literary puzzle, which was designed to play a trick on the reader’s perception that parallels the way in which its protagonist, rare book-dealer Lucas Corso, is wrong-footed by his misinterpretation of the mysterious events to which he finds himself party in the course of the narrative. Corso is hired by Varo Borja, the owner of a treatise on demonology called the Delomelanicon, or ‘Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Shadows’, to find the other two copies of the book which are known to exist. At the same time, he is trying to authenticate a manuscript that purports to be a missing chapter from Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. The two plots become imperceptibly interwoven, and Corso begins to imagine himself being pursued by devilish agents in the form of well-known characters from Dumas’s renowned adventure-serial, but straddling these twin themes is a third strand which involves a strange, green-eyed girl, who believes herself to be one of the angels who were cast out of Heaven after Lucifer’s battle with God in the Biblical Book of Revelations; this latter thread supplies the tale with its conclusion, though much of the black-magical chicanery which has preceded it is merely a blind to mask the main plot, the secret of which gives the novel its title.
      Never a prospect for the best-seller lists, El club Dumas had nonetheless received critical acclaim: Stephanie Merritt in the Daily Telegraph had called it ‘A sophisticated and exciting intellectual game’, while Michael Kerrigan in The Scotsman had considered it ‘a dizzyingly complicated, dazzlingly allusive, breathlessly exciting novel of adventure and detection’. Despite its evident complexity and reputation as ‘difficult’ novel, Roman Polanski had seen it as a challenge to his adaptive skills. ‘It’s all very convoluted, one of those rambling books; enjoyable and literary, with clever observations; very erudite,’ he said. ‘The problem was how to make a movie out of it because at first glance, it really doesn’t look like it’s possible. We had to abandon a lot of elements because a movie must be much more rigorous.’ What he abandoned was Dumas and the errant chapter from The Three Musketeers, and what he brought to the fore was the secondary ‘blind’ of the cult of devil-worshippers and the elusive green-eyed girl. And instead of treating them as a perceptive illusion, as the novel had done, he gave them a solidity in the narrative that made The Ninth Gate more akin to the ‘black magic’ novels of Dennis Wheatley, in which the Duc de Richleau and his cohorts become embroiled in a satanic plot, than the Chinese box of literary conundrum that its author had wrought. In Polanski and his regular collaborator John Brownjohn’s hands, The Ninth Gate thus became a supernatural thriller, in which the rechristened Dean Corso is pursued across Europe by devil-worshippers while he searches for the fabled grimoire. ‘I liked the supernatural part of the book and it was one of the reasons I made the movie,’ the director explained. ‘The Devil is a good protagonist. I’m not a believer myself and I have a hard time to talk about the Devil without humour or irony, but I must say that he’s a good guy to make a film about - even if you don’t see him.’
      (An incidental attraction of Pérez-Reverte’s novel for Polanski was the fact that the story took place predominately in France, Spain and Portugal, so it could be adapted to the screen without him having to set foot outside Europe; notwithstanding, he set a sequence at the beginning of the film in New York [as opposed to the novel’s Toledo], which he cheekily accomplished by the clever employment of CGI.)
      To play the shrewd and cynical Dean Corso, Johnny Depp adopted a guise of goatee and glasses, as well as greying his hair a little at the temples and functioning with a marked economy of movement; all of Corso’s agility is of the mental variety. The excellent Frank Langella was cast as villain-in-chief Boris Balkan (who is actually the narrator in the novel but whose alliterative name was felt by Polanski to be more suitable for the film than Pérez-Reverte’s Varo Borja), a millionaire dealer in antiquarian texts and the man who hires Corso to substantiate the provenance of the pride of his private occult collection: an arcane text that reputedly enables its owner to summon the Devil himself. Langella was best-known for his performance as Count Dracula in John Badham’s 1979 remake of Universal’s vampire classic, and Polanski had nothing but good words to say about him after seeing him in Adrian Lyne’s Lolita: ‘Frank is charming and disturbing at the same time,’ he said. ‘And I love his voice, which was extremely important since he exists in this movie over the telephone, for most of it.’
      Polanski’s aversion to showing too obvious a hand in any supernatural drama notwithstanding, the Devil does in fact make a fleeting appearance in The Ninth Gate - though it is markedly atypical and a far remove from the Gothic archetype of cat’s eyes and clawed hand that signified his entry into the drugged dream of Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby; in the film’s one major concession to Pérez-Reverte’s predilection for referencing literary texts, Polanski had honed in on a quote from French author Jacques Cazotte’s 1772 essay in fantastique, Le Diable amoreux (The Devil in Love): ‘The truth is that the Devil is very cunning. The truth is that he is not always as ugly as they say.’ His (or her?) Satanic Majesty’s cameo in the story is pseudonymously credited to ‘The Girl’, and Polanski awarded the role to his wife, the ethereal-looking Emmanuelle Seigner, whom he had recently featured in both Bitter Moon and Frantic.
There have been men who have been burned alive, or disembowelled, for just a glimpse of what you are about to witness...
                                                                                             --Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), The Ninth Gate
      The Ninth Gate is a Gothic mystery in modern guise, with its Walpolean diversion of a literary curio rumoured to harbour arcane secrets. What begins with a mercantile mercenary plying his dubious trade on vulnerable victims eager for easy money descends inexorably into an immoral maze of double-dealing and death, and Darius Khondji’s moody photography casts warning shadows over the proceedings that resonate with Polanski’s Oscar-winning Chinatown (1974), another complex tale of detection in which sunlight serves only to obscure the dark undercurrents driving the narrative.
      A prologue follows an aged book collector as he commits suicide by hanging before the titles appear in a series of portals, Russian doll-style, accompanied by Wojciech Kilar’s eerie theme music. Millionaire industrialist Boris Balkan suspects his copy of a magical text called ‘The Nine Gates’ to be a fake, and he hires the unorthodox Corso to seek out and obtain the genuine article for him; the signal attribute of the grimoire is its nine engraved plates. Corso discovers that far from being a fake, Balkan’s copy is actually one of three, but each has only three authentic engravings out of the nine, each of which is signed LCF - Lucifer himself. Corso’s search for the other copies takes him on a pan-European trek, during which he encounters a seductive woman who seems to have supernatural powers. But Balkan has followed behind and is intent on stealing the remaining books after murdering their owners: his plan is to recombine the three sets of three woodcuts into the original nine, so as to facilitate the invocation.
      Liana Tellfer (Lina Olin), the leader of a satanic coven called The Order of the Silver Serpent, is also on Corso’s tail and with heavyweight help, she secures one of the copies. But Balkan gatecrashes a Black Mass organised by Tellfer and strangles her. With all three books finally in his possession, he retreats to the Devil’s Tower, his castle in Portugal, to cast the spell and summon the Devil. However, the ceremony goes awry and after Balkan inadvertently sets himself ablaze, Corso shoots him dead. It transpires that a key engraving of the Whore of Babylon was still a fake, engineered by a pair of brothers in Toledo; Corso returns to their workshop and obtains the real one, and the Ninth Gate opens for him instead...
      Contrary to critical expectation, which seemed to be suffused with fond memories of Rosemary’s Baby of thirty years before, The Ninth Gate is not so much a horror film per se as a homage to Hitchcock with supernatural overtones. The film has more in common with Polanski’s Frantic than it does with his adaptation of Ira Levin’s seminal satanic novel of 1967, even though the director referred to it as a cross between that and Chinatown. There are other influences, as Se7en cinematographer Khondji recalled: ‘Roman kept reminding me about Touch of Evil by Orson Welles,’ he said. ‘We watched that together, and we both liked its sense of darkness; we decided that feeling was one side of The Ninth Gate.’ The other side was exotic location-shooting in Spain, Portugal and France, where Polanski found Balkan’s tour de Diable in the 14th century Puivert Castle at Aude, in the French Pyrenees - but not New York, because of Polanski’s outstanding warrant.
      Depp plays the enigmatic Corso with the imperturbability of Cary Grant, reacting to the disturbing events in which he finds himself embroiled with restrained concern and a quiet line in dry wit: ‘I had thought about it, yes,’ he says, a faintly hysterical edge to his voice, when asked by The Girl if he would like to gain entry to a house whose owner he has just found dead in a fish-pond. Khondji also input into the characterisation of Corso: ‘I had to take into account that Johnny was playing a character with two sides,’ he said. ‘We present the Dean Corso character as very ambiguous. He definitely has a dark, cold side, but at the same time there’s a side of him we don’t know about, so it was a simple decision to half-light him throughout.’
      There is one aspect of the film which stands out uniquely in relation to the changes that were going on in the industry at the time of its making. A huge number of process shots were required in post, from the early scenes in New York City through to the fiery skies that frame the ‘Devil’s Tower’ at the climax, but The Ninth Gate is that rare beast in that few of them are detectable, so well-integrated are they into the tapestry of the piece. The most blatant are two brief shots in which The Girl appears to ‘fly’, and the fleeting inclusion of demonic eyes of the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t variety of subliminal insert. But even the fact that two pairs of two characters in the story are played by the same actor in the same shot (one of whose voices was dubbed by Polanski himself) is likely to pass unnoticed before the eyes of the average viewer. ‘I used more post-production tricks on this film than on any film before,’ he said.
      A significant cameo was supplied by Barbara Jefford, OBE - last seen in a horror film in Lust For a Vampire - as the one-armed, wheelchair-bound Baroness Kessler, whose unusual area of expertise is Old Nick. German actress Hildegard Knef was originally cast in the role but she caught pneumonia, and her initial replacement found the lines too difficult to learn in English; Polanski had telephoned Jefford in a state of panic and persuaded her to step in at short notice, German accent and all. ‘When we realised we had no actress and we couldn’t change the schedule, I was desperate and I called Barbara. I was literally begging her to do the role. At least she did not have to lose her arm to play the Baroness - which would have been cheaper,’ Polanski joked; CGI was utilised in this instance also, to paint out the real limb.
Dean Corso: Why the Devil?
Baroness Kessler: I saw him one day. I was fifteen years old, and I saw him as plain as I see you now. It was love at first sight.
                                                                                             --(Johnny Depp, Barbara Jefford), The Ninth Gate
      Polanski had fought shy of depicting the Devil in Rosemary’s Baby, other than as the protagonist in a dream of rape which may, or may not, have actually occurred; he then avoided any visualisation of the novel’s pulp-fiction description of the titular child as having embryonic horns on its tiny head. No such reticence was to afflict The Ninth Gate: like Alan Parker’s Angel Heart before it, the Devil is a character in the story from roughly the halfway point on, though many reviewers of the film remained unaware of exactly which character, even after the end-credits had rolled. Obfuscations had been added to the script during shooting: a reference to Balkan’s culpability for the murders (there are no murders in the novel) was removed, which enabled the positing of other suspects, and ambiguities were introduced that made possible an alternative reading of the plot - several scenes invite the conclusion that Corso is himself the Devil, though this is shown to be erroneous by internal logic.     
      The woodcuts which are seen in the film appear in the published version of El club Dumas, but they incorporate subtle differences. ‘I kept part of the illustrations shown in The Dumas Club,’ Polanski said, ‘but I had the characters’ faces altered for some of them, to look a bit like the actors.’ This subtle sleight-of-hand had been adopted to visually clarify the role of The Girl. The film was meant to have finished on the revelation that the two Ceniza brothers - the forgers who put Corso on the track of ‘The Nine Gates’ in the first place - had been long dead before he spoke to them and that The Girl was the Devil all along, but Corso was only to realise it in the closing scene, when the engraving of the Whore of Babylon sitting astride the seven-headed beast is in his hands and he is startled to note her resemblance to the woman who has helped him to obtain it. This rather feeble ending was subject to drastic revision on the floor - one which brought it more in line with the closing passages of the novel. Corso has sex with The Girl as the Devil’s Tower burns behind them, during which her features ‘morph’, subtly but chillingly, between those of a demon and those of Liana Tellfer. The pact is sealed, and Corso retrieves the last engraving from the Cenizas’ workshop, where two workmen now substitute for the brothers (all four being played by the same Jóse López Rodero, production manager on the film). Corso returns to the castle and walks through the Ninth Gate in a white-out of light, where the Devil waits to greet him.
      To remove any doubt about who the Devil actually is in The Ninth Gate, the clue was meant to have been the book that The Girl is reading in the lobby of Corso’s hotel in Portugal. Both novel and original screenplay have it as Cazotte’s Le Diable amoureux, in which the protagonist falls in love with the Devil in female form, under the name of Biondetta. Polanski, with his preference for visual hints and allusions, had substituted Dale Carnegie’s self-help best-seller How to Win Friends and Influence People, whose edicts had been enthusiastically devoured by messianic wannabe Charles Manson. Few viewers were to grasp the significance of the finale as result, which doubtless contributed towards the hostile reception that was to greet The Ninth Gate. Ever the trickster, Polanski had made the film too obtuse for its own commercial good, but he had still turned in an exercise in satanic game-play that proved itself a worthy addition to the ars diavoli - as Boris Balkan could have put it.
      It took more than a year after completion for The Ninth Gate to be released, and advance screenings did not bode well for its chances of box office success even then. When it did eventually open in the US in December 1999, and in the UK the following June, the reviews were dismissive. ‘Leaping Lucifer! Is it possible that Polanski, the legendary director of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown concocted this bloodless, soulless and airless affair?’ Carrie Rickey inquired in Philadelphia’s Enquirer. Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post chose instead to damn the work in Miltonian terms: ‘Polanski, generally, has fallen farther than Lucifer, and into a more profoundly depressing hell, the hell of utter banality,’ he wailed. An example of the best that Polanski could find to give him a shred of critical comfort came from Jami Bernard in New York’s Daily News, who considered the film to be a ‘sly and elegant detective story’. But typical of the rest was The Observer: ‘The end is neither frightening nor funny, pure Eurotosh,’ Peter Preston wrote. ‘No wonder Depp, toiling quietly away, looks dazed and confused’. With the benefit of an interval for reflection, the most balanced assessment came ultimately from FX Feeney, in a coffee-table volume on Polanski published in 2006: ‘The Ninth Gate is the least appreciated, most richly ambiguous and most unjustly neglected of Polanski’s best films.’
      The Ninth Gate eventually went on to make $58 million against an estimated budget of $38 million - although it did better in the UK and Europe than it did in the US. Polanski’s determination to exercise his usual degree of control over all the elements of the production (he even designed the cover-pentacle for the film’s Delomelanicon) was not to everyone’s taste, however, including that of Johnny Depp.
If John Travolta had refused to state publicly that he found it difficult to work with Polanski’s style of director, Depp felt no such compunction. After completing his next role as a pioneer police detective  in Tim Burton’s film of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, he made no bones about the lack of rapport between himself and Polanski: ‘Working with Tim Burton on Sleepy Hollow was like an exorcism,’ he said. ‘It was a cleansing from my Ninth Gate experience. It was not an easy film to make. Roman is pretty set in his ways. I’d heard things about his methods but I decided to see for myself.. He’s definitely out there in his own world.’ At least Depp stayed the course with his demonic director, which was more than could be said for Travolta.
      In the wake of the less-than-expected returns from The Ninth Gate, Artisan Entertainment, makers of the film, filed suit against the director in the Los Angeles District Court, claiming that he and his RP Productions had siphoned off refunds of value-added tax instead of turning them over to the completion guarantors who had acted on Artisan’s behalf during the shoot. Polanski was alleged to have received $619,000 in refunds, with another $577,000 to follow, and to have ‘brazenly deposited the money in a private account,’ refusing all requests for its return.
      The outcome of the case remains sealed, but when Artisan’s attorneys came to pore over Polanski’s contract with the company, they presumably found that the Devil - as always, with this most enigmatic and fastidious of auteurs - was very much in the detail...