Bibliophiles will love The Ninth Gate, which is set in a series of private libraries, the books so dusty and musty that they appear to be gathering moss. Actually, they're in mint condition, their gilded pages almost devilishly aglow. In this cosmological take on film noir, Johnny Depp is Dean Corso, a "book detective" who gets hired to track down and authenticate rare volumes for rich clients. Like most noir detectives, Corso's in it for 1) himself and 2) the money, which is the same thing. "I believe in my percentage," he tells a publishing tycoon (Frank Langella) when asked his religious orientation. With his beady eyes and wispy goatee, Corso has a little devilish glow of his own. Nevertheless, Langella's Boris Balkan hires him to find out whether Balkan's newly acquired copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, a 17th-century manual on how to summon the devil, is real or fake. This involves traveling to Portugal and France--or, looked at another way, to hell and back. On the bright side, Corso meets some interesting people along the way. On the dark side, they tend to wind up dead. Wrapping her snakelike body around Depp's, Lena Olin is the femme fatale, a devil worshiper who wants that book. And Emmanuelle Seigner, wife of director Roman Polanski, floats through the movie as Corso's guardian angel (or guardian devil).
It's all a bit much, and I wonder why Polanski didn't choose to have a little more fun with the material, as he did many years ago in Rosemary's Baby. The Ninth Gate opens with what appears to be an homage to Rosemary's Baby--a pan over New York City, which looks like some decadent European capital. Alas, this movie doesn't have that one's spooky pull, the sense that something (though we're not sure what) is dreadfully wrong. There, withholding information from us was alluring. Here, it just feels like everybody's holding their library cards too close to their chests. I didn't sense the devil's presence, without which this is just another murder mystery for bookworms.