Over the years countless films have been made about antiquarian bookselling and about dealers – 84 Charing Cross Road is definitely one. Few though have presented the nuts, bolts and unashamed Satanism of the trade as accurately as Roman Polanski’s 1999 thriller, The Ninth Gate.
Here Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso, the archetypal book runner (Corso meaning run in Italian, do you see?). He’s based in New York and works out of the intimidatingly titled Bernie’s Rare Books; he’s everything you expect from a dealer: bespectacled, smouldering, malnourished, dressed like a middle-class tramp. We first meet him at the sale of a fine collection belonging to an elderly gentleman, who is now sufficiently disabled that his children can start selling his stuff and that Corso can take advantage. He tells them that some books are worth more than they are (queering another dealer’s pitch), that others shouldn’t be sold at all and then finally he makes away with a 1780 four volume Don Quixote for $4000 – causing the elderly gentleman to squirm in fury.
The Ninth Gate is adapted from the novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. But whilst its source is considered a bibliophile’s fantasy for its many references to rare and exquisite books, this early scene is pretty much the extent of the film’s bibliophilia. We see Cervantes’ Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, a 1545 Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and the Don Quixote. (Of the latter, idly I’d tried to look up its value but couldn’t find anything – I wonder if it’s more expensive than this 2006 Ann Arbor Media edition at AbeBooks? Let me know). The rest of the movie is dominated by fictional books.
Corso is summoned to the, er, skyscraper of uber collector and demonologist Boris Balkan, played by Richard Nixon impersonator Frank Langella. After giving a foreshadowy lecture on the occult, Balkan takes Corso up to his private collection and his latest acquisition. It seems that in 1666 a Venetian named Aristide Torchia printed a book called The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows and his collaborator was said to be none other than the devil himself. Together they produced a tome that contains the secret to unlock the something or other. Balkan has got his hands on one of only three copies to escape the Inquisition’s flames but has come to believe his copy is a forgery, ‘What happened? The devil didn’t appear?’ Corso, a man who believes only in his percentage, takes Balkan’s blank cheque and heads off to Europe to investigate and then obtain the other copies by any means necessary.
We’re told the book is worth more than a million dollars but no one treats it with much respect. People flick through the pages with all the grace of a Victorian labourer thumbing through his wife many undergarments. Corso repeatedly and moodily blows smoke over the pages whilst a wizened old bookbinder in Spain spills ash all over the cover. It’s thrust into satchels, yanked out again, slammed onto desks; at one point Corso does start protecting it with a cloth but this only because the cloth is later used as a plot device. Initially it’s blindingly pristine which, they claim, is because of the quality of its production but later, after the actors have had their hands on it for a few weeks, it’s noticeably grubbier.
When things get going The Ninth Gate proves to be a superior treasure hunt type mystery movie in the style of the Da Vinci Code – only with better hair. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that within the three books some engravings were produced by Torchia and some by ‘LCF’ himself. The trick of course, is to find all those done by the devil – the keys to the nine gates. The hunt sees Corso rampaging through Spain and France, examining books whilst shadowy book-collecting forces cause havoc around him. The deeper he delves into the mystery the more his book-dealer’s morality is tested – you can probably see how this will play out.
It pays not to think too deeply about the logic of it and just appreciate the movie’s allegorical qualities. Otherwise you might start to wonder about the book’s original print run – did it have to be specially planned for 1666? What happened to copies printed in 1667? Are we to believe that Lucifer himself sat there and etched out the woodblocks himself, did he roll the ink on as well? What was the extent of his involvement in the process? What would Bamber Gascoigne have to say about it?
Although there’s not much real-life book porn in The Ninth Gate, its bibliofanatic roots are evident. From dusty fusty antiquarian book stores to Balkan’s air tight library, it feels authentic. Corso pours over catalogues and characters spout the correct terminology – albeit at times a little self-consciously: ‘The soft sheen, the superb gilding, the centuries of knowledge contained within.’ I admit I’m not the most qualified to judge, but it also seems to know what its talking about when describing relations between dealers and between their clients. Sure it takes some liberties, uses some poetic licence, but just enough to make for a fun movie. One can only hope the stuff about nymphomaniacs and sports cars is true, I mean, I haven’t been doing this very long, It’s possible. Maybe.