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As might be suggested by the ordinal number in the title, The Ninth Gate is the latest in a spree of occult gumshoe mystery-thrillers, as well as the latest Polanski tale of mortals tempted by the dark side. His protagonists have been succumbing to madness, grief, sexual guilt, and Satan for decades, and he’s the only director still at large whose scripts are unbeholden to Hollywood redemption. But that doesn’t make them any less corny.

The Ninth Gate holds off on the corn for a good long while. Its first two-thirds is like Ronin without the car chases, except that a 17th-century grimoire takes the place of the mysterious steel suitcase. Amoral New York book broker Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is a Philip Marlowe for the intelligentsia. He tracks down exotic texts for wealthy connosieurs, but he takes his greatest pleasure in using his vast knowledge, shabby-genteel good looks, and straightforward manner to rook the occasional ignorant richie out of a rare volume. Corso is contacted by a publisher with the unlikely name of Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a collector who specializes in demonology. He wants Corso to locate two volumes of The Ninth Gate of the Kingdom of the Shadows—the third he himself bought from an industrialist who then committed suicide—and verify the authenticity of each. Legend has it that only one of the three is genuine, and it contains a key to unlock the secret of summoning Satan himself.

You can bet that when some poor dupe has to ask, That’s just a legend, right? he’s going to be sucked into a vortex of evil beyond his understanding, and that’s the case with Corso, who’s avaricious enough not to care what Balkan will do with the devil once he gets him. Clearly, he is in over his head. He meets with the widow of the suicide, Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), to gather some background on the book. She tells him of its provenence, then seduces him, then attacks him ferociously. Later, the rare-book-dealer friend who safehouses his choicest finds is found dead and arranged in the Hanging Man position of Tarot cards and, incidentally, of one of the illustrations in The Ninth Gate the book.

Then Corso is off to Spain, where the Ceniza brothers (Jose Lopez Rodero plays both), friendly, sinister twin book restorers, inform him that the illustrations signed “LCF” are said to be of Satan’s own making, taken from another long-destroyed volume by The Ninth Gate’s author, a Venetian torched by the Inquisition for his handiwork. As Corso tracks down the other volumes, in Paris and Portugal, he learns enough to be intrigued by the discrepancies among the books but not enough to get the hell out. Most people in his position would not stop to put on their shoes.

But Polanski has his Doctor Faustus, and he won’t rest until a decent but amoral man actively makes the wrong decision. To help him along, the script throws in a sly blonde (Emmanuelle Seigner), who answers all Corso’s questions with “If you like” and appears—and disappears—out of nowhere to save the investigator from the attacks of Liana’s befuddled-looking hit man. Neither the script nor Depp does a particularly compelling job in developing his attraction to the grimoire’s possibilities; he’s mordantly subdued throughout, and the dialogue isn’t much more advanced than that of End of Days.

Although the film looks beautiful—full of ravishing dark blues and grays, with the mellow gold of Parisian sunshine and old books—it has a soft, chewy center unworthy of everyone involved (except Langella, who merely picks at his scenery). There’s a secret cult of bored society types who gather for a ridiculous torchlight ritual that makes the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut look like an IBM board meeting. Everyone Corso encounters is so slinky and diabolical you expect to see a box of Satan-Os on the breakfast table. And worse, the assumption behind all this chic international intrigue is intellectually specious, if not vulgar and ignorant: People can’t be interested in weird books without being Satanists and/or sex fiends.

Among the recurring motifs in fiction, the summoning-Satan one has always been of questionable use. Most would-be Satan-summoners tend to chuckle malevolently over their plans to harness untold power, but in these ironic days that vague intention sounds as silly as the Warner Bros. lab mouse Brain plotting to “take over the world” on a nightly basis or Dr. Evil blackmailing heads of state for one…million…dollars. If the devil is in the business of buying souls, it shouldn’t be that much trouble to get him into the house of a willing seller. The Ninth Gate’s Satanists just want him to come to their party—what if they run out of ice?

But the film’s real interest is in Corso’s soul, and just because Polanski doesn’t pull his punches doesn’t stop The Ninth Gate from having the jaw-droppingly stupidest ending amid all its kin. Various endings, in fact, vie for the crown of maximum stupidity: There’s an encounter with the society Satanists at a French chateau (first runner-up). Then Corso travels to confront Balkan and has strenuous sex with pure evil (a gold medal and new record). Then he returns to Toledo to check in on the old brothers. Then a whatthe—? last shot will have folks demanding their cash back in droves. Up until the script tries to make sense of itself, The Ninth Gate is beautiful, engrossing, and not unintelligent. But the fiery mess at the end is a clue. If the screenwriters (Polanski, Enrique Urbiz, and John Brownjohn) couldn’t posit a purpose for their film’s centerpiece when they were writing the thing, maybe it wasn’t worth all this trouble. CP