The Ninth Configuration

USA 1979

Reviewed by Mark Kermode

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

In a gothic castle in the Pacific northwest of America called Center 18, the US military attempt to establish whether a group of apparently deranged servicemen and one astronaut, Billy Cutshaw, are faking their insanity. When psychiatrist Hudson Kane arrives to take charge, he is subtly persuaded by Cutshaw and fellow inmate Lt. Reno (who is adapting the works of Shakespeare for dogs) to indulge the men's delusions and engage in extravagant play therapy.

As Center 18 descends into insanity, Cutshaw challenges Kane to prove the existence of God by showing him one single act of genuine self-sacrifice. Kane reveals to medic Dr Fell that he is haunted by murderous dreams belonging to his brother, the infamous marine 'Killer' Kane. One day, new inmate Gilman arrives and recognises Kane as 'Killer' Kane, causing Fell to reveal to his fellow officers that he is in fact Hudson Kane, brother to Vincent, who has actually been a patient during his stay. Outside, Kane tracks a fleeing Cutshaw to a nearby roadhouse where he rescues him from a gang of bikers during a murderous fight. Back at the Center, the wounded Kane allows himself to die, thereby giving Cutshaw his "one example" of self-sacrifice. Some time later, a cured Cutshaw revisits the abandoned castle, and finds a St Christopher medal he gave to Kane which he interprets as a sign of life after death.

Review

The second part of a 'trilogy of faith' which began with The Exorcist, both novel and film, and concluded with Legion (a novel, which formed the basis of The Exorcist III), this extraordinary theological thriller finds God's own comic, novelist-turned-director William Peter Blatty, in his element, combining scabrous satire with sanguine spirituality in one of the most genuinely bizarre offerings of modern US cinema. Gesturing towards Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) in terms of narrative, but closer in its cracked tone to Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963) or David Lynch's Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me, The Ninth Configuration presents a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action. From exotically hallucinogenic visions of a lunar crucifixion to the claustrophobic realism of a bar-room brawl, via such twisted vignettes as Robert Loggia karaoking to Al Jolson and Moses Gunn in Superman drag (don't ask), Blatty directs like a man with no understanding of, or interest in, the supposed limits of mainstream movie-making. The result is a work of matchless madness which divides audiences as spectacularly as the waves of the Red Sea, a cult classic that continues to provoke either apostolic devotion or baffled dismissal 20 years on.

For those caught within its spell, much of the power of The Ninth Configuration derives from its Golden Globe-winning script, a reworking of Blatty's 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane, which expands an insightfully quirky comic conceit into an emotional melodrama packed with oddly erudite one liners. ("You remind me of Vincent Van Gogh - either that or a lark in a wheatfield," says Fell.) Armed to the teeth with such insane and quotable dialogue, the cast are allowed to spiral off into their own individual lunacies, with Stacy Keach playing catatonically straight to Scott Wilson's Marx Brothers madcap and Ed Flanders' lip-twitching deadpan, while George DiCenzo and Robert Loggia chew up the scenery and Jason Miller and Joe Spinell do Abbott and Costello on acid. Gently corralling the marauding herd, cinematographer Gerry Fisher sneaks and snoops around the castle's corridors to the faltering steps of Barry DeVorzon's eerie score, creating an air of intimacy that casts the audience as both inmate and observer. Miraculously, from this chaos comes order, as Blatty (cameoing as Fromme) urges us to "follow the yellow brick road" and be swept away by this whirlwind of parody, passion and prayer.

Famously cited by Leonard Maltin as a classic only in its director-approved 118-minute cut, The Ninth Configuration has actually emerged over the years in numerous formats, most of which were constructed by Blatty himself. Refined from an unwieldy first assembly of over three hours, the film was originally issued in the US in two distinct versions: a longer cut first released by Warners in early 1980, and an abridged version retitled Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane which United film Distribution put out subsequently and which was nominated as Best Picture at the Golden Globes. In the UK Lorimar's 109-minute international version was theatrically released by ITC with an 'X' Certificate, with Guild video subsequently issuing an alleged 108-minute cut for home video. Although this may in fact be the same cut, small differences between the Guild video and British television versions suggest that distinct 108- and 109-minute cuts could indeed have circulated. Variety simply added to the confusion by citing 105 minutes as correct.

Unsatisfied with all the extant versions, Blatty finally decided to definitively recut The Ninth Configuration for a New World rerelease in 1985, creating the 117-minute, 37-second cut which now stands as his approved assembly. This final cut includes much comic dialogue variously absent from other versions (Cutshaw and Reno discussing Spellbound, Reno and Spinell arguing about casting Hamlet, Groper complaining to Kane about Cutshaw's mischievously randy missives), and notably adds a haunting pre-credits overture in which Barry DeVorzon's lament 'San Antone' plays out in its entirety over a montage of images of the castle. Most radically, however, this version also crucially transmutes a final act of suicide, whose potentially sinful overtones long troubled the writer-director, into one of unambiguous self-sacrifice. By removing a single shot of a knife falling from Kane's grasp which existed in all other versions, and having Stacy Keach revoice Kane's parting words to Cutshaw, Blatty finally achieves a conclusion which reconciles his dramatic and religious concerns.

Credits

Producer
William Peter Blatty
Screenplay
William Peter Blatty
Based on his novel Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane
Director of Photography
Gerry Fisher
Supervising Film Editor
Peter Taylor
Production Designer
William Malley
Music
Barry DeVorzon
┬ęThe Ninth Configuration Company
Executive Producer
William Paul
Associate Producer
Tom Shaw
Production Co-ordinator
Anne M. Shaw
Production Consultant
Frank McKevitt
Assistant Director
Tom Shaw
Script Supervisor
John Franco
Casting Consultant
Jack Baur
Special Effects
Willard Flanagin
Editors
T. Battle Davis
Roberto Silvi
Peter Lee-Thompson
Art Director
J. Dennis Washington
Set Decorator
Sydney Ann Kee
Costumes
Tom Bronson
Optical Effects
Pacific Title & Art Studio
Music Editor
John Caper jr
Soundtrack
"San Antone" by Barry DeVorzon, performed by Denny Brooks; "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" by Al Jolson, Billy Rose, Dave Dreyer, performed by Al Jolson; "Ah Sweet Mystery of Life" (trad), performed by Walter Scanian; "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" by A.J. Neibury, D. Dougherty, E. Reynolds; "You Are My Sunshine" by Jimmie Davis, Charles Mitchell; "When You Were Sweet Sixteen" by James Thornton, arranged /adapted by Barry DeVorzon; "Till We Meet Again" by Raymond B. Egan, Richard A. Whiting; "Dancing in the Night"
Production Sound
Colin Charles
Re-recording Mixers
Robert L. Harman
James Cook
Bud Grenzbach
Supervising Sound Editor
Gordon Ecker Jr
Sound Editors
Marvin Walowitz
Andrew London
David Pettijohn
Dialogue Editor
Stan Gilbert
Stunt Co-ordinator
Bobby Bass
Cast
Stacy Keach
Colonel Vincent Kane, 'Colonel Hudson Kane'
Scott Wilson
Captain Billy Cutshaw
Jason Miller
Lieutenant Frankie Reno
Ed Flanders
Colonel Hudson Kane, 'Colonel Richard Fell, M.O.'
Neville Brand
Major Marvin Groper
George DiCenzo
Captain Fairbanks
Moses Gunn
Major Nammack
Robert Loggia
Lieutenant Bennish
Joe Spinell
Lieutenant Spinell
Alejandro Rey
Lieutenant Gomez
Tom Atkins
Sergeant Krebs
Steve Sandor
Stanley, 1st cyclist
Richard Lynch
Richard, 2nd cyclist
Mark Gordon
Sergeant Gilman
Bill Lucking
highway patrolman
Stephen Powers
Sergeant Christian
David Healy
William Paul
generals
Tom Shaw
priest
Gordon K. Kee
1st inmate
Bruce Boa
sergeant in combat shack
Linda Blatty
waitress
Marilyn Raymon
girl cyclist
Hobby Gilman
marine corporal
Bobby Bass
driver
Billy Blatty
young Kane
[uncredited]
William Peter Blatty
Fromme
Certificate
15
Distributor
Blue Dolphin Film & Video
10,585 feet
117 minutes 37 seconds
Colour by
Metrocolor
A differently edited version of this film was reviewed in MFBNo.566, March 1981
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011