Z To A: The Singing Detective (2003)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

Plot Synopsis: When it comes to murder, seduction and betrayal, pulp-fiction author Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) wrote the book. But now, he’s living it. Languishing in a hospital with an immobilizing condition, Dark has lost himself in the fictional world of his alter ego, a hardboiled detective and dance-band singer living in 1950s Los Angeles. As Dark’s grasp on reality continues to slip, he’s placed under the care of an enigmatic psychiatrist (Mel Gibson). Together they plunge into the mystery of Dark’s psyche, where everyone is suspect and danger waits at every turn.

– From DVD Production Notes

The Singing Detective is what I would call a beautiful disaster. Most people don’t like it and the film was considered a critical and financial failure. I understand why. It was a low-budget, independent film- at least by Hollywood standards. It wasn’t easy to market to a mass audience. The plot was difficult to understand. Americans had no idea who Dennis Potter was (and apparently didn’t care). And above all, Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t a box office draw when it came out.

The DVD I own was given to me by someone who didn’t want it. I was happy to take it off their hands. I’ve always thought of Detective as a brave effort, and for more reasons than one. Upon watching it again I realized there is more: it’s visually striking, funny, and ultimately ahead of its time.

The first time I saw the film was in 2003, when it screened at Sundance. I thought it was challenging and took a lot of risks. This film has absolutely no interest in explaining itself, and that’s part of the reason why people dismissed it. You are practically plunged into a character’s waking life, subconscious, memories and creative efforts all at once and without a bungee cord. What’s worse, practically everything about this character and what is on his mind is unpleasant.

The good news: this character is being played by Robert Downey Jr. He had big shoes to fill since Detective was a remake of a BBC miniseries that aired in 1986, starring Michael Gambon (who’s Dumbledore, for God’s sake). On top of that the character of Dan Dark is… difficult. He is angry, bitter, misogynistic and, above all, hates himself. This isn’t an easy character to play.

Thing is, Downey Jr. has the ineffable ability to keep an audience interested no matter what he says or does. So as far as casting goes? Downey Jr. it was, and Downey Jr. it (kind of) had to be.

However, it almost wasn’t. Detective was shot during a period of time where no one would touch Downey Jr. with a ten foot pole. The insurance needed to employ him was very high and he was on probation, unable to leave Los Angeles. He had been dropped from a Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda for this reason (Winona Ryder as well) and was having trouble finding work or getting taken seriously.

In the end it was Mel Gibson who fought and paid for him to star in this film, and since he was producing and co-starring in the project he had some major pull. So basically: without him, Downey Jr. wouldn’t have gotten a job. Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but he has helped some people when they’ve been down. After Detective, people began employing Downey Jr. again.

Upon its release many reviews centered on Downey Jr.’s personal life rather than what they saw. It’s easy to see why. There were definite parallels between him and Dan Dark. Both were recovering from something debilitating. Both were trying to get on their feet again. Both had issues. In his audio commentary director Keith Gordon said the biggest difference was that Downey Jr. is a sweet, humble, and rather generous person who rarely gets angry. Dark is the complete opposite of that, and every character who deals with him is subject to insults and verbal abuse.

Like in this scene. Dark is looking lovingly at his wife.

Actually, he wants to jam that pen into her eye. Just a guess.

Downey Jr. does vitriol well of course, spitting out threats and put-downs through clenched teeth. His bitterness is rotting him from the inside out, seething through his skin (literally) and every line he utters. This is counter-balanced by sudden bursts of song, which freaks most viewers out, but the thing is we’re in Dark’s head. That’s the film. There is no objective point of view. This is the way he sees things, and this is how he numbs himself.

While doing press for Requiem For A Dream (2000), director Darren Aronofsky noted that film had exhausted itself when it came to the idea of “outer life.” The new frontier of film was capturing characters’ “inner life” and immersing audiences in subjective realities. In a way he was right. Films in the style of Dream and Detective have become more common and moved from the indie/independent/experimental to the mainstream. I couldn’t help but notice that this kind of film trended in 2010: Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void and Aronofksy’s Black Swan were built as subjective narratives. I’d argue that Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World was as well.

This especially applies to Detective, but it was released way back when in ye olde 2003. It was a cinematic exercise in empathy and approached storytelling in a completely different way. We begin to see the “whys” of Dan Dark in the form of musical numbers, flashbacks and unfinished pages he is writing in his head. The only scenes that solidly confront Dark’s issues are his appointments with Dr. Gibbon (a Jim Broadbent-esque Gibson), and like everything else they are linked to his sexual neuroses. Once you figure out their origins you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy.

And believe me, if there’s one thing this film got right, it’s the sexual neuroses part. The sex, too. Along with David Mackenzie, Gordon is one of the only contemporary directors who shoots sex scenes in an uncomfortable, truthful way where you believe it is actually happening. You actually cringe at how real it looks. This is crucial to the film and understanding Dark’s character. Sex seems to rule his life for better or for worse, and you see it in all of its bare-boned sordidness.

Other than what I’ve mentioned above, Detective is what I stated before: a beautiful disaster. By the end of the film all bets are off and it begins to collapse under its own weight. What makes me return to it is its audacity. It’s also wonderful to look at and the performances are solid. What’s more, I think of it as a stepping stone to Downey Jr. resurrecting his career.

But above all I think it’s the “inner life” of this film that makes me respect it. It’s a theme that will appear in the Z To A series again, but I’m glad this is the first film to represent it. Many believe the film is a misstep as a whole, but I like to think of it as a beginning.

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One thought on “Z To A: The Singing Detective (2003)

  1. Dennis Potter and “The Singing Detective”! I have to thank you for this nod to a property of one of the most brilliant and innovative talents of the 20th Century. He was not a filmmaker, just a writer – but, oh, the things he wrote! It is wonderful to see some of his work talked about.

    Now, this film is, as you said, a “beautiful disaster”, and sorry to say it but should not under any circumstances be used as a measure of Dennis Potter. The original six-hour serial … which many consider to be his masterpiece, that won a Peabody Award, and ranks 20th on the BFI list of the 100 Greatest Television Programs, and is a permanent addition to the Museum of Television and Radio in New York and Los Angeles, is a different story. The differences in the two versions can best be exemplified by the idea of taking a massive, complex work –let’s say the whole of the Harry Potter canon for the sake of argument—and boil it down to one slim storyline. Then taking the story out of its original time setting and placing it in America instead of England while infusing the characters with American sensibilities as you try to make them behave in a drama written about Englishmen. What you have, then, are ideas that are interesting but lacking the full potential of fulfillment: a beautiful disaster.

    Phillip Marlow, whose own name he considers a joke, becomes Dan Dark, a name that is a joke. The subtlety of a failed writer of detective fiction named the same as one of the greatest detective characters in all pulp fiction becoming a character obviously named with a cheap play on words is only the start of how and why the movie version went wrong. Everything Potter wrote commented on England and the people of England and their attitudes. He could not help it: it flowed from his pen automatically. That which was lost between the revision and truncated version of the story results in many touches of wit and pathos falling by the wayside. All that tragic and beautiful connection between young Phillip and his dad, a common miner in the Forest of Dean, are gone. How can there be a scene in the local as dad sings while mom plays the piano and young Phillip watches with a terrible secret locked up inside him? It can’t be … not in America where bars are bars, not a community gathering place for families on a Sunday afternoon where drinks and crisps are flowing and everybody takes a turn entertaining with a song.

    And removing the element of Phillip’s youth during the Second World War and placing the detective into the 1950s diminishes the adult Phillip’s psychological attitudes to the degree that when the revelations come there is no understanding of why and how he could have felt the way he did. There is raw, emotional power there that makes it all fit together. Dennis Potter was able to cram so much guilt, shame, self-loathing, bitterness, failure, and hope into a character and his life by using the device of memory-hallucination-a reliving of his one successful work layered upon the present in duality (the real present, and an invented one) in a way that is fascinating and intriguing television drama.

    Although the host medium was film, this clearly was structured as television. More precisely, British television where fear of advertisers doesn’t seem to be an issue, where literate drama trumps cheap feel-good rubbish. Each of the six hour-long parts are engrossing to the extreme, mystery after mystery are revealed in each layer of story; you are forced to think as you watch this stuff, there is no sitting back and letting it wash over you pre-digested. You’re a participant in the hospital ward … Yup, no private room for Phillip Marlow … his shame and skin are on display for all the other patients to see. As the loquacious Mr Hall points out to young dunderheaded Reginald, both with heart ailments, while they wait for the tea trolley to finally get to them, the sight of Marlow’s back exposed by a careless orderly is “enough to put you off your bread and jam”.

    Okay, so in this serial we have Dumbledore, and Imelda Staunton, Dolores Umbridge herself, as predominant Staff Nurse White, and, yes, there is the remarkable coincidence of surname between the author of this piece and the primary character of Jo Rowling’s work. It is unfortunate in some ways—but perfectly natural since that, too, is so ultimately English—but it has to be pointed out that Michael Gambon is an actor of remarkable skill and versatility. No one could play Phillip Marlow and get away with the spitting insults, cruel banter and expressions of want and need as he did. He looked exactly as this character should look: an emotional and physical wreck of a man in his late 40s-early 50s, a failure as a person and as a writer, and yet someone we really care about. It takes skill to bring that out. As in Dennis Potter’s earlier work (certainly not his first major success, but the property that introduced him to American audiences and was also made into a half-baked feature film), “Pennies From Heaven”, songs of the era are very important. Unlike “Pennies”, which takes place in the 1930s where all the songs are contemporary to the drama, in “The Singing Detective” the songs have the emotional quality of Philip Marlow’s youth in memory. An Al Jolson song is used in one terrifying sequence, Ronnie Ronalde’s “Bird Song At Eventide” is so heartbreaking that it’s difficult to believe that it wasn’t written specifically for the scene, and other songs are similarly integrated. These songs are the original 1940s recordings. When a group of do-gooder evangelists comprised of a doctor and some orderlies and nurses invade the ward to spread the word, the Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters rendition of “Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive”, knowing what we know about Marlow, Mr Hall, Reginald and Mr Tomkey (a character with Parkinson’s who cannot stop shaking, played by Leslie French with Buster Keaton-like nuance) it becomes hilarious in all its implication and delivery.

    If Dennis Potter had one terrific flaw among many, it was that he was in love with America. He wanted all these changes, wanted to turn his masterpiece into an American movie with an American noir detective, and he wanted to idolize the songs of his own youth in the 1950s (a serial he wrote called “Lipstick On Your Collar”, which nicely ties together his ode to the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, and starred Ewan McGregor, did not do well at all and is pretty much forgotten today). So be it. This film is there, something to see I guess for all the positive parts. And in all of Dennis Potter’s miserable and tragic life who would deny him this joy?

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