The Singing Detective

Nov 19, 2003 at 12:00 am

Dan Dark is rotting. Quarter-sized holes on his face and torso and discolored skin pulling apart from his body in big strips instantly reveal to us that something terrible is going on in Dark’s body. His army of doctors and nurses, trying everything, also seem a bit horrified. They will soon find out that it’s not the psoriatic condition that is slowly eating away at Dark. It’s his mind, a mind so filled with bitterness, cynicism, paranoia and delusion that it’s cranking out visions of B-movie noirs and torturous memories of long-ago horrors. It’s also doing an effective job of poisoning Dark’s waking hours with molar-clenched rages against an ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) who, through most of the film, goes by the name “fucking whore.”

The movie is an inspired re-creation of one of the most potent film genres ever: noir. The Singing Detective is three movies, really, going on at the same time. Three story lines intertwine simultaneously; it’s brilliantly executed. With its dark and lonely streets, bartenders who know something but aren’t talking, and beautiful but evil femmes fatales, the first part of the trilogy nails every noir convention and cliché. It’s easy for detective storywriter Dan Dark (played with nervous, neurotic energy by Robert Downey Jr.) to channel his demons into this big bad fantasy world of gangsters, fat martinis and murder. As he confesses to his bumbling but effective psychiatrist, Dr. Gibbon (an excellent showing by Mel Gibson), “It’s the clues, not the solutions” that Dark wants. Murkiness. Leads that go nowhere. Women in red dresses picked up in bars, screwed on plush couches, then drowned by well-dressed henchmen in bathtubs. There’s something nasty going on in Palookaville (the film noir setting where all the jerks, rubes and soon-to-be rubbed-out share a cocktail and a smoke).

The second film, conjured out of the subtle and effective interrogations of Dr. Gibbon, moodily re-creates Dan’s lonely upbringing on a dusty patch of California highway. His father runs a service station. Mom’s a tad bored. A young Dark witnesses a bit of extracurricular activity between Mom and his dad’s business partner that has enduring consequences for everyone in the family.

The third film is set primarily in Dark’s hospital room. This is where Dan gets creamed with ointments, imagines his dark and foggy noir creations and has brutal, vengeful exchanges with a beautiful ex-wife he no longer trusts.

If this sounds confusing, don’t worry. You won’t need a scorecard to keep track. Created by Dennis Potter, the screenwriter for this film as well as the popular 1980s British mini-series with the same name, The Singing Detective blends storylines into a stylish, convention-busting quilt that actually adds up to something.

Unlike many of my favorite noir films, where for days afterward I’m still trying to figure out who knocked off the industrialist’s wife, or who really wrote the confession found near a well-dressed dame’s body, The Singing Detective turns the classic conventions on their heads. In those gorgeous black-and-whites, it never seemed to matter whodunit. The audience got off on the machine-gun dialogue and the heroics of men who drink alone and leave their lover’s bed before the sun comes up. In this treatment of that old chestnut, however, if Dan Dark doesn’t figure things out, he’s going to keep on rotting, inside and out.

The one aspect of the film that’s still a mystery to me is the frequent side trips into full-out musical numbers. Yes, yes, I know the film is called The Singing Detective, but the musical “interludes” were unnecessary and annoying. They may have worked in the television series, which I never saw, but the inclusion of musical acts here creates weak and ineffectual pit stops. A group of doctors singing “At The Hop” after prescribing Dark a new medicine didn’t add a layer of meaning or irony to the story. It’s amusing, and director Keith Gordon could get a job directing for MTV someday, but the musical acts became nothing more than empty respites from the real grit of Dark’s powerful narratives.

The Singing Detective is a great movie. Especially when it’s not singing.


Now showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.

Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].