Friday, September 7, 2012

Film #85: The Singing Detective (1986)

Director: John Amiel 

Initial Release Country: United Kingdom

Times Previously Seen: none

Rapid-Fire Summary:

In the mid-1980’s, detective crime fiction writer Philip Marlow is in a hospital ward, crippled by debilitating condition resulting in severe arthritis and massively inflamed and flaky skin. Surrounded by fellow invalids, Marlow fights his way through the pain and frustration by losing himself in his own mind, mostly in his own history and his own detective stories.

As he slips in and out of bouts of pain, three distinct aspects of Marlow’s life come to the fore. The earliest is his childhood in a small village in the English countryside. Though a clever young child, Philip has to deal with his parents’ marital strife, including witnessing his mother’s infidelity with one of his father’s friends.

The second aspect is once of Marlow’s detective novels, The Singing Detective. Though the plot is never completely spelled out from start to finish, it involves World War II espionage and intrigue. Shady characters drift around a dark and foggy London, and an inevitable mysterious death is involved. The primary villain looks exactly the same as Marlow’s mother’s lover, while Marlow himself is the suave private detective who is trying to solve the case.

The hero of his own detective novels, Marlow sees himself as far more dashing and heroic than the crippled figure that he throughout most of the "real" story.

The third aspect is in the modern world. As his illness first worsens and then dissipates, Marlow begins to imagine a nefarious plot involving his semi-estranged wife. He imagines that she is working with a rogue film producer, a man who also looks like the villain from the other two elements from his life that Marlow focuses on. The two are trying to steal a film script of Marlow’s and sell it to Hollywood.

In the end, we see that the Singing Detective novel and the modern tale of the backstabbing wife are all the stuff of a fiction writer’s imagination. However, Marlow’s troubled childhood is clearly very real, and has had a profound effect on his mind and imagination. He leaves the hospital under his own power and with his wife, seemingly not too worse for wear in the end.

My Take on the Film:

This is another one of those shows where no summary can really do it justice. The Singing Detective asks a lot of its audience, to the point that I’m surprised that it was no network television.

First off, patience is a must with this story. The summary I gave above may seem rather straightforward, and perhaps even boring. I assure you, though, that it takes most of the series’ six-and-a-half hours for all of the plot points and connections to become at all clear. Once you get to around the third episode, though, you can see that the show was put together very carefully, and you start to build faith in where it is taking you. Initially, though, you have to have a strong stomach.

A stark contrast to the stylish hero of his own novels, the real Marlow is a physically hideous shell. His illness drives him to hallucinate and verbally lash out at most of the people around him. If you can take it, though, there is far more to him than his repulsive exterior would suggest.

The show certainly wasn’t what I expected, based on the standard summary on the DVDs. I expected far more of the noir elements, which had me rather excited. (Anyone who’s read my reviews of other noir films, like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past can see why). Therefore, it was initially a bit of a letdown to see that a great part of this show is given over to seeing Philip Marlow suffer in a hospital ward. His dreadfully horrid skin condition and his visible anguish over his arthritis is difficult to stomach at times. It actually works well, in that it gives a sense of relief when Marlow retreats into his own head.

These meanderings into his own mind are, of course, what set this show apart from other films and shows that attempt to tap into the psychology of the writer. The Singing Detective seems to get it dead on, in so many ways. Anyone who has ever tried any form of creative storytelling knows that the creative process often involves blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. This is sometimes intentional, but often is deeply subconscious. We can see this happen over and over as the various aspects of Marlow’s life and mind bleed into one another and begin to shift and change upon each interaction. It’s pretty fascinating to watch it unfold over the course of the series.

These shifts do result in some rather surrealistic scenes. This may not be every person’s bag, and it’s not necessarily mine, but it fits the tone of the show extremely well. Seeing a couple of standard 1940s noir goons, complete with trench coats and fedora hats, barge into a 1980s hospital ward and start shooting up the place, is plain bizarre on the surface. But when you realize that it’s the culmination of all of Marlow’s frustrations at his surroundings, then it takes on a different meaning. The series has innumerable examples of this, and attempting to explain them all would take far more words that you want to read or I want to write. Suffice it to say that it is a highly effective way of conveying a complex mental state.

I should mention that the series is far from some gloomy sludge through one man’s torment and misery. There is a very healthy dose of humor throughout the story. Sometimes it’s in the form of songs that break out in the middle of nowhere, and often it is in Marlow’s pitch-black sardonic humor. Whatever the case, there is plenty in the show to prevent it from becoming too depressing.

One of Marlow's many fever dreams, in which he envisions the hospital's often detached staff doing song-and-dance numbers in the ward. These scenes are almost reminiscent of Monty Python, but not nearly as heavy on the zaniness. 

Even more than the humor is the very genuine humanity behind it all. Between the many strange hallucinations and disorienting splicing of elements are the very real and powerful emotions of the characters. Whether it is the young Marlow's sorrow at his disintegrating family or the spiteful adult Marlow's attempts avoid embarrassing himself to the people around him, there are several highly memorable and ground-breakingly earnest moments. Along with the humor, these things contribute to an amazing balance to the entire show.

The acting is incredible. The title role is done great service by Michael Gambon, now a staple British actor with many a feather in his cap. Virtually all of the other actors do great work, especially considering the range of grave, bizarre, and outright goofy performances that their parts often required.

The visuals are nothing to speak about. As with a lot of great BBC shows in the past, the crew seemed to be working with a very limited budget, but they made the absolute most of it. The show has a grainy, sometimes washed-out look to it, which can add to the sense of despair in a lot of places. Still, it is not the visuals whereby this show finds its strengths.

Would I watch this show again? Probably not. Even though I think it is an excellent piece of work, and exceptionally unique in its boldness, I don’t know that repeated viewings would offer me much. Once is probably enough for me to appreciate it and agree with its place as an all-time great.

That’s a wrap. 85 shows down. 20 to go.

Coming Soon: Wings of Desire (1987):

 I saw this German flick a number of years ago. It’s about a love-struck angel, and it’s got Peter Falk and Nick Cave in it. What more do you need to know?

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.