Dennis Potter was first and foremost a television writer, though he also wrote screenplays (including the memorable Dreamchild). At a time when television rarely delivered more than instantly forgettable drivel, he brought a highly literary intelligence as well as an uncanny sense of theatrical timing to his scripts. In the original television mini-series, The Singing Detective, he constructed a multileveled, multi-stranded story that carried the viewer from one episode to the next, each episode exquisitely rationing the unfolding elements of a mystery story formulated in the mind of its deeply disturbed writer, Philip Marlowe (renamed Dan Dark in the film), who is hospitalized with a hideously unsightly skin condition so acute as to render his fingers contorted into useless claws.
Dark’s physical malady is both cause and effect. It has left him emotionally consumed with bitterness, anger, and paranoia, while its origin is buried in his repressed memories of his childhood, mostly centered on his beloved, promiscuous mother. Adding another layer to the television version, in the midst of the narrative Potter had his characters break into lip-synched songs and dance routines, pre-World Was II songs that express the idealized romance of pop culture, contrasted ironically with Dark’s dysfunctional realities.
Admirers of the television series will approach the new film version with some trepidation. At a quarter the length of the original, would the film not abbreviate and dilute the effectiveness of what seems a virtually flawless work? The answer is yes, but, standing on its own, the film, if less compelling than the original, is, nonetheless, persuasive and reasonably true to its source. The screenplay was written by Potter in 1992, two years before he died; part of his intent was to protect its integrity after the failed screen version of his Pennies from Heaven.
Since the date in which the film is set is later than that of the series, Potter shifted the flashback period to the 1940’s and 50’s, and the musical selections have been changed accordingly. Think "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?," "Mr. Sandman" and "Poison Ivy" as against "Peg o’ My Heart," "Dry Bones" and "After You’ve Gone." While the songs from different periods will resonate differently with audiences of different ages, the change cannot be said to significantly alter the point of the device. As well, it provides a bit of light relief in a very dark scenario.
The film has toned down some of the harshness of the series and the ending seems more upbeat. There was a lot of poetry in the series voiceover; there’s little in the film. The use of words in the series was spectacular; Potter’s command of the language and his deployment of puns and wordplay were memorable. There’s less of that in the film, perhaps because there’s less of the luxury of time. On the other hand, sexual situations are more frankly portrayed in the film, fully justified by the content of the story.
The definitive performance by Michael Gambon in the series would be a daunting consideration for any actor now assuming the lead role. Robert Downey, Jr. (Chaplin, Bowfinger, Wonder Boys) makes a younger, sexier Dan Dark and his own remarkable thespian skills strongly center the film without need for apology. He subtly captures Dark’s gradual acknowledgement of the repressed truths from his childhood, which leads to emotional resolution, even as his skin begins to heal.
As Dark’s therapist, Mel Gibson is refreshingly low-keyed. A first-rate supporting cast includes Jeremy Northam as the detective’s client, Robin Wright Penn as Dark’s wife, Katie Holmes as a sympathetic nurse, and Adrien Brody and Jon Polito as a couple of amusing hoods. Direction by Keith Gordon (Waking the Dead) is assured, keeping the various elements of the story clearly sorted out.