Filmed for British television in 1986 and shown theatrically in the US two years later, this complex, six-and-a-half hour drama is one of playwright-novelist Dennis Potter's most challenging works. The increasingly surreal story line enters an author's mind as he suffers from a disabling
skin disorder, and bounces between his day-to-day hospital experiences and humiliations, his childhood at age 10, as well as one of his own pulp detective yarns--which begins to mirror his real life experiences.
Philip E. Marlow (Michael Gambon), an author of pulp detective tales, is being ravaged by severe psoriasis. In response to the pain, he imagines himself as the central character of his hard-boiled '40s novel, The Singing Detective, just as a woman's naked body is dredged from the river. In
addition, his fevers often prompt hallucinations, such as when a team of doctors suddenly break into a rendition of "Dry Bones."
The detective story thickens as Mark Finney (Patrick Malahide) stumbles upon a corpse, is picked up by a Russian seductress, tailed by a pair of spies, and finally goes to tough-talking Marlow, The Singing Detective (also played by Gambon) for help. Patient Marlow also thinks back to his
childhood, as he blames himself for his dysfunctional family and promises to one day grow up to be a detective. While his father charms the local pub with his singing, little Philip's imagination is already working overtime, as a train ride includes a vision of a living scarecrow and soldiers
singing lasciviously about his mother.
In his detective yarn, Marlow quizzes Finney, fearing it concerns Nazis and V-2 rockets; and while deepening his investigation, a young woman with information dies in his arms. Meanwhile, as a child, Philip spots his mother cheating on his dad in the woods; and when Philip and his mom move to
London, he's never informed that his father won't be joining them.
After three months in his hospital bed, Marlow's condition begins to slowly improve, and he's visited by Nicola (Janet Suzman), his estranged wife, who urges him to go back to his writing and offers her help. Her visit is actually a ruse, set up with a modern-day Finney (also played by Malahide).
Their plan is to steal an old screenplay of Marlow's, take the credit themselves, and sell it for over half-a-million dollars. All they need is his signature on an option contract.
A Christian group visits the hospital ward and trades barbs with the acerbic Marlow, who wants them to leave. This triggers a childhood memory of his stern teacher, who once ordered the children to pray in order to find out who took a bowel movement on her desk. Under pressure, Philip admits to
knowing who did the deed, but refuses to tell, despite the promised punishment. But Philip finally succumbs to the psychological pressure and points out the offender.
Back in his novel, Marlow and his band perform at the Laguna nightclub, and the pair of spies attempt to shoot him while on stage, only to escape in a hail of bullets. Even stranger, these trenchcoated assassins inexplicably find their way into the modern-day hospital, and are chased off by the
When young Philip is finally told by his mother that his father is not coming back, he confesses that he saw her in the woods that day, she slaps him, and he runs off. Later, patient Philip admits to the psychologist that his mother died by drowning, and that he, in fact, had defecated on his
teacher's desk and blamed it on an innocent--with the rest of the class following his lie. He then manages to walk on his own for the first time.
When Nicola realizes she won't star in the finished film, an argument ensues between herself and Finney, and she kills him. Cutting back to the novel, that Finney is also dead, similarly, with a knife in his neck. Detective Marlow makes it to the murder scene first, and hides when the two spies
arrive. Flipping back to his childhood, little Philip returns to his father after his mother's death, but now seems suspicious of being discovered or overheard by others.
In the middle of the night, a policeman arrives to inform patient Marlow that his wife has confessed to killing Finney, and when arrested, made a run for it and jumped into the river. This all turns out to be another fever-driven hallucination, as does the entire scheme to steal his script. As all
of the patients begin playing musical instruments, the two spies confront their creator, Marlow--angry that their roles are vague and that he never even gave them names. As they torture him, detective Marlow kicks down the ward door and a gun battle begins. Detective Marlow then shoots patient
Marlow in the forehead, and announces his independence. The next morning, the optimistic Philip, dressed in his trenchcoat, leaves the hospital with Nicola.
This type of fragmented narrative is difficult to pull off, but Potter and director Jon Amiel expertly handle these transitions. On occasion, the line between fantasy and reality disappears altogether, such as when a young Philip suddenly runs through Marlow's hospital ward. There are also a
number of piercing juxtapositions, such as a sequence which has young Philip spying on his mother's infidelity is intercut with a patient in the next bed dying.
More important, the depth of Potter's script keeps it an intimate experience, as he establishes the parallels between Marlow's past and his literary adventures--while examining the connections between memory and fantasy. And although a fictional work, the story is grounded in wrenching details
from Potter's life, such as his own experiences with acute psoriasis. As in his earlier series, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, Potter uses old songs, lip-synched by the characters, to startling effect, from "Teddy Bear's Picnic" to the Christian singers suddenly breaking into "Accentuate the Positive."
These musical numbers are show stoppers, which manage to be both humorous and nightmarishly surreal.
Overflowing with sarcasm, Marlow uses his razored tongue to undercut the horror of his plight and shield himself from emotional attachment, and central to the film's success is Michael Gambon, who gives a startling, multi-layered performance. In addition, his painfully realistic make-up deserves a
special mention, since it immediately establishes the degree of his illness.
A Gordian knot of memories and emotions, lacking the type of easy answers which are usually taken for granted, this is one of Dennis Potter's most accomplished dramas. At its heart, a life-affirming look at one man breaking down the barriers from his past, and learning to walk on his own.
(Violence, nudity, adult situations, profanity)
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- Released: 1986
- Review: Filmed for British television in 1986 and shown theatrically in the US two years later, this complex, six-and-a-half hour drama is one of playwright-novelist Dennis Potter's most challenging works. The increasingly surreal story line enters an author's min… (more)