Directed by Keith Gordon. USA. 2003.
Iíll admit that my reaction to the film is based on my love of the Jon Amiel directed series, which I saw when it was originally broadcast in the UK in 1986. Almost every comparison with the original series shows the film to be the weaker version. The cast in the film is top drawer: Robert Downey Jr. as Dan Dark (renamed from the TV versionís Phillip Marlow), a bitter, cynical author who is hospitalised with a crippling skin disease; Robin Wright Penn as his wife Nicola; Jeremy Northam as Mark Binney (a composite figure from Darkís past) and Mel Gibson as Dr Gibbon, the psychiatrist who helps to put Dark on the road to physical and mental recovery. As good as these actors are, none of them can hold a candle to Michael Gambon, Janet Suzman, Patrick Malahide or Bill Paterson, who played these roles respectively in the TV version. Unlike the frequent fantasy musical sequences in the TV series (which commented on Marlowís state of mind), the few song and dance numbers in the film seem half-heartedly performed and are poorly shot, edited and choreographed, as if the filmmakers couldnít be bothered - or were too embarrassed - to feature them. The only time when a song really feels suited to the film is when Dark, with the help Dr. Gibbon, succeeds in walking again, to the accompaniment (in Darkís mind) of Eddie Cochran singing Three Steps to Heaven. This moment is such a victory for Dark that the audience is swept up in the joy he feels, and the song helps to convey that to us.
Because the new version is - presumably - set in the 1990s or early 21st century, and because Downey Jr. is younger than his television counterpart, the setting of the fictional detective novel has been changed from the 1940s to the 1950s. This change dilutes the film noir feel of the murder mystery story, which was an essential element of the TV series because Marlowís detective story masked - and eventually helped him to uncover - the mysteries and secrets from his real life. Many terrific elements of the TV show have been pruned from the film version, most noticeably the scenes that featured the young Marlow, brilliantly played by Lyndon Davies in the TV version. Itís understandable that a lot of sequences from the TV original couldnít be included here because of the filmís shorter running time, but as with many things in this remake, more is lost than gained by the change. However, the film has not tarnished Potterís original work and there are some interesting things in the update.
Although not as memorable
as Gambon in the title role, Downey Jr. succeeds in conveying a tortured
man fighting for his sanity. Thereís one moment where Dark gives
an anguished speech to a group of Doctors and this seems less like a confession
from Dark the character, and more like an outpouring of emotional torment
from Downey Jr. the actor, whose much publicised struggle with drug addiction
must surely have influenced his approach to the role. Thereís also
an interesting moment towards the end of the film thatís a different take
on a similar scene featured in the TV original (and which echoes a scene
in David Lynchís 1986 film Blue Velvet), where Dark (playing the
detective in his novel) hides in a wardrobe and spies on his duplicitous
wife. She turns to address Dark and confronts the author (and his
literary alter ego, and, with the use of a POV shot, the audience) with
Darkís negative feelings towards women. Ultimately, the film is not
without interest or merit, but like many recent remakes, it seems like
a watered-down version of a classic original, and itís the original version
of The Singing Detective you really should be watching.
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