VIDEO: The Singing Detective

The Singing Detective
Fox Video

Misanthropic, misogynistic, and Freudian to the core, this is a landmark piece of miniseries drama (circa 1986) that's been long respected but also long unavailable. It's written by the late Dennis Potter, who merged the personal with the generic in a story about Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon), a blocked writer of detective stories who sits in a hospital ward for treatment of a crippling skin disease. The disease and its medications--and Marlow's isolation--lead him to hallucinations and reminiscences. Because a doctor has suggested that the disease is also psychosomatic, "curing" it partly means sorting out the demons of Marlow's past.

Like a detective, Marlow has to solve the mystery of himself; he visits his lonely childhood in England's far North, and he reviews his frustrated mother's betrayal of his kindly father. Alternately, he works on a new story about the "Singing Detective," who moonlights as a club singer (lip-synching to Bing Crosby and the like) and cracks a case about a fey twit who may have killed a whore (who may have been a spy). The actor playing the twit also plays Marlow's lifelong nemesis, now plotting to steal a movie contract from him; the actress playing Marlow's mother also shows up as a possible spy in the detective tale.

Potter's script is full of mean spirits, self-pity, and brutal revelations, yet its ultimate project is completely empathetic: Marlow needs to realize how he became who he is. Director Jon Amiel (who went on to helm Tune in Tomorrow, Copycat, and this year's The Man Who Knew Too Little) deftly guides the performances and transitions throughout this long (six-and-a-half hours), rich, and very rewarding tale.

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