Movie poster from Icon Productions.
Some say that Robert Downey Jr.’s 2003 film The Singing Detective is better left forgotten. I have to disagree with that assessment. It is an interesting failure, as only a film with gratuitous sex, cheesy musical numbers, and a sprinkling of seething anger can be put together to make a whole. Several times while watching I tried to shut it off but I couldn’t. It made me think so much my head hurt.
Based on the beloved British series starring Michael Gambon (Dumbledore, a badass detective?), the movie is one hot mess, but that’s pretty much the point of the exercise.
Downey plays two men in the film: one is a swaggering ‘50s gumshoe and the other is the bedridden, bitter writer who created him. The film starts with the vicious killing of a prostitute who is drowned in a bathtub.
Who is the woman? What does she know? As the film unfolds, at first it seems there is one central mystery. Then the clues begin to pile up and an overwhelming feeling of bafflement sets in. Is the writer so sick that he can’t tell reality from pulp fiction? Is he remembering the novel he wrote or is he living it? Is the murdered woman merely a memory of his mother or is it wish-fulfillment regarding the fate of his estranged wife?
I wish I knew. The film certainly doesn’t. I wonder if digging out the original series would help answer some of these questions, but my gut tells me the unsettled feeling will only get worse.
A promotional still from Almega Projects and Native Voice Films.
The 2011 film The Bengali Detective, oddly enough, continues with the merry disarray that The Singing Detective started in my head. As a documentary, one might expect it to be dark and gritty, and nothing more. Reality, however, likes to surprise the genre-savvy.
The Bengali Detective follows the life of Rajesh Ji, the head of the Always Detective Agency. He’s a simple, kind man, who loves his wife and child and treats his employees with paternal affection. He likes to sing duets with his wife, and for relaxation he and his employees try to shimmy to the latest Bollywood dances. So yes, just like The Singing Detective, there are dance numbers in this one, too. Sometimes it seems like a detective’s life is all fun and games.
The three cases we are allowed to see, however, are not of the heartwarming sort. A young man needs to know who murdered his cousin and his cousin’s two best friends. A middle-aged woman, physically and emotionally abused, needs proof of her husband’s infidelities in order to move on with her life. A local manufacturer of hair products demands to find the sellers and source of counterfeits.
The Always Detective Agency relies on its men to get to the facts, which they manage to do for most part. The murder case, however, is beset by tremendous hurdles, including a missing witness and suspects who are on the run. They become preoccupied with proving motive, since most of the physical evidence are in the hands of the police. The official police are portrayed as bureaucratic and unhelpful: they don’t want to give any of their information away, even if they don’t seem to be solving the case themselves.
That the bodies of the three men were found by the railway tracks might stink of red herring to a mystery fan (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, anyone?). Of course it is highly possible that they did die there, but not even this angle can be fully explored. It’s a bit frustrating for the viewer.
So, does the agency catch the unfaithful husband, the hair product fakers, and the murderer? Sort of. Only one case is fully resolved. The Bengali Detective ends on several notes for everyone involved—for the people who hired the agency to the detectives themselves. Distrust, resignation, and hope all abound.
Personally, I’m curious to see what the feature film adaptation of The Bengali Detective will be like. Will it leave many things open-ended, or will it go for absolute closures? I guess I’ll have to wait for 2014.
Some friends might be wondering why I’m bothering to review these two films together. Thematically, they stand together in my mind as deconstructions of my favorite genre. There are other detective films that may be more brilliant and satisfying, but I would probably have less to say about them. Enamored as I am with Golden Age mysteries, these films serve as a reminder that the genre has shifted, in so many crazy ways, since Dupin and Holmes were first written.
I cannot recommend these films, good and flawed as they are, to whodunit fans who demand justice and a neat tying up of loose ends. These films will only infuriate and frustrate anyone seeking quick catharsis. To anyone who wants to experience films that mirror, as closely as possible, the mystery of living, then these films might just fit well.