Monday, April 8, 2019

Cult Movie Theatre: They Might Be Giants

George C. Scott as Holmes, sort of.
When Blevins Playfair receives a blackmail note demanding $20,000, he decides to commit his wealthy brother Justin to a psychiatric institution. It solves two problems: Blevins can gain power of attorney and access to his brother's fortune and Justin (George C. Scott) is delusional--he believes he's Sherlock Holmes.

Justin makes an impressive Holmes, not only looking the part but acting it, right down to some impressive displays of deductive reasoning. Thus, psychiatrist Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward) insists on a thorough evaluation before signing off on the institution's paperwork. For his part, Justin/Holmes has no time to dally with a psychiatrist--after all, he's chasing his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty. But then, he realizes that Mildred is Dr. Watson and it's obvious that she must become his partner and chronicle his exploits. Mildred quickly gets caught up in Justin's fantasy world and, before long, the game is afoot as the detecting duo scour New York City for clues to Moriarty's location.

Joanne Woodward as Dr. Watson.
Based on James Goldman's stage play, They Might Be Giants is an entertaining lark for most of its running time. It's also a showcase for the mesmerizing Scott, who effortlessly transitions back and forth from the confused Justin to the supremely confident Holmes. In the film's most touching scene, a tired Holmes reads the biography of Justin Playfair, a once influential judge who retired from the bench and lost his wife the previous year (thus explaining why Justin became Holmes).

One could argue that Joanne Woodward has the more difficult part. She must convince the audience that lonely, intelligent Mildred Watson could get swept up in Justin's delusional mystery. Even if parts of the mystery display a weird logic, her actions and sudden confession of love for Justin defy belief. Perhaps, that's the point. Heaven knows, there are many films from the late 1960s and early 1970s that throw logic out the window and I'm quite fond of some of them (e.g., I'll Never Forget What's 'isname).

Jack Gilford as Wilbur.
In addition to Scott's excellent performance, They Might Be Giants provides Jack Gilford with arguably his best film role. He plays Wilbur, a librarian who has known Justin from childhood, and wishes he could immerse himself in another identity. He would choose the Scarlet Pimpernel, fop by day and hero by night. (Gilford's recitation of "They seek him here..." is a little gem.)

As it builds to what appears to be a whimsical climax, with Holmes and Watson joined in a march by all the quirky people they've met, They Might Be Giants suddenly changes tone. It closes on an odd note, leaving one to wonder if the couple have lost their sanity forever or simply found contentment in their complete fantasy. (Although there are different running times for the film, I have not found any indication that the final scene was tampered with in any way.)

That's not a reason to dismiss They Might Be Giants. Even if its grand ideas don't ultimately come together, you shouldn't miss a chance to see George C. Scott play Sherlock Holmes.

6 comments:

  1. In Arsenic and Old Lace, Happy Dale had too many Teddy Roosevelts. I wonder if they had any Sherlock Holmes.

    Andrew Gower has guested three times on Murdoch Mysteries as a young man who finds great skill by becoming Holmes. Patrick Macnee was an old friend of Higgins with a Holmes delusion on Magnum PI. Can you recall any plots of this nature prior to They Might Be Giants?

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    1. No, but in 1976, there was a semi-remake, much more of a comedy, called THE RETURN OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST DETECTIVE starring Larry Hagman.

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    2. I vaguely recall the title, but don't remember watching it.

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  2. I saw They Might Be Giants when it first opened at the Carnegie Theatre on Chicago's Near North Side.
    The Carnegie was a kind of "boutique-y" place, what would become known as an art house; the movies that played there tended to be offbeat things that even then fell below critical radar.
    In the case of Giants, the opening came just after George C. Scott's Oscar win for Patton - and that was what the ads called attention to, which did absolutely nothing for the box office.
    Here's how under-the-radar Giants was: it didn't even get a review from Roger Ebert!
    Whatever; I went to see They Might Be Giants at the Carnegie when it opened - and I loved it!
    So much so that I went back and saw it again the next week.
    And the week after that.
    And the week after that.
    (The rules for movie bookings were just at the point of changing at that point; Giants hung on at the Carnegie for about a month.)
    These were the days before home video; I didn't get to see Giants again until it was shown on NBC, a year or so afterward.
    At that time, NBC showed an "expanded" edition: several scenes were a tad longer than the theatrical cut, in particular the supermarket scene near the finish.
    I loved the movie all the more after that.
    I now own the "special edition" DVD, with features and everything.
    Also, I was able to track down the screenplay, which came out in mass-market paperback at the time of the movie's release - and vanished almost immediately (but that's another story …).

    What people might notice about They Might Be Giants these days is the supporting cast, which included, among others:
    Al "Grandpa" Lewis
    Rue McClanahan
    Oliver Clark
    Kitty Winn
    Theresa Merritt
    Eugene Roche
    F. Murray Abraham
    M. Emmet Walsh
    Louis Zorich
    Worthington Miner
    Frances Fuller (Mrs. Miner)
    James Tolkan
    … and I'm likely forgetting a lot of others, but I haven't watched this in a while, so there too.

    Anyway, that's what I've got about They Might Be Giants.
    Not in the books, maybe, but an all-time favorite of mine.

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    1. Great story and information, Mike! It's available to stream free on Hoopla, so hopefully others will get to see Scott's excellent performance.

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    2. Mike, you sold me on this film. I didn't know much about it before coming here, but your enthusiasm has got me pumped to see it. Also, Rick, thanks for the streaming tip via Hoopla.

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