They Might Be Giants [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #23]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #23.  Spoilers ahead.  

They Might Be Giants

Directed by Anthony Harvey

Release Date:  June 9, 1971
My age then:  1 year old (only just!)

What it is about:  Justin Playfair is a judge who has a psychotic break since the death of his wife, and has come to believe that he is Sherlock Holmes. His brother wishes to have him committed and thus gain control of his large fortune, so Justin is forced to spend time with an evaluating psychiatrist, who just happens to be named Dr. Mildred Watson. Believing that his family is being threatened by the evil Professor Moriarity, Playfair scours the city for clues, with Dr. Watson accompanying. Over the course of many adventures, Playfair and Watson fall in love, even as they interact with many eccentric individuals across the city.

Starring George C. Scott as Justin Playfair / Sherlock Holmes and Joanne Woodward as Dr. Mildred Watson. Featuring Jack Gilford as Peabody, a friend of Playfair’s who encourages his fantasies, Lester Rawlins as Playfair’s brother, and Rue McClanahan as the brother’s unhappy wife. Features appearances by Al Lewis as a messenger, Paul Benedict as a chestnut salesman who is out of chestnuts, M. Emmet Walsh as a sanitation worker, and F. Murray Abraham in his first role as “Clyde”, except I’m not sure which guy in the film that was.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I really had never heard of it, except I’d probably read it that the famous alternative rock band that I like so much got their name from this movie. Originally, I’d picked a different ilm for this year–The Hot Rock–but when I couldn’t find that movie anywhere, I re-researched and picked this one instead. Descriptions of the film range from calling it a comedy to a thriller, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect.

Reality: Apparently, John Flansburgh of the band They Might Be Giants had never seen the movie when they selected the name of their act, but they may as well have as the film seems to aim for some of the same sort of bitter cheerfulness that characterizes a lot of the band’s music. James Goldman’s script (which is based on his own play) is quite the quirky and melancholy piece of work. I can understand the confusion over the film’s genre: there are elements of thriller (someone is genuinely trying to kill Playfair), drama (Playfair is in a genuinely dire situation) and comedy (Playfair’s investigation of the “clues” they find lead to some pretty madcap antics) which all vie for attention.

But probably at its core the movie is actually a romance. Playfair is clearly a broken man, and it turns out that Watson is quite emotionally cut off as well. Two end up awakening affection and attachment in each other that neither considered possible. On the outside, the climax of the movie is about “Holmes” and Watson closing in on the so-called trap that Moriarity has laid for them, but on an emotional level it’s about the fact that the two of them are on this journey together, with both of them expressing love for the each other at different times as they race toward its conclusion, whatever it brings them to.

At least, that’s the fairly upbeat way of looking at it. One could also say the movie is about the rapid descent into madness that an otherwise successful psychiatrist falls into, as Mildred Watson seems to lose touch of any objectivity she has, and fully embraces Playfair’s delusions (and possibly gets run over by a horse-drawn carriage? The ending is highly ambiguous). If Justin Playfair had taken on the persona of the Joker instead of Sherlock Holmes, then she might have ended up as Harley Quinn.

George C. Scott is surprisingly good as Justin Playfair–not surprising because he’s not a good actor (he obviously is) but because I wouldn’t have expected this role to suit him. But Scott actually makes a passable Sherlock Holmes–at least of the more old-fashioned deerstalker and curved pipe variety. He plays the man’s inner conflict effectively, in the moments when Playfair allows himself to be confused at the inconsistencies in his life. And Joanne Woodward is also solid as Watson. Surrounding them are a menagerie of quirky character actors, who almost all coalesce in a scene near the ending where they are march in rhythm behind Holmes on what he thinks is his final approach to Moriarity. This scene is so reminiscent of the ending credit sequence of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eight Dimension (another film filled with quirks and oddities) that I wonder if it was an inspiration. Sadly, all this doesn’t really go anywhere, as all those characters are quickly left behind. I’ve heard there is a deleted scene in which they all lay waste to a supermarket–maybe that would have made it more satisfying.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? They Might Be Giants is not a great movie, but I’m glad I watched it if even for it’s value as a piece of trivia. As a film it’s uneven–never fully funny, thrilling or dramatic, but there are occasional moments of insight and poetry. Maybe the most memorable turn of dialogue (and also where the title comes from) is Playfair responding to Watson comparing him to Don Quixote for believing that things were not what they seemed to be:

Well, he had a point. ‘Course he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

See here for the Master List.

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