Today! Because he’s never Justin any more. All day, every day –
They Might Be Giants (1971)
Directed by Anthony Harvey
Starring George C. Scott, Joanne Woodward, Jack Gilford, Rue McClanahan, Al Lewis (x2), Theresa Merritt, Oliver Clark, James Tolkan (x3), F. Murray Abraham (x3), Sudie Bond, M. Emmet Walsh (x4), Louis Zorich, Paul Benedict, Frances Fuller, Lester Rawlins, Ron Weyand
Another kind of Sherlock Holmes movie, They Might Be Giants shares more similarities with Man of La Mancha than with Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, despite this movie featuring a mystery, a Watson, and sort of a Moriarty. Sort of. Not all that dissimilar from #264 The Ruling Class, this is another play-based lunatic comedy wherein the main character believes himself to be someone completely different – Ruling Class had Peter O’Toole’s upper crust noble convinced he was Jesus Christ; They Might Be Giants sees George C. Scott’s respected lawyer and judge Justin Playfair 100% committed to the idea that he is actually Sherlock Holmes.
There are some family hijinks – again, not unlike Ruling Class – where they are trying to get Justin committed, and rope in a psychiatrist to evaluate him. She (Joanne Woodward’s conveniently named Dr. Watson) is immediately swept up in the adventure, and the romance, of this modern day Victorian sleuth, unearthing clues in 1970’s New York. Are there curious motivations for virtually everything that happens in this movie? Yes. Is Watson’s budding relationship with the clearly unbalanced Holmes remotely realistic? No. But is any of that really the point? Unlike Ruling Class – which I’ll cease to mention at this point – this movie tries to remain relatively light while attempting to explain how Justin became this way, and if there’s any chance of returning him back to his old self.
And that’s not really the point of the movie either. Fairly early on, Watson as much as states that curing a classic paranoid delusion case such as Justin’s is “once in a generation,” but her aims to see whether he’d benefit from being committed quickly evaporate. It’s also not played entirely for laughs – this weaves in and out of strange locales, encountering a bevy of damaged, lonely folks, who all manage to find each other. It’s a pretty optimistic, hopeful movie in that regard. And the slightly loopy scenario placed on Holmes and Watson ends up being, if not entirely realistic, fairly believable, so well do Scott and Woodward work together, and so solid are they in these parts.
They Might Be Giants does have some tricky history, which handicaps it a bit. James Goldman adapted his play for the screen (a play which seemingly no longer exists in a written form anywhere), and not being a smash hit, the film took an odd post-theatrical journey, popping up intermittently on VHS and DVD and streaming, and all with different cuts and versions. The theatrical runtime was 1:38, but no currently available format has this entire film. It was on Netflix for a hot minute a few years ago (when I first saw it) which ran 1:31, and once that disappeared I tracked down the DVD, which only runs 1:27. What the hell, folks? The last fifteen minutes are the likely spot for the edits, as there are a bunch of mysterious sequences that feel jangly, but I can’t know for sure, I’ve never seen a good breakdown of the third act plot, and the shooting script is also very difficult to come by. So…the quality might depend on how you see it?
Scott’s performance was nominated for a BAFTA, bundled with his work in The Hospital in ’71, but otherwise They Might Be Giants lasting contribution to world culture appears to be as the inspiration for the alt-rock band of the same name, who gave us such classics as “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” “Dr. Worm,” and “The Statue Got Me High.” So if nothing else, thanks for that, James Goldman!
Only Grandpa Munster Al Lewis joins the Two-Timers today, following his work in #288 They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, while we have a trio advancing – James Tolkan (#344 Back to the Future II, #196 Dick Tracy) and F. Murray Abraham in his film debut (also, #279 Muppets From Space and #197 Inside Llewyn Davis) moving to the Threes, and today’s spotlighter M. Emmet Walsh (#266 The Jerk, #230 Blade Runner, #213 Slap Shot) heading to the Fours!