They Might Be Giants (1971)—and, yes, it’s where the band got their name—is a true cult movie. It’s a film that was made by a studio (Universal) that didn’t have a clue what to do with the movie. The film was given little promotion and just dumped on the market. (Most people I know who saw it theatrically saw it on a double bill at a drive-in.) It took viewers finding the movie by accident to rescue it from total obscurity—and thank goodness that happened, because the film is one of the pure joys of American film from the early 1970s. It stars George C. Scott as a “classic” schizophrenic who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes and Joanne Woodward as the unfortunately named Dr. Watson, who has been assigned to commit him. The results are charming and just pretty darn wonderful.
It’s interesting to note that the original take on the movie was in general not very good. The few 1971 reviews I’ve tracked down are unkind to say the least, and the story goes that the notoriously outspoken George C. Scott went on the Tonight show the day filming wrapped and claimed he’d just finished the worst movie he’d ever made. (Apparently, he forgot Not With My Wife, You Don’t in 1965.) And for that matter, the incredibly lackluster audio commentary from director Anthony Harvey on the long out-of-print DVD doesn’t suggest its own director was that enthused by it. But audiences are funny and sometimes they see a film differently from those too close to it. Sometimes that’s a good thing, as is the case here. I’ve yet to meet the person who didn’t fall in love with the film—though the ending bothers some people because it’s left entirely to interpretation.
They Might Be Giants does traverse some iffy terrain in that it largely works on the old notion that crazy people are magical and better in tune with the important things in life than sane ones. It’s a romantic notion that doesn’t exactly hold up under scrutiny, but here it skirts the issue—if only just—by pairing its “Sherlock Holmes” with a severely damaged and repressed “Dr. Watson.” It does, however, operate on the idea that it’s the world that’s gone mad, not the deluded, but decent main character. That admitted, it does this with wit, self-assurance and a solid dose of humanity.
The film is cleverly structured in that it actually presents situations that work in favor of Justin Playfair’s (Scott) delusion that he is Holmes—and not just because his doctor is named Watson. There actually are crimes afoot. People are after him. He does manage to right some wrongs—mostly by working on other characters’ better natures—and he does fill the void in Dr. Watson’s life. Much of it is funny. A good deal of it is touching. The sequence where Holmes and Watson judge the work of a pair of reclusive gardeners (played by TV pioneer Worthington Minor and his wife Frances Fuller, who actually did walk away from the world they were a part of in 1961) is quite moving. And all of it is charming.
Is the ending unsatisfying? I’ve never found it so, and I have yet to hear anyone come up with a suggestion for a better one. Is the supermarket scene too broad? Maybe so, but it does nicely point out how easy it is for “normal” people be goaded into utterly irrational behavior. (Actually, there are prints of the film where the scene is cut and it feels abrupt—and it removes Playfair’s moment of validation.) But see the film for yourself, I don’t think you’ll be in the least sorry.