I first saw Anthony Harvey’s They Might Be Giants (1971) on a tiny TV screen in a dorm room at the University of South Florida in 1972, and was, quite frankly, blown away by it—despite being in my “classic movie snob phase,” meaning I distrusted anything made after 1949. This film actually helped get me past that wrong-headed teenage elitism. In the intervening years, I’ve seen it dozens of times (even bought a bootleg 16mm print), and it’s never seemed anything less than wonderful to me. Oh, there are those who are displeased by the ending (though I’ve yet to meet anyone who can suggest a better one), and aspects of the story may seem a little simplistic and dated, but for dark-edged whimsy and charm, few films are better.
George C. Scott plays a wealthy, distinguished jurist aptly named Justin Playfair, who has slipped into the realm of paranoid delusion and believes that he’s Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile his brother, Blevins (TV and stage actor Lester Rawlins), is being blackmailed. In order to pay what is being asked of him, Blevins wants to have Justin committed so that he can gain control of the estate. A friend of Blevins, Dr. Strauss (played by Ron Weyand, who looks like Sigmund Freud and talks like Col. Sanders), sends psychiatrist Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward) to have Justin certified. Not altogether surprisingly, Justin seizes on the fact that her professional name is Dr. Watson and proceeds to turn her into Sherlock Holmes’ famous assistant, dragging her off in search of his archenemy, Professor Moriarity. Sure, the plot’s clever and James Goldman’s screenplay (based on his play) is filled with deliciously bright moments (“Jesus Christ, I absolutely cannot play the goddamn thing!” screams Justin upon trying to emulate Holmes’ violin abilities), but the strength of the film lies in the combination of the characterizations, the feeling of loneliness that pervades everything and the idea of Holmes trying to deal with the casual callous injustices of the modern age.
In this last capacity, there are scenes that are both pithy and amazingly touching: Take the scene where Justin/Holmes and Watson visit the telephone company (with a tremendous performance by TV actress Theresa Merritt) or the scene in which they view a topiary garden (the creators of which are played by TV pioneer Worthington Miner and his wife Frances Fuller). Justin’s speech (“I think if God is dead, he laughed himself to death”) near the end is simply astonishing. Wisely, the film skirts the usual over-romanticizing of insanity, if only just. Shot on location in New York City with a cast mostly culled from TV and the stage (Rue McClanahan, Paul Benedict, Al Lewis, Eugene Roche), there’s a dark, almost gritty tone that anchors the whimsy, while Scott and Wooward have never been better. A largely forgotten gem that ought to be seen.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke