Universal (1971) 98 min. G
Director: Anthony Harvey
Screenplay: James Goldman
Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper; Editing: Gerald B. Greenberg
Production Design: John Robert Lloyd; Set Decoration: Herbert Mulligan; Costumes: Ann Roth; Score: John Barry
Stars: George C. Scott (Justin Playfair), Joanne Woodward (Dr. Mildred Watson), Jack Gilford (Peabody), Lester Rawlins (Blevins), Al Lewis (Messenger), Rue McClanahan (Daisy), Ron Weyand (Dr. Strauss), Oliver Clark (Mr. Small), Theresa Merritt (Peggy), James Tolkan (Mr. Brown), Kitty Winn (Grace), Staats Cotsworth (Winthrop), Sudie Bond (Maud), F. Murray Abraham (Clyde), Worthington Miner (Mr. Bagg), Frances Fuller (Mrs. Bagg), M. Emmet Walsh (1st Sanitation Man), Louis Zorich (2nd Sanitation Man), Paul Benedict (Chestnut Man)Adapted by James Goldman (of The Lion in Winter) from his 1961 play, They Might be Giants was staged in the UK but never made it across the big pond, despite the movie version being set in New York City, and making such great use of on-location photography. Unhappy with the theatrical original, Goldman actually forbade it being restaged, until this screen adaptation came along, a decade later. Directed by Anthony Harvey (also of The Lion in Winter), it was worth the wait, arriving at just the right time, being in the vanguard of the popular, ‘70s preoccupation with Sherlock Holmes, as evidenced by titles like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), The Seven-Percent-Solution (1976), the made for British/Canadian tv Silver Blaze (1977), The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It (1977), and Murder by Decree (1979). It’s a trend which doesn’t appear to have crested until the earlier ‘80s, with Steven Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes.They Might be Giants is also a reflection of that brief period, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when movies routinely presented cuckoos and crazies as seemingly saner, than the establishment ostensibly in charge of things in an increasingly topsy turvy society. It adopts the long cherished, ‘artistic’ view of the madman as visionary, capable of seeing beyond the veil of this material world, to glimpse something of the larger truths beyond.This ‘healthy’ brand of craziness was generally popularized at the time as a rebellion against conformity and entrenched, institutionalized authority figures of all stripes. Consequently, the movie seems a warmup for what would become the era’s greatest essay in that sub-genre, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, just a few years later.Stars Joanne Woodward and George C. Scott (who’d had one of his best roles a decade earlier, opposite Woodward’s husband Paul Newman in The Hustler) are at the top of their game. Playing together for the first time in this intriguing story, the unlikely pair actually make a superlative team, not unlike odd couple Lily Tomlin and Art Carney would in The Late Show, near the close of the decade. Having played an Oscar-winning Patton convinced he was the reincarnation of Alexander the Great, the year before, here Scott’s Justin Playfair is convinced he’s a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, hot on the trail of Moriarty. Consequently, Justin’s brother (Lester Rawlins) wants him committed, so he can gain power of attorney over his inheritance and pay off the blackmailer (James Tolkan) shaking him down. Assigned to diagnose him as certifiable, Woodward’s Mildred Watson becomes enthralled while observing him, considering him a fascinating case study. He’s the type of patient every shrink dreams of getting, so she effectively becomes his Dr. Watson, in more than name only. While we begin to suspect Mildred could actually be descended from her namesake, she likewise begins to believe Justin may in fact be who he claims to be, rather than a harmless eccentric. Like Kris Kringle, who was also declared insane for claiming to be Santa Clause in Miracle on 34th Street. Forget the hunt for evil genius Moriarty; it’s exciting just watching these two seemingly incompatible stars spark one another, by matching their own cerebral wits as full intellectual equals, while slowly falling in love.Woodward’s Watson brings the perfect professional partnership into Justin’s life to complete him, while he injects excitement, adventure, the thrill of the unexpected into her dry, by-the-books existence. Scott would navigate another veritable cuckoo’s nest, in the same year’s The Hospital, Paddy Chayefsky’s satire on the medical establishment. But truth be told, the actor tends to more bring to mind Peter O’Toole, in The Ruling Class, whose character sent his aristocratic family into paroxysms of embarrassment, by alternately claiming to be Jesus Christ, and then Jack the Ripper.Initially, Scott’s scalpel-precise analysis of Woodward’s uptight shrink has the same ring of condescending superiority as Hannibal Lecture’s psychological vivisection of his victims. His deductive reasoning (punctuated by his catchphrase “Elementary, my Dear Watson!”) is treated as the progenitor of her modern psychoanalysis, so he has the upper hand. As a suitably impressed Mildred pronounces, “perhaps you should be the analyst!” As with later cinematic variations on Sherlock Holmes, Scott’s rather endearing emotional tone deafness, despite all his cognitive logic, in consort with his exasperating ego (this character is as pompous as his Patton), is treated as the one humorous, human failing on the part of his infallible detective. For her part, Woodward’s Mildred is akin to Barbara Harris’ delightfully keyed up social worker in 1965’s A Thousand Clowns. It’s her analyst who seems the one in need of help, rather than her patient. She’s headed for a nervous breakdown. By getting her to loosen up, and jump into his zaniness (self-reflectively exclaiming, “I’d never been like that before in my life.”), Justin is meant to be seen as curing this neurotic Freudian, a doctor in desperate need of healing thyself, before she can expect to excel in her chosen profession. Woodward, who graduated from patient to doctor somewhere between The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil, seems ideally cast as his Watson. Watching her trail Scott’s loony around the city locations, the movie in many ways anticipates Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), in which hobo Robin Williams believed he was a Knight errant in search of the Holy Grail.Scott even quotes Don Quixote, who imagined the windmills he encountered might be giants, a line that lends itself to the title. This movie version of that type of mad, visionary euphoria serves to tie itself into the audience’s own childish, long ago games of dress-up, and dreams of having secret identities by day, and becoming superheroes simply by removing our glasses. It’s this type of playacting, which we were forced to put by the wayside somewhere along the lines of growing up, that Justin inspires in Mildred.As his friend, Jack Gilford’s Peabody admits, when Justin begins questioning his own fanciful delusions, he too dreams sometimes that he were the Scarlet Pimpernel, engaging in dashing derring-do, rather than pushing papers daily at his boring desk job. Proving we’re all susceptible to this form of fantasizing. They Might be Giants develops into a lyrical, unexpectedly sensitive comedy that stresses the importance of imagination, and fun of cosplay, as a way of life.The modern city here is populated by equally colorful, unhinged characters, such as one couple who hasn’t left the house in decades, and sculpt ornate garden art out of their bushes, like Edward Scissorhands. Navigating through, Justin and Mildred are stymied at every turn by an insane, big city bureaucracy, which is just as absurdist and incompetent as the one in The Hospital, where a desperately ill patient got lost in all the red tape, and forgotten about on a gurney in the corridor. Nothing seems to work right in this movie either.
For example, the switchboard operator (Theresa Merritt) who has told a young girl, Grace (Kitty Winn), that she couldn’t give her any information over the phone, clarifies that the rules dictate she can speak to her only by phone, once Grace has dutifully trudged down to the office in person. Sending her scurrying to a telephone booth to call her question back in. It’s a situation as nonsensical as the type Alice encountered in Wonderland. It would drive anyone crazy. As they traipse around the city, our heroes, at times, appear to be on some sort of symbolic pilgrim’s progress, with this girl named Grace bestowing a benedictive kiss upon Justin, after he helps her secure the address she needs to save her boyfriend from suicide, wishing she had something more worthwhile to give him in return. As Justin reveals his love for the western genre at the theater he and Watson visit, the story stresses Goldman’s main theme, concerning the importance of maintaining one’s sense of self, an individual identity. In a very ‘70s sense, the movie wants viewers to make their own kind of music, rather than accept the enforced conformity foisted upon them, by a system invested in bending them to the herd mentality.The finale, where the city’s outcast and loonies martial themselves into an ever-growing mob, to march on Moriarty’s lair, is strangely uplifting, as all the quirky characters we’ve met along the way are accorded reprise appearances. Like that haunting, open ending, it’s a pretty persuasive argument for the emotional power of shared delusions, folie à deux. There’s strength in their numbers, as in their unified irrationality. As we’ll find in the subsequent grocery store scene, where they hold off the police, along with all the orderlies brandishing butterfly nets, so our heroes can make their escape.Even the timid Peabody gets to live out the swashbuckling dreams he’d earlier spoken of. And the scene keeps mounting, like a custard pie fight, getting funnier and funnier as it builds, and we watch the representatives of law and order going crazier than our self-professed locos, upon hearing there’s a midnight discount on prime beef, sending them careening into each other to grab a shopping cart. There’s a hilarious desperation about it all, that has the familiar ring of last-minute gift shopping on Christmas Eve.Circulating prints of the film, which originally ran for an hour and thirty-eight minutes, have been shorn of about ten minutes of release footage. The trailer, which shows bits of additional scenes that weren’t in the online print I viewed, suggests the complete version may tie up the many loose ends. As is, the story proper is never resolved, leading viewers to feel we’ve been led on a wild goose chase. And I doubt even the full version could unravel what existential threat Moriarty actually represents to Holmes’ mind. At least beyond the eternal battle of good and evil he mentions at that movie. Still, They Might be Giants remains one of the forgotten gems of ‘70s cinema and deserves to be more widely known and appreciated. There’s a lilting, whimsical musical score by John Barry that is quite lovely to listen to. And an oddball cast that includes Al Lewis, Rue McClanahan, F. Murray Abraham as the theater usher, M. Emmet Walsh, and Paul Benedict (Bentley from TV’s The Jeffersons), as the Chestnut Man.