They Might Be Giants

Director: Anthony Harvey
Screenwriters: James Goldman (based on his play)
Stars: George C. Scott (Justin Playfair), Joanne Woodward (Dr. Mildred Watson), Jack Gilford (Wilbur Peabody), Lester Rawlins (Blevins Playfair), Al Lewis (Messenger), Rue McClanahan (Daisy Playfair), Ron Weyand (Dr. Strauss), Oliver Clark (Mr. Small), Theresa Merritt (Peggy), Jenny Egan (Miss Finch)
MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 1971
Country: USA
They Might Be Giants Poster

The title "They Might Be Giants" is a reference to Don Quixote and his battle with a series of windmills that he mistook for giants. The line is uttered by a retired judge named Justin Playfair (George C. Scott), who, even since his wife died, has believed that he is Sherlock Holmes. The line is uttered in the backseat of a taxicab, and were it not the title of the film, it might be a throwaway. Instead, it becomes the controlling theme of this enjoyable, light-hearted comedy. After all, anything might be anything; the windmills might be giants, and Justin might be Sherlock Holmes. By the end of the film, it is hard to argue that he is not.

"They Might Be Giants" was the second collaboration between screenwriter/playwright James Goldman and director Anthony Harvey. Harvey cut his teeth in Hollywood as an editor, notable for his work on two films by Stanley Kubrick, "Lolita" (1962) and "Dr. Strangelove" (1964). His directorial debut and first work with Goldman, "The Lion in Winter" (1967), was a deeply serious historical drama about King Henry II. "They Might Be Giants" could not have been a more unexpected follow-up, but the talents of Goldman and Harvey seemed perfectly matched to the material. The movie shines because it always keeps that most important word--"might"--front and center in the story. Everyone wants to assume that Justin Playfair is insane, but the movie keeps asking us to consider the alternative.

The story takes place in modern-day (early 1970s) New York. The narrative is constructed as both a mystery, as Justin attempts to track down Sherlock Holmes' never-seen arch nemsis, Professor Moriarty, and as a romantic comedy, as Justin teams up with a female psychiatrist who happens to be named Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward). Dr. Watson is a driven, dedicated career woman who hasn't had much time for friends, lovers, or cleaning her apartment. Justin, on the other hand, is a driven, dedicated detective of keen deductive powers who hasn't had much time for personal involvement of his own. When they get together, it is only natural that they eventually fall in love, and the scene where they attempt an awkward dinner date at Mildred's apartment is both poignant and funny.

"They Might Be Giants" is the kind of film that would probably never be green-lit by a major studio today. Its humor and emotions are subtle, and the exterior of the film is a quite bizarre mix of sometimes disparate elements (a slapstick scene in a grocery store involving Justin's supporters and friends fighting off a group of idiotic policemen by hurling food and produce at them belongs in another movie entirely). Yet, the film is delightful in its own way, and it takes more than one viewing to appreciate it fully.

Much of the success is due to the warmly humane performances by Joanne Woodward, who was best known for her Oscar-winning lead performance in "The Three Faces of Eve" (1957), and George C. Scott, who was, at the time, riding an Oscar high of his own for his arrogant, angry, brilliant performance in "Patton" (1970). Playing the character of Justin Playfair was, in many ways, a step down from the larger-than-life General Patton, but it allows Scott to find his simple, more human side. However, there is a little bit of Patton's stubbornness and certainty in Justin Playfair, especially in his refusal to be "patronized." His belief this he is Sherlock Holmes does not cloud his vision to the fact that others think he is crazy, and the turning point in his relationship to Mildred is when he is grazed in the head by a bullet and she cries out "Holmes!" instead of "Justin!"

"They Might Be Giants" is, in the end, a tribute to the power of the sheer will of the imagination over reality. There is something both sad and inspiring about Justin's Sherlock Holmes delusion. It is sad because we realize it is his only response to losing his wife; yet, it is inspiring because, in some ways, we also realize that he is a happier, better man as Sherlock Holmes. Just as Holmes needed Moriarty, so does Justin, and it is appropriate that the film manages to end with Justin's much anticipated meeting his arch nemesis without giving up the idea that it "might" all be an illusion. Then again, it might not.


Widescreen: 1.85:116x9 Enhanced:Yes
Audio: Mono
Languages: English
Subtitles: None
Extras: Running audio commentary by director Anthony Harvey and film archivist Robert A. Harris; Original theatrical trailer; Featurette "Madness It's Beautiful"; Talent bios; Additional 10 minutes of footage not included in the theatrical release

Video: The digital transfer in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 looks clean with no noticeable compression artifacts. The image does appear a bit grainy, but this is likely due to the source elements. "They Might Be Giants" was filmed in 1971, and the image certainly has the date look of an early '70s film. This is compounded by the film's muted color scheme, and the fact that all of it was shot on location in New York City during gray, wintry weather. Much of the film is shot in shadowy locations or at night, so the attention paid to shadow detail is important. For the most part, the blacks are strong and the contrast is nicely maintained.

Audio: The digital mono soundtrack is, like most mono soundtracks, serviceable. The majority of the film is dialogue, and all of it is clear and undistorted. John Barry's wonderful score punctuates the film now and then, and it is also clear and crisp, despite the limited spatial range of mono.

Extras: The running audio commentary takes the form of a conversation / interview between film archivist Robert A. Harris and director Anthony Harvey. Their talk tends to meander a bit, going on more about "The Lion in Winter" and Harvey's collaboration with Kubrick than discussing "They Might Be Giants." However, parts of it contain interesting background information, such as the fact that the entire film was shot on-location (even the interiors) in New York City while there was a garbage strike. The DVD also includes 10 minutes of additional footage that was cut by the studio upon theatrical release. It's always nice to see the director's original vision restored, even if it's after almost 30 years (although one of the restored scenes, the supermarket fight, was, in my opinion, one of the film's weaker moments).

©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

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