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DVD SAVANT

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS


They Might be Giants
Anchor Bay
1971 / Color / 1:78, Enhanced for Widescreen/ Dolby Digital Mono
Starring George C. Scott, Joanne Woodward, Jack Gilford, Lester Rawlins, Al Lewis, Rue McClanahan, Oliver Clark, Eugene Roche, James Tolkan, Kitty Winn, F. Murray Abraham, M. Emmet Walsh
Cinematography Victor J. Kemper
Production Designer John Robert Lloyd
Original Music John Barry
Writing credits James Goldman, from his play.
Produced by John Foreman, Jennings Lang and Paul Newman
Directed by Anthony Harvey

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Special: REPLY letter 10/15/00 from Lee B.

They Might Be Giants is a quirky film in almost every sense of the word. It looks like a studio product, but has a totally independent sensibility. It's a cult film that advocates nothing a bourgeois Republican wouldn't endorse. It's just a whimsical, quirky comedy with a poetic spirit, that fell victim to its own whimsicality. It was made in a year where all of Hollywood, and Universal in particular, didn't know whether to make movies or turn the whole industry over to counterculture auteurs. The groaner-gobbler Airport was Uni's biggest hit, while they buried a surefire thriller like Colossus: The Forbin Project in a vault for two years, and seriously cut up and fumbled the releases of pictures like Sometimes a Great Notion and Ulzana's Raid. Apparently nobody of importance fell in love with They Might Be Giants at Universal. That's a shame, because practically everyone who's seen it since, has.

The movie is a joy. George C. Scott, working in the space between Patton and his Oscar win, actually plays a sensitive, lovable character, the kind of role he never got before or since. Joanne Woodward purposely downplays her glamour, and emerges more beautiful here than ever. A New York film through and through, They Might Be Giants is stacked with at least a dozen character bit roles that are played with perfect ensemble elan by actors who've since become favorites: F. Murray Abraham, James Tolkan, Eugene Roche, M. Emmet Walsh. The much-missed Kitty Winn turns a glorified bit as a frantic young woman into a memorable performance with just a few minutes of screen time.

The story is very literary minded, and has the exactness of a stage play (by its screenwriter, James Goldman) and the airy feel of its NYC location shoot.

Synopsis:

Justin Playfair (George C. Scott) is a respected judge who has gone round the bend following the death of his beloved wife. A hopeless psychotic, he believes himself to be none other than Sherlock Holmes, forever on the trail of the cursed fiend Moriarity. The fiscally irresponsible Blevins Playfair (Lester Rawlins) wants Justin in an asylum, in order to get his hands on his brother's considerable fortune. But even though everyone wants to grease Justin's path to the booby hatch, two obstacles conspire to keep the deerstalking'd, pipe-toting looney at liberty and On the Case. Justin's undiminished intellectual brilliance makes his Sherlock Holmes impersonation incredibly acute, to the point of matching the skills of his literary namesake. And his newly acquired analyst, the repressed Dr. Mildred Watson, not only has the coincidentally serendipitous last name, but eagerly becomes the enabler of his delusions. Together they go on a madcap Manhattan weekend (sorry), sleuthing through the streets, and liberating nonconformists of all stripes. Even though Justin may avoid the asylum, there's a catch. If brother Blevin's mafia playmates catch up with the consulting detective, they'll put him in the morgue.

They Might Be Giants brings up the issue of what the purpose of a restoration should be. Savant saw it here on disc for the first time, knowing only that my son said he didn't understand the last scene. From the commentary track with director Anthony Harvey and archivist Robert A. Harris, comes the confusing information that the penultimate supermarket scene wasn't in the original release - or it wasn't and then it was - or that it was but with some awful music instead of a John Barry score. (?)

Savant thought the movie very successful and special, but with what one would call 'commercial appeal' problems at the very end. They Might Be Giants is basically a shaggy dog story - the kind whose premise seems impossible to sustain or satisfactorily resolve. Joe vs. the Volcano is an example of a shaggy dog tale that alienated many audiences. (Savant loves it.) Groundhog Day solves the problem perfectly. They Might Be Giants takes the rarely successful path of ending like Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds - just gracefully bowing out, with no real wrap-up per se. What probably plays like distilled charm on the stage must have been murder in theaters. James Goldman wraps his Don Quixote theme into a neat bow, but in 1971 whimsy-impaired audiences probably said, "Whaaa..?" and labeled the movie a dud, without ever dislodging a brain cell.

Savant doesn't like to second-guess movies, but here goes. They Might Be Giants does walk a perfect tightrope, balancing its ridiculousness with charm and intelligence. How the sleuthing duo can run amuck through NYC without being stopped is very well set up. For instance, the rooftop garden and its hermit inhabitants (who have withdrawn from the world into madness, like Scott) would be stupid in an ordinary movie. Here they fit right into Goldman's Quixote-inflected world.

When the whole menagerie of odd-peg characters join Scott in a jolly March of Fools, we're behind them all the way. But the supermarket scene fumbles the mood and replaces it with ordinary, mediocre wackiness, complete with a lame satire on commercialism and greed that seems totally out of place. Savant is probably wrong, but the sequence seems a typical 'opening up' ploy, tacked on in the vain hope of wrapping up They Might Be Giants in a standard farcical chase ending. The last time this sort of thing worked well was with W. C. Fields. It's often the dullest part of otherwise good comedies, even Francis Coppola's You're a Big Boy Now (where's that DVD, Warners?)

Savant heard the commentary bemoaning the loss of the supermarket scene (at least that's what it sounded like Harvey and Harris were saying) but thinks he'd prefer the quieter conclusion of the two lovers / detectives facing the unknown courageously, arm in arm. In any case, when you see They Might Be Giants, I think you'll have the same reaction.

The charm of the movie is unbreakable. Not because it has any practical advice on how to live, except maybe to let one's spirit soar and not take life too seriously. It works because Scott, Woodward, the adorable Jack Gilford, and others bring it to life with uncommon charm.


Anchor Bay has produced another quality disc. The grainy look of the photography is the 1971 style and not something added in the video transfer. The disc is 16:9 enhanced and sharp as a tack. The commentary is a little meandering but very informative of the struggle to get this studio-orphaned title to the screen. George C. Scott seems to have been a ferocious personality with a strong temper, according to Harvey. It would have been nice to know what the original release consisted of, actually, to determine if the supermarket scene was there or not. All the release documents list the running time as 98 minutes - the same number clocked by Anchor Bay.

The gloomy cover design could use some color, but looks better than the terrible original poster art reproduced on the nice card-stock insert. The tagline "When they reach out for each other ... they touch every heart ... with warmth, charm and laughter!" incorrectly makes the picture sound sentimental. The fumbled graphic of Scott halfway up a street sign looks vaguely like a cross, as if the film were religiously themed. There's nary a hint of Sherlock Holmes anywhere. Perhaps the Universal suits were stupidly afraid to follow Billy Wilder's Holmes flop from the year before, as if anyone were even aware of that film, which was dumped worse than this one! The jerky studio attitude can be further judged by the original artsy featurette, Madness ... It's Beautiful that incoherently shows a lot of unrelated Manhattan footage in a poetic attempt to say the movie is important.

The trailer1 manages to make the film completely forgettable. If ever a picture needed special handling, this was one. It's a shame even big names like Paul Newman couldn't shake some sense into the Black Tower in Universal City.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, They Might be Giants rates:
Movie: Excellent with flaws
Video: Good+
Sound: Good+
Supplements: featurette, trailers, talent bios; full length commentary with director Anthony Harvey and restoration specialist Robert A. Harris
Packaging: Black plastic snap case
Reviewed: October 14, 2000


Footnotes:

1. The Universal trailer department brought the Trailers for They Might be Giants to show us students at the UCLA film school, along with the entire campaigns for Ulzana's Raid and the Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. All they succeeded in showing us was that trailermaking, their way, was slow death. They openly called all three movies 'unreleaseable' and bragged about how good their trailers were and how they were saving the films. Because of that experience Savant avoided the excellent, excellent Ulzana's Raid for almost ten years. Return


LETTER REPLY - FROM LEE B., 10/15/00

Great to find the They Might Be Giants review up. Some interesting points there, particularly about your encounter with the trailer at UCLA. Well, I ran a time check on my old TV copy and, after converting the frame speed, came up with a running time of 87 minutes (!) so we're clearly missing something over here.[note: in England]

There is a 'supermarket scene' present but, upon examination, it does look edited. The sequence starts with shots of empty aisles as an employee gives price announcements over the Tannoy, to a backdrop of instore muzak. Our heroes sneak in with a trolley and disappear down an aisle. They are next seen entering a refrigerator. The search for Moriarty amongst the slabs of meat ends with the line, 'I'm patient, I can wait'. There is then a noticeable jump to a shot of Holmes saying, 'I misread the clue.' Holmes and Watson then re-examine and re-solve the clue between them. The sequence ends with a sharp cut as Holmes says, 'It's all done now, you are a detective. Here we go,' (the cut is so sharp that it appears to clip the end of the dialogue). Immediate cut to a skyline shot with what sounds like the treated end of a bell toll on the soundtrack (interestingly, there is a bell tolling in the scene prior to the 'supermarket scene', where our heroes emerge from a water system grate). After converting the frame speed, the length of the supermarket sequence described above is roughly 2 minutes and 10 seconds. The only music present is Tannoy quality, instore muzak. As it stands here, the 'supermarket scenes' seems to fit well enough, allowing Watson to really get involved with the detective work. Maybe our 'supermarket sequence' is shorter than yours?

This is the version that has been playing on our TV channels for the past 12 or more years.

All the best, Lee B.

Thanks, Lee. On the disc they exit the supermarket freezer into a big farcical scene where an army of cops surrounds the store and moves in - but the 'Baker Street Irregulars' defend our heroes with 'cute' weapons from the store. Ha Ha. Then Holmes and Watson free the captured irregulars by announcing all kinds of free and cheap bargains in the store. The cops all abandon their duty and rush to get shopping baskets. Holmes and Watson smile victoriously, and exit. Cut to them outside the tunnel in Central Park.

It is a really miserable scene, and spoils the tone and feeling of the show. The commentators on the disc act like they were upset it was cut. I am convinced I would have liked They Might Be Giants better without it ... I'd almost like to have seen the scene as a separate extra. From now on I'm going to hit the 'next chapter button and just skip it. Thanks! This is going up as a revision!
Return





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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