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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » They Might Be Giants (Blu-ray)
They Might Be Giants (Blu-ray)
Kl Studio Classics // G // June 11, 2019 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted June 17, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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All but defining the term "whimsy," They Might Be Giants (1971) is a one-of-a-kind comedy-drama about a New York millionaire (George C. Scott) who imagines himself to be Sherlock Holmes. Co-starring Joanne Woodward as Dr. (Mildred) Watson, the psychiatrist assigned to assess his mental state in anticipation of commitment, the movie has dated badly in some respects, and one big sequence near the end is an almost total failure, yet the film has many uniquely sweet, magical moments. Indeed, so unique is They Might Be Giants the studio distributing it, Universal, hadn't a clue how to market it; it flopped during its initial release, though a small but devoted following has evolved since.

Following the death of his wife, Justin Playfair (Scott) retreats into the identity of Sherlock Holmes, the famous if fictitious consulting detective, turning one room of his New York mansion into an approximation of Holmes's 221B Baker Street residence. Justin's brother (Lester Rawlins), anxious to get his hands on Justin's millions, petitions to have his brother committed. This requires the signature of licensed psychiatrist and Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward), an "old maid" of 40, is assigned the task. She's fascinated by Justin's utter transformation into Holmes, including the great detective's uncanny powers of deduction and physical prowess. At the psychiatric ward where she works she's astounded when he instantly correctly diagnoses her patient, Mr. Small (Oliver Clark), and within moments restores his ability to speak.

Mildred follows Justin all over New York as he follows "clues" he expects will lead him to Professor Moriarty, Holmes's arch-enemy. Gradually, she finds his harmless madness attractive. Ever on Moriarty's trail, along the way he helps others, often like-minded eccentrics, in need. At the telephone company, for instance, he helps a desperate young woman (Kitty Winn) locate her suicidal boyfriend when the telephone operator, sympathetic but bound by strict company policy, is unable to reveal the man's location. Can Mildred cure Justin, or will Justin draw her into his fantasy existence?

The film was adapted by James Goldman from a 1961 play apparently never performed anywhere outside of London. Though its premise suggests a modern take of the Holmes-Watson relationship (as others have attempted since), relocated to present-day New York, the mystery aspects are irrelevant as there's no mystery to be solved: it's all a figment of Justin's imagination. Rather, the film has much more in common with Don Quixote and a handful of other early-‘70s movies like Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1972).

The difference between They Might Be Giants and movies like Harold and Maude is the former's predominating humanism and lack of cynicism. Justin, the audience learns, was a man determined to help others prior to his descent into a kind of benign madness, and as Holmes he finds the means to do this. He does this in tiny, seemingly insignificant ways. In one charming sequence Justin and Mildred stumble upon an elderly couple, shut-ins who haven't left their long-closed business-home since 1939, where they've devoted the many decades since to raising a beautiful exotic garden. Justin and Mildred are their first visitors in all that time, and Justin's quiet appreciation of their strange dedication is almost indescribably charming.

Though produced by heavyweights John Foreman and an uncredited Paul Newman (Woodward's husband), and released by a major studio, the film has a fiercely, even defiant independent feel. The cast is completely dominated by actors formerly or actively from the New York stage, including many near the beginning of their careers: F. Murray Abraham as an usher, M. Emmet Walsh and Louis Zorich as garbagemen, Eugene Roche as a policeman, etc. Pregentrified Manhattan is almost another character in the film, with many scenes appearing to have been "stolen" shots of Scott and Woodward, which at the time featured an enormous billboard for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. At the time the area was slowly being overrun with porn and exploitation, and the conversion of one repertory house into a porn theater actually figures into the plot.

The delicate relationship between Justin and Mildred, where instead of her pulling him back into reality goes precisely in the opposite direction instead, is the heart of the film. Scott and the screenplay allow Justin some awareness of his mental state: he abhors those who'd address him as Holmes without actually accepting that he is Holmes, but at the same time, understands his connection to Justin Playfair, but seems genuinely baffled by it. Woodward, convincingly deglamorized, is highly educated yet completely vulnerable on a personal level, lacking confidence about her abilities outside of her profession.

Over the years many different cuts of the film have been distributed, some lacking parts or all of a long sequence where Justin, Mildred, and other eccentrics introduced over the course of the story gather at a large, empty supermarket, confronting police and mental hospital types. It's dreadful, dated and painfully unfunny, and worse its clumsy attempts at satire and slapstick severely damage the unique feelings the rest of the picture work so hard to achieve.

But then the movie concludes with one of the most extraordinary endings this reviewer has ever encountered, restoring the picture's mesmerizing, if inconsistent, qualities. No spoilers here: I can only urge you to see it for yourself.

Video & Audio

Licensed from Universal, Kino's They Might Be Giants is a good transfer of movie haphazardly photographed. Individual shots are razor-sharp; others are grainy or blotchy or even mildly out-of-focus. The 1080p presentation is in 1.85:1 widescreen, with okay DTS-HD Master Audio mono audio, though one wishes John Barry's fine score were mixed a bit better. Optional English subtitles are provided. Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

Supplements include an older audio commentary track with director Anthony Harvey (who died in 2017) and archivist Robert A. Harris; a terrible archival featurette called "Madness - It's Beautiful"; and a trailer.

Parting Thoughts

A film like no other, They Might Be Giants has its weaknesses but its unique charms win out in the end. Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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