‘They Might Be Giants’ Has Giant Heart

by Rachel Bellwoar

Before it was the name of a band, They Might Be Giants was the name of a movie starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. Short on cash with which to pay his blackmailers, Blevins Playfair (Lester Rawlins) decides to have his brother committed so he can take control of his substantial fortune. A classic paranoid, Justin (Scott) believes he’s Sherlock Holmes and that the man responsible for sending Blevins compromising photos is his arch nemesis, Moriarty.

Enter Mildred Watson (Woodward), as the doctor who needs to sign off for Justin to be put away. While she agrees with his diagnosis, she bristles at Blevins’ eagerness to move the process along and refuses to do anything without meeting Justin first. Only too eager to acquiesce, once he finds out she’s Dr. Watson, Justin invites her to tag along, as he searches for clues that will expose Moriarty and whatever he’s planning.

Set in New York City and filmed entirely on location shooting, the title comes from Watson comparing Justin to Don Quixote. “He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane, but thinking that they might be… If we never looked at things and thought about what they might be, why, we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes,” Justin tells her. It’s a beautiful philosophy, and one that has a powerful effect on the people Justin crosses path with in this movie. Jack Gilford is especially adorable as a librarian who confides in Justin his dream of becoming the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Even when They Might Be Giants grows frustrating, it’s capable of eliciting joy, with no moment topping the one when Justin inspires a parade of all the character actors who appear in this movie (including some faces from TV sitcoms and Kitty Winn, in one of her few film roles).

What hampers this film is its need to turn the relationship between Justin and Watson romantic. It feels like the worst reading of what has to happen since they gender-swapped the role of Watson, made worse by the fact that Watson is Justin’s doctor, so she’s getting involved with a patient.

Justin began believing he was Sherlock Holmes after his wife died. This relationship is a big deal, then, because it’s assumedly the first he’s had since her death. Justin doesn’t talk about her – “Holmes” isn’t married – but that silence sticks out. It does, however, take Justin’s condition seriously. In the beginning Watson is all about finding a cure but, as much as it might seem like an omission, to not have Justin address his wife, it would’ve been an insult for the film to paint forty-eight hours as enough time for him to remember his past.

It is, apparently, enough time for them to become a couple, with Watson wearing a wedding dress to their first date (director, Anthony Harvey, confirms this in his commentary with film archivist, Robert A. Harris, but doesn’t provide an explanation for why she owns a wedding dress).

While I love the idea of the final scene (which ends the film on an ambiguous note) more than the scene itself, it’s impossible to ignore They Might Be Giants’ good qualities, even if its drawbacks are hard to forget.  

They Might Be Giants is available now on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.

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