Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Films: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward

As we know by now, Tuesday is Overlooked (or Forgotten) Movies day, a weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Please use the link to check in and see what other overlooked films other bloggers are talking about today.

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS is a sweetheart of a movie that's achieved a bit of a cult status over the years since it was released and ignored by Universal in 1971. The studio obviously didn't know it had a special film on its hands (sound familiar?) - a film needing special handling, if only for it's unusual ending.

The movie has the feel of an independent production done on the fly in the somewhat dark and grimly unpleasant Manhattan of the 70's. (Times Square was still in the clutches of porno flick houses and sleaze accoutrement shops.) It's rather a simple story thoroughly well acted by its wonderful cast, including a familiar bunch of character actors: Jack Gilford, Al Lewis, E. Emmet Walsh, Eugene Roche, Rue McClanahan and F. Murray Abraham, among others. With a supporting cast like that it would be hard to miss. Gilford, especially, always brought something tender-hearted to any film he was in.

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS is directed by Anthony Harvey, the screenplay was adapted from his own play by James Goldman. When I watched it on Netflix the other night I didn't remember the supermarket scene near the end at all. So I did a little research. Turns out the scene was chopped up in the theater release, but included in its original state in this current dvd release. We could have done without it since it's a nonsensical moment which almost brings the film to a halt. The scene is meant as some sort of gobbledy-gook about consumerism (I think) and maybe even the state of the American city, but it fails to do much for the story or the characters. It just doesn't belong in the movie.

With that proviso, I'll go ahead and give you my thoughts.

I am a huge fan of George C. Scott and in this movie he is at his lovable best. Yes, the growly guy could do lovable when he set his mind to it. The only other film in which I remember him being so easy to like was THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER which, coincidentally I watched last night for the umpteenth time.

Here he plays retired judge Justin Playfair. (Can you imagine a judge named Playfair? Love it.) The judge has not been himself since his wife Lucy passed away. For a year or so, Playfair has believed himself to be Sherlock Holmes on the hunt for Professor Moriarity, his arch enemy.

The judge lives in a Manhattan townhouse with his brother Blevin (Lester Rawlins) and Blevin's wife, Daisy (Rue McClanahan). We are made to understand that Blevin owes some not very nice guys some very big money. To that end, he wants to have the judge classified non compos mentis and signed, sealed and delivered into the hands of a shady psychiatric hospital.

Playfair's new doctor is a dedicated but sad-sacky psychoanalyst, played by Joanne Woodward at her plain-jane-but-beautiful best. At first the judge is adamantly opposed to her interference in his quest to take down Moriarity (whom we never meet). The judge is convinced Moriarity is behind all the evil that transpires in the city. (Wouldn't surprise me in the slightest.)

From the little she knows and can observe, the doctor declares the judge a classic case of paranoia perfection. Classics are cured 'once in a generation.'

When Playfair finds out the doctor's name is Watson, then of course he wants her on the case. It's 'Mildred Watson' but since when have first name details mattered? So off they go in search of Moriarity. Holmes and Watson, together again.

Watson is bemused by Holmes (as well as professionally intrigued) as he leads her into more and more hair-brained encounters, skulking about the city looking for 'clues'. She comes to admire the judge's -aka Holmes - philosophy of good and evil. She calls the judge a Don Quixote aiming at windmills, but he, in a key scene explains to her the difference between himself and Cervantes' creation. He makes eminent sense.

This unlikely pair grow closer as their adventures around the city lead them into several encounters with the odd and eccentric, including a sweet elderly couple who haven't set foot outside their old apartment in over 40 years. They devote themselves entirely to their topiary garden on the roof. This is one of my favorite parts in the film.

Eventually Holmes and Watson are joined in their quest by all the misfits they've encountered along the way in a kind of march of the 'irregulars'.

But all good things must come to an end and this is where the film falters slightly. With the cops on their trail as well as the bad guys taking potshots at the judge (if he dies, the brother gets all his money) Holmes and Watson find themselves in the end, alone and facing a quarry who supposedly is waiting for them in the bowels of Central Park.

Does the world really exist for us to make of it what we will?

I won't say anymore. This is one of those near perfect films that just missed the mark but still is good enough to enchant.


  1. Glad to see I'm not the only one who likes this one. I think I probably like it even better than you do. The ending worked for me better than it works for a lot of people.

  2. Ha! With all the movies, two choose this one. Amazing.

  3. Yvette,

    Thanks for reminding me. It's been too long since I last viewed this one.

  4. Possibly, Bill. But I still like it a heck of a lot. :)

  5. Patti: What are the odds? I think it's possibly because it just became available to stream on Netflix within the last couple of weeks.

  6. You're welcome, Fred. It's been out of circulation for too long, I think.

  7. I think of this film every once in a while; it's as off on its own track as Scott's character is. Nicely reviewed; thanks.

  8. The first time I saw this and that quote from The Little Prince scrolled across the screen at the end it cemented the movie as one of my all time favorites. Years later I watched it again with a friend who just didn't get it. My tastes are too quirky for some, I guess.

    I'd never describe George C Scott as loveable, but in this movie he nearly earns that adjective. He is certainly immenseley likeable. This movie is very personal for me. I just love it.

  9. You're welcome, Ron. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I hadn't seen this movie in so many years and I was afraid it wouldn't live up to my memories of it.

    But it did.

  10. John: I do find him lovable in this and so does Dr. Watson. :)

    This movie seems to trigger some inchoate something in a lot of us.

    We're on the same page here, I think, John.

  11. Great choice Yvette - one of a small but select group of Sherlock Holmes pastiches in which the Great detective does not in fact appear - and beyond that of course something much more pertinent to say about the attraction to fiction and the desire for great adventure that lives in us all (well, all right thinking individuals anyway). It's the kind of film that maybe only Terry Gilliam could get away with today - certainly make a great double bill with THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (or even a triple bill with 12 MONKEYS!).

    The ending, by which I literally mean the last minute or so, and which think does basically work, is the only part of the movie that to me really betrays its theatrical basis as you can see exactly how it would work on stage.

    Great stuff.

  12. Yvette, thanks for writing about this film. I haven't seen it and I know I'm going to like it. The story and images suggest an element of humour. Dr. Watson a woman? why not?

  13. Sounds like a good movie, will put it on my TBR list. I like George C. Scott and Joanna Woodward, to name a few actors here.

    How did I miss this one?

    I'm sure I'll join the list of fans.

  14. Sergio - you're correct, no one but maybe Gilliam (not that I'm very familiar with his films) could get away with it today.

    Or maybe the people who made THE ARTIST?

  15. Prashant: If you've never seen it, then you're in for a treat. It all depends too on your liking suspended disbelief....

  16. Kathy: I've been waiting for years for this to become easily available. Finally Netflix suddenly sprang it on us. Hooray!

  17. Thank you for your beautiful review of This might be giants. I found out this movie only this year and I even don't know if it was ever released in Italy but it's a really magic one. I am still undecided as for the interpretation of the ending of the movie but I agree with many comments that is a precious gem with a lasting memory in the viewer. Scott is outstanding and also Woodward is wonderful. A very special movie with a mysterious pace telling so many things about loneliness, fear, love, poetry in life, human relations, what is to be normal or not, and even suspended in this magical atmosphere also communicate the Seventies restlessness and contains a critics to consumerism.
    As you say even though is not perfect it's a great movie.

  18. Thanks. It was a joy to write about. I agree with everything you say, Anonymous. :)


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