Mar 15, 2013

Instant Gratification: George C. Scott as Sherlock Holmes (Kinda) in THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS

I'm a big fan of video subscription services. Even though I prefer to own physical copies of my favorite films, services like Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime give me the opportunity to see films that I hadn't previously seen or that aren't readily available on disc - all for one low monthly price.

Today's film is one of those hard to get titles (being way out of print for several years) - 1971's Sherlock Holmes tale, THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS.

George C. Scott (They Might Be Giants-1971)

I found it while digging around on Netflix, jumping at the chance to see a film that had been suggested to me several times over the last decade. It also fit in nicely with my current Sherlock obsession (thanks, in large part, to BBC's modern take on the character with Benedict Cumberbatch).

Now, to call this a Sherlock tale is a bit of a cheat - kind of like calling THE RULING CLASS a film about Jesus. The reason is that while the amazing George C. Scott does don the famous deerstalker and hunt for Moriarty, he is not really the famous London detective. Rather, he is a man who believes he is.

In reality he is Justin Playfair, a millionaire lawyer and activist judge who went a little mad when his wife died. He is looked after by his brother, who really wants to get his hands on Justin's money to pay off some menacing blackmailers. To that end, he tries to get Justin committed with the help of Joanne Woodward as psychiatrist Mildred Watson (yep).

After a hilarious encounter at the asylum (in which Justin shows that his deductive reasoning is definitely on par with Holmes') she insists on visiting with him at his home. Initially, Justin is resistant to being studied by this infernal woman, but after learning her surname he opens up and brings her into his world - and what a world it is.

Justin/Sherlock is constantly hunting down his nemesis, Moriarty, and sees evidence of the fiend everywhere. Every news story of unsolved crime or tragic accidents points to Moriarty hiding in the shadows, pulling devious strings to bring such things about. Justin finds clues as to Moriarty's whereabouts in seemingly random places, each one leading him to the next in a frantic game of cat and mouse that only he is aware of.
Dr. Watson initially plays the part of a reluctant Sancho Panza type, but as the pair crisscross the city, she warms up to Justin's charms and starts to buy in to his quest more and more.

All the while, Justin's brother's blackmailers are hunting down Justin, wishing to separate him from his fortune and his life. Whenever they cross paths, however, Justin dispatches them with a definite Sherlockian flair.
There is a lot of humor to be found in these scenes of Scott and Woodward hunting down the phantom criminal professor. In particular, I enjoyed a visit to some telephone operators and a visit with a horticulturally minded hermit couple. My favorite bit, though, has to be a visit to the theater, where other eccentrics seemingly congregate (and where F. Murray Abraham is an usher). There's a bit where Justin explains why he only watches westerns that gives great insight into his character's motivations. He enjoys the black and white nature of justice served in the films.

It all culminates in some wild happenings in a grocery store, followed by an enigmatic conclusion that will either piss off the viewer or endear them further to this gem of a film.

All of the actor's turn in top notch performances, especially Scott, who is just mesmerizing as the delusional Justin. Several of the secondary characters are recognizable from other films and television. Al Lewis (Grampa Munster) has a small role as a messenger, and Golden Girl Rue McClanahan plays Justin's sister-in-law. Of special note is Jack Gilford, whom I remember mostly from COCOON, as an old friend of Justin's. His character gives a lot of insight into Justin's past and how much he already had in common with Sherlock.

The movie is ably directed by Anthony Harvey, but the real behind the scenes star is James Goldman, who wrote the screenplay based on his play. The script is full of excellently quotable lines and ensures that none of the principle characters feel two dimensional. The stage roots show through in some of the staging, but never to the detriment of the picture.

The score is also of note, having been composed by John Barry of James Bond fame. None of the themes are as catchy as some of those Bond tunes, but it is a pleasing score nonetheless.

For those of you wondering about the title, it is a reference to Don Quixote's battles with windmills, and, yes, it did inspire the name of the quirky band behind "Birdhouse in Your Soul".

All in all, I was very taken with this film. I found it funny and touching in a way that only the best "take a chance" movies are. Kudos to Netflix for making this treasure available to those if us who would rather not spend a small fortune to obtain one of the rare copies floating around out there. If you like explorations of mental illness, or are a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, give this flick a shot.

If only Netflix could put up WITHOUT A CLUE (another out of print Holmes flick with Michael Caine in the role), I would be a happy camper.

What's your favorite take on Sherlock Holmes?

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