|They Might be Giants|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 25 January 2000|
There are many people who adore this odd movie from director Anthony Harvey and screenwriter James Goldman; among them was George C. Scott, who counted his performance here as among his very best. Those who adore this now little-known movie cite its magical whimsy, the poetry of its conception, its near-fantasy premise.
But those who don't like the movie snarl at its heavy-handedness, director Anthony Harvey's inability to maintain a whimsical tone, writer James Goldman's condescending view of "little people," and the underlying, hackneyed "madness is more sane than sanity" theme. If you do not get into step with the film from the earliest moments, turn it off and watch something else instead; you'll never catch up.
New York city judge Justin Playfair (George C. Scott) became so filled with despair over the lack of justice in the world, and the death of his wife, that he went insane, and is now convince that he is, in actuality, Sherlock Holmes. (Even though he, and everyone else, pronounces "Moriarty" as if it were spelled "Moriarity.") He dresses in an Inverness cape and deerstalker hat, carries a magnifying glass everywhere, makes snap deductions about people's lives, and spends most of his time looking for clues that he is convinced the criminal genius and his personal arch-enemy Moriarty is leaving for him everywhere. He is convinced Moriarty, "the greatest enemy a man could have," is behind everything terrible in New York.
His brother Blevins (Lester Rawlins) is in some kind of vague trouble with The Mob, who want a lot of money from him. If Blevins can get Justin committed to a booby hatch, he'll get control of the wealthy Justin's fortune, and save his own ass. His wife (Rue McClanahan) is skeptical about this; she always liked Justin, and still likes him now that he is Sherlock Holmes.
Blevins turns for assistance to Dr. Strauss (Ron Weyand, who gives an awesomely bad performance), who turns the whole case over to the psychosis expert on his staff, who happens to be Dr. Watson, Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward). "Holmes" snaps at Mildred, insulting her, and is on the verge of sending her away when he hears her last name. Convinced his Dr. Watson has arrived at last, he enlists her help in tracking down all those "clues" left by Moriarty.
When they were handed this film, Universal didn't know what the heck to do with it, and billed it as a romantic comedy; a photo was retouched to take away Scott's deerstalker and cape, to show him handing flowers down from a lamppost to a smiling Woodward. This, of course, absolutely belies the movie, and it's no wonder that audiences stayed away, and that those who did go felt misled, even cheated.
But the movie is, unfortunately, strained and obvious; it's patronizing to its characters, all of them, including "Holmes" and Watson. It's profoundly ignorant about insanity (and Sherlock Holmes), but clearly no one really cared about that. Hey, it's a light, romantic fantasy, right? "Holmes" and Watson fall in love, after all, right? They take us all over New York, and we meet other cute crazy people, right?
Well, yes, right, if you're in tune with the movie. But if you're not, it plays like a ham-handed, dull and ponderous misfire, with an infuriating ending, a weak structure and trivialized characters. Whimsy is one of the hardest of all comedy styles to realize properly, and Anthony Harvey hasn't a clue as to how to bring it off. Nor does Joanne Woodward, though she's in there trying. Scott, on the other hand, knows precisely how to play it, and this really is one of his best performances. He very rarely had the chance to play comedy, but was always great when he did, even in misfires like this. Some Sherlock Holmes fans have applauded his performance here, saying it's one of the best portrayals of Holmes -- but it's not at all. Scott always makes it delicately clear that this character is not Sherlock Holmes, but a charming madman who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes -- and a kind of amalgam of all Holmeses before him, not Doyle's character at all. There's a touch of Peter Cushing's energy, some of Basil Rathbone's intensity; it's a performance-within-a-performance, not "reality" at all, and Scott walks this line with grace and style.
It's too bad the film rarely matches his deftness. Only in a handful of scenes does it come close to the near-fantasy whimsy and gentle insanity that was intended. Hard onto one of the (completely imaginary) clues left by Moriarty, "Holmes" and Watson find themselves in an amazing inside garden. An elderly married couple retired from the world in 1939, and spent the time thereafter turning their rooms into a little bit of heaven. It's too bad the visual style of the film is so dark and monochromatic, because the set practically sings with spring-like beauty, and the old couple are genuinely sweet.
Later, Holmes and Watson march across New York, while all of the more oddball characters they've met throughout the story (played by some great New York character actors, including Jack Gilford) fall into place behind them. The scene builds and builds, swelling with a kind of cockamamie joy -- and then absolutely falls apart.
The movie (based on Goldman's play) has a hard time convincing most people of its own reality, partly because it's shot in a hard, cold realistic style more appropriate for a crime movie. And it's hard to accept a Sherlock Holmes who brilliantly deduces why asylum patient Mr. Small (Oliver Clark, who's very good) remains silent, but believes a phantom Moriarty may have left a clue atop a statue in Manhattan.
The DVD includes commentary by director Anthony Harvey, who's now more or less retired. Unfortunately, he doesn't say enough about the movie itself, about what scenes were intended to convey, about working with the actors. He does reveal that the absolutely dreadful music in the supermarket scene at the end was imposed on him by Universal -- who then cut the scene from theatrical prints. It has been restored here, but John Barry's score for the scene is still missing. He often talks about Katharine Hepburn, with whom he worked several times. It's not that Harvey's commentary is uninteresting, but it's rambling, and doesn't relate enough to the subject at hand.
Harvey began as an editor, working his way up from good British films like I'M ALL RIGHT JACK and MAN IN A COCKED HAT to LOLITA and DR. STRANGELOVE for Stanley Kubrick. He turned director with DUTCHMAN in 1966, and two years later made THE LION IN WINTER; it was on that film that writer Goldman showed him the script for THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS. He only directed a few more theatrical films, including the disastrous PLAYERS (1979), then moved on to television. After the debacle of GRACE QUIGLEY in 1984, he only made one more movie, and that for television.