Review: They Might Be Giants (1971)

This is not exactly one of the most famous films of the 1970’s with a quite long list of competition, it’s relatively small but with famous actors taking the lead, you may not find it as easily but it’s worth looking. George C. Scott plays Justin, a man who is utterly convinced that he is Sherlock Holmes, but when his brother attempts to have him committed for that reason he must get the approval of a psychotherapist, coincidentally named Dr Watson (Joanne Woodward), who then ends up being enlisted to help Justin in his (non-existent) quest to track down the infamous Moriarty. With the offer of helping him so intriguing both scientifically and genuinely, off they go on a very strange adventure.

Scott does such a good job playing someone pretending to be Holmes, that he shows he would in fact have been a good choice for an Arthur Conan Doyle adaptation; it’s a fairly convincing portrayal with some familiar mannerisms that are nicely blended with signs that point towards his mental illness. He shows well that although his character believes himself to be Holmes, he’s still acutely aware of his condition which creates an interesting question of how much does he know is real or fake? Though it’s a riveting idea of how the illness manifests itself and from time to time giving more insight as to why it has occurred. The more surprising element to an already rather strange story, is that of the two of them, Woodward actually comes across the more humorous character, her gradual change from stern doctor to fascinated scientist to companion is very entertaining to watch. As she gets wrapped up in Justin’s madness, showing again the charismatic power of the Sherlock personality, it becomes even more intriguing. Other than our main characters, there’s actually a good bunch of support from mental patient to telephone operator to damsel in distress, all creating miniature stories that add quite a lot to the film overall.

The story itself is well written, and quite brilliant in its simplicity; a mad man who believes himself Sherlock Holmes traipses all over Manhattan, drawing people into his madness and happens to find clues and puzzles in things that don’t even really exist. It also of course lends itself to many humorous situations backed by a great script and it is one of those films where you might not catch every joke the first time around. Though the film is relatively small and based in the cinema central city that is New York, it stays focused on the characters and doesn’t much take advantage of the surroundings, which is on the fence between smart and wasteful. Having said that, keeping the focus on the characters gives you that direction that this sort of film needs, to make the audience feel like just the same as Watson they’re being pulled into the adventure.

All said and done this is an extremely clever story, with interesting characters and uniquely manages to tell a detective story at the same time as not because it doesn’t actually exist; it’s an immensely different use of Sherlock Holmes than anything audiences are used to, which to find something new when it’s actually over 40 years old is refreshing. It may not be a film many people have heard of, but coming from the same era (in fact the same year) that brought us Harold and Maude, it’s a hidden gem that I happened to find by chance, and I’m glad I did.

Verdict: 7/10

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