When I hear that someone else has seen They Might Be Giants, I’m always surprised.
This, of course, makes no sense. It stars two Oscar winners. It features one of the most iconic literary characters of all time. It’s scored by the composer of the James Bond theme. And yes, it even lent its title to the hugely successful band. It’s hardly an obscurity, and yet watching Anthony Harvey’s 1971 film, it’s still hard to shake the feeling that you, personally, have unearthed a long-forgotten gem, and you need to tell everyone about it—stat. So that’s what I’m going to do.
In the movie, Sherlock Holmes is not really Sherlock Holmes. He is Justin Playfair (George C. Scott), a former judge who suffered a breakdown after the death of his wife, and ever since has been behaving like the world’s most famous fictional detective: Making (sometimes ludicrous, sometimes remarkably accurate) deductions, playing the violin (badly), wearing the full outfit (resplendently). Hoping to gain power of attorney and subsequent control of Justin’s finances, his brother tries—and fails—to have him committed.
It’s at the hospital where Justin meets Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward). He considers her name a sign from the fates and she is fascinated by his very particular delusions, so she lets him drag her around New York City, following the threads of a mystery that might just lead him to his nemesis, Moriarty.
Much as Holmes isn’t really Holmes, there is no Moriarty to be found here. Or rather, he’s everywhere, because in this movie Moriarty is not a person, but shorthand for all that is wrong with the world: Illness, crime, war, etc. By becoming Holmes, Justin becomes the archenemy of Moriarty—a paragon of logic and reason standing strong against the random horrors that befall all of us. We know that he can’t win (in a lovely monologue that leads to an exquisite title drop, he literally calls his mission quixotic), but They Might Be Giants finds beauty in the very nature of the fight.
So much of what comes out of Justin’s mouth is utter nonsense, but Scott sells it with such authority and magnetism that we, like Watson, often find ourselves believing it. A volatile presence both onscreen and off, Scott was best known for his bombastic, intimidating performances in movies like Dr. Strangelove and Patton. While Justin does share some DNA with Scott’s biggest characters (all are wildly charismatic men with unpredictable natures), there’s a delicacy about him atypical of the actor’s showier roles. Even when Justin is in full comedic Holmes mode, eyeing a flock of pigeons through a magnifying glass or finding “clues” in a discarded plastic bag, Scott never lets us forget the essential sadness at the center of his being. The loneliness.
Cue Watson. Whereas Scott was playing somewhat against type, Woodward’s performance as the plain but whip-smart Watson was familiar territory for the actress. A similar role in Rachel, Rachel earned her an Oscar nomination two years prior and she would continue in that vein for much of the rest of her career. In They Might Be Giants, Woodward and Scott compliment each other beautifully as two lost souls a little past their prime, always the smartest in the room unless the other happens to be in it, which is partially the reason for their loneliness and partially why they are so good for each other. As the movie progresses, and Watson becomes more invested in the hunt, she starts to see Justin less as a fascinating medical case and more as, well, Holmes—even engaging in his ridiculous deduction methods to solve the last clue and lead the pair to their final confrontation with Moriarty. They Might Be Giants posits love as both a shared delusion and mutual agreement to take the other person for who they are, however strange that might appear to the rest of the world.
Over the course of the “investigation,” our leading couple accrue a host of eccentric allies, like a patient at Watson’s hospital who’s convinced he’s Rudolph Valentino and a librarian who harbors dreams of becoming the Scarlet Pimpernel. As Justin and Mildred head off to battle their nemesis, they pick up all the friends they made along the way, and it turns into a glorious mini-parade of misfits striding defiantly through the uncaring streets of New York to the rousing John Barry score. It could have been played for comedy (after all, none but the leaders of this little parade know where they’re going or why), yet it’s hard to watch this scene without being moved at the sight of this group of lovable outcasts finding joyful solidarity marching alongside one another.
They Might Be Giants is a film that asks a lot of its audience, primarily (and ironically, considering the role that Sherlock Holmes plays) to discard their usual conceptions of narrative logic. A subplot involving Justin’s brother’s blackmailer seems like it’s going to be important, then disappears altogether without concluding. At one point, Justin appears to get shot in the head, yet is up and out and searching for Moriarty again 90 seconds later. The final scene is left entirely up to the audience to interpret—if you haven’t gotten on the movie’s lopsided wavelength by then, you’re bound to be frustrated.
If you have, however, then you’re in for a real treat. They Might Be Giants is intimate and rough around the edges. It’s a film that was made by people who’ve been around a bit, and come out tarnished but more interesting. It’s a cinematic version of the oldest sweater you own: It’s stained and there’s hole in the elbow, but damn it if it isn’t the comfiest item in your wardrobe. A movie that—however much evidence there is to the contrary—makes you feel like you were the first one to discover it.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.