Saturday, April 2, 2016

They Might Be Giants (1971)

They Might Be Giants (Anthony Harvey, 1971) It's the same writer/director/composer team as The Lion in Winter, but a decidedly off-kilter product is this out-of-circulation curiosity from the era immediately following George C. Scott's Oscar win for Patton. Set in the "modern" age, which might be quite a few years too late for it, They Might Be Giants—yes, it did inspire the band's name—tells the story of Justin Playfair (Scott), a retired judge, and in whose grief after the death of his wife, now thinks he's Sherlock Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes.

That might be useful, actually, but Playfair is now convinced that everything wrong with the world (and there's a lot wrong in New York around 1970) is the work of Holmes' nemesis, the "Napoleon of Crime," the infamous Professor Moriarty. That includes the blackmail being played against Playfair's brother Blevin, who wants to pay up and be done with it, but the Judge, being Sherlock Holmes, forbids it until he can resolve the crime—and he's the one with all the money—so the brother decides to have him committed. Evidently without a decent phone book (they had those in 1970), he picks the worst person in the world to examine the Judge in order to declare him insane, a psychiatrist named (of course) Watson (Joanne Woodward). With a gaffe like that, the brother deserves all the grief he can get.
In the course of her examination, Playfair leads her on the wildest of goose-chases, trying to track down Moriarty, finding random clues in the detritus of the city, and introducing her to his own version of The Irregulars, the niche-dwellers all but abandoned by the hustle-bustling population and see nothing wrong in Playfair's behavior. In fact, they marvel at it, admire it, and wish to emulate it. Meanwhile, Holmes and Watson run the gamut of scenes of crimes displaying apathy, greed, gracelessness, and rampant consumerism in Society while Playfair rails against Moriarty's presence behind it all.* Watson serves as the Doubting Thomas (Scully to Scott's Mulder?), but eventually succumbs to Playfair's way of thinking. Professionalism, be damned.
The writer is James Goldman, brother of William (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Marathon Man), writer of the afore-mentioned The Lion in Winter, as well as Robin and Marian, Nicholas and Alexandra, and...White Nights. And the problems with the movie is in James' screenplay, full of wonderful detail and dialog, but precious (to the point of cloying) in scene concepts relating to the larger point. The mystery's good, but the clues suck. Fortunately, he's got actors like Scott, Woodward, Jack Gilford, Rue McClanahan, F. Murray Abraham, Al Lewis, Gene Roche, Paul Benedict, and Emmet Walsh, all of whom can spin gold from cotton candy temporarily, but can only go so far to improve the material in the long run. 

The film is as twee as twee can be, more in keeping with—Vincent Canby had this right in his negative review—the time of You Can't Take it With You and Arsenic and Old Lace and the sunny-side-up attitude (despite eyes being open to the negative) of Frank Capra. But it's not Capra, it's Anthony Harvey, terrific editor and Hepburn-favorite director. Harvey's really good at designing a film, its ambience and lighting, but he's not the best at forming image to idea, which the best directors can do merely by having empathy with the material. Harvey doesn't judge in his projects, but he also rarely comments at all, good at staging, but not at direction...that is, direction of you, the audience to a feeling the material should provoke. For a former editor, his weakness as a director is editorial. Odd.
The analyst in me cringes at the movie in its romantic notion of insanity—I've long wanted to do an "out there" version of "Harvey" where Elwood P. Dowd self-medicates in all sorts of ways besides booze—but, the wide eyed moon-calf that was me who first saw this film (probably to hear the score, as I am a fan of its composer, John Barry, and will also see anything with Scott in it), still has an affection for it, guarded though it has become. I also have a fondness for its ending, which drives audience members who are looking for air-tight Holmesian solutions crazy and let down, but for me, is a perfect little nugget of an ending whose power (the acting,** the lighting effects, the music?) one can't explain away. I'd put a spoiler alert here, but, really, this ending spoils nothing—it only enhances...and makes up for what has gone before.

Sadly, John Barry's score for this film (conducted by Ken Thorne) has never been released.


* Here's two examples, both out of the mouth of Playfair:
"Because, you see, we live in Eden. Genesis has got it all wrong — we never left the Garden. Look about you. This is paradise. It's hard to find, I'll grant you, but it is here. Under our feet, beneath the surface, all around us is everything we want. The earth is shining under the soot. We are all fools."
 "Well [Don Quixote] had a point. Of course, he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That's insane. But, thinking that they might be... well… all the best minds used to think the world was flat. — But, what if it isn't? — It might be round — and bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what they might be, why, we'd all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes."
** Scott's feral growl and playing of "Now!  Do you see him now?" always gives me chills.

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