What is the line between madness and beauty?
The title of They Might Be Giants refers to the story of Don Quixote, who thought windmills were giants he could tilt at. George C. Scott follows up his Oscar winning role in Patton with this quirky comedy/thriller with pretensions of romantic comedy, and speaks to this, saying that to think all windmills are giants is insane, but to think that they might be is the root of all genius; to question what is in front of you and draw a new assumption. That ideal has a great deal to say in this film, where Scott plays a former judge who has become convinced he is Sherlock Holmes following the death of his wife. Following Scott's death last year, Daily Variety wrote in his obituary that this film was an "overlooked gem." In many ways it is, as it blends fantasy into a modern environment and combines great performances with an intelligent script. Anchor Bay has brought this film back into the light of day with a strong DVD release.
George C. Scott (Dr. Strangelove, Patton, Firestarter) plays Justin Playfair, a wealthy retired judge who tried during his career to reform and enhance the world he lived in. His failure to make true reforms and the death of his wife Lucy led to a complete nervous breakdown, from which emerged a man in total belief that he is Sherlock Holmes. Much of the film has to do with the question of is he really Sherlock Holmes now, or Justin Playfair, and does it matter that he believes he is Holmes? Playfair's brother Blevins is being blackmailed and has no money of his own, and wants his brother committed so he can gain control of his wealth. To that end he makes a deal with the Strauss Clinic and they send Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward The Three Faces of Eve, Sybil, Philadelphia), to judge his sanity. She is fascinated by a "classic paranoid" and wants to learn all about his case, and gets the chance when Holmes makes the connection of names and decides she is the Dr. Watson, his chronicler.
George C. Scott has a commanding grasp on the character of Holmes, as well as enough vulnerability to allow you to see his pain and his own questioning of identity. Despite having some questionable judgment on how Dr. Watson turns out to be female, he shows credible evidence of all the logic and insight of the literary character as he tells people all about themselves with a glance. Now Holmes is convinced that his brother's blackmailer (he doesn't actually believe Blevins is his brother) is none other than Dr. Moriarty and the chase is afoot.
Watson follows Holmes first as a doctor trying to better understand a patient, but soon is realizing how empty her own life has been where there wasn't enough fun and fantasy. She is drawn to Holmes even as she still hopes to cure him and bring him back to his "real" identity. I use quotes here because the film makes murky the lines between reality and fantasy, and indeed you start to wonder if Playfair isn't really now Holmes after all. As the two go from clue to clue, as determined by Holmes, they have the opportunity to meet and often help an eclectic group of people on the fringes of and left behind by society. And indeed there is danger, as the blackmailers want Playfair either committed or dead. Eventually this comedic thriller gives way to romantic comedy as the pair, one greatly wounded and both in need of the other; awkwardly and shyly begin the path to love. Woodward brings a great sense of uncertainty and humanity to her role while never quite stealing the scene from the powerful George C. Scott.
The chemistry between the main characters is perhaps the best part of the film, but the story remains interesting and draws powerful imagery and thought in the mind of the viewer. A stable of character actors who are always interesting and bring depth and personality to the film also build a tapestry that touches into areas few films ever reach. Director Anthony Harvey brings a lot of intelligence and experience to this weave as well. Harvey paid his dues in the industry first as an editor for Stanley Kubrick on such films as Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick's advice and his editing experience led to his directorial debut with The Lion in Winter, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three in 1968. Despite such credibility from both director and stars, They Might Be Giants was an extremely low budget film shot entirely on location. Only rarely does this lack of budget show I'm pleased to say, and the locations chosen often have the textured feel of a well produced set.
Universal was the original studio for the film but showed a lack of respect for it both before and after production. The lack of money put into publicity and marketing, along with few screens for showing, meant the film passed from memory quickly. The studio also cut a couple scenes from the film, which director Harvey objected to. Considering all this, it was definitely for the best that the rights for the DVD fell to Anchor Bay, who is consistently doing a good job with some lesser known or niche audience films.
Anchor Bay has created a very respectable disc for this picture. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer looks great. The only real flaws come from the age of the film and the source materials. There is a fair amount of grain that comes from the source print, but I think Anchor Bay wisely allowed it rather than lose detail sharpness by using noise reduction software. Colors are muted but well represented, since the color palette was intentionally muted and the film was shot during gray, winter weather in New York City. The scenes are often dark, and black levels are deep while retaining detail in the shadows. Fleshtones are accurate and virtually no digital artifacts detract from the viewing experience. I was very pleased with the picture.
The soundtrack retains the original audio format by using a remastered Dolby Digital mono track. Like most mono tracks, the frequency and dynamic range is constrained, but dialogue is always audible. I will say that the sound level is set rather low, making for some pretty high volume settings to hear everything. This isn't bad for within the movie, but if I had accidentally switched to another source while keeping the volume control that high it would have blown me out of my chair.
I learned some great information from the director's commentary track. Film archivist Robert A. Harris spoke with Harvey and garnered some little known tidbits about his early career. Most interesting I think was that when Harvey was editing Dr. Strangelove and the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak, Stanley Kubrick asked him to take all the film materials to Australia to save them in case of a nuclear war. Harvey replied that if such a war happened, no one would be around to see the movie. There were quite a few other nice tidbits of information about his work with Stanley Kubrick and on The Lion in Winter.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The list of extras is respectable, but there are weaknesses. The good parts of the commentary track are in fact also poor, since Harris kept moving the conversation back into Harvey's past instead of the film we were watching. Even Harvey seemed irritated with him and I believe this kept him from being able to tell as much as he wished about They Might Be Giants. This made for some awkward pauses and shifts back and forth in the flow of the commentary. Overall this made for a more tedious experience than it needed to be.
A short featurette, entitled "Madness…It's Beautiful" tried to show the locations within New York and tie it into the madness of the city. I don't believe it added much unfortunately.
Cast and crew information was quite nice, especially the bios of Scott, Woodward, and Harvey, who were the only people covered. Selected filmographies were less pleasing, since I still don't know why the studios feel free to leave out so much of an actor's work. The trailer was interesting enough, especially in how dated it seems now, and completes the extras.
Again, the total lack of subtitles is a drawback. I think every disc should have closed captioning for the hearing impaired.
Now on to the film. For all the magic and commanding performances, there are a few spots where the movie doesn't work quite so well. Harvey was happy to have one of his cut scenes, set in a supermarket, put back in the movie, but frankly I see why the studio cut it. It seems like it belongs in a very different movie, and adds nothing but some strange slapstick humor that doesn't even work very well. Other aspects of the comedy are a bit dated today and don't pack quite the laugh they did in 1971. The ending didn't quite work for me either as it seemed like things were left just a little too unresolved.
Despite some flaws in the movie and the extra content, overall this is a very strong DVD. The movie is a very interesting experience, and George C. Scott's performance by itself is worth watching. The transfer makes for a very good picture, and what information the extras do give is very interesting and informative. Anchor Bay comes through again with a movie you might otherwise never have gotten the chance to see.
All involved with making They Might Be Giants are absolutely acquitted. Anchor Bay is commended on another nice transfer and retaining the original audio format. I'm not a fanatic for this but I think it should always be an option. They Might Be Giants is a movie that forces you to answer, "You know, they just might be." That's a very good thing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary Track
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