THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS fell through the cracks in 1971, shoveled out the door from Universal like food gone bad, hurt by editing, knocked by critics and ignored by the public, whose paltry $2,200,000 in tickets left it gasping in 106th place for the year. Directed by Anthony Harvey (The Lion In Winter), scripted by James Goldman from a play he’d written a decade earlier in England, it stars George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward, with a clutch of struggling New York-based actors early in their careers.
“Just keep saying to yourself ‘I’m adequate.’ ”
Wealthy ‘Justin Playfair’ (Scott) has retreated into a fantasy world after losing his wife. He thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes; his brother seeks to have him committed. ‘Dr. Mildred Watson’ (oh-oh), played by Woodward, takes on the task of trying to understand and maybe cure the deluded sleuth, and by the time the whimsy has run out its 98 minutes the two have stalked off-the-cuff (and wall) clues across Manhattan, taking in encounters with cops, cabbies, telephone operators, vendors, garbagemen and a raft of harmless loonies self-isolated from society.
Touched as well as intrigued by her patient, Mildred—or rather, Dr. Watson—tells Playfair “You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.” To which he—as Holmes—replies “Well, he had a point. ‘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 might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.”
Scott and Woodward make a swell team. This observer has always had a hard time warming up to Woodward—a good actress who registers blah on my radar–but she’s appealing here and it’s nice to see a Scott character allowed tenderness instead of temper. Their witty exchanges and gradually developing attachment gives the plot contrivance some weight, which it could use, as it sags in the second act and windmills (paging Cervantes) into rather desperate farce in the third act. Offbeat comedy-mystery has its champions (Glenn Erickson gives it a strong plug at CineSavant), and I think on revisit it might grow on me (finally saw it yesterday, a mere 48 years after release): I just wish the pile-up of secondary characters were as charming as the leads: we’re supposed to find the eccentrics and rebels cute, but the treatment goes a wince too far. *
“I think if God is dead he laughed himself to death. 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, 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. Ha ha.”
In the supporting fellowship of fantasists: Jack Gilford, Rue McClanahan, Lester Rawlins, Al Lewis, Oliver Clark, Kitty Winn, James Tolkan, Theresa Merritt, Eugene Roche, F. Murray Abraham (debut), M. Emmet Walsh, Paul Benedict. Music score by John Barry.
* For whatever reasons, Woodward recalled making the movie as draining enough to make her reconsider the profession, though she noted that had nothing to do with her legendarily explosive co-star. Scott starred in two other pictures that year, the boring crime-chase flick The Last Run (snoozing in spot #68) and the blistering black comedy The Hospital, checking in a healthy #12 and prescribing him an Oscar nomination.
“The human heart can see what is hidden to the eyes, and the heart knows things that the mind does not begin to understand.”