When a “hopeless paranoid psychotic” who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes (George C. Scott), meets Dr. Watson (Joanne Woodward), a psychiatrist at a mental hospital . . . well . . . you can just bet the old game is afoot. But the fun and games delve much deeper into the human psyche in this off-beat movie than is, at first glance, apparent.
Enter retired judge and millionaire Justin Playfair, who after the death of his wife Lucy, retired out of this world and into the living embodiment of fictional history’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes. And he has the cash foundation to make his conscious persona as real as his untethered mind desires. His brother, Blevins Playfair (Lester Rawlins), wants to have him committed so he can get his hands on the family inheritance. But outwitting Sherlock Holmes takes more than this brother bargained for. Especially since Playfair/Holmes scents Moriarty and diabolical plots in the very air he breathes. He is also assisted by people who actually love and admire Justin as Holmes, including his sister-in-law, Daisy Playfair (Rue McClanahan). When she hears her husband’s plot to commit his brother, she exclaims,
“The clinic? I’m always so afraid they’ll make him well !!”
When Playfair/Holmes is first introduced at the psychiatric hospital, Dr. Mildred Watson is struggling with the problem of persuading a patient, Mr. Small (Oliver Clark), to talk. As she says, “He can speak, but doesn’t want to.” The head of the hospital, Dr. Strauss (Ron Weyand), interrupts her session with Mr. Small and insists she sign an admittance order for Justin Playfair — because Justin’s brother Blevins is an “important” member of the hospital board and wants it done. “Without an examination?!” she asks.
When Dr. Strauss tries to come between the silent Mr. Small and Dr. Watson, Mr. Small rebels and must be restrained by white-coated attendants who try to fit him for a strait-jacket. As the altercation flows out into the hallway, Sherlock Holmes appears at the entrance, pipe in mouth, deerstalker hat on head, and the requisite Inverness wool cape about his shoulders. In a ringing tone he commands, “Release that man.” Everything comes momentarily to a standstill. But as Sherlock strides toward the struggling Mr. Small, the attendants come alive and try to subdue him. They find, to their amazement and chagrin, that one does not lay hands on Sherlock Holmes, even a Holmes who was formerly Judge Justin Playfair, unless one wants to find himself flat on his back..
As Holmes stands over Mr. Small, who is on the floor, Holmes helps remove the partially donned strait-jacket. As Dr. Watson looks on, Holmes proceeds to get to the bottom of Mr. Small’s silence with deductive reasoning. Is one reason because he hasn’t been properly introduced? Small nods. But Holmes knows this is not the deeper issue. He proceeds through a string of deductions before hitting upon the words “silent” and “sound”. Like the early movies. :Why, you’re a silent film star.” Mr. Small nods. Again Holmes begins deducting and all the while Mr. Small nods enthusiastically.
“He would be“, notes Holmes, “a star who is — Brave. A man of action. Stern. Aloof. Yet compassionate — Rudolph Valentino.” — YES!!
Thus begins an avid conversation between Mr. Smalls and Sherlock Holmes. The astonished Dr Watson can only quietly intone, “I’ll be damned”. As Justin/Holmes makes his way unimpeded toward the exit, he leaves Dr. Watson with this parting thought:
If you feel the need of consultation, feel free to call upon me.
Later, while discussing the fine line — or lack of — between sanity and lucidity with the psychiatrist, there emerges the question of Don Quixote, who tilted with windmills thinking they were giants. Justin/Sherlock gives this clarification:
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 that the world was flat. But, what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mould 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.
As Dr. Watson gets more and more caught up in Holmes’s intrigues, she finds herself wanting desperately to believe, following him from one footpath to another, skulking down alleyways and sidewalks and jumping into city buses. They encounter others who know and love Justin/Holmes — a 24-hour movie theater seems to be home for several pitiful people who are friendless, including a boy and girl who fancy themselves eternal lovers; a homeless but well-spoken old man who sleeps there (who could be an old, out-to-pasture thespian), and a lady dressed in old-fashioned garb whose eyes are riveted on the screen — the last reel of a western, explains Holmes, the ambush scene.
The settings in this movie are in stark contrast to the 19th century romantic physical appearance of Holmes. It is filmed more in the brash light of reality. The streets, the buses, the destinations, including a supermarket, are all presented in that ordinariness of daily life, like some amateur with a movie camera is following Holmes and Watson. The real color is in the characters; in their voices; in their eyes; in their dialogue.
Throughout the movie, Justin/Holmes races to keep up with himself. But as Dr. Watson questions his identity even as she falls more and more under his spell, Holmes begins to question himself. Is Moriarty real? Why can’t they track him down? And the viewer wonders — is Moriarty only a metaphor for reality itself, stalking the Holmes residing in the mind of Judge Justin Playfair? Reality relentlessly dogs Holmes’s footsteps, even when friends try to help him in his angst over his dual personality. As he pours out his heart to his research friend, Jack (Wilford Peabody), Jack tries to relieve his friend’s suffering by offering him a jelly doughnut, or hot chicken soup. Jack sidesteps the uncomfortable questions of the psychological by offering up food to deal with the physical. Finally Jack relents and proceeds to soothe his friend’s fevered brow. Jack shares his own prescription for combating the boring daily grind of life. By day he is . . . but by night he is . . . whoever his imagination most wants to be.
In the end, we are left wondering about what differences there are between the sane and the insane, as one scene has guards and police forgetting their duties as they trash a supermarket because of a rock bottom price on steaks.
I think most people have a secret life — like Walter Mitty. There’s the person that everyone sees — and the person we wish we could be. In my heart I am the characters in my books and movies — the ones I can identify with. Those characters who grow from being naive and stupid, to being skeptical and wise. That grow from being weak and timid to being strong and courageous. Or those who are born heroes with circumstances made to order to test their metal. I was born with a strong sense of justice, of right and wrong, and I want justice and right to triumph. But since we don’t live in a perfect world, we must get such perfect realization from dreams and imagination. With some, the imaginary world spills over into the real world (and they become writers and actors and film makers). And some, like Don Quixote, battle the giants of injustice in their minds and hearts, never realizing the futility. But . . . sometimes . . . Don Quixote rears his head in the guise of people who think and wonder . . . You know, they might be giants, after all.