They Might Be Giants: 1971 Film Starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward

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.


10 thoughts on “They Might Be Giants: 1971 Film Starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward

  1. Wow, you must be having a watch-old-movies night. I remember this film, but it’s been YEARS since I saw it. Did you rent it or was it shown on TV?

    • Hey! I was just getting out the keyboard to answer your other comments on the dances. My arm is so sore from therapy yesterday I’ve been whining all day. Only got two more sessions to go.

      As for the movie, Mike and I found it on Netflix – streamable. Neither one of us had ever heard of it, but you can’t beat Joanne Woodward with a stick. It wasn’t anything like what we thought it would be, and was much more than we anticipated.

      I love old movies, but the 70’s was not a great decade for them except for Jaws and Star Wars — though those were monstrous hits. The color, film quality, and just plain bad scripts seemed to pervade that decade. I also love old black and whites, but not indiscriminately. I had never seen or heard of “The October Man” before, but was pleasantly surprised.

      We’re having to search far afield for anything decent to watch. Amazon streaming has begun charging for just about EVERYTHING, and I read that Netflix has lost some of the ones they did have. Amazon is about to price themselves out of the market for us.

      So when I do find something watchable, I pass it along. I know other people are probably scraping the bottom of the barrel, too.

      • If you enjoy a good black & white movie now an again, you should see “The Artist.” It’s a current film made in the old style and it won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple of years ago.

        Without question, there are some excellent black & white films, but in many cases, the overacting turns me off. It was simply the style of filmmaking in those days, I guess.

        I keep a post-it note on the side of my computer on which I write the names of new movies I want to see. This way I can watch for the DVDs and get them from Netflix. I can always find interesting documentaries at Netflix that both hubby and I can enjoy if I run out of new movies. Also, there are excellent Masterpiece Theatre offerings on DVD. Sometimes I just browse through Netflix and find interesting films. I can’t imagine running out of things to watch on DVD from Netflix. We don’t subscribe to their streaming service. I like all the bonus material on DVDs too much and you don’t get them with streaming. .

      • Yes. I make lists of movies, too, then promptly misplace them. Even when I put them on the fridge I overlook them until they curl up and die. But sometimes, I get it together. And, yes, the overacting in old B&W movies is a big turn-off, especially after getting used to actors who seem to step right off the screen in “3-D” body language and emotion. But there is something that draws me to them. The black and white itself is soothing, and the cultured language and tones just take me out of the here-and-now and into an an old, elegant, and forgotten world. I also love that the B&W world is not so hectic and harks back to a “kinder gentler” era, whether it actually was or not. After all, movies are all about “what-if” and pretend, but make you feel they’re for real. That’s why I love just about any genre of movie, though some more than others. They’re like music – there’s always at least one great one in every barrel.

      • I see your point about black & white movies. But have you seen “The Artist” yet? You didn’t answer that question. It’s a must-see if you haven’t. I have it on DVD, but Netflix doesn’t show a date for it yet.

      • Sorry. I meant to tell you that I was going to look up both movies on Netflix. I love streaming. I’m not patient. And you know what they say about asking the Lord to give you patience. He’ll give you something to exercise it. So I ain’t asking. LOL. I did look up Quartet, found it, started watching, and discovered it wasn’t the one you were talking about. But since I had already started I continued. This one was a REAL old black and white with four short stories from Somerset Maugham. I got hooked. They are somewhat like the old black and white O’Henry stories. The actors are much better in these than the run of the mill black and whites. I only got half way through, then had company. I’m still going to get to your recommendations. Sounds good.

  2. BTW, I just watched the 2012 film “Quartet” with Maggie Smith, Bill Connolly, Tom Courtney, Penelope Collins, Michael Gambon and directed by Dustin Hoffman. It’s delightful and you’ll enjoy it, too, I think. It’s kind of a comedy and is about a retirement home for musicians in England. There are many real retired musicians playing parts in the film and Hoffman has done a fantastic job of directing his first film.

    Oddly, there was a film (in the 1980s, I think) with the same name and it even started Maggie Smith. Strange coincidence.

    • The only name I recognize in that list is Dustin Hoffman. But he’s a biggy. Will have to check this out. You know more (obscure?) actors names than I do. I have trouble remembering the names of the blockbuster, in-your-face, superstars. (Which doesn’t guarantee anything in the way of a good movie, I’m sure you know). That was a strange coincidence about Maggie Smith and the movie title. With actors I have to put a face with the name sometimes before I smack myself in the forehead when the light comes on.

      • Yes, perhaps I do know a lot of names of actors, but within their genres, they are far from obscure. I ADORE British films and TV shows and love the English actors. Thank goodness we get BBC America and I can always rely on PBS (especially Masterpiece Theatre) for excellent programming.

        I’m not surprised you’ve heard of Dustin Hoffman. He’s a wonderful actor, but “Quartet” is his first directing effort. And he’s terrific at it and the all British cast loved him. I know you know who Maggie Smith is…you just don’t remember the name. She was Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies

        And she’s one of the stars of the PBS show “Downton Abbey.”

        I watch A LOT of foreign films and art films.

      • OHHHH yes. THAT Maggie Smith. She was also on the movie I reviewed about the old haunted manor. And now that you mention it, she WAS in Harry Potter. I love British films also and have got a couple I want to review, or just discuss. I’ve got so much up here in my head I want to get onto the post!! I got half of one done today. With movies it literally takes me hours because I’m constantly fact checking and looking for pictures and/or trailers that can be linked. I also have to rearrange material and edit edit edit. I HATE typos and brain snafus. I think I mentioned I’m OCD when it comes to writing.


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