They Might Be Giants (1971)
User ReviewsReview this title
The cast of this gem is mesmerisingly excellent, all parts I can think of are cast with character actors who on their own have stolen entire films from the stars. The central performance by George C. Scott is majestic, and so is John Barry's wonderful score. The film contains many memorable scenes, but outstanding amongst the lot is the supermarket scene. If I had to compile a list of the ten best scenes ever put to celluloid, this would be included.
George C. Scott made Justin Playfair/Sherlock Holmes into a great film character. If you pay attention to his delightful patter, you hear a soulful philosophy of life that nails our culture whether in 1971 or 1999. His rescue of poor Mr. Small made me want to cheer. Joanne Woodward's portrayal of Dr. Watson was brilliant. You could palpably feel the missing pieces of her wretched existence. "Just keep repeating to yourself, "I am adequate!"
This may be one of the all-time best collection of character actors ever put together. Jack Guilford and Rue McClanahan were wonderful But so was every other actor that appeared. Al Lewis (III) as the messenger, "You were right, Mr. Holmes. My dog did have Pellegra." The clueless march of the crazies en route to the supermarket was heroic. Too few people remember this film. If you get a chance, check this one out.
***Note - I originally wrote this comment seven years ago, but some of the new user comments prompted me to add to it. First, understand that Justin Playfair's condition is totally explained by Rue McClanahan, his sister-in-law. He was a brilliant jurist until his wife was killed. He couldn't cope with a world that allowed such bad things to happen. In an attempt to understand how bad things can happen to good people, he became the world's greatest sleuth in a relentless effort to understand evil. He showed saved newspaper clippings, of innocent people killed by inexplicable accidents, buses going off a cliff, boyscouts attacked, and so on. His one thread that held him to a tenuous sanity was the belief he could always figure it out... and that there were always clues.
He frequented an old movie house that showed old Westerns, where Randolph Scott always wore a white hat and won over the bad guys in black hats. The purest celluloid version of ultimate good over evil. In black and white. He did the London Times crossword puzzle in ink, and could read a person's life with the same exactitude as the original Sherlock. When he rescued Mr. Small, he commented under his breath, "Why can't analysts ever analyze?" The more he studied and investigated the clues, the surer he became that all the clues pointed toward one malevolent perpetrator - the evil mastermind, Moriarity. In the end, he knew he and Watson were no match for him, but that the noblest thing a Man could do was stand up against evil, even if it was a futile gesture. In that acceptance of holding onto good - even in the face of absolute evil - was his salvation.
In an insane world - only the insane are sane.
Not being a film student or critic, I fall into that overlooked and easily dismissed category called "the audience" which is humorously described as having no knowledge of art, but knowing with certainty what one likes. As such, I can say, unequivocally, that I like this film.
Most important to me as a viewer, above all other aspects of a film, is the story that is being told. If the story is winning, endearing and meaningful, then all else can be forgiven, production quality, even poor acting. Sans the poor acting, "They Might Be Giants" is just such a film.
I won't bore you with the wealth of meaning and depth of insight that I have gleaned from this wonderful story. Suffice it to say that despite what some have chosen to call its' "saccharine" quality (and what I call its' endearing quality), this story has the metaphysical import that elevates it to the level of a modern-day fable for the Western World.
Because I am unstudied and basically an "illiterate" in terms of Western Literature, the references to Don Quiote were completely invisible to me until now. For this enlightenment, I give thanks to the other reviewers. This comparison rings true throughout the story, and has enriched its' overall meaning for me. However, because I was initially unaware of this now obvious reference, for me the "They" in the title of "They Might Be Giants" referred to the very characters, themselves, all of whom are socially flawed, socially marginalized individuals, all of whom are void of "desirability".
As such, these characters, very aptly portrayed by the cast, although quirky, stand-alone individuals respectively, collectively come to represent the "everyman". The impersonal facelessness and the spirit-killing angst of personal worthlessness in midst of the post-industrial age of "modernity" are the windmills at which our Don Quiote, Justin Playfair, tilts. More importantly, we come to understand that this mask of facelessness may well be hiding individuals of truly gigantic spiritual dimensions and human worth. Our fellow human beings, who we pass, nameless, in the streets, "They Might Be Giants"!
And that soundtrack! An excellent score, indeed!
All of us have movies that for some reason hit us at special times, greatly amplifying inherent power. `The Muppet Movie' is one of these for me: deeply self-referential, it is about the creation of itself. This is another. I first saw it at an all night drive-in in 1971, with my wife and toddler son. It was the fifth and last movie on the bill.
Of course, I've seen it many times since. Each time adds to the experience in some incremental way that cleverly avoids deficiencies. Like the best friendships, and similarly this comment will have bias.
I'm an amateur student in reflexive film and literature: that's where the film is aware of its role as a fabricated reality. The best of these add some layers within, where the characters create in the same way that they were created. Most scholars believe this began with `Don Quixote.'
There is another equally novel literary tradition I particularly admire: the detective narrative. That's where the traditional role of storytelling is turned into a contest between writer and reader, each working to anticipate the ending in a way that - within certain rules - flummoxes the other. This actually started with Poe but was popularized in the Holmes stories which supplanted the clever character-based model of Dickens.
Two revolutionary ways of engaging the viewer, both since exploited by clever filmmakers. Here, we have a clever synthesis of the two. And it involves an actor - possibly the best `old style' actor - who appreciates the challenges of separating actor and character.
The treatment (like that of the muppet movie) is disguised as a simple comedy of endearing madness, along the lines of `Harvey.' But there are some amazing constructions here, including that early scene where a man will not speak because he exists in silent film character mode and needs to shifted to `reality' mode. There is a similar notion of shifting from reality to medium in the later sequence where a woman physically speaks to a telephone operator, then calls her. The catch-22 of this situation is just an excuse. The whole story is about looking for clues: shifting things from one reality to another by intervention of character/writer (who is really a judge/scholar). Home base is a library.The trigger for the story is a photograph.
This film isn't seen by viewers as an intelligent construction because of its light hearted treatment, especially the slapstick supermarket sequence. This incidentally starts with a reference to `The Third Man' in the sewer kiosk which would never exist in New York.
I believe that an art form of the future will be to go back to these underappreciated gems and reedit them, or embed them in another project. It makes sense to take a film about shifting layers and add more, Peter Greenaway-wise. The first thing to go would have to be the flippant sound track.
Not convinced this had intelligence behind it? What happens at the end?
This ending is so remarkable that I often go to that very spot when I visit New York, sweetly near the Alice in Wonderland, John Lennon and `the Tempest' memorials.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 4: Worth watching.
And the role of the private investigator is a pretty good parallel for Quixote's knight errant seeking to uncover evildoers while also completely obscuring his own mundane origins. Joanne Woodward plays a psychiatrist, coincidentally named Watson, enabling "Holmes" to draw her into his world. She is his Sancho Panza. Also as in Quixote, Holmes is on an apparent quest to thwart the nefarious Moriarty, running into common people who stand in his way, finding out what is troubling them, and solving their problems in a novel way, thereby building a small army of supporters while simultaneously irritating other characters who want things to stay just as they are the "Establishment" (it was 1971).
I enjoyed the lunacy of the film and Scott's confident, loopy Homes from the beginning the final "battle" is waged in a grocery store, in which the cops that were supposed to arrest the judge and lock him up in an asylum are completely derailed by Holmes's army, and by his commandeering of the store PA to announce unbelievably low special prices on the merchandise, causing the cops to abandon their pursuit and go shopping. But it was the last image of the film that stuck with me, and kept me thinking about it until it was permanently entered in my brain under Movies I Want to See Again.
Homes and Watson Scott and Woodward have evaded their pursuers, and are standing alone in Central Park, late at night. Holmes has warned Watson that Moriarty is very close by, and they can only hope to defeat him if they stand together. Then he lets the mask slip: he tells Watson that he loves her and she clearly loves him as well though he is by no means surrendering his identity as Holmes. Then he points out Moriarty coming out of the gloom, the hooves of his horse clopping on the path, and Watson finally can see him too. As the camera fades to black though, the clopping hooves become the ticking of a clock, and the enemy is revealed to be time itself, or mortality, against which the only defense is to remake reality as one sees fit.
In this film it is the small people versus the proper and more powerful ones that are at the heart of things. Scott and Woodward are soon leading others with a romantic view of life. Jack Gilford gives another one of his sweet, profound performances as a little man who does see himself - as the Scarlet Pimpernel - righting the wrongs of the world. So it goes with many of the characters in the film. The real climax (there are two) is in the supermarket scene, when momentarily the forces of power gain the upper hand over Scott's allies and start rounding them up. Scott turns the tables by basing a counter-attack on their greed: he starts announcing insanely cheap prices for meat, poultry, bread, fruit, etc., that these "realists" cannot pass up. They start grabbing things (and releasing Gilford and the others, who look bemused at the "realists" as they sneak away).
The film's second climax is timed at the conclusion. For Scott/Holmes must have his Moriarty (it is his brother, who is trying to have him permanently committed). Scott and Woodward go for a final rendezvous, and we last see them admiring their adversary as he advances. The film does not show what happens but leaves us wondering if they survive or not. But it is a conclusion that leaves us somehow satisfied for the sake of Playfair and his Watson. Maybe it was only his brother they saw approach, but it could have been Moriarty - just like it could have been those giants.
Early in the film, Playfair is introduced to Dr Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward), a psychologist who hopes to cure the increasingly paranoid Playfair. Believing Mildred to be the Doctor Watson of the Sherlock Holmes novels, Playfair allows Mildred to accompany him on his many bizarre adventures. These adventures find Playfair bumbling about New York City, all in the hopes of deciphering Moriarty's "crime" and "motive". Mildred thinks Playfair is unconsciously seeking to find meaning in his wife's death, and she's right, but she's also absolutely wrong. That "Professor Moriarty" doesn't exist is almost irrelevant. Playfair is correct to conclude that there are "things" everywhere responsible for "bad stuff". That he personalises an uncaring, all-encompassing Nature doesn't necessarily make Playfair insane, but hyper-rational.
Mildred, of course, thinks Playfair is nuts. She likens him to Don Quixote, the fictional character who repeatedly attacked windmills, believing them to be "monstrous giants". Of this, Playfair says: "Quixote thought every windmill was a giant. That's insane. But thinking that they might be...that's not. If we never looked at things and thought of what they might be, why, we'd all still be out there with the apes!" Playfair's speech thus functions as a survival plan; there MAY be giant monsters, and so he MUST test everyone and everything with a hammer.
One such giant is Playfair's own brother (Lester Rawlins), a man who seeks to have Playfair killed. But the film is packed with other subtly sketched "giants". One couple, for example, live entirely indoors, nurturing indoor plants and crops because they "do not like what the outside world has become". A switchboard operator, the poor, the homeless, cops and various other men and women throughout the film, likewise live lives tormented by giants. Mildred, a lonely woman who escapes into psychoanalysis as a means of fleeing the world, is herself a woman living in the shadows of monsters. Everyone in the film is under some form of attack.
Early in "Giants", Playfair admits that he likes Westerns. The genre, he explains, offers moral clarity, clear demarcations and a sense of order and justice which the universe simply doesn't allow. Imposing such "morality" and "law" upon the universe - getting it to "play fair" - becomes Playfair's obsession, but it's a futile quest, especially when nobody believes in the existence of that which he's slaying.
How to get others to believe in, see and thus slay giants becomes the preoccupation of the film's final act. "Does justice ever lose?" Mildred asks, to which Playfair admits that it often does. "There are villains so big, they block the sunlight," he explains, before stating that standing up to such monsters is "what makes humans proud". The film then ends on a series of symbolic notes. Here Playfair assembles a ragtag community of believers and then battles police in a supermarket. This supermarket sequence, a middle finger to materialism and the status quo, was deleted by producers, but its message remains: "they" - the misfits who dare challenge their surroundings and stand up for others - "may be the real giants". The noble few.
And so Playfair and Mildred find themselves standing before a shadowy tunnel as an "invisible monster" races toward him. "Stand closer to me, together in the light," Playfair tells Mildred, as the beast advances. But before our heroes are enveloped in blackness, consumed by the beast, a white light germinates behind Playfair's shoulder. Cooperation, love and belief, then, slays the beast. It's the old adage- when "I" becomes "we", mental illness becomes wellness.
"They Might Be Giants" initially appears to be a quirky 1960s/70s comedy in the vein of "A Thousand Clowns", "Being There" or "Harold and Maude". It's often dismissed as just a kooky comedy about "freedom" and "being true to yourself". In many ways, though, it's closer to the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s ("Chinatown", "All the President's Men", "Parallax View", "Three Days of the Condor", "The Conversation", "Cutter's Way", "Network", "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" etc). This was, after-all, a period in which faith in family, society, authority, institutions and public figures plummeted, and in which the common man was seen to be at the mercy of a wide range of conspiratorial forces. Literature of the era was likewise deeply conspiratorial. "Anyone not paranoid must be crazy," Edward Abbey would say, sentiments echoed by novelists like Philip Dick ("Funny how paranoia often links up with reality"), William Burroughs ("Paranoia is just having the right information") and Joseph Heller ("Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you"). Which is not to say that Playfair isn't crazy, just that he's not necessarily wrong. Someone or something is always out to "get you", and it takes more than one man hunting invisible game to keep men from going insane. Endearingly acted by Scott and Woodward.
8.9/10 – Minor masterpiece. See "Cutter's Way" and "A Thousand Clowns".
The previous reviews miss enough that I feel compelled to write a review of the film. First, the same author wrote "Lion In Winter," so it is pretty obvious he knew the craft. Second, this started as a London stage play, and according to the admittedly loopy Wikipedia, he didn't like the production and stopped further attempts at mounting the play.
Once you take the concept that it is a stage play adapted for film, some of the oddities of this production become more apparent. Much like the concept expressed in "Shakespeare in Love," where everyone expects and looks forward to the dog in a play, movie audiences expect a romantic relationship and a happy ending where good triumphs over evil, the Hayes code is satisfied, and insipid movies are safe for kids to watch.
The intent of the original work is darker than that, but in order to perceive that you have to look underneath the surface, much as Holmes would do.
Start with the title "They Might Be Giants." Yes, it is an homage to Cervantes, but it is a double-entendre as well. In ignoring the dross of everyday life and focusing on existential topics to the point that the world calls them crazy, the "mentally ill" just might be the giants of humanity, exploring the boundaries of who we are as humans and good and evil. Certainly the Justin (justice) Playfair (play fair) character turning into a Holmsian sleuth represents that. The couple who shut themselves off from humanity for years and were very happy is another exploration of the concepts under consideration. It is only when Holmes goes looking for evil in their world that it suddenly appears.
Who is to say that a person who believes himself to be a silent film star isn't, in some small measure, that person? The entire concept of empathy, as well as the concept of method acting, both require "getting into the head" of the character. Do we not all have a bit of Scarlett Pimpernel in us somewhere? Is expressing that so bad that we need to relegate our lives to being nebbish librarians forever in our existence? On the subject of the varying versions - Many years ago, I worked in a couple of television stations. The movies we showed came in on 16mm film and one of my jobs was to cut the films to fit the time slot allotted. I learned never to trust a televised version of a film as being accurate to the intention of the director. Networks modify film as well, and in some cases they have access to ADD footage as well as clip it.
*Major spoiler here* - The "enigmatic" scene at the end is only enigmatic if you are blind to the modern version of the Hayes code and the inevitable studio interventions which bow to the low common denominators of "How can we maximize the money this makes?" and "Will it upset the audience?" Start with the supermarket scene and descent into "Mad Mad Mad Mad World" slapstick. The duality is that the author did want to show how, when confronted, the "establishment" is a group of enforcers of the status quo, some dressed in enforcer (police) uniforms, and some masquerading as those who would help you become sane, while wielding rubber hoses if you don't follow their instruction. At the same time, the studio wanted a feel good slapstick to lighten up a film with an underlying dark theme. Ergo: chaos in a market, where the materialism of the enforcers of status-quo becomes their temptation and undoing. The most powerful figure in the scene is reduced to saying "My wife will kill me if I don't take advantage of this bargain." The end scene is the most dark of all. Once the reality of the world Holmes has been fighting is shown to be a farce, he has nowhere to go. Death is the inevitable conclusion. The tunnel in Central Park is again double entendre and metaphorical. Tunnel - the passage into the unknown. Tunnel - the accepting of a confined world where there is no escape from whatever comes towards you. There are others that I'll let you deduce for yourself. However... the tunnel was ALSO a metaphor for a RAILROAD tunnel. The horse being heard is a clue to an IRON horse, which is borne out by the comment and visual that they will be in the light (train headlight - also metaphor for truth/God/etc.) and be found close together. He has convinced the analyst to trust him right into death.
There is no way that the film company and distributor would allow a scene of Geo. C. Scott and Joanne Woodward standing in front of a railroad (or more likely subway) tunnel, and being run down by a train. All feel-good aspects of the film (and chances of repeat customers) would be lost. What surprises me is how few people "get" the ending and theme of the film.
"They Might Be Giants" is a frustrating film. On one hand, George C. Scott has one of his most charming and enjoyable performances. In addition, the basic idea for the movie is quite promising. BUT, on the other hand, the film seemed to have no idea what to do with the plot--and it eventually degenerated into a stupid mess. And, to make things worse, the ending is just awful--and makes you wonder why you spent your time watching--and why two illustrious actors (Scott and Joanne Woodward) would be in such a flawed project. Having attendants from the local mental institution running about with giant nets and rubber hoses(!) and the god-awful grocery store scene stand out in my mind...and not for good reasons! A mess of a film--especially since the first half is so entertaining.
One of the strengths of this "little" film (among the best I've seen anywhere) is that Playfair's/Holmes' "insanity" highly affected me long after I left the theater. It made an indelible mark on my heart and helped to keep important questions alive in my mind. And after all, what, really, is insanity? In TMBG, Scott is Holmes is Playfair, period. You can do the math and the juxtaposition.
It was not just the fine cast of characters who were led out of the dark and into the light by Holmes & Watson, literally and metaphorically, but myself/ourselves, as well. I went willingly into the call of the film, that the evils of our world (usually nameless and faceless in our media-fed society) might be the giants of the title, and are the very giants that WE, ultimately, also have to face directly, bravely, together (not in isolation). The film doesn't suggest how we should fight malevolence, just that we should face it unflinchingly, with verve and courage.
Oh, the layers of this fine film! The fact that this unique film affects us into dialog about "what does the ending mean?" and "who/what are the giants?" and "what is insanity?" and "what is 'normal'?" says something about the power of this film on the thoughtful mind. Like Arlo Guthrie once replied when asked why he became a Catholic: (paraphrasing) it isn't that it provided me with the answers, but rather, it got me to asking the right questions. There's something about the depth of this film that is unusual in most movies, and rarely ever captured so well. Indeed, as other reviewers suggest, as superb as it was, Patton was mere practice for the unparalleled acting in this film; I concur, it is Scott's best. Arguably Woodward's best, too.
Yes, superb acting & great writing created this masterpiece, which compares & contrasts well with a couple other fine films: Alan Bates in "The King of Hearts," and Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." This film has one or two moments that show some datedness, but it clearly and simply reflects those timeless issues that will remain unresolved and unresolvable in our on-going battle for triumph over "the dark side." This is Top-10 fare in my list, alongside Kane, Dorothy & Toto, Mr. Smith & George Bailey, Zhivago, T E Lawrence, Zorba, Bates' King (op cit), Rick & Sam, & Skywalker. Love it or don't, but see this film.
I am writing this on learning of his passing. While not his greatest movie, it deserves watching almost as much as Patton, The Hospital, Dr. Strangelove, or 12 Angry Men (& much more than Firestarter), if only to see him in an entirely different type of character.
What, 10 lines? I am terser than that.
We're pointed to the literary work not only by the explicit references to it throughout the film (of which there are more than a few) but by the title itself. Certainly, more than one person has wondered why this movie is called THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, as there are apparently no giants to be found nor even looked for. It was Don Quixote who, in a deluded attempt to rid the world of evil, imagined he saw giants everywhere. The giant to be confronted in T.M.B.G. is Holmes's arch nemesis, Professor Moriarity. The Holmes here, far more similar to the great Cervantes character than anything to be seen in Conan Doyle, is a frustrated and lonely old guy who tries to rid the world of malevolence by converting himself into a fictional character and imagining perils and plots where none really exist. The strength of both characters (Quixote and Justin Playfair) is their capacity to draw other people, at first unwillingly, into their fantasy world. That accomplished, the reality or unreality of foes becomes largely irrelevant, hence that marvelously ambiguous ending in T.M.B.G.