I’m an unabashed fan of the work of Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. I think Holmes is one of the most exceptional characters in all fiction, and the fact that Holmes has been reinterpreted and continuously reinvented over the past 125-plus years reflects the power and strength this character still holds.
Many actors have played Holmes on screen over the years, and while Benedict Cumberbatch has gotten raves for his most recent portrayal of the character on the BBC, my personal favorite is the great Jeremy Brett and his seminal portrayal in the 1980s and 90s. Though, to be completely honest, I must say that George C. Scott’s take is a close second.
What, you may ask… George C. Scott, playing Sherlock Holmes? When did Scott do THAT?
In the underrated and entertaining 1971 film They Might be Giants, that’s when.
Here’s the thing, though… Scott didn’t play Holmes per se, he played a character who THINKS he’s Holmes. In the film Scott’s character, a millionaire named Justin Playfair, had a psychotic break after the death of his wife and became Holmes… And that he had to hunt down and capture his arch enemy, Professor Moriarty. When his family tried to get him help, he meets his Watson… Doctor Mildred Watson, played by Joanne Woodward. Once he learns her surname, he brings Watson into his world and his pursuit of Moriarty.
Moriarty represents the design of things… every evil thing must have a root cause, death and horror and anguish cannot be random. It has to have a root cause. It has to be Moriarty…
Scott is, as he so often was, brilliant. The idea that this was his followup to Patton… the mind reels. He had good taste. And Woodward is his absolute equal on screen, giving as good as she takes. Though Woodward is best known as being the life-long wife of Paul Newman, she was an impressive talent and is the beating heart and soul of the film. And there’s other great actors on display, character actors such as Jack Gilford, Al Lewis, Rue McClanahan and James Tolkan.
This movie inspired the name of the (much more famous) band, and I think it’s sad that the film is a footnote in their story. It’s worthy of more than that, because it is a flight of brilliant whimsy and drama that rewards repeated viewing. The movie’s themes and ideas were a tough sell in 1971 (heck, it’s a tough sell NOW) and the film flopped. It deserved better, and it has rightly developed a cult following.
They Might be Giants is a surprisingly powerful and moving film, a wonderful quirky movie that is satirical and funny and very very good. Take the time, and watch it.