How likely is a whimsical romance between a classic, delusional paranoid and his doctor? Perhaps not likely, unless the paranoid is Justin Playfair, who since his wife died two years previously believes he is Sherlock Holmes (George C. Scott), and the psychiatrist hired to commit him for life to an insane asylum, who is named Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward).
There Might Be Giants sounds too cute for words, but is in fact a witty, clever look at how solitary people can find all kinds of strength and affection when they come together. Well, that's true for most of the movie. There are two weaknesses, one minor and one major, to deal with before Holmes and Dr. Watson prepare themselves for their meeting with Moriarty.
Playfair was an astute and wealthy New York judge, noted for his analytical mind and dedication to justice. When his wife died he descended into paranoia. Now he is Sherlock Holmes, obsessed with finding the evil genius Moriarty. He dresses like Holmes, sounds faintly British and possesses an acute eye for analysis. "Half the trick in finding clues is knowing that they're there," he says. He is superb at finding clues everyone else misses. His younger brother, Blevins Playfair, is determined to have him committed to an insane asylum. Not because Holmes is a danger to anyone, but because Blevins is in debt to criminals. With Holmes institutionalized, Blevins will control the family fortune. The criminals believe that simply shooting Holmes would be a far quicker way to insure that Blevins gets the money to pay them back.
Dr. Watson is the one person who must sign the documents to put Holmes away. She's not going to do this until she can examine him. The last thing Blevins wants is for Watson to think Holmes can be cured.
"You don't think he can be, do you?" Blevins asks Watson.
"Cure a classic?” she replies. “Once in a generation. It's a marvelous disease, you know. The victim's faculties grow keener and ultra-sensitive...and he's capable of things that seem like genius."
Before long, however, Holmes is on the trail of Moriarty and Watson must follow along if she's going to fully diagnosis her patient. In the process, Holmes finds a grudging respect for Watson. He's been waiting for his Watson for a long time and is prepared to accept the fact that this Dr. Watson is a woman.
"If I'm such a liability," she tells him with acerbity, "what do you want me for?"
Holmes looks at her in a mildly friendly way. "Oh, you mustn't feel inferior. Try saying to yourself, 'I'm adequate.'"
Mildred Watson, a slightly dowdy woman with a messy apartment who can't cook, is finally drawn to Holmes' integrity and passion. Will this be love? In an odd sort of way, yes, it will be.
As Holmes pursues Moriarty's clues throughout New York City, he and Watson encounter a number of engaging misfits, lonely people and eccentrics. It all works until we get to the first bump in the road...that minor weakness. Taken one at a time, the eccentrics make for engaging and touching vignettes. Put all the eccentrics together, marching purposefully behind Watson and Holmes down a dark street and then rescuing the two from the police in a huge, empty supermarket, and we come dangerously close to the whimsical cutes.
Then we must deal with a major question, and we encounter the major weakness. How will the movie end? Each one who sees the movie will most likely find their own answer. Perhaps that was the author's and director's intention. For me, I can't help but think that they simply couldn't come up with an effective conclusion based on the plot they had developed. Since I had come to like Holmes and Watson so much, I was left with wanting a conclusion I could smile at. What I was left with was a head scratch.
Scott and Woodward do marvelous jobs in creating two lonely characters we begin to root for. As actors, they were worth every penny they were paid. For lessons in star quality and acting skill, pay close attention to Scott as he teases out of a mute patient why the man doesn't speak, and later to Woodward as she prepares a dinner for Holmes in her apartment. For a lesson in team acting by two equally matched pros, watch Holmes and Watson realize how they feel about each other at Watson's apartment.
Scattered throughout the movie are some fine actors playing the eccentrics and assorted other characters, a few so quickly seen they're easily lost. Some to look for include Jack Gilford, Eugene Roche, Al Lewis, James Tolkan, F. Murray Abraham, M. Emmet Walsh, Rue McLanahan, Staats Cotsworth (of Casey, Crime Photographer fame on radio), Kitty Winn and Worthington Minor. He was the producer a long time ago behind Studio One when television every week presented live drama.
While I might find the last ten minutes a bit unsatisfying, Sherlock Holmes and Mildred Watson are still worth believing in. As Holmes says as he and Watson stand together looking into the dark, "We're coming for you, Moriarty. We may not look like much. We may not have your weapons. We may lack your dark allies. Why, we may even lose...I'm not invincible. But together, sir, we may surprise you!"
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