Justin Playfair (George C. Scott) used to be involved in law, but since a crisis in his life he has rejected all that to become a detective, and not any old detective as he believes in his heart that he is Sherlock Holmes. Seeing as how he lives in nineteen-seventies New York City and not Victorian London, you could see the evidence against that decision was overwhelming, but he will not be persuaded and his brother (Lester Rawlins) is determined to have him committed to a mental institution. He wants this for two reasons: to get Justin out of his way, and to take his share of the inheritance with which he will pay off a huge debt he owes, and is being threatened about. But once he persuades him to attend a session at the institution, it doesn't turn out as expected...
An almost unclassifiable film - was it a comedy? A drama? Romance? Thriller? Fantasy? What? - this was the second collaboration between playwright James Goldman and director Anthony Harvey after their worldwide hit A Lion in Winter which had won through with Oscar glory three years before. For They Might Be Giants, on the other hand (and yes, this was where the quirk-rock band got their name from), the welcome was far from warm as you might have thought with one cinematic success under their belt Harvey and Goldman would have been given carte blanche and a lot of help to both make the movie as they saw fit and reach the intended audience, yet once the studio saw it they apparently wondered what the hell they had on their hands.
With the consequence that the film was cut down rather severely and barely given the wide release which might have saved its reputation, or lent it a reputation in the first place. Scott and Joanne Woodward, no stranger to acclaim, were most disappointed that what they considered fine work on their part was effectively ruined by studio interference and the public simply not getting whatever they were aiming for, yet of such material are cult movies made, and while this was never going to be a Rocky Horror Picture Show or A Clockwork Orange, to name two major examples of this decade's cultdom, there is a small but devoted coterie of fans for whom the peculiar love story at the emotional centre of this struck a chord. It may have come across as too precious to many, but there was a definite appeal to the eccentric here.
For a start, the notion of Sherlock Holmes in the modern day as too brilliant to be accepted was oddly engaging, that he would not be embraced by the establishment and would be more of a counterculture figure very much of the immediately post-hippy times. Where the script builds on that is to have Justin much like Elwood in Harvey, only instead of a giant rabbit he has his own Doctor Watson, except in this case it's his psychiatrist Dr Mildred Watson (Woodward, encouraged in the role by her husband Paul Newman, here producing) and she is an avowed sceptic. It's purely coincidence that she should share the surname of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle character, sidekick to Sherlock Holmes, but after a while you begin to wonder if there is not some hard to grasp method in this madness, the Cosmic Joker weaving his mischief.
Playfair is convinced he is hounded by Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty, and that too has truth to it in that certainly someone wishes him harm, but may well be whoever wants to get that debt away from his brother, after all, dead or locked up they will get their money either way. Initially Watson humours her new patient by accompanying him around the city streets as he searches for clues, encountering hostility from some though others are please to see Justin, recognising him as the fictional character he thinks himself to be, including elderly librarian Wilbur (Jack Gilford) who wishes he had the courage of those convictions so he could adopt the guise of The Scarlet Pimpernel. But Watson is in a privileged position, she genuinely can become the right hand man (OK, woman) of the world's greatest detective and as the story draws on she is won over into Playfair's world. The message here would be that every Holmes needs their Watson, everyone needs companionship to confirm their view of life and keep loneliness at bay; the ambiguous finale speaks to that. Music by John Barry.