Over the years, there have been many twists on the classic Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. But Without a Clue may posit the boldest theory yet about the famed criminologist. Sherlock Holmes, it seems, was a babbling idiot.
You see, it was Dr. John Watson who was the real mastermind. But when Watson began to sell his stories, to burgeoning popularity, he needed to invent a charismatic figurehead to be his fictional detective. So he rustled up an unemployed actor to play the role, and this dolt has been taking the credit for Holmes’ elementary deductions ever since. But, as the bogus Holmes himself admits, “I couldn’t detect horse manure if I stepped in it.” The game is afoot, indeed.
This is the conceit behind Without a Clue, and it’s an acceptable enough excuse for a movie. In particular, it affords the opportunity for two Oscar-winning actors to have some fun with the famous roles.
Michael Caine plays Holmes, a lustful fake who’d prefer to have a nip in the bar while Watson sleuths out the clues. Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Watson, who’s become plenty frustrated by the attention Holmes is always getting for the work Watson has done.
In fact, as the film begins, Watson is kicking Holmes out into the street. The doctor has decided that he’s going to take all the credit from now on, and call himself, let’s see, “The Crime Doctor.” Yes, that’s it. Only problem is, nobody wants the Crime Doctor. When a dastardly counterfeiting ring is discovered, and Scotland Yard is baffled, and the demon at the back of it all is rumored to be Professor Moriarty – well, only Holmes could take the case.
And so Watson retrieves his stooge from the local pub and they go off on another adventure. The tale, as concocted by screenwriters Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther, isn’t much; the main purpose is to tweak much of the Holmesiana with which we are familiar. (The great man doesn’t really play the violin; he merely mimes along to a record player.)
A general atmosphere of silliness pervades. Whenever there’s a chance to have Holmes peer through a keyhole into a woman’s bedchamber, he’ll take it. Director Thom Eberhardt isn’t too concerned with going much beyond this level, though he eventually kindles some warm feeling between his two protagonists.
Kingsley spends much of the film, when he isn’t throwing darts at pictures of Holmes, doing a slow burn, which he executes quite amusingly. Caine, who is in the midst of a career resurgence, has a ball. Who wouldn’t relish the chance to play the smartest man who ever lived as a total buffoon?
First published in The Herald, October 1988
Eberhardt also directed Night of the Comet, but trailed away badly after this with Gross Anatomy and the dismal Captain Ron. The cast includes Paul Freeman as Moriarty, Lysette Anthony, Jeffrey Jones, Nigel Davenport, and Peter Cook. I remember nothing from this film, but I have to say – it does sound like a reasonably funny idea. Henry Mancini did the music.