Without a Clue

Without a Clue. ITC Entertainment Group, 1988.

Before watching the movie:

I used to make a point of saying why I chose a movie, but I stopped because it was often just “it was on the shelf/streaming service”. However, this one has a particularly unusual path. Several years ago, I got a CD of Halloween-themed film music. One of the tracks was “Super Sleuth, from Without A Clue”. The name didn’t fit, the music didn’t fit, the source didn’t fit, it seemed an all around poor choice. However, it directed my attention to a movie that had the potential to fit my tastes very well. I don’t think I got around to looking it up on my rental service for another few years, but whenever I added it, it’s taken until now to get to the top of the list.

Frequent readers of this blog should know that I have a particular attraction to variants of Sherlock Holmes stories. I’m intrigued by the halfway application of the literary agent hypothesis, but mostly I just want to see Michael Caine play a bad actor trying to be Holmes. Ben Kingsley seems a terrific choice to play a straight man in a double act, and Michael Caine is terrific in everything.

After watching the movie:

Dr. John Watson, master of deduction, has spent nine years stuck fulfilling the public’s demand for his “Sherlock Holmes” ruse with the employ of Reginald Kincaid, a lecherous drunkard of an actor. Pushed into Kincaid’s shadow, Watson has had enough, and tries to fire him and launch a new series of stories about himself. Unfortunately, the name “John Watson” doesn’t have the clout of “Sherlock Holmes”, and in fact, when the Bank of England’s five-pound note plates are stolen, Lord Smithwick wants Holmes and only Holmes on the case. Following a trail of clues and red herrings, Kincaid and Watson are forced to work together on one last case, with one inevitable culprit.

At the same time, Michael Caine is both exactly as I thought he’d be and exceeds my expectations. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen him  in a comedy role quite like this. Ben Kingsley’s Watson is not as refined an interpretation as I expected Kingsley to be. Watson’s default mood seems to be “angry at Kincaid”. But then, this is the same man who wore a caterpillar on his chin and was all over the place in A Sound of Thunder, so maybe my expectations are a bit too high. On the other hand, he was more on form in Hugo.

I do want to point out what I feel is a missed opportunity. When Kincaid believes he’s lost Watson forever but is now stuck playing a role he doesn’t feel competent to continue, there is no time in the entire history of the adapted works of Conan Doyle for “Holmes” to say “I’m lost without my… biographer”, as a mythology gag on the classic quote “I am lost without my Boswell.” Likely it never occurred to the writers, but maybe it was a question of the audience.

I recognize this movie is targeted for more of a Robert Downey Jr. mass appeal than the mythology-heavy Sherlock BBC series. But then, on the other hand, I choose to interpret Kincaid’s reaction to the notion that he track down the villain on his own, “and maybe I’ll bring the Loch Ness Monster in too”, as a reference to The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which unfortunately did.

I was somewhat disappointed to see that this movie was critically rejected, to the point of being called an “appallingly witless sendup”. I felt that the premise was amusing and well-delivered. Some of the jokes were a bit telegraphed, but overall the comedy was expertly timed. If nothing else, I consider it a lovely bit of justice for the good doctor, whose reputation is still recovering from the Nigel Bruce portrayal. It’s not a Sherlock Holmes story, but that’s exactly the point.


Watch this movie: For the best non-farce Holmesian comedy that doesn’t have animated mice.

Don’t watch this movie: For anything like the Holmes and Watson you (think you) know.

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