This is a Sherlock Holmes story with a difference. Here Dr Watson is the ace detective and has been using an actor to play the part Holmes. Holmes is a drunken actor and gets on Watson's nerves. When Watson tries to go it alone, he doesn't have much success, so he is forced to let Holmes take all the credit once more. Written by
"Without A Clue" might be called "Without A Trace," as it sunk upon its 1988 release much like a set of five-pound-note engravings at the bottom of Lake Windemere. Hopefully the new DVD release, albeit pan-and-scan, will give people another chance to catch this terrific send-up of fiction's most celebrated detective.
This is the film that dares reveal Sherlock Holmes is a fraud, an out-of-work actor named Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine) pulled out of the gutter by a desperate crime-solving doctor named Watson (Ben Kingsley) who needed to produce someone to play the part of this invention of his. Dr. Watson, you see, didn't want the initial notoriety of his sleuthing successes. He desired admission to a medical college that would frown on such things. Now he wishes he wasn't so successful in playing Kincaid off as Holmes; Kincaid's a drunken womanizing blaggard grown too big for his britches, whining that Watson doesn't treat him at all times with the respect his borrowed robes command.
"I am the one the public really cares about," Kincaid/Holmes sniffs.
"Are we talking of the same man who once declared the late Colonel Howard had been bludgeoned to death by a blunt EXCREMENT?"
"Is it my fault if you have such poor handwriting?"
The lines aren't all polished gems, but they complement a pair of nice comic performances by Caine and Kingsley that keep spirits merry as the game goes afoot.
Also well-done is the understated late Victorian period detail and some strategic nods to the Holmes canon like the presence of Mrs. Hudson the housekeeper and the Baker Street Irregulars, all of whom are in on the Kincaid/Holmes secret. There's choice digs at Holmes' notoriety throughout, like a fellow who gives some meaningless eyewitness testimony to Holmes before a rapt hometown crowd who break into applause when Holmes tells Watson: "Make a note of it." Watson's slow burns here and elsewhere reward repeat viewings.
With Henry Mancini doing the score and director Thom Eberhardt effectively working in a light Ealing tone, this film plays like some great lost Peter Sellers comedy, except Sellers would never share the screen so easily with another as Caine and Kingsley do here. Eberhardt also did good work in another film that went past too many people, "Year Of The Comet;" it's a shame we didn't see more of him.
This would be a classic if the mystery at the heart of the story was more developed, and there are a pair of unnecessary killings that distract momentarily from the light tone. I'm not wild about all the supporting performances, but Jeffrey Jones is a very funny Lestrade as he chases Holmes around an abandoned house on his hands and knees, Watson having told his partner first to do his usual sleuthing routine so Watson himself can root around unobserved. Lysette Anthony is sexy and effective as the potential romantic interest, inspiring Holmes to try and solve the case without Watson, as well as look in keyholes when he's not supposed to.
He's less successful attempting elementary deduction when he spies a man he takes for a reporter just back from the subcontinent.
"I'm a barrister and I've never been to India in my life," the man answers.
"But you do read the Times."
You don't need to be an Arthur Conan Doyle fan to enjoy "Without A Clue," though it helps. This is the best kind of parody, no less riotous and cutting from being a work of true love.
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