Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Everybody loves Sherlock Holmes, everywhere in the world. Movies inventing new cases for him to solve are legion. Even before Billy Wilder's affectionate comedy epic , a British thriller called A Study in Scarlet imagined Holmes tracking down the infamous Jack the Ripper. The later Robert Downey films, having been Indiana Jonesed and CGI's into big action spectacles, are a waste. There's the popular TV series, of course, and due out soon is a brand-new Ian McKellen Holmes movie by Bill Condon.
Some critics including Roger Ebert weren't pleased by 1988's Without a Clue. Richard Canby's review dismissed it as trash. Was it because the film's level of wit wasn't high enough for the likes of Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley? The old Basil Rathbone series and even Billy Wilder's masterpiece often revert to very simple jokes. Without a Clue, to quote Robert S. Birchard, is a classic case of a simple story for simple people. In my wit-challenged view that's a story without pretension and with no claim to equality with Oscar Wilde. This picture is fun light entertainment buoyed by two very amusing performances. I'm not sure Michael Caine's talents are being challenged either -- but he's always entertaining. And I'd say that Ben Kingsley's Dr. Watson is indeed a very original interpretation.
The story premise has been belittled as a sketch idea stretched too thin, and indeed the writers Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther worked mostly in TV show comedy. In this revision of Doyle's Baker Street duo, Dr. Watson (Kingsley) is the brilliant detective; there is no Sherlock Holmes. When Watson began writing popular stories based on his own exploits, he invented the Sherlock Holmes character as a cover, so as not to damage his medical career. To keep up appearances, he was forced to hire the untrustworthy ham actor Reginald Kincaid (Caine) to 'play' the fictional Holmes in public.
Watson is frustrated at being pushed into the margins while the not-too-bright Kincaid takes the kudos and the credit. He fires Kincaid and tries to get his Strand publisher Greenhough (Peter Cook) to start from scratch, with Watson re-appearing as "The Crime Doctor". But it won't wash. Along with everyone else in London, the bumbling, insulting Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) believes that Kincaid/Holmes is the genius. When Watson tries to investigate a major case, the theft of the printing plates for the royal mint's £5 notes, he can't get near crime sites, etc. He has no choice but to pay Kincaid's bar tab and get him back on the job. Together they journey to the country, sidestep an assassination attempt, and are contacted by Leslie Giles (Lysette Anthony), the daughter of a kidnapped printer. The brilliant Watson, aided by his Baker Street Irregulars, soon deducts the culprit behind the scheme to destroy England's economy: the dreaded Professor James Moriarty (Paul Freeman).
Without a Clue is predictable, but who cares? As usual, we're pre-primed to like almost everything Michael Caine does. I think Kingsley's performance works marvelously. The concept isn't brilliant, but it does yield good comic benefits, with Sherlock trying not to trip over his tongue while pretending to come up with brilliant deductions, all actually sourced from the brilliant doctor. Director Thom Eberhart establishes a light tone keyed to the pitch of the players. Entrances are sometimes theatrical, as Kincaid is of course 'performing' as Holmes. When fights break out Watson is the cool hand with a revolver, the man who keeps his sense of decorum.
Material that irked the 1988 critics didn't bother me. A few scenes, as when a cowardly Kincaid stops a train in the middle of the countryside, do indeed grate. When Caine gets exasperated and starts yelling, the carefully prepared tone disappears. And it's true that the story itself doesn't merit heavy involvement or engage in a really suspenseful way. We guess the diabolical deceptions before they're revealed, and Paul Freeeman's Moriarty isn't a particularly mysterious or menacing villain. And there is a surfeit of pratfalls, slapstick Tomfoolery and heavy objects bopping people on the head. If Watson is brilliant in action, Kincaid must of course be as silly as Wile E. Coyote.
But Without a Clue isn't insultingly witless, as contemporary comedies by, say, Chevy Chase. The comedy is consistent, in a positive spirit and reasonably true to its characters. The reward here is just enjoying the performances and the film's overall style. The production is also a big plus, with beautiful photography in odd places around London. A view of a cab ride might be on any street or back-lot set, until the camera tilts up to reveal that we're to the side of a famous landmark, seen from an odd angle.
Roger Ebert said that shows like Without a Clue fail because they're spoofing something that's already a spoof, without adding something new, transcending the original. I always took the Doyle stories as fairly straight adventures, and have no problem with this version's particular joke. True, it's not as incisive as Wilder and Diamond's investigation into Holmes' psychology, but surely there's room for less sophisticated alternates. 1
I liked the third act, when Kincaid is on his own, and forced to solve problems like a real Sherlock Holmes. He needs help from the Irregulars, Leslie Giles and even Mrs. Hudson (Pat Keen). The reconciliation at the end isn't brilliant, but it hits an appropriate sentimental note. Let's call the show a vehicle for the comedy team of Caine and Kingsley, and stop suffering.
The Lestrade subplot ends with a merely okay joke involving a female impersonator, a gag that I can see offending some critics in 1988. Could the lack of cutting edge cynicism have inspired Vincent Canby to say that, "This one belongs near the top of the list of the 10 worst of 1988." (?)
Fair enough. But I liked it. 2
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Without a Clue is a handsome HD encoding of a show filmed in the traditional manner, on colorful, rich sets and in many real locations cleverly recast back to 1880s London. A big plus factor is a charming score by Henry Mancini that places the film's stylized silliness in a gilt frame. When the scenes of jeopardy occur, the music remains light and airy.
Somebody should have shot the makers of Orion's original trailer, included on the dis. Yes, the comedy is broad but it's not infantile, as the clumsy trailer makes it out to be. I haven't seen a 'coming attractions' that made a comedy look so stupid, since the old trailer for The Fearless Vampire Killers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Without a Clue Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 26, 2015
1. I'd liken Ebert's observation to an idea I had about Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a witty, affectionate and transcendent revisit of Republic serial adventures, as well as other older (racist) colonial entertainments like Gunga Din. But starting with the second Indiana Jones movie, Spielberg and his writers pretend that Indiana is an established grand genre tradition of its own, A movie series spoofing itself is like a snake eating its tail. The same thing happened twenty years earlier: Our Man Flint
struck directly to the heart of the First-World arrogance behind the super spy genre, but its sequel In Like Flint
has absolutely nothing to say.
I don't think Without a Clue aims for that kind of relevance. It's there for its own simple pleasures.
2. Or was it just fashionable to stomp Michael Caine for spending the 1980s taking professional workaday acting jobs instead of concentrating on Oscar worthy masterpieces? Blame It on Rio and Jaws: The Revenge are pretty dire, but he also did Hannah and Her Sisters and Mona Lisa. Caine's TV movie Jack the Ripper, filmed just before Without a Clue, is quite good. It's convincing London atmosphere adds to a dead-serious drama.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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