Without a Clue (1988)
Starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsly Without a Clue is a comedy caper, a parody on the canonical crime fighting duo this film uses role reversal to show Holmes and Watson in a different perspective. Holmes is a fictional character in a work of fiction based on truth and Watson is the author and the detective.
Dr Watson is a doctor who solved crimes on the sly and writes the popular Sherlock Holmes adventures for The Strand magazine, the only thing is no one is interested in Dr Watson or his opinions unless they are voiced via the fictional Sherlock Holmes who the public believes to be real. Hence he employs an actor named Reginald Kincaid to pretend to be Sherlock in flesh and blood; unfortunately he’s also an avid drinker, gambler and womanizer. His ability to remember his lines is pretty good but he does insist on fluffing them, ad-libbing and mistaking words but manages to save himself through bluffing and bravado, with trusty Watson watching his back and ever imagining stabbing it. Watson wishes he could rid himself of his bumbling Sherlock but is forced to admit he needs him. The plot revolves around the counterfeiting of £5 notes, the rivalry between them and LeStrade/the police and battling an archenemy. Overall is funny, has a touch of the ridiculous, a tad slapstick and a decent armchair detective movie. It’s not laugh out loud but more satire on people’s hypocritical attitudes towards celebrity, in this case pandering to popularity.
Why it is a Fave
I was a Sherlock Holmes fan as a child though the older I got the less I liked him and so have been interested in spoofs and twists on the character/stories such as the recent 2009 blockbuster version for which I was sceptical regarding Downey Jr’s casting thinking he had the arrogance but not the austerity needed for the typecast. Once I saw the film however I was pleased and satisfied that his portrayal and the direction was actually spot on to what I’d secretly thought was Holmes’ ‘realistic’ character all these years, sans the drugs and other fan’s obsession with seeing him and Irene Adler married. Another notable version was The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) which was quite the tale – but how does Without a Clue trump these for me? Well it does and it doesn’t – it’s not as engaging or entertaining as the aforementioned but it’s also not a musical, crude or a gunpowder happy no guts no glory blockbuster. I like my share of blockbusters but satire tends to win my vote.
Without a Clue highlights the difference between detective fiction and crime drama and their respective followings. The former is more personal, based on the individual/detective and their personality, lifestyle/habits/preferences and people around them whereas crime drama is more about the actual case, the technical elements and can be grittier/more gory in presentation. It can be argued that there’s a lot of ‘facts’ and technical presentation of deductions as proof in Sherlock Holmes and at least starts off with physical clues in contrast to other detective driven fiction such as Poirot who starts with psychological analysis, but I’d say that much of Sherlock’s evidence is circumstantial and akin to Poirot is unfair on the part of the author/director to the reader/watcher. Clues and connections are plucked out of the air and the viewer would be unable to deduce them because they are often presented in the same way as an illusionist or stage magician – with shock and awe, and sometimes late in the ‘game’. It’s only really when such detectives apprehend the culprit that their understanding of the case starts to make sense to the viewer and only at times can they work out the mystery along the way with the detective. This sub-genre of crime is character driven and I do prefer it to crime drama but Holmes is not the most likable of characters; pretentious, sexist, brash with those of lesser social class, had a privileged upbringing, can pretty much do as he likes and his only real angst being a big brother complex to which he feels inferior simply because he’s second fiddle even though there’s nothing wrong with admitting someone is better than you if they are and your own character (and/or achievement) is nothing to be sniffed at. He doesn’t really garner sympathy or empathy so of course it’s only with his pairing with Dr Watson that he becomes more than a clever action hero that we are enthralled by, he becomes more ‘real’ or perhaps just more revealing. Through Dr Watson this behind the scenes helper is brought into light/the forefront. It’s this relationship that’s turned on its head in this film.
With Watson as the major brains and Sherlock as a figurehead Watson’s frustration is palpable and probably only too understandable by many who have to put up with others they feel dependent on yet are carrying or assisting significantly but at least in this movie Watson and Sherlock come to terms with each other. Not the usual buddy movie but still one where the characters learn to appreciate each other, though don’t seem to improve!
It’s true to say that I don’t enjoy this film as much as other films I’ve noted in this review but I’m a big fan of detective fiction both as the written word and on screen, and with Holmes being a classic benchmark for a detective, the Holmes/Watson relationship being the cause quite a bit of controversy and speculation on the part of fans and the adventures of the duo being continued by many writers other than Conan Doyle it’s safe to say that the characters hold a fascination for many. A spoof like this speaks to my appreciation of irony in the world we live in and suspicion that Holmes and Watson as they were originally written and perceived may not be in accord.
‘He’s got his hat, he’s got his pipe…but he hasn’t got a clue!’
Well that’s my top 5 film list, it took a while but I finally got there 🙂
Had this been a Top 20 list – these would have vied (and did) for the top 5 spots:
You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
À Nous la Liberté (1931)
Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)
Back to the Future (1985)
The Legend of Fung Sai Yuk (1993)
The Incredible Kung Fu Master (1979)
The Never Ending Story (1984)
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Toy Story (1995)
The Truman Show (1998)
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Cool Runnings (1993)
Slayers The Motion Picture (1995)
Detective Conan: Countdown to Heaven (2001)