Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is probably still turning in his grave — laughing over this 1988 British period comedy, an inside-out spoof of his greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes. “Without A Clue” stars Oscar winners Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley as the dandy duo — but with a twist. Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) is the real detective. Sherlock Holmes is just the front man.
Sleuthing started as a hobby for the brilliant doctor, who began writing up his exploits for the London paper — not under his own name — but as the chronicler for a fictitious detective, Sherlock Holmes. The purpose was to keep his own name respectable because he had applied to a renowned hospital for a position, one which demanded only serious applicants.
But when Sherlock Holmes fans started clamoring to see the famous man in person, Watson hired an unremarkable, down-at-the-heel, out-of-work actor, Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine), to cover for him. When the hospital position didn’t materialize, Watson fell back entirely on solving crimes.
But this time, as our story opens, Sherlock Holmes is out front and center and Dr. Watson is relegated to the background, where he cues the oblivious “detective” with clever lines. So convinced are people that every word out of Sherlock’s mouth is inspired, that he can spout the most idiotic drivel and everyone takes it for gospel. Dr. Watson can quietly provide deep discernment and is ignored.
This makes for quite a bit of friction (and comedy) between Holmes and Watson, since one does all the work and the other gets all the credit. The only people who know the truth behind the brilliant crime-solving team, is Mrs. Hudson, the landlady at 221B Baker Street; the street urchins known as the Baker Street Irregulars, and the diabolical Professor Moriarty. Inspector Lastrade only suspects. In fact, at one point Watson has to reassure a terrified Holmes.
Watson: Moriarty knows I’m the only match for his evil genius.
Holmes: You mean he’s not trying to kill ME?!
Watson: Of course not. He knows you’re an idiot.
Holmes: Oh, thank God!
The story begins with Holmes “solving” a major crime at a museum, but goes outside the detailed script Watson has given him and declares the case closed. “You idiot!!” Watson raves. “The case is far from closed.” Tired of playing second fiddle to a buffoon, Watson fires Kincaid/Holmes, then finds he can’t get a case because no one takes him seriously. Everybody wants the one and only Sherlock Holmes. Nobody wants “The Crime Doctor”, as Dr. Watson styles himself. To even be allowed past a crime scene he is told he needs “permission” from Sherlock Holmes.
Now Watson is forced to once again seek out this iconic character, whose character is no Sherlock Holmes, but merely a drunk, a gambler, and a womanizer. In fact, the next case they undertake involves a young woman who learns her father has been kidnapped. Holmes comfortingly tells her that under these fearful circumstances, and just to be safe, she doesn’t need to sleep alone tonight. Watson lifts his eyebrows and assures the young lady that Holmes will be working on the case throughout the night and she may safely have his room.
Just the privilege of watching Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley together is well worth giving this movie a shot. I also loved how the famous address – 221B Baker Street — came in for its own cameos throughout the film. A not so subtle reminder that, even though this is a comedy, we’re still talking about the most renowned detective, and the most famous street address, in fictional history.