Can we still get away with describing a film as ‘jolly’? Without a Clue, which is a comedic riff on the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, certainly feels rather quaint and dated today, but in all honesty it felt remarkably dated back in 1988 when released in cinemas. There is a distinct late-60s/early-70s vibe about the whole affair. It is corny as all hell, and rather predictable, but at the same time some whip-smart casting makes it a small, leisurely delight. This is Sunday afternoon viewing, for the viewer looking for an easy, pleasant view after lunch who does not mind missing 20 minutes when they fall asleep. Damning with faint praise? Perhaps, but there’s an audience for this sort of thing and it will satisfy them well enough.
Dr John Watson (Ben Kingsley) is a master sleuth who maintains his privacy by hiring the outlandish and alcoholic actor Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine) to masquerade in public as the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Tiring of losing the limelight to a fraud, Watson decides to fire his alter-ego – only the fawning masses of London are not so willing to accept Holmes’ departure.
There is a great concept underpinning Without a Clue, which is written by Larry Strawther and Gary Murphy and directed by Tom Eberhardt (Night of the Comet). Unfortunately the film itself spends most of its time failing to match a killer premise. It is amusing when it should be laugh-out-loud funny. It has an opportunity to skewer the cliches of the detective stories that inspire it; instead it largely observes them.
Visually it has a rather workmanlike technique to it – feeling a lot more like television than cinema. Its best aspect is its lead actors. Kingsley does a wonderful job as a more arrogant, superior version of literature’s most famous sidekick. He bristles as he stands painfully adjacent to the limelight, overlooked and disregard by both Holmes’ clients and the police. Caine is superb, and with a slightly more difficult task: playing an actor playing a role, and gamely undertaking both the character comedy and some slightly weak slapstick at the same time. When the film is at its best, it usually down to the interplay between the two.
There are some excellent actors among the supporting cast too, including Peter Cook as Watson’s editor at The Strand and Paul Freeman (Raiders of the Lost Ark) as arch-nemesis James Moriarty. Jeffrey Jones also appears as Scotland Yard’s Detective Lestrade, which is both good (he’s a great actor) and bad (he’s a convicted sex offender).
As more and more of Conan Doyle’s stories fall into the public domain, there are huge opportunities for remixing and restyling the Sherlock Holmes characters and mythos. Without a Clue points to that potential: it’s not a perfect film by any measure, but it is fun seeing the well-worn characters through a new lens and with an amusing status quo. Its only major problem is being pretty good when it could be great.