Friday, March 02, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #55: Without a Clue

Working titles: Sherlock and Me, The Impostor of Baker Street

Cast: Michael Caine (Sherlock Holmes), Ben Kingsley (Dr Watson), Jeffrey Jones (Inspector Lestrade), Lysette Anthony (Fake Leslie), Paul Freeman (Prof. Moriarty), Nigel Davenport (Lord Smithwick), Pat Keen (Mrs Hudson), Peter Cook (Greenhough), Tim Killick (Sebastian), Matthew Savage (Wiggins).

Crew: Thom Eberhardt (director), Marc Stirdivant (producer), Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther (writers), Henry Mancini (music), Alan Hume (cinematography), Peter Tanner (editor), Brian Ackland-Snow (production design).

Synopsis: The great Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes foils an attempted robbery. Once the police have removed the perpetrators, Holmes’ sidekick Dr Watson berates the legendary sleuth. Watson is the real genius - Holmes is just a character he created that enabled him to solve crime anonymously. Watson turns each case into a story for best-selling magazine The Strand. When people demanded to meet the great Holmes, Watson hired an actor called Reginald Kincaid to play the part. Alas, Kincaid is a drunk, a gambler, a womaniser and a buffoon. Watson sacks Kincaid but is forced to bring him back for one last case due to public demand.

The plates used to print the Bank of England’s five pound notes are stolen and the chief printer Giles disappears. Watson deduces that criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty is behind the scheme. Watson is apparently shot and drowned in a confrontation with his nemesis. Holmes solves a clue on a half-printed fiver and tracks Moriarty to an abandoned theatre near the Thames. The evil genius is forcing Giles to print millions of bank notes. Watson re-appears, having survived his close encounter with Moriarty. The printing plates are recovered, the professor’s thugs are arrested and Moriarty apparently killed in an explosion. Afterwards, Holmes makes sure Watson shares the credit. Dr Watson decides they will carry on working together…


Screenwriter Gary Murphy conceived Without a Clue’s role reversal idea after watching a version of the Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of Four in which the great detective humbled Dr Watson in front of Scotland Yard detectives. Murphy wondered what would happen if Watson was the genius and Holmes the lesser partner. From that idea the script was born, co-written with Larry Strawther. Director Thom Eberhardt was hired to helm the picture, having shot three minor films. For the roles of Holmes and Watson, producer Marc Stirdivant cast Caine and Ben Kingsley. The latter had won a best actor Oscar for playing the lead in the bio-pic Gandhi (1982).

Shooting began in November 1987. A month earlier Caine mentioned the movie during an interview with the Scotsman newspaper: ‘It’s a comedy. It couldn’t be anything else with me as Sherlock Holmes and Gandhi as Doctor Watson.’ The picture was shot on location in and around London, Gloucester and the Lake District in England, with studio work at Shepperton and Pinewood. Without a Clue reunited Caine with Nigel Davenport, his co-star from Play Dirty (1968) and The Last Valley (1970).

‘We’ve had so many laughs making this film,’ Caine told the News of the World in June 1988. ‘There have been over 100 Holmes movies, but never one like this. I knew the only way I could play Holmes was for some laughs. And this role has pleased me immensely. I don’t think I’ve ever taken myself seriously and I do love doing comedy. Now I’ve proved that I can, I want to do more. It makes it much more fun going to work.’

The 1990 book Candidly Caine included a quote from Lysette Anthony, lead actress in the Holmesian spoof. ‘Michael was brilliant in Without a Clue. He is such a professional, and he’s very down to earth. The script stinks but he transcends all that in the way he dealt with the comedy. The director gave him a free rein…’

The film went through several names changes during production, eventually being released in America as Without a Clue in October 1988, rated PG. Critics liked the combination of Kingsley and Caine, but found little else to recommend the movie. It grossed less than $9 million at the box office. The picture reached Britain six months later, rated PG, where it grossed less than $350,000. Without a Clue was released on video in 1989 and made its DVD debut 12 years later.

Reviews: ‘Caine manages to be … peerless in his presentation of the actor’s preening vanity and self-centredness. But once we’ve gotten the joke, we’ve gotten it.’ – The Washington Post
‘Caine and Kingsley are left too often with little to do except stand on either side of the screen and chew over their relationship … once revealed, that particular joke is over, but this movie keeps chewing at it.’ – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Verdict: Without a Clue is a one-joke concept stretched out for more than 100 minutes. Turning Watson into a great detective and recasting Holmes as his stooge is a neat piece of role reversal, but the film foolishly delivers the punchline to its one original joke before the opening credits roll. Everything thereafter is just a pale imitation of material seen so many times before. Caine excels as a witness, womanising buffoon and Kingsley makes a wonderfully uptight prig. But the script is strictly comedy by numbers with predictable plotting and flat, featureless direction. Without a Clue is just about worth watching once, but nobody in their right mind need see it twice.

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