Looking Back At WITHOUT A CLUE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At WITHOUT A CLUE

Tony’s getting elementary.
We all know the story, right? John Watson, army doctor, returns to London, invalided and feeling a little sorry for himself when he meets the most extraordinary man – Sherlock Holmes. Once they’ve moved in together, Watson chronicles the adventures of the great detective, making a popular hero out of the man whose mind works differently to all those around him (save for the likes of the Napoleon of Crime, Professor James Moriarty).

Sure, we all know that story.

Prepare to learn a new story.

The premise of Without A Clue is pure genius from writers (and dedicated Holmes-fans) Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther. Instead of Watson being the mere chronicler of the adventures of a stellar detective, Watson is the stellar detective, but when he began to solve cases, he was aiming to get an appointment in a conservative establishment, which would have frowned on his brushes with the seamier side of life.

So Watson invented Sherlock Holmes merely as a receptable of credit. But because his adventures were so compelling, Watson eventually found he had no alternative but to employ a drunk, out-of-work actor to play the role of Holmes, to the extent of living in the same house with him to lend believability to the stories.

Tell us you don’t want to play with a tale like that, we’ll ask you what kind of Sherlock Holmes fan you think you are. It’s something as twisted, as unexpected, but as perfectly logical as anything Conan Doyle could have come up with. Except – and here’s the real twist – it’s a comedy!

More than that, it’s a comedy with an absolutely outrageous cast.

Sherlock Holmes? Only Michael Caine, that’s all.

John Watson? Ben Kingsley.

Inspector Lestrade? Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s nemesis, if you’re trying to place the name).

Moriarty (because naturally Moriarty’s in the movie)? Paul Freeman (Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark and a whole lot else).

And down and down the cast list, you’ll find jewels of acting talent. Peter Cook is in this movie. Lysette Anthony, of Krull and a hell of a lot else fame, takes a leading role here too. Nigel Davenport, Gregor ‘Rab C Nesbitt’ Fisher, Harold Innocent, and on the cast list runs. Even Wilkins, the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, will look familiar. It’s Matt Savage, who grew slightly up to take a starring role in Birds Of A Feather as Garth Stubbs (yes, that’s where he’s familiar from), and then further up to become a member of popular band, The Levellers (which is frankly weird, but not a little brilliant!). Seriously, in terms of the cream of mostly British Eighties acting talent, this movie is pretty darned creamy.

And, in case you missed it, Watson’s the genius! Holmes is a drunken, philandering no-nothing, played by Michael Caine. Oh, and did we mention, the music’s by Henry ‘Pink Panther’ Mancini?
If this isn’t enough to get you watching, let’s talk performances. Holmes (or rather Reginald Kincaid, the actor hired to play Holmes) in Caine’s hands switches back and forth in an instant from the great and grave detective of the printed legend to an all-at-sea numbskull with ideas significantly above his station. Meanwhile, Kingsley’s Watson is bright-eyed and birdlike, almost more like Poirot than other Watsons we’ve seen – which of course is only fitting, given what this version does to the character and the legend.

In true Holmesian fashion, a case which seems closed when the movie begins leads only to more questions, but ‘Holmes,’ missing the subtleties, declares it closed.

Watson in private flies into a rage that sees the two part company finally. But when the British Treasury pays a call to tell Holmes about some missing plates that print five pound notes – and the assumption that there’s a massive plot at hand to destabilize the currency of the empire - Watson realises he’s done his work too well. Nobody wants to talk to ‘John Watson, the Crime Doctor.’ Everybody wants the collection of quirks and twaddle that is Sherlock Holmes.

The two re-unite for one last case – tracking down Moriarty before he can flood the world with counterfeit currency – and the game is well and truly afoot one last time. A printer at the Royal Mint, Peter Giles, is kidnapped, and his daughter Leslie (Lysette Anthony) comes to Holmes and Watson for help. A paper mill burns down on the same night a petty thief tries his hand at grand larceny, there’s a single missing shoe left behind at a crime scene, and there’s a whole glorious Windermere excursion too.

It all feels like it could be premium Holmes, but here it’s undercut time and again by the central conceit of the movie. And for the most part, it works beautifully to bring you laughs and intrigue. When the famous duo is parted again, this time seemingly on a permanent basis and not of their own making, the energy of the film flips and finds new focus, as Reginald ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Kincaid determines to solve the case without his faithful Watson. And through clues, misdirections, and an occasional double-crossing, the case moves towards a final, satisfactory conclusion. There’s even an important emotional rebalancing at the end, where Holmes refuses to take all the credit being easily heaped on him by journalists, but insists that what makes him the great detective he is (the press demand nothing less than their legend, of course), is that no other detective, nor even Scotland Yard, has the peerless assistance of Dr John Watson.
The story of Without A Clue is joyous, and silly, and obviously written from a place of fan love. The cast all seem to treat it in that same spirit, as a love letter to Holmes and Watson and their incredible adventures. And the two leads in particular work wonderfully together, displaying both a comic timing and an inventive chemistry that feels like both actors are on the top of their game. Both of course have long careers, and both have roles of deep drama and high comedy studded along those careers, but here, there’s a combination of commitment to the roles and story, and pure playful fun that helps buoy the story along and make you laugh.

The story, while BEING joyous and silly, still makes a certain Holmesian sense – there are what seem like perfectly reasonable clues planted along the way, for all they eventually may or may not turn out to have been red herring. So you get satisfaction on both sides of your Sherlock Holmes coin here – yes, the story makes sense, even though it’s a massive inversion of the relationship we know and love. Both ways give us pleasure in Without A Clue.

Now – watching the movie over 30 years since it was released, some things have aged less well than others. One double-cross feels like it’s signposted a little too clearly, so when it’s revealed, it doesn’t entirely surprise. There’s a repetitive slapstick gag where someone’s hit on the head that feels a bit lazy in hindsight. There are perhaps a small handful too many ‘Drunk Sherlock’ moments (especially when you remember the movie came out the same year Caine portrayed Inspector Frederick Abberline in a TV telling of the Jack The Ripper case, playing him as another ageing drunk – and coincidentally, also playing against Lysette Anthony).

And the biggest issue people in the 21st century would have with the movie is with its treatment of gay and trans people, as there’s a somewhat retro joke towards the end, which would be rightly questioned today.

But overall, Without A Clue is a joyful way to spend 107 minutes. Caine, Kingsley, and the cast are on fine comic form throughout, the spirit is upbeat and bouncy, the mystery is interesting enough to carry you through, and many of the jokes and comic moments land with laughter.

Give yourself a giggle with a less intense Sherlock than any of the best. Catch Caine as ‘Holmes,’ put your brain on ‘standby,’ and prepare to simply have a good time. The game’s still afoot, 30 years on, and it’s (almost) as fresh as ever.

Watch Without A Clue today with a seven day free trial of BritBox

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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