FILMS

Spoofing Sherlock

A gleeful farce with Watson as the sleuth

Brian D. Johnson October 31 1988
FILMS

Spoofing Sherlock

A gleeful farce with Watson as the sleuth

Brian D. Johnson October 31 1988

Spoofing Sherlock

FILMS

A gleeful farce with Watson as the sleuth

WITHOUT A CLUE Directed by Thom Eberhardt

He smokes a pipe, wears a deerstalker cap and has a London address at 221B Baker St. He keeps company with one Dr. John Watson. Elementary deduction, based on the clues at hand, suggests that he is Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective. But that is not quite the case. Closer observation reveals that the character in question is a drunkard, a buffoon, a coward and a fraud. He has no eye for detail. Criminals terrify him. He has never solved a mystery in his life, and his real name is not even Sherlock Holmes. He is an out-of-work actor who was hired by Dr. Watson to play Holmes— a character that the good doctor invented to take credit for his own sleuthing, in case the medical community disapproved. Watson is the wizard of detection; Holmes is merely his puppet. And that is the ingenious premise of Without a Clue, a broad farce that sends the Sherlock Holmes legend through the looking glass and back. It is a movie full of old-fashioned fun—delightfully silly, grandly theatrical and deliciously English.

Although produced and directed by Ameri-

cans, Without a Clue was shot on location in England and features a largely British cast. Michael Caine, who has made a career out of playing charming scoundrels, makes a wonderful Holmes. He portrays him as a good-natured rake who is more comfortable signing autographs than hunting for clues. In a rare moment of candor, Holmes confesses to a complete lack of aptitude for detective work. “I couldn’t detect horse manure if I stepped in it,” he admits. Ben Kingsley, who won an Oscar for his starring role in Gandhi, displays shrewd comic timing as Watson. While Holmes entertains a scrum of admiring reporters at the front door of his Baker Street flat, Watson stands by his side, prompting him as he copes with their questions.

But all is not well with the odd couple. Watson has become impatient with his colleague’s inability to pick up cues—or clues. And now that Holmes is a celebrity, Watson is desperate to come out of the closet and claim the limelight. Meanwhile, Holmes says that he is fed up with the “piffle and twaddle” of the detective trade. “Do you know what it’s like to memorize endless lists of clues?” he complains.

After a quarrel early in the movie, Holmes and Watson split up. But when the doctor sets

out to crack a case without his famous front man, people do not want to deal with him. They want to meet the star. Watson has immortalized Holmes in The Strand (in fact, the magazine where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the original Sherlock Holmes stories). And when Watson tries to explain the hoax, his publisher—played by Beyond the Fringe veteran Peter Cook, now publisher of Private Eye— tells him, “You are jeopardizing the integrity of English literature.” Swinging open a fake bookshelf to pour a drink from a hidden decanter, he adds, “Sherlock Holmes is worth a fortune to the magazine.”

Reluctantly, Watson rejoins his partner for what he swears will be their last case together. The chancellor of the exchequer (Nigel Davenport) has asked Holmes to track down a counterfeiter who robbed the Royal Mint, stealing the printing plates for five-pound notes and replacing them with clever forgeries. A jealous Scotland Yard inspector Geffrey Jones) tries to put the amateur sleuths off the scent. And a young damsel shows up to further distract the lecherous Holmes from the case. But it soon becomes clear that the culprit is none other than the homicide-happy criminal mastermind Prof. Moriarty (Paul Freeman). Holmes quivers at the mere mention of his name. However, Moriarty has long since deduced that Watson is his real enemy.

The story that ensues is full of giddy but tasteful slapstick, complete with a swashbuckling finale. Director Thom Eberhardt has taken care not to let the action overwhelm the characters. Propelled by a consistently sharp script, the humor puffs along like a well-stoked pipe. Shamelessly mugging back and forth, Caine and Kingsley genuinely seem to be having fun with their roles. Caine has the juicy assignment of portraying a bad actor, a thespian who was laughed off the stage before securing a continuing role as Watson’s figurehead. And he plays his gags to the hilt: overacting only enhances the farce because the movie is about acting. Like the plays of Tom Stoppard, the British author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Real Inspector Hound, it is about the revenge of understudies and bit players. It caricatures the stupidity of what directors call “the talent” and the frustrations of the writers who toil in restless anonymity.

While affectionately mocking the Sherlock Holmes legend, Without a Clue creates a worthy addition to it. After seeing Caine wearing the deerstalker hat with such irreverent glee, it may be hard to take Holmes seriously ever again. Still, the movie leaves the character’s integrity intact, concluding on a note that seems to invite a sequel. Without a Clue is a weightless fantasy, a popcorn movie if ever there was one. But, unlike most broad comedies billed as family entertainment, it creates frivolity with intelligence. And there is an intriguing fable behind the farce: that an actor is only as good as his script, that without the talent, there is no show, and that without each other’s company, art and science are lost. Elementary indeed.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON