Without A Clue
Inspired by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Release Date: 1988
Starring:Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley, Jeffrey Jones, Lysette Anthony, Paul Freeman, Pat Keen, Matthew Savage, Nigel Davenport, Tim Killick, Peter Cook, John Warner, Matthew Sim, Fredrick Fox, Harold Innocent, George Sweeney, Murray Ewan, and Jennifer Guy
Watson is fed up with Sherlock Holmes. Mainly because he created him and now this figment of his imagination has taken on a life of his own, literally, because he hired the unemployed actor Reginald Kincaid to BE Holmes. It all seemed like such a good idea at the time. Watson needed to maintain his prestige to get a job at an exclusive hospital where they would have frowned on his "hobby" of crime solving, and this was a way to do both. He didn't get the job but he did get burdened with his own ingenious loophole. The time has come to eliminate this loophole and destroy Holmes and get the louche Reggie out of his life, and 221B Baker Street, for good. Only problem is, Holmes is popular. Really really popular. And Watson's publisher is disinclined to his new suggestion: "The Crime Doctor." And there's the whole fact that no one listens to Watson but only listens to Holmes parroting back what Watson just said. Therefore a final case will be solved and Holmes will retire. Only problem is, what looks like a simple case is really the machinations of Moriarty. And Reggie REALLY doesn't like the lunatic. The Napoleon of crime, or lunatic, depending on where you stand, has taken up forgery with the actual printing plates from the Bank of England! But when Watson meets an untimely end it is up to the hapless actor to actually fill the shoes of his creator. Hopefully he has picked something up from Watson over their years working together... if not the whole world is about to be disillusioned by Sherlock Holmes.
Growing up in my house my parents didn't really censure television or movies. Basically they viewed that if they wanted to watch it my brother and I could watch it with them. During the early to late eighties this meant that I saw quite a lot of British comedies. Peter Sellers was viewed as the Deity that he rightfully is. One of the family favorites was The Wrong Box. What is not to love about this film? Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, and of course, Peter Sellers with a lot of cats. Therefore when a new comedy with Michael Caine set not only during Victorian times, but within Sherlock Holmes mythology came out, well, it was highly anticipated to say the least. I still have my old VHS copy buried somewhere, but needless to say, it's been awhile since I've reconnected with this movie. I'm happy to say that it was actually better than I remembered it. Over time I tend to think that I was overly kind to movies, and therefore my initial opinion was probably wrong. I thought that what drew me to this film as a kid was the more slapstick elements, and while those are still there, there's so much going on that you can't help but be carried away with the movie and lose yourself to the fun. The conceit of the film is what makes it so clever. The idea that through his narratives published in the paper Watson has created the mythology of Sherlock Holmes, when in fact all of Holmes's powers of deduction are actually Watson's. What's more, make Sherlock a failed drunk actor who is belligerent and it's brilliant. Not to mention Watson's hope of "The Crime Doctor" taking off...
At the very beginning of the film when Holmes is giving a speech to the journalists on the doorstep of 221B after Watson foiled a museum heist and then fired Holmes captures exactly the subversive spirit of the film. Holmes gives his famous line of "you see but do not observe." Reginald Kincaid as Holmes spins out what started as pure nonsense until he has all the reporters in the palm of his hand, all the while Watson is fuming in the background. By taking the canon and spinning it upside down and all around, despite the overt comedy, their is a subtlety that is mocking yet paying tribute to the original text simultaneously. Therefore this film plays on multiple levels, but will be most enjoyed by those familiar with Conan Doyle's canon. But this clever conceit wouldn't have worked without the right actors to pull it off, and I dare say you can't get more well respected or accomplished actors than Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley. Michael Caine though is so perfect I couldn't think of anyone else playing the dual role that he takes on. The genius of casting Caine is that he is someone who might logically be cast as Holmes, but here he's an actor playing an actor playing Holmes, and he pulls it off magnificently. The true genius is in his subtle voice work. When Caine is Holmes he has his more refined, later career voice. More polished, but not posh. Whereas when he is playing Reggie, it's more nasal, more reminiscent of his earlier career and The Italian Job. It's just a subtle shift that happens within scenes and it adds another level to the film. I couldn't help thinking of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip where they dissect how Caine's accent has changed over the years. Without a Clue is like a master class for them. You also can't help thinking that in one of Caine's later films, The Prestige, that Hugh Jackman was greatly inspired by this role of Caine's in his doubling of Robert Angier.
Yet just because Caine steals the show, as he is meant to, you can't discount Kingsley. Because, in truth, Kingsley is Holmes, though not in name. What I find interesting about this version of Watson is that he isn't docile. He has this rage within him that drives his work. Of course this is justified by being overlooked for so many years as the true genius, but it actually makes you think more about Watson's purpose. In the original stories Watson is nothing more then a conduit for the readers and Holmes's biographer. Just a boring sounding board. Yet look to the newest interpretation of Watson by Martin Freeman in Sherlock. He doesn't let himself be pigeonholed in this way as the bumbling fool. He is a new Watson for a new generation. He admires Holmes, but he is there for the adventure. Yet beneath the veneer there is rage, a rage for life and adventure and against the world that wounded him in war and even exasperation with Holmes. I was actually shocked by how much Ben Kingsley's portrayal of Watson is like Martin Freeman's. I can see how Freeman would be more drawn to the darker more visceral portrayal of Watson, it is more in line with his own personality. I just find it interesting that in all the Holmes adaptations out there he obviously looked to this one as the defining portrayal of Watson. So think on that will you? A comedy that lovingly mocks Sherlock Holmes gets to the heart of the matter better than some of the most lauded adaptations out there.
Though there are times when the films swerves a little too far off course. It goes for the easy laugh. For how subtle the film can be it's an interesting dichotomy to pair it with such overt humor that is sometimes too broad; falling down holes, falling off roofs, swinging on ropes, your basic slapstick humor. But keep in mind that the Marx Brothers knew how to blend the erudite with the crass and somehow, like with them, this movie just works. One minute you'll be thinking how clever a turn of phrase was and the next you'll be snort laughing to an embarrassing degree. But like everything good in life, a little goes a long way, and sometimes there's just too much of this brand of humor. For everything that is so right there is a false cord stuck every once in awhile, the Baker Street Irregulars are just a little too twee, Jeffery Jones is miscast as Lestrade, Moriarty... well I do have Moriarty issues. My Moriarty issues are basically that he's acting and even dressed like The Master from Doctor Who. While Doctor Who has done it's fair share of Sherlock Holmes homages, especially with the episode "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" it's more then a little odd for Sherlock Holmes to be so Whovian (Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss disagree). But the truth of it is that somehow, even with these missteps, the film is fun and you just go with it. So what if Moriarty is The Master, it just adds a little more camp and you're totally OK with it because it just works.
And then there now comes the part of the review when I go off on a little tangent. It's interesting to go back to films that you held dear when younger and find something in it that calls to your interests now. Back when I first saw this film I would have had no interest in the printing of the money, aka Moriarty's evil plot. It was just what the bad guy was up to and what needed to be stopped. Now though... well, in the last few years taking my love of Graphic Design and going backwards in time to learn Letterpress, well, let's just say I spent a lot more of the climax of this movie paying attention to the printing press than to the gas main that could blow up and incinerate everyone. My letterpress addiction might be considered severe when I'm point out how air suction was used on the press to those watching the movie with me. But seriously people, printing is fascinating! In fact the print geek in me was all, oh, look, they're using a Heidelberg Windmill, even if they did take off the metal identifying plaque. Which then got me thinking. They are in a subbasement of a deserted theater that runs on gas and the Windmill needs electricity... yes folks, the appearance of the Heidelberg Windmill, while very cool, was an anachronism in this film. If you are weird like me and read all the props, you will notice that this case took place in 1900 thanks to a newspaper. And what year did the Heidelberg Windmill come out? 1912! So the print geek in me was a little miffed. They went for the look of it versus the accuracy... but then again, isn't that's what they did with a lot of stuff? Without a Clue has some really great insights, but at the end, it's about the shiny entertainment you're watching and a difference of twelve years for a printing press probably didn't seem the most dire of things when it seriously looks cool on screen. I mean, seriously, watch that Windmill action!
Friday, December 18, 2015
Without A Clue