Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film: WITHOUT A CLUE (1988) starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley

Tuesday is Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film day - a weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to visit and see what other overlooked films other bloggers are talking about today.

I've talked about WITHOUT A CLUE, a 1988 film directed by Thom Eberhardt, before, when I first began blogging, but I think it's time to talk about it again. Not enough people have heard of this hilarious Holmes and Watson parody starring two British actors better known for their dramatic work.

It's Victorian England at its wacky, murderous best. Ben Kingsley plays a brilliant and very pompous  Dr. John Watson who in this version of Arthur Conan Doyle's tales, is the real brains behind the classic detecting duo. Sherlock Holmes is just an invention of his fertile imagination. But the stories Watson writes are so popular he's forced to produce a real life Holmes. 

Readers (as well as the cops) think that Holmes is the actual genius solving the cases Watson chronicles.

To that end, he hires a drunken, womanizing sot of an actor - Michael Caine at his laughably smarmy best, to play Sherlock Holmes. Caine easily steals the movie with his outrageous portrayal of a nitwit. When I first saw this movie sitting in a nearly empty theater, I laughed until I cried. It was embarrassing.

Unfortunately no one else in the theater found the film as amusing, so I assumed they were grumpy Holmes purists or just a bunch of folks without any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

When an indignant Watson fires Holmes for being a total incompetent, not to mention a letch and a lush, Watson then goes to his publisher Conan Doyle and tries to make a different deal for himself - a series of tales based on a crime solving doctor.The publisher scoffs at the idea.

The public wants Holmes. Period. The good doctor is hoisted on his own petard.

The government wants Holmes too. They come calling on a case of national importance (a missing Bank of England 5 pound notes printing press and an engraver), they won't hear of anyone but Holmes taking the case.

So Watson is forced to rehire Holmes whom he finds drunk and disorderly at a local pub.

On the trail of the murderous and cunning Professor James Moriarity (an overacting Paul Freeman), Watson drags Holmes along to the Lake District of England to investigate the finding of a dead body related to the Bank of England case. They are met at the train station by half the town and a marching band.

The thing is, wherever they go, Holmes is the detecting rock star. Watson gets shoved into the background literally and figuratively. But it's always Watson deducing and hunting for clues as Holmes basks in the limelight with the cheesiest grin this side of Wisconsin.

Along for the ride are Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) who is no smarter than Holmes and worse yet, can't quite figure out that's it's Watson who is the brains of the whole enterprise.

The humor in the film comes from watching Kingsley and Caine do their best to upstage each other while in the midst of attempting to solve a heinous crime. Michael Caine is just superb. Is there nothing this man can't do? He is totally unafraid to look or act the fool. Kingsley in a thankless role, is almost as good though he isn't as self deprecating as Michael Caine. His portrayal is a bit too tightly mannered to be truly funny, but he is wonderful nonetheless.

WITHOUT A CLUE is not all mystery and wackiness and fun (not that there's anything wrong with that), in some strange way it's also a film about friendship and tolerance. At the heart of Michael Caine's lechery and lunacy is a touching glimmer of loneliness. In the end, these two very strange men finally work out a way to solve the case and save their odd partnership.

Unfortunately, the second half of the film doesn't play as well as the first because, foolishly, it all takes a serious turn - things start blowing up and Paul Freeman chews up the scenery with his Snidely Whiplash portrayal of Moriarity.

Thankfully though, there's  Caine and Kingsley to save the day and the movie.

If you have affection for Holmes and Watson and you also enjoy British physical humor, slapstick and satire, plus you enjoy laughing out loud, then this is the movie for you.

Look, I'm a Holmes purist of the old school. Except for the books by Laurie R. King, I'm not overly fond of Holmes pastiches and heaven forbid someone make fun of my favorite fiction character in all literature.

WITHOUT A CLUE is pastiche and funny faces and Holmes as fool and yet, I love it.

You can never overestimate the power of an actor's charm.


  1. Great post Yvette - I love this movie - even just the sound of Michael Caine going "aargghhh" as he gets set upon by the dogs again just has me laughing out loud - apparently the original title was meant to be SHERLOCK AND ME which I think would have been better - that's about my only vague negative. The second half is perhaps not quite as good, but it's just never been any kind of barrier to my enjoyment. Nicely done!


  2. Wow! Earlier this morning I recommended "Without a Clue" to someone over on the IMDb.

    Like you, I killed myself laughing when I first saw this at the theatre. In fact, I was laughing so hard that my husband was embarrassed. When I pointed out to him that the lady in front of us was laughing, he responded that she was laughing at me! A couple of years ago I showed this to my daughter and, again, the laughs were plentiful and hearty.

    PS: Hubby bought me a couple of King's Mary Russell books for Christmas and he's lightened up on my public displays of joy.

    It's a wonderful post. I'm sure you'll convert many to its charms.

    Watson: "It's alright. He knows you're an idiot." Hee-hee-haw!

  3. I have seen this film before though I don't remember when and I'd definitely love to see it again. I have rarely missed a Michael Caine movie. I don't know if this makes sense but he's one of few actors who puts his audience at ease. Gene Hackman is another. Good choice, Yvette!

  4. Sergio: Thanks! It's great to find other people who truly appreciate this nutso movie. You're mention of the dogs had me grinning from ear to ear.

    That scene is telegraphed but it still works 100 percent. SO FUNNY!

    And the chemical experiment???? When he picks up the newspaper I thought I'd never stop laughing.
    And of course you knew when he put the paper down what you'd see....!

  5. The funny thing is, Caftan Woman, I saw the movie with my ex-husband when he wasn't my ex-husband. We were both rolling in the aisles. I mean, screeching with laughter.

    EM-BARASSING doesn't quite cover it.

    There were about twenty other people in the theater and they obviously didn't get it. Ha!

    What a terrific film.

    That line, that line you quoted. I'm laughing now. Can't help it. :)

    1. The same thing happened to my mom and I, we were laughing hysterically and 20 people were just sitting there in stone faced silence. I bought it on VHS used for 7 bucks. Love it still.

  6. Thanks, Prashant. Try and see it again if you get a chance. I'm sure you'll enjoy it just as much if not more. :)

    I know exactly what you mean about Michael Caine and Gene Hackman. Well said.

  7. Patti: Oh, you must. Definitely. Wait until you're in a laughing mood. Ha!

  8. Hello Yvette:
    yet another film which we really feel we should have at least heard of, but no we have not. What an intriguing partnership of Caine and Kingsley. This all sounds like a good old romp of the first order and we shall surely be seeking it out to have a look for ourselves. We, as Basil Rathbone enthusiasts, have much enjoyed more serious renditions of Sherlock Holmes, but clearly this film offers something else which is quite different. Thank you yet again for another gem!

  9. Hi Jane and Lance: Nice to see you back around these parts. :)

    Yes, Caine and Kingsley are great together. This is the perfect movie if you don't mind howling with laughter. :)

    I hope you do get a chance to see it. I know it's available on dvd and elsewhere.

    I adore Basil Rathbone too AND Jeremy Brett. But sometimes a person just has to have a few laughs.

  10. This is one I haven't seen yet. I'll make sure it goes on the Netflix queue!

    I totally know what you mean about being the only person laughing in a theatre. Usually happens to me in dark comedies.

  11. Lauren, I'm trying to think of food to serve with this movie...

    Something fun and silly with darkish overtones....

    Fish and chips and a bottle of merlot.

  12. I didn't see this movie until it came out on VHS (yes-those things before DVD and blu-ray :-) ) and I loved it so much that I got it from the library on DVD to share with my son... who seems to have the same quirky sense of humor that I do.

    I wouldn't mind sitting down and watching it again, in fact....

  13. I rather liked this one, even as I rather liked THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS. Definitely enjoying finally catching up with the 2010 BBC update via the PBS repeats. About the only Holmes parody I remember sitting through that was more disappointing than at least fun enough was Gene Wilder's attempt at portraying a comic Mycroft...

  14. This is a great post, Yvette. I have not seen this film but as I like Sherlock Holmes stories, I should take a look at it.

  15. Bev: Oh it's a keeper, for sure. I've been meaning to buy the dvd...

    I'm so glad I wrote about this one. It's so soothing to find that I'm not the only nut who loved this film. Ha.

    Of course you should watch it again. :)

  16. Todd: I loved THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS!

    Well, now I know the only other person who ever saw this.

    I've been meaning to write about it except that the film is not currently available to view so I'm waiting for it to show up at Netflix.

    I haven't seen it in years and I'm afraid I might not do it justice.

  17. iluvcinema: Definitely. Check it out, I think you'll enjoy it. But you have to be in a laughing frame of mind. :)

  18. Yvette, I'm thrilled to hear that Vinnie and I and our friends aren't the only people who laughed our fool heads off when we saw WITHOUT A CLUE in its original theatrical run! It's a hilarious, affectionate spoof of the Holmes stories, and whenever we stumble across it on TV, we give it our undivided attention! The whole cast is awesome (I even enjoyed Paul Freeman's scenery-chewing), but Ben Kingsley especially cracked me up with his Daffy Duck-style slow burns as Dr. Watson! I always seem to be quoting or comparing some character to Daffy Duck, don't I? Can't help it; to me, the greedy, craven version of Daffy makes a magnificent foil, even though the truly daffy Daffy is my favorite! :-)

    My mom's fave bit came near the end with the gag about the "lady" from the show "La Femme Faux." :-) Anyway, Yvette, your review was great fun to read, as always. Thanks for bringing WITHOUT A CLUE to the attention of potential new fans as well as those of us who love it already!

  19. We ought to start a WITHOUT A CLUE fan club.

    Nice to know I'm not the only one with an afflicted sense of humor. Ha!

    I really do think, though, that to enjoy this sort of movie one needs to have a good sense of the absurd.

  20. Grrr, my library doesn't have this, to my dismay.

    I'll try to persuade a friend with Netflix to order it if they have it.

  21. Netflix definitely has it, Kathy.

  22. I enjoyed this film more when it was released in 1988. Watching Without a Clue again in 2012 made me realize two things. The best laughs came from comedy that would fit perfectly in Airplane! and The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad. Second, Without a Clue just doesn't have enough of those real good laughs. Hurray for Ben Kingsley for having some fun in a career known for more dramatic turns.

  23. Well, maybe it should have had more laughs and it would have had not the second half of the film gone all over the top violence and ham acting. But even so, the laughs it did have are enough to keep me loving this movie over the years.

    Though I probably laughed harder the first time around. :)

    Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine make a great duo.

    Thanks for stopping by, Reel.


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