It's never been a secret - I'm more than a bit of a Sherlock Holmes fan. Oh, I couldn't quote passages part and parcel - given a conundrum, I would be hard pressed to tell you from which story it came. But I have read all the stories, and quite a few pastiches. There is something about the characters I dearly love, and the fact that they have grown far beyond their original milieu just makes them more magical.
As an actor, I've had the opportunity to play both Holmes and Watson - though given my body type, you can be pretty darn sure that if I was cast as Holmes, it was an act of genuine desperation on the part of the director. No, I've played Watson far more often, and truth to tell, Watson is much more fun - there's simply more possibilites there. For that reason, then, though I love a Holmes story, my final opinion of a piece usually rests upon the treatment of Watson.
Like a lot of Sherlockophiles, I positively loathe the Nigel Bruce version opposite Basil Rathbone. That's not really Bruce's fault - a bluff, thoroughly professional character actor, he did what he was told, and did it well. It's largely the fault of producers and directors who felt they needed to inject some comic relief into otherwise grim proceedings. Witness the first of the Rathbone/Bruce films, The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which Holmes disappears for a fair length of the story. While in charge, Watson is shown to be a resourceful, thoughtful man. It is only when Holmes re-surfaces that he becomes a dunderhead, as if the man sucked intellect from all around him to bolster his own.
James Mason, on the other hand, was a fine, if somewhat older, Watson in Murder by Decree (itself a fine Holmes tale). Robert Duvall, in The Seven Per Cent Solution, was the only Watson to pay homage to the Jazeel bullet in the leg that put an end to the doctor's military career . Though I'm not a big fan of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, I adore Colin Blakely's lively Watson. In the Grenada TV series, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke were both fine Watsons opposite my current favorite Holmes, Jeremy Brett.
And then there is Ben Kingsley to Michael Caine's Sherlock in Without A Clue.
This movie is a Watson revisionist's dream: it posits that not only is Watson actually the deductive brains behind the team, but he invented the character of Sherlock Holmes to protect a possible position with a conservative medical establishment. Although the new job failed to materialize, the public's infatuation with Holmes did, so Watson hired a boozy, out-of-work actor named Reginald Kincaid (Caine) to provide the public face for his crime-fighting adventures.
As the movie opens, Watson is beginning to chafe under the actor's grandstanding in the role, and the simple fact that Kincaid reaps all the accolades and attention while he is treated as a non-entity. When Kincaid complains that he is tired of memorizing lists of deductions, and suggests that Watson cut back on those and concentrate on his character, Watson - and landlady Mrs. Hudson, who is in on the scam - throw him out, and Watson prepares to take on his new role as "John Watson - The Crime Doctor!"
Only to find that no one is interested in The Crime Doctor - not the publisher of The Strand magazine (a cameo that wastes Peter Cook, but it was still nice to see him), not the policemen who hamper his current investigation "unless you've been sent by Mr. Sherlock Holmes", and certainly not the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Smithwick (Nigel Davenport) who has a thorny problem that may spell ruin for the Empire - but will only speak of it to Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
This sets up an odd little variation on the Buddy Film - the two men, though they despise each other, must work together - Watson, because he correctly feels that Smithwick's case is directly related to his current investigation, and Kincaid because he is being pursued by thugs for gambling debts. The tired old formula works here because of the interesting changes it wreaks on characters with whom we are so familiar. The story elements also benefit from a bit of resonance with real life - just as Watson regrets the creation of the Holmes character, so, too did Arthur Conan Doyle, who went so far as to throw the character off a cliff in an attempt to be rid of his shadow forever. In this sequel-heavy time, you know that would not be allowed, and since cloning had not yet been invented, Doyle was forced to admit the whole thing was a fraud (The Hound of the Baskervilles, in an attempt to stave off the resurrection, is told in flashback - and it's probably intentional that Holmes remains offstage for most of it). Though Doyle never got to physically kick Holmes out in the street, there were doubtless times he wished it were possible.
As I said, though, if you're a Watson fan, it doesn't get much better than this, with Kingsley providing a clockwork-precise, yet thoroughly human, performance. Caine's Kincaid mugs a bit too much, ultimately proving the weak link in the tale, but is fun nonetheless, if one loosens one's corset stays a bit.
A good Holmes tale needs a villain sufficient to test the mettle of the Great Detective, and Without A Clue falls back on the reliable Professor Moriarty, here essayed by a properly Mephistophelean Paul Freeman. Yes, in this alternate reality, Moriarty truly exists, and when Watson reveals that it is he behind the sinister mechinations they are investigating, Kincaid threatens to quit rather than deal with "that bloody homicidal maniac!" "Don't worry," Watson assures him, "he's after me. He knows you're an idiot." "Oh, thank God!" exclaims a relieved Holmes.
The major characters are rounded out by the ever-toothsome Lysette Anthony as a winsome damsel in distress, and Jeffrey Jones as the long-suffering, hobbled-by-the-rulebook Inspector Lestrade. Something could, I suppose, be made of the lone American actor playing the dense copper, but really... isn't that thinking rather too much?
The rest of the cast is a collection of predictably reliable British actors, all shining within their element. The period is well done, and all the pieces are there for a fine cinematic time; unfortunately, this was likely a very hard sell to an American audience. The IMDb lists the box office take in the US as a rather disappointing 8.5 million. I can't exactly say it was a powerhouse on home video, either. The first chance I ever got to see it was on VHS, and it seemed to take MGM next to forever to put it out on DVD, even in this sadly full-frame version with only a theatrical trailer as an extra - and a trailer that is, itself, presented letterboxed, to boot.
Perhaps this is a bit churlish of me, however. MGM's discs of its non-blockbusters are usually offered at a lower price, and they are rarely disappointing, though I have to admit that the video quality on this disc is sharp, but dim. They've been doing a great job at pulling films from their vaults, and my complaining because I now have a copy of Without A Clue seems rather pointless. The letterboxed trailer seems to verify that I'm not missing much by the exclusion of the rest of the frame. I simply prefer to see what the director and cinematographer wanted me to see in the theater, but I don't think a properly letterboxed home version of this movie has ever been released - nor sadly, do I think it ever will. It's a comfortable little niche film, highly entertaining while being unspooled, but unlikely to impact anything but a couple of hours of your life, and that painlessly.
No need for the needle, Watson.
- July 5, 2004