Without A Clue – A Sherlock Holmes Story Turned On Its Head

Like most movie lovers, I have a few that I refer to as guilty pleasures. These are the films I return to again and again just for fun even though, in some cases, I know the movie isn’t really that good and that it just appeals to me. So, while I do number the 1988 comedy Without A Clue among these pictures, the actual quality of the film is up for debate.

What if Sherlock Holmes wasn’t actually the brilliant detective that was depicted in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories? Without A Clue offers a completely different take.

When the film first arrived in theaters it was gone in a flash. Released in the fall of 1988, Without A Clue finished the year in 103rd place just ahead of The Last Temptation of Christ and just behind U2: rattle And Hum. All told it grossed just less than 9 million at the Box Office and was hardly what one would call a success financially. Critics as well were lukewarm about the film even though it featured two of the biggest stars of the day in Sir Michael Caine and Sir Ben Kingsley. Still, it does hold a 60% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes which demonstrates that it wasn’t wholly rejected upon first appearing.

Though it was far from a Box Office hit, Without A Clue manages to elicit some old-fashioned laughs thanks to its phenomenal cast and clever plot.

The two credited screenwriters of Without A Clue are Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther. Until this point they had only written for television and Without A Clue was their first and only screenwriting partnership. Some of their best known TV writing credits include Night Court, Caroline in the City and Malcolm in the Middle. But after viewing the 1932 film The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes Greatest Case, writer Murphy had asked himself, “what if we’ve been fooled all along and Dr. Watson is the real genius?” And from this simple observation the premise for Without A Clue was born.

Instead of the meticulous and brilliant detective that all of us equate Holmes to be, here Sherlock is a profligate drunkard and an actor hired by Watson to bring his literary creation to life. In this story the real genius is in fact Watson (who calls himself “The Crime Doctor”) and it is he who is pitted against the evil Moriarty in the conflict. I’ll not give away more than that because of course my intent here is to entice you to give the film a chance, but suffice to say there are many twists and turns along the way that make Without A Clue a delightfully funny contribution to Sherlock Holmes universe.

Certainly the stories of Sherlock Holmes from author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were well known for their suspense and drama, but not much for laughs. In Without A Clue that is put aside as the film is an exceptionally funny comedy with humor and surprises galore.

But I’m not suggesting Without A Clue for a rediscovery because of how it was viewed in 1988. Nor am I coming here to offer the film as overlooked Oscar material. No, I am well aware of its flaws and deficiencies having watched it myself many multiple times, yet I still consider it utterly charming, delightfully funny and well worth another look. So with that in mind and as a candidate for a rediscovery, I offer you Five Reasons

1. The plot presents to us a completely different Sherlock Holmes

I’ve already alluded to this above, but it bears repeating. The very concept of the picture is wholly original and clever. From the first moments of the film we are introduced to a Holmes and Watson dynamic that we truly had never considered. When we accept that the reality we had bought into all along was in fact false, then a whole new world of hilarious possibilities opens up. And it goes even further than that exploring Holmes’ relationships with those around him in ways we hadn’t considered either – particularly with Mrs. Hudson, The Irregulars, Professor Moriarty and Inspector Lestrade.

The hilarious interplay between Holmes and Watson as the mystery is investigated makes Without A Clue a must watch.

2. The original film score by Henry Mancini is utterly priceless

I know that there is really no way to describe music, it really must be listened to for a full appreciation. But as film scores go, I think Henry Mancini’s for Without A Clue is darn near perfect. Jaunty and fun with just the right amount of suspense and whimsy, this score does what a film score should by supporting the story but also creating something memorable on its own merit. I truly could just listen to this soundtrack on its own but there is no doubt that the overall quality of the picture is enhanced by this delightful score.

3. The supporting cast brings a charm and playfulness that is a pleasure to watch

I couldn’t have told you before looking into it who any of the supporting players in Without A Clue are with the exception of Jeffrey Jones who plays Inspector Lestrade. Though I’m sure many appeared in other films I myself can’t recall ever having seen them in any other movie except this one. But the stream of secondary players throughout the journey of the film are a joy with very funny interpretations and astute little takes in what could have been phoned in performances.

Of course I should have recognized Paul Freeman from his performance as Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he’s wholly unrecognizable in the role of Professor Moriarty here. Additionally, I am reminded of Nigel Davenport’s performance as Lord Birkenhead in Chariots of Fire though here again he was unrecognizable to me in Without A Clue.

From Mr. Freeman as the evil Professor, Lysette Anthony as Leslie Giles, Pat Keen as Mrs. Hudson, Mr. Davenport as Lord Smithwick and everyone in between, these character actors have a blast and it shows. In fact I also love all the bit characters in the movie as well from the publisher of the Strand Magazine to the Mayor at Lake Windemere as well as the police Bobby at the burned out paper mill and so on. So many fun little performances in there. Additionally, I love a performance that’s actually terrible – the singer at the Pub where Holmes goes to drink. Look for her, she’s awful which is also kind of fun to watch.

Paul Freeman’s performance as Professor James Moriarty brought a genuine feeling of brilliance and danger to the role.

4. This is a movie that brings the funny

The dialogue is a hoot, the characters are charming and fun, and the premise is clever and original. All of these ingredients combine to offer one seriously funny movie. That said, this is not slapstick comedy – it is sagacious and intelligent. Without A Clue very shrewdly takes these characters that we are all very familiar with and puts them into a situation that is completely unique. I could honestly compile a top ten list of my favorite lines from the film to share with you here but I don’t want to deprive you of discovering them for the first time yourself.

In fact, why not comment below with your favorite lines from the movie – I’d love to read what you found funny once you’ve seen it.

There’s no doubt that Oscar winners Sir Michael Caine and Sir Ben Kingsley have done more acclaimed work, but in Without A Clue they’re having a ball and so do we right along with them.

5. The chemistry between Caine and Kingsley as Holmes and Watson is magic

Here are two of cinema’s most accomplished actors simply having a good time. They clearly love to play off of each other and because their performances are so comfortable and lived-in we completely join them in the hilarity. They’ve both made many films some of which I admire a great deal, they’ve received awards and acclaim, and have even been knighted by the Queen, but in Without A Clue they offer us something completely different and the movie is the better for it.

The truth is, in some scenes one can almost even see Caine and Kingsley giving the camera a sly wink. It’s jolly good fun and though this is considered a small film with little following, as I mentioned above, I myself still return to it again and again. So for a suggestion of rediscovery this week, we at MTR proudly offer you the 1988 comedy Without A Clue for your viewing pleasure. Currently you can watch the film in its entirety for free on YouTube so go enjoy it there while you still can.

⭐ For more information on where to Buy, Rent, or Stream Without A Clue, click here for the Without A Clue JustWatch page.

The official theatrical trailer for Without A Clue from 1988 starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley.

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