In the Shadow of Rathbone: Michael Caine in Without a Clue

holmes-basil-rathboneWhen American playwright/actor William Gillette sought permission to have Sherlock Holmes get married at the end of a play he was writing, apparently Arthur Conan Doyle responded: “You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him.” This is sometimes seen as a sign of Doyle’s ambivalence, if not scorn, towards his most popular creation.

Now, imagine that Dr. John Watson was the real genius at crime-solving. Imagine that he invented a fictional character named Sherlock  Holmes for a series of mysteries penned for The Strand Magazine. Imagine pressure to prove that Holmes is a real person growing so strong that Watson hires a bumbling, boozing actor to play the role of the great detective. And imagine that decision coming to haunt and completely frustrate poor Watson, much as Doyle became haunted and frustrated by his own Sherlock Holmes.

That’s the comic premise of Without a Clue (1988), directed by Thom Eberhart and written by Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther. The premise works, too, not just to get laughs but also to turn an otherwise fairly light comedy into something more clever and witty.

michael-caine-as-holmes-sortaStraddling Sherlock’s Shadow

Michael Caine is given the challenge of playing Reginald Kincaid, an actor of acutely limited intelligence who must impersonate the brilliant Sherlock Holmes in public. In a sense, Caine has to be half in and half out of the shadow of Basil Rathbone — and he has to borrow a bit from Nigel Bruce’s Watson-as-doofus routine. Caine juggles it all quite well, even bringing a few hints of Stan Laurel to this indefatigable-dolt character.

I do wish, though, that Kincaid had been given a slightly richer background, perhaps another scene or two revealing more about his life on the stage and his fall from it. Is alcohol to blame? Did he simply lack talent? Yes, Kincaid is intended to be a comic character, almost a caricature. But he also shares top billing with Watson. Coaxing the audience to feel some sympathy for such a focal character can spice the funny moments with a pinch of pity, much as Charlie Chaplin did with his little tramp.

ben-kingsley-as-watsonWatching Watson

The richer character is Watson. He’s a man caught between his own genius for solving crimes and his dumb mistake of hiring Kincaid to bolster the lie that his Holmes character is real. Ben Kingsley’s remarkable range shows itself here. The actor who played a determinedly peaceful man in Gandhi (1982) and a relentlessly horrible man in Sexy Beast (2000) shows off that he’s just as adept at comedy. In fact, Kingsley gets many laughs simply by underplaying reactions to Caine’s much broader performance.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

It’s clear that writers Murphy and Strawther knew that the secret to Holmes and Watson is their enduring friendship. Their running gag, after all, is that this Holmes and Watson can barely stand one another. (Allan Cubitt attempted to seriously explore a mostly antagonistic “friendship” between the famous duo in his scripts for The Hound of the Baskervilles [2002] and Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking [2004]. Without a Clue offers good evidence that such things should be reserved for comedy.)

As I suggest at the start of this review, the film also shows an understanding of the coolness Doyle felt toward Holmes. It’s fairly easy to assume that Dr. Watson was Dr. Doyle’s fictional projection of himself, if only in terms of them both being physicians and scribes of popular adventures. Playing with this relationship is perhaps the most covertly clever aspect of the film. For instance, much as Doyle killed off Holmes in “The Final Problem” (before resurrecting the character to appease his public and his publisher), this film’s Watson proposes to end the Holmes series by starting a new one spotlighting “The Crime Doctor,” a.k.a. himself. This occurs during a meeting with the editor at The Strand, who is named Norman Greenhough, a tip-of-the-bowler to Herbert Greenhough Smith, the real editor at The Strand when the Holmes stories first appeared.

Beyond that, the crime involving stolen treasury plates and counterfeiting is little more than a vehicle to keep Watson and Kincaid working together. There is a canonical villain at work behind this, and Holmes fans might have enjoyed a few more winks at other famous cases — or at even Doyle’s real life. Still, for the sake of the film’s widespread appeal, it made good sense to strictly ration such inside jokes.

And that might be one of this film’s most attractive features. Along with its genuinely funny situations and lines, its admirable performances by Caine and Kingsley, and its smart dramatization of Doyle’s personal relationship with Holmes, there’s the popular appeal of Without a Clue. A Holmes fan can watch it with newbies as a way to convert them to the congregation — to invite them to Baker Street and make them irregular, so to speak.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

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