Clueless In London: Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley in “Without a Clue”

Prepare yourself for a shock. Sherlock Holmes, that fantastic solver of mysteries that baffled Scotland Yard, never existed. It’s true! He was the creation of a doctor who wrote the stories during a time when he was awaiting a position with a prestigious medical firm. Sherlock Holmes was the creation of that renowned medical man…Dr. John Watson!

Without A Clue (1988):

In this entry, Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) is a brilliant deductive force who, due to circumstances of his profession, hired an out of work actor, Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine), to pose as his friend and supposedly the solver of intricate crimes. But Kincaid is a bumbling fool who must be coached by Watson in what to say when he is posing as Holmes.

Early in the film, Watson, who is finally exasperated to his breaking point, kicks Kincaid out on the street. He then approaches his editor, played by Peter Cook, to propose a new series with “Dr. Watson: The Crime Doctor” as its hero. But the editor, as well as the public, will have none of it. It is Sherlock Holmes they want, and as the editor insists, “It is Holmes or nothing”.

Circumstances are made even more difficult when Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) approaches with the Lord of the Treasury, Lord Smithwick (Nigel Davenport), with a serious problem. Someone has stolen the plates used to make 5 pound notes. The economy of the country is in serious jeopardy, and Smithwick only wants Holmes. So Watson is forced to curtail his dislike for the bumbling Kincaid and induce him to come back.

On the trail of the plates, Watson and Holmes investigate Peter Giles, an employee of the treasury, and one of only three people, including Smithwick and his second-in command, who had access to the plates. Holmes and Watson go to a remote village where Giles has supposedly been. After investigating the town and the cottage, everyone, except Watson, believes that Giles and his boatman drowned while trying to cross the local lake in a fierce storm.

Watson, on the other hand, is convinced that the culprit is his old arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Paul Freeman). And indeed Moriarty is behind the theft. But to what purposes? On the trail of Moriarty, Watson is apparently killed, leaving the bumbling Kincaid/Holmes as the only source of hope for the country in the retrieval of the plates. Giles’ daughter, Leslie (Lysette Anthony) does not know that Holmes is a fraud and retains hope that Holmes will succeed even after the death of Watson. Or does she?

There are a lot of cute little twists and turns in this little gem and spoilers would ruin it, but I will say to watch and not take everything for granted. The two stars of the movie are excellent together. And the movie is quite an entertaining twist on the traditional Holmes narrative. Caine really shines as the alcoholic, bumbling actor pretending to be Holmes.

Might I recommend you make this a double feature, pairing it with They Might Be Giants, another movie with a twist on the Holmes story? (That one features George C. Scott as a mental patient who actually is convinced he is the great detective).

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.