Hidden Gems: Without a Clue

By Stephanie Star Smith

July 22, 2005

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The premise of Without a Clue is so simple, yet so brilliant, that it's hard to understand why this excellent film never received much attention at the box office when it was released.

Without a Clue is set in Victorian England, the once and future stomping grounds of the most famous detective who never lived. Yet another film to posit that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were not fictional characters, Without a Clue sets up its own nice little twist on this idea: it is Dr. Watson, and not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who is writing the tales of the Master Detective and his faithful Boswell.

Oh, yeah; one more thing: Sherlock Holmes really doesn't exist.

Here's the gag. Watson, much as Conan Doyle's med school mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell, has quite the facility for observation and deductive reasoning. He also discovers he has an abiding interest in criminology, and as a young doctor looking to fill the copious amounts of free time he has waiting for his practice to build, he turns his hand to amateur detective work, much as Conan Doyle started writing detective stories to fill his free time. Lo and behold, Dr. Watson is a genius at solving crime, and so a master detective is born. Of course, Watson wants to share his success with the world, but as he is also still rather keen on becoming a successful doctor - with crime-solving as a sort of sideline - he is faced with quite the conundrum: Share his stories with what he is sure is a soon-to-be-adoring public, and he will likely never be taken seriously as a doctor; maintain his physician's decorum, and he must hide his criminologist's light under the proverbial bushel. And so he hits on what he thinks is a fantastic solution: create a fictional detective who solves the cases, and place himself into the stories as the detective's friend and assistant. This preserves Watson's professional demeanor, and still allows him to bask, however obliquely, in the glorification and praise of his sleuthing skills.

Thus Sherlock Holmes, the world's first consulting detective, is born.

After a time, however, the audience begins clamoring for the chance to meet this amazing creation, and eventually popular sentiment becomes so great that Watson, ever thoughtful of his readership, decides to give the crowd what it wants. So he hires a little-known, and less-successful, actor to play the part, giving the adoring fans what they want and still preserving Watson's little secret.

And the set-up for the film is complete.

The action begins several years after Watson has created his illusion, and the actor he hired, one Reginald Kincaid, is known to all the world as the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes. As Kincaid/Holmes has become increasingly popular - and increasingly insufferable - Watson's ego has begun to chafe under the arrangement, as Holmes gets all the glory whilst he does all the work. After a particularly disastrous public appearance where Kincaid refuses to follow his script and ends up making Watson look the complete fool, the good doctor has had enough and informs Kincaid his services will no longer be needed. Sadly for Watson, though, the public - not to mention Scotland Yard and his publisher - isn't interested in the exploits of "Dr. Watson, Crime Doctor", nor do they believe Watson's protestations that it has been he all these years, and not Holmes, who has been solving crimes. They want their Holmes back, and pronto. Watson is not about to eat crow and get Kincaid's services back, and it seems the Great Detective has come to the end of his career.

But wouldn't you know it? Fate intervenes, in the form of a daring heist at the Royal Mint. A group of thieves has made off with the plates that print five-pound notes, replacing the plates with counterfeits of their own making, setting up the double disaster of a mint that can only make counterfeits, and thieves who can quite literally print money, and all of it authentic. The British government is in need of Holmes' special skills, and Watson, unable to persuade anyone that he's a perfectly good stand-in, now faces a new, more dire, dilemma: should he rein in his ego and bring Holmes back as the straw man, or should he let his country down in its time of crisis?

What's nice about Without a Clue is that it doesn't rely simply on its central conceit to make the film work. In addition to the different take on Holmes and Watson, there's also a damned fine detective story, a goodly amount of comedy, and an interesting character study, all blended together to make for a grand piece of entertainment. And with Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine heading the list - as Watson and Kincaid/Holmes, respectively - the cast is not only stellar but talented, with first-rate performances from the supporting players bolstering the excellent turns by the leads. The scripters even manage to sneak in a bit of that Hollywood favorite, the redemption-of-the-feckless-character, and weave it into the other elements so that it seems organic to the plot, and provides a satisfying bit of dramatic heft to all the surrounding fluff.

Without a Clue is a grand piece of entertainment that fans of Holmes, detective stories, character studies and comedies can all find pleasure in, and it doesn't come close to wearing out its welcome during its 107-minute running time. Without a Clue rarely shows up on cable, but it is available on home video, and is a recommended addition to your rental lists, particularly the next time you are in the mood for a comedy that treats its audience as though they have more than two working brain cells. Fans of the Great Detective who may be put off by the premise can also rent this without worry, for the material is respectful of the legendary fictional sleuth and his Boswell without taking them too seriously. All in all, Without a Clue provides a great evening's entertainment for anyone who enjoys a good popcorn film, and one that doesn't give the viewer that "I've seen it and seen it" feeling.



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