Looking back at the last few weeks of this column, I noticed a slight trend going on: Richard Nixon, the Great Depression, inequality in the ’50s and the here-and-now, ruined romances, the heartbreak of monsters — as the kids might say (or, actually, as the kids would have said 10 years ago), all downers, man. All downers. Part of that is environmental as the days get shorter and the nights get longer, part of that is second-hand disgruntlement over our modern age, and part of it is just soaking up the bleak, brutal “importance” of Oscar season like milk picks up strong flavors in the fridge. But, really, I need a laugh. You probably need a laugh. And so I give you one of my favorite forgotten comedies, a brilliant piece of stupid-smart literary revisionism called Without a Clue.
You may never have heard of this film — and that’s fine — but trust me, it’s worth tracking down for a variety of wonderful reasons. Released with minimal fanfare and unavailable on DVD for years, Without a Clue stars Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine as Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. As we all know from Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories of detection and observation (and the dozens of big-screen and small-screen adaptations they’ve inspired) Dr. Watson is the faithful companion, the dedicated chronicler, the aide and ballast to the moody, brilliant, inspired and inescapable crimestopper Holmes; Holmes is the tormented genius, the incisive mind, the inspiration and mentor to the steadfast Watson. Except in Without a Clue, because the simple, delightful pitch of the script is that Watson not only wrote the stories, but he also solved all the crimes. After inventing the figure of Holmes for his stories so as to prevent the flamboyant task of crime fighting to stain his career as a respectable surgeon and doctor, Watson found that editors and others wanted to meet Holmes. So Watson went out and hired an actor — a drunken, irresponsible, thick, dimwit lout of an actor — to play the part of Holmes. Watson (Kingsley) solves crimes and sells the tales of the exploits; Holmes — who is in fact Reginald Kincaid — gets a paycheck and the glory.
It’s an arrangement, but not an especially stable one. Watson would like a little glory, thank you, and Holmes would like to actually earn the glory he’s getting by being good at something, anything, instead of standing around and doing what Watson tells him to. Without a Clue actually does a great job of combining the literary worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle and P.G. Wodehouse; there’s something very Jeeves and Wooster in how Watson and Holmes interact in this film, and the film’s contrast between high society manners and low behavior is also something Wodehouse always loved to get a laugh from. The script is full of Holmes trivia and touches, but you don’t need to be a Holmes nut to get the joke; everything you need to know to follow this film has already seeped into your brain by being exposed to English-speaking pop culture. More importantly, the script is full of great jokes, perfectly-timed bits, delightful turns of phrase and a superbly turned structure guiding everything along.
And if you ever want to watch two actors — two actors who are not necessarily known for being funny — nail every possible part of a comedy, whether it be line delivery, pacing, physical acting, or reactions, Without a Clue is like a masterclass in funny stuff. Kingsley’s usual fierce intelligence is here, but it’s combined with a kind of exasperation that makes Watson both enviably competent and pitifully overlooked. Caine’s Holmes is a reprobate, a drunkard, and a fool — and Caine plays all that to the hilt — but he’s also, later in the film, almost willing to admit the error of his ways, and given a chance to, yes, actually do something in the solving of a case. (The fact that Without a Clue gives two great actors the chance to play men who are themselves bad actors is just another part of why it’s so good.) If you could use a laugh over the holidays — and really, couldn’t we all — Without a Clue is a gem and a jewel of a film, a comedy about humility and forgiveness and friendship that happens to have great swordfights, an inspired riff on an icon of popular culture, plus funny, funny jokes.