"Moriarity knows I'm the only match for his evil genius."
"Are you sure he's not trying to kill me?"
"Of course not! He knows you're an idiot."
-Dr. John Watson & Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic character Sherlock Holmes has had many cinematic adaptations to his name practically since the beginning of the cinema. One of the most famous adaptations were the ones made by Universal in the 1940s with Basil Rathbone as Holmes, although, curiously, only the first of these (1939's The Hound of the Baskervilles) was an offical adaptation of a Conan Doyle Holmes story while the rest had more contemporary settings (Rathbone's Holmes battles Nazis, for one thing), similar to the recent series Sherlock which also has the great detective and his aide, Dr. John Watson, in a modern-day setting.
Other memorable Holmes adaptations include Hammer Films' take on Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) in which Peter Cushing played Holmes and was the first Holmes movie in color. Sadly, Hammer's plans for more Holmes adaptations fell through. The 2009 Sherlock Holmes was also memorable with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law making a surprisingly good team as Holmes and Watson. There were even episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation devoted to Holmes.
Hands down, though, the best of the Holmes adaptations was the British television series starring Jeremy Brett as the detective. This series, which ran from 1984 to 1994, was a big hit across the world and is the closest to the spirit of Conan Doyle's series. It was during the run of this series that Without a Clue was released. Like the Brett series, this took place at the latter half of the 19th Century. This film, however, was a comedy with a unique twist: Holmes was merely a figurehead and Watson was the one who really solved the crimes behind the scenes.
As the good doctor (Ben Kingsley) explains to his editor (Peter Cook), he helped an investigator solve a murder some years ago, but gave credit to a fictitious detective because Watson was aspiring for a job at a prestigious university and feared that crime-solving on the side would diminish his chances of obtaining such a position. As it turns out, Watson didn't get the job but did get an audience wanting to know more about Holmes. To that end, he hires an actor named Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine) to play Holmes, who basically takes all the credit for the detective work Watson does and writes down for the Strand Magazine. To the public, including the jealous Scotland Yard inspector Lastrade (Jeffrey Jones), Holmes is the best detective in the world and Watson is just backup.
When the film opens, though, Watson begins to be wary of "Holmes" due to the latter's excessive ego, which is matched by his excessive womanizing, gambling, and drinking. Watson, at one point, kicks him out of his Baker Street flat, but basically comes crawling back to him when Lastrade informs him that the government wants Holmes to solve a mystery threatening the British Empire's economy.
The mystery involves the disappearance of a treasury employee and the trail eventually leads them to Prof. Moriarity (Paul Freeman), who knows that Watson is the real genius while Holmes is a moron.
When they attempt to capture him, Watson is seemingly killed, which eventually prompts "Holmes" to solve the case on his own.
Caine and Kingsley are a wonderful match and many of the film's laughs come from them. Holmes fans may even view Watson's apparent death as a case of art imitating art as Holmes apparently died in The Final Problem only for public pressure to force Conan Doyle to resurrect him in The Empty House (although The Hound of the Baskervilles was published in between those two stories). The film also reflects the love/hate relationship Conan Doyle had with his creation. For years, he wanted to wash his hands of Holmes and be known for other work, just as Watson wants to be rid of Holmes and be known as "John Watson- The Crime Doctor." In both cases, though, public demand just wouldn't allow it. Rumor has it that Conan Doyle was knighted only after he promised the King he would resurrect Holmes.
While some may not be surprised at the outcome of Watson's apparent demise or the involvement of femme fatale Leslie Giles (Lysette Anthony), this is a delightful, ambitious take on a classic literary figure which simply came at the wrong time.