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Film / Without a Clue

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Without a Clue is a 1988 comedy film, the premise of which is that Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) created the fictional character Sherlock Holmes so that he could solve crimes incognito. His published case journals were so popular that he was obliged to hire an out-of-work actor, Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine), to play Holmes. However, Kincaid turned out to be a bumbling, gambling, womanizing drunkard who gladly took all the undeserved credit for solving crimes, and now their relationship is a very rocky one. Watson is just about ready to ditch Kincaid and strike it out on his own, but no-one will believe that Dr. Watson, the archetypical sidekick, is really a Great Detective, so the two have to get along for long enough to solve one last big case.


This film provides examples of:

  • Affectionate Parody: Of the Holmes stories.
  • Ash Face: this happens to Holmes as a result of tinkering with Watson's experiment.
  • At the Opera Tonight: The final showdown takes place in a theatre.
  • Attractive Bent-Gender: Lestrade is shown exchanging flirtatious comments with the real Leslie Giles, unaware that 'she' is just a female impersonator.
  • Bad Boss: Moriarty abandons Sebastian to be arrested at the end.
  • Bat Deduction: A mysterious number is given, and Sherlock Holmes uses a few long and complicated leaps of logic to deduce that it means a specific old theatre. At the end Holmes and Watson explain to the person who left the clue how they figured it out, and then the victim reveals that the number was simply the address of the building he was being held at.
  • Becoming the Mask: Reginald has to learn how to be at least somewhat of a detective to help save the day.
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  • Big Damn Heroes: Lestrade and his men try nobly at the end, but end up failing miserably and having to dive for cover when the fake Leslie pulls a gun on them.
  • Brick Joke: During Watson's argument with his editor Norman Greenhough, Wiggins bumps into the guy. The argument continues until Watson and Wiggins leaving. After they're gone, Greenhough realizes he can't find his pocketwatch. Cut to Watson and Wiggins at the paper mill. When Watson asks what time it burned down, Wiggins takes out Greenhough's watch and says it burned down at 4:00.
  • Blade Enthusiast: Sebastian's preferred weapons are switchblades and throwing knives.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Kincaid's production of 'The Shadow Of Death' allows him to finish the case, although it was for totally the wrong reasons.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Kincaid's "Holmes" usually fails to understand Watson's chain of reasoning in every case. Additionally, Kincaid fails to realize that the review of his most recent stage performance ("as comical relief") was meant as ridicule rather than high praise.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Kincaid is a drunken fraud and Know-Nothing Know-It-All, but he also boldly faces down a thug pointing a crossbow at him in the opening scene, boldly fires at Moriarty during the dock shootout (although he misses by a mile), and leaps into the river to try and rescue Watson after he's apparently shot while swimming away from Moriarty. Finally, he's shown to be a decent fencer in the climax.
  • Diagonal Cut: Played for Laughs: Kincaid takes a swing at some candles and seems to miss. However, their tops fall off later.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Kincaid, after falling onto the barge containing the villains' counterfeit money, pours alcohol from a lamp and threatens that there will be "an impromptu roasting" unless they surrender... without realizing that if he sets it ablaze, he'll catch fire, too. Lampshaded by Moriarty.
  • Did You Die?: Reginald does a variation where he folds it into his own telling.
  • The Dragon: Sebastian.
  • The Dreaded: The news that Professor Moriarty is involved prompts Reginald to stop the train and try to run away as soon as Watson confirms who they're dealing with.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Reginald is just pretending to be a great detective, but is in reality an actor who just repeats the lines Watson gives him.
  • Faking the Dead: Watson.
  • Femme Fatale: The fake Lesley Giles manages to hold much of the police at gunpoint.
  • Flanderization: Averted and inverted with respect to Dr. Watson. In Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson is an intelligent and competent man who lacks Holmes' genius. In many film and TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories, this difference in ability is inflated to the point where Watson is portrayed as a fat, bumbling idiot and a comic foil to Holmes. This movie inverts the trope with a brilliant Watson and a pathetically ridiculous "Holmes".
  • Foreshadowing: The Unsettling Gender-Reveal is foreshadowed very early on when one of Peter Giles' coworkers comments about how Leslie is pretty in an "odd sort of way" and that the religious Mr. Giles had a rather odd reaction when he said so.
  • Funny Background Event: While Lestrade is explaining the case to Watson, "Holmes" is in his room digging through his closet for a bottle of booze he stashed. We just see, through the open door, articles of clothing and item items being thrown around wildly like in a cartoon, thoroughly mystifying Lord Smithwick who is trying to pay attention to what Lestrade is saying.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Finally fed up with Kincaid's antics, Watson fires him and offers his services to the police directly. However, he discovers that he's done such a great job building up Holmes as the brilliant detective and himself as just the sidekick that no one will take him seriously and he needs Kincaid to make the act work.
    • Also, when Watson is believed dead, Kincaid realizes the police assume he can solve the crime all by himself and realizes just how much they've bought the act.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Sebastian has a knife scar down one side of his face.
  • Gratuitous Laboratory Flasks: Many adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories both in film and television will fill the background of Holmes' Baker Street flat with chemistry equipment. While this is true to the stories, in which Holmes would sometimes use them, in these adaptations, they're usually little more than set dressing. This tendency to overpopulate the flat with chemistry equipment was parodied here, when Reginald Kincaid (posing as Holmes) actually does do something with the chemicals - with hilariously explosive results.
  • Hidden Depths: After messing up for most of the movie, Holmes proves to be quite skilled at fencing at the showdown, holding his own against Moriarty.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Watson, since Sherlock Holmes is actually an incompetent stooge that fronts for Watson, the true detective.
  • Inter Generational Friendship: Watson is very warm and trusting to the young Baker Street Irregulars, praising their hard work and fondly rubbing Wiggins' head at one point. They're clearly just as fond of him.
  • Losing a Shoe in the Struggle: Happens to a Mook Kincaid fights with.
  • Mood Whiplash: Occasionally. In particular, the rather gruesome murder of the dockworker who catches Moriarty's Mooks in the act, and the grisly discovery of Donald Ayers' body in the lake.
  • Narm: In-Universe, the reaction to Kincaid in The Shadow of Death.
    Kincaid The Shadow of Death. The gripping drama was the last play presented at the Orpheum. It closed after only one night, but not without garnering some praise. Harris in the Daily Telegram said, 'In an otherwise dismal evening, Reginald Kincaid provided some welcome laughs.'
    Wiggins: Laughs? You said it was a gripping drama!
    Kincaid: It's unimportant now, isn't it?
  • No Name Given: Lysette Anthony's character masquerades as Leslie Giles for most of the movie, but her real name is never revealed. The credits list her simply as Fake Leslie.
  • Police Are Useless: Lestrade is mostly incompetent and Scotland Yard is often only able to identify and apprehend criminals with the help of "Sherlock Holmes".
  • Produce Pelting: Reginald played the lead in King Lear once, but all we know is that he has "memories of rotten fruit".
  • Railing Kill: Sebastian sabotages the balcony railing of Holmes' hotel room, causing it to break when Holmes leans on it. Subverted in that he survives the attempt (the plan was actually intended to catch Watson, but he and Holmes switched rooms).
  • Red Herring: The Windermere events.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Reginald and Watson see a number on a note, and think it's referring to a bible quote. It leads them to the right place, but that number was the address of that very place.
  • Screams Like a Little Girl: Holmes and Watson running away as the theater is about to explode.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Moriarty's Mooks prove entirely unwilling to die for their boss in the burning theater, and promptly exit stage left.
  • Secret-Keeper: Mrs. Hudson and the Baker Street Irregulars know that "Sherlock Holmes" is just an actor and Dr. Watson is the real detective. Watson also tells his editor eventually, letting the audience hear the background behind the original deception. The only person who's figured it out on their own seems to be Professor Moriarty.
  • Sherlock Scan: Played with in so many ways. Even Reginald pulls one off, leading to the right conclusion if not via the intended deduction.
  • Someone's Touching My Butt: Holmes is able to deduce the identity of the groper, because he did it. Then he does it again.
  • Speak Ill of the Dead: When Watson is assumed dead, Lestrade condescendingly says that he wasn't a real detective and that Holmes/Kincaid shouldn't feel obliged to solve the case by the timeline Watson mentioned. Kincaid's gaze turns cold and he says that Watson was not wrong and he will solve the case by then.
  • Staircase Tumble: Kincaid and one of Moriarty's Mooks while fighting in the Giles house.
  • Suicide as Comedy: After believing that Watson is dead, Kincaid tries to hang himself, and of course bungles it.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: After realising they've both completely misunderstood the clue the printer left for them, Watson quietly tells Holmes not to worry; he'll change their deduction for the Strand story on the case.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: When Watson is gone and presumed dead, Kincaid as "Holmes" decides to take detective work seriously by piecing together the clues available. The best his powers of deduction can come up with is concluding that Moriarty's real name is "Arty Morty." Somewhat averted later in that he does find Moriarty's whereabouts from clues left on half-printed banknotes.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Professor Moriarty has a very low opinion of pretty much everyone around him.
    Moriarty: "How demeaning to be set upon by nitwits."
  • Take My Hand!: Watson has to rescue Holmes as he dangles from a sabotaged balcony.
  • The Ditz: Holmes. Also Lestrade.
  • The Watson: Holmes again. At least, for most of the movie. Explicitly not Watson.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Kincaid was not only incompetent but cowardly for most of the story, but after Watson disappears and is presumed dead, Kincaid as "Holmes" shows remarkable persistence, courage and even aptitude when pursuing Moriarty.
  • We Need a Distraction: The film opens with Holmes and Watson thwarting a robbery at the Bank of England, but Watson soon realises that this was just a distraction to draw attention away from the destruction of a paper mill in another part of town.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: The real Leslie Giles.
  • Unsettling Gender-Reveal
    Real Leslie: You're disappointed, aren't you?
  • Useful Book:
    Kincaid: "I have a Bible! It's at my bedside." [gets it out from under the leg of his bed that it was keeping from wobbling]