WithoutaCluecoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes . . . but
1988, 107 min., Color
Rated PG for some violence, smoking, and drinking
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (says the box, but it looks more like 1.85:1)
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0
Bonus features: D (trailer only)
Trailer/Amazon link

From 1982-1987 Stephanie Zimbalist starred as the assistant to private detective Remington Steele, whom she had invented because no client would trust a female detective. He got the credit, but she was the sleuth. TV writers Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther took that concept and applied it to the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. And TV veteran Thom Eberhardt made the leap with them to direct the 1988 PG-rated crime comedy-mystery Without a Clue.

It’s a PG-rated light comedy that tries for slapstick at times and satire other times and often gets caught in-between. The result is a kind of tongue in cheek (or maybe bubble-pipe in mouth) parody that has a warm, tea cozy feel to it.

Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine make a good pair as Dr. Watson and the third-rate actor he hired to play the part of Sherlock Holmes so that he could be free to practice medicine and deduce all he wanted, without criticism or scrutiny. Of course, when you hire a bad actor it should come as no surprise that he turns out to be a ham who hogs the spotlight and has any number of habits that annoy the real detective—including drinking too much and clumsy attempts at womanizing.

By film’s end, of course, they’ll end up becoming a real team, but the fun comes from watching them get there. Without a Clue is a light mystery that features famed Holmes nemesis Professor Moriarty (Paul Freeman, who played Indiana Jones’ nemesis René Belloq) masterminding a plot to flood the market with counterfeit British money and cause the collapse of the British economy. The £5 printing plates have disappeared, and so has the printing supervisor. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones, who was the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) is jealous of Holmes and competes with him to solve the case, standing in the wings every time adoring reporters surround Holmes.

WithoutaCluescreenThere’s a kidnapping and several skirmishes, all of which are handled with the same light touch as elsewhere in the film. Any potential trauma from the kidnapping, for example, is muted by a comic sequence that has Holmes pinned behind the door so that all we can see is his scrunched face as he threatens to pounce on the ruffians and urges a woman to keep a stiff upper lip. A few gunfights and an explosion are the only exceptions. Otherwise, moments of tension are defused by similar humorous devices, so that there’s never much in the way of serious peril—only comic danger. There’s no language, and the only sexuality comes from the unmasking of a transvestite and a little keyhole peeping in which a woman is seen taking off stockings. Overall, it’s a relatively wholesome film that relies on some familiar, but softened elements from private detective mysteries—including a woman in distress (Lysette Anthony) and a housekeeper (Pat Keen) who sees more than anyone thinks.  

Because Without a Clue isn’t as nonstop funny and action-packed as more contemporary crime comedies, it will probably appeal mostly to families with older children who are able to appreciate the subtler humor and the character interaction between Holmes and Watson. My 17-year-old son enjoyed it a lot and pronounced it “very funny.”

Compared to current films, there’s nothing here that the whole family couldn’t see, but families with very young children might be better off watching Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective (1986), which features mice sleuths and a similar kidnapping plot with the villain intent on taking over the British Empire. Then again, there’s actually more overt peril and potential for trauma in that Disney animated film than there is in Without a Clue, which is really and truly played for laughs . . . or at least a broad smile.

Without a Clue looks terrific on Blu-ray, with a nice amount of detail even in numerous scenes when the lighting is dim. Some of the really dark scenes are murky, but overall it’s a solid transfer and with a solid soundtrack to match.

Language: N/A
Sex: Only a woman’s leg shown as she’s getting ready for bed
Violence: Two gunfights in which minor characters are apparently killed plus a big explosion
Adult Situations: A transvestite is unmasked, and there’s some drinking and smoking
Takeaways: Two people can learn to get along, and Sherlock Holmes doesn’t have to be serious . . . or Holmes, for that matter