The appeal of Sherlock Holmes, 101 years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented him, continues to be strong and affectionate. There was a rush of parodies, send-ups, examinations and updatings in 1987 to commemorate the centenary of “A Study in Scarlet,” Holmes’ first appearance.
The Holmes filmography does not stop, either, and the great detective seems to hold a particular fascination for Americans. The latest dalliance with Doyle is, save for the casting, an all-American enterprise. “Without a Clue” is also one of the very best of the later Holmes films--funny, charming, inventive and--a neat trick--both irreverent and respectful.
The script by Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther, successful television sitcom writers (“Night Court”), suggests that Dr. Watson was always the brains of the outfit and had hired a dissolute actor named Kinkaid to play Holmes, since crime detection seemed undignified for a man of medicine.
The director, Thom Eberhardt, is out of Cal State Long Beach. The producer, Marc Sturdivant, attended USC film school. They met 16 years ago, working at adjoining editing tables, as documentary film makers for KOCE, the Orange County PBS station.
Sturdivant moved on to Disney as a story editor. Eberhardt stayed in television until he made “Night of the Comet,” (original title “Teenage Comet Zombies”) which cost $700,000 and grossed $20 million.
Their paths crossed again at a production company called ITC, which had a property then titled “The Imposter of Baker Street.” Sturdivant took it over as producer and persuaded ITC to let Eberhardt direct.
Michael Caine appears to have been everyone’s first choice for Holmes/Kinkaid. The suggestions for Watson ranged from Sean Connery to Danny DeVito. The producer and director held out for Ben Kingsley. They could find no footage of Kingsley, best known as Mahatma Gandhi, playing comedy, although everyone said he had done some very funny stage roles.
“There had been ‘Garbo Talks,’ ” Eberhardt says. “We thought of calling this ‘Kingsley Smiles.”’ Kingsley proves to be an expert light comedian.
Eberhardt added a good deal of physical comedy to the verbal pleasures of the script. Caine resisted doing a fall into a set of drums, but it may be the film’s funniest sequence.
“Michael said, ‘I’ll do anything you say; I just want to be able to sit beside you at the premiere and say, ‘I told you so.’ ” He didn’t have to.
Eberhardt has an encyclopedic appreciation of the Hollywood comedy of earlier years. “When I get depressed, I put (Preston Sturges’) ‘The Palm Beach Story’ in the VCR and watch it over again,” he says. He also admires the Hope-Crosby road pictures and, philosophically, the Holmes-Watson relationship in “Without a Clue” is the same kind of rivalry-strewn Bob-and-Bing male-bonding that made the road shows so successful, this time with British accents and historic antecedents.
The larger significances of “Without a Clue” are that it is a successful transatlantic comedy which melds the best British and American humor, and that it seeks the widest possible audience. It has action, much of it slapstick, but no real violence at all and with only the most joshing references to sex. (Caine is an incompetent if avid suitor squarely in the Hope tradition.)
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have both said they set out to make the kind of movies they themselves used to love to watch at Saturday matinees. Eberhardt says that his parents, who now live in Arkansas, had been turned off by the excesses of language and nudity in films. “I wanted to make a movie for them and for everybody else who felt like them. Including me.
“If ‘Without a Clue’ succeeds, it might open doors for other movies which aim for the general audience that used to exist.”
Although it cost only $9 million (a bargain in the present film world), “Without a Clue” is a lavishly mounted period piece, slyly well-acted and swiftly paced. It also has a kind of once-upon-a-time innocence, and the suspenseful question once again is whether the audience is ready for innocence.