In the midst of a very busy week for catalogue releases, Olive Films has unleashed a handsome new Blu-ray edition of the 1988 comedy Without a Clue, a movie that even you Sherlock fans (and there’s a lot of you) might not know about. A wickedly funny comic take on the boys from Baker Street, its HD debut is a reminder that, despite the current Downey franchise/Sherlock/Elementary-inspired Holmes vogue, there are plenty of wonderful Sherlock Holmes movie adaptations that have been consigned to the dustbins of history (or, at least, of video stores). Here are a few of them:
Without a Clue
The premise of Thom Eberhardt’s 1988 comedy is simple: what if Dr. Watson was the real genius at Baker Street, and Sherlock Holmes was merely an actor playing the role (and a gambling, womanizing, drunken actor at that)? The screenplay by Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther keenly balances verbal wit, literary references, parody, and slapstick, while engaging in (but not overdoing) a sly commentary on celebrity, image, and public perception. Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley are perfectly cast as “Holmes” and Watson; Caine does the incompetent blowhard so well you wish he’d done more of them, while Kingsley effortlessly conveys both Watson’s intelligence and his understandable frustration at getting no credit for it. They get laughs but never lean into them. And on top of all of that, it’s a pretty decent mystery too.
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
Another Sherlock spoof bursting with love for its inspiration, Smarter Brother was Gene Wilder’s directorial debut — and the first film he made after Young Frankenstein, with co-stars Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn (and composer John Morris) in tow. As such, it was dismissed by critics at the time as JV Mel Brooks, but it’s a pretty funny movie, predicated on another juicy premise: that Holmes has a much smarter younger brother, Sigfried (Wilder), insanely jealous of his brother’s fame and success, who steps in for a particularly difficult case. It’s charming, goofy fun, and the big “Puttin’ on the Ritz”-style song-and-dance number “The Kangaroo Hop” is one of Wilder’s more inspired bits of silliness.
The Strange Case of the End of Civilization As We Know It
Joseph McGrath’s 1979 TV movie is a much broader spoof, taking easy but funny shots at Holmes’ cocaine consumption and the buffoonery of Watson (much more present in Nigel Bruce’s famed portrayal of the good doctor than in the original texts). But the most important factor of The Strange Case is the casting — namely, the delicious prospect of John Cleese (in full-on know-it-all smug prick mode) as the grandson of Sherlock Holmes.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978)
One more spoof movie, perhaps the oddest of them all: in 1978, renowned and uproarious British comedy team Peter Cook and Dudley Moore teamed with Warhol pupil and cult filmmaker Paul Morrissey (Flesh, Trash) to make a send-up of the most famous of the Holmes stories. It sounds like a strange marriage, but was actually a natural progression for Morrissey, who was coming off Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein; his interest in subverting genre conventions and Cook and Moore’s absurdist humor resulted in one of the most exhilaratingly bizarre Holmes movies ever made.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Too often, it seems that the only Holmes films that still hold any cultural currency are the classic Rathbone/Bruce vehicles and the recent iterations; in fact, this 1959 version of Hound was a huge commercial and critical success, recently dubbed “the best Sherlock Holmes film ever made, and one of Hammer’s finest movies” by Time Out London. And yes, you read that right, this Holmes picture was the work of the notorious British purveyor of Gothic horror, with Hammer regulars Peter Cushing (as Holmes) and Christopher Lee (as Henry Baskerville) and the studio’s wickedly vivid filmmaking style firmly in place.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
Hound co-star Christopher Lee would later play Holmes in the 1962 German film Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, and then turned up in this 1970 Billy Wilder film as Holmes’ smarter brother —Mycroft (per Doyle, as opposed to Gene Wilder’s Sigi). Private Life was perceived at the time as a disappointment for Wilder and collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, whose last film was the Oscar-winning Fortune Cookie (and whose earlier works included Some Like It Hot and The Apartment); Wilder ultimately second-guessed himself, succumbing to studio pressure to chop the three-hour movie down by over an hour. But what remains is fascinating, and wildly unappreciated in both the Holmes and Wilder canon.
Sherlock Holmes in New York
Hollywood went through something of a Sherlock obsession in the 1970s, kicking off with Private Life and continuing through several post-modern takes on the Holmes story that sifted the Doyle mysteries through modern character and narrative styles. This 1976 gem brought the quintessential Londoner to Gotham, and while the mystery is a sharp one, the casting is the real draw here: John Huston as Moriarity, Charlotte Rampling as Irene Adler, and that decade’s James Bond himself, Roger Moore, as Holmes.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was a cleverly executed “lost manuscript” by the good Dr. Watson, a reconfiguration of several elements of the original stories and an exploration of his addiction to cocaine (which he kicks with the help of Sigmund Freud). Such a premise was irresistible to Universal Studios (home of the Rathbone/Bruce series), which hired Meyer to write a film adaptation for director Herbert Ross. Thanks in no small part to Ross’ deft comic touch and the unlikely but inspired casting of Alan Arkin as Freud and Robert Duvall as Watson, the film was a commercial and critical success (and an Oscar nominee).
A Study in Terror
Even more promising (and inevitable) than a Holmes/Freud meet-up was this tantalizing fusion of detective fiction and horrible crime fact: what if Sherlock Holmes investigated Jack the Ripper? That notion was first taken up in 1965 by this British thriller from director James Hill, which featured John Neville (later beloved for his title performance in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) as Holmes, Donald Houston as Watson, and a young ingénue named Judi Dench in a supporting role. (Footnote: please enjoy the craven pandering of its Batman-inspired movie poster.)
Murder by Decree
The Holmes-solves-Ripper angle was such a good one, in fact, that another, completely different film took it for a spin in 1979: Murder by Decree, from director Bob Clark, the Canadian journeyman whose filmography ranged from A Christmas Story to Black Christmas to Porky’s. This time, in a particularly ace bit of casting, Christopher Plummer plays Holmes and James Mason is by his side as Watson; David Hemmings, Donald Sutherland, John Gielgud, and Geneviève Bujold turn up in supporting roles in this sharp, taut little thriller.