Any movie based on a board game that isn’t Battleshit instantly has something going for it. But I’m not sure Clue was received with any greater approval when it was released back in 1985. The general feeling was that director (and writer) Jonathan Lynn was slumming it (it was sandwiched between the series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister). The broad, slapstick tone and predilection for crudity had more common with producer John Landis. If the film wasn’t a disaster, neither was it a big hit. That wasn’t the end of it, though. As with a later farce directed by Landis and also starring Tim Curry (Oscar), an underwhelming reception didn’t prevent it from developing a cult following.
Wadsworth: I’m merely a humble butler.
Mustard: What exactly do you do?
Wadsworth: I buttle, sir.
Clue is based on the board game Cluedo (or… Clue, as it’s known in the States). For some reason the title was never changed for its UK release. Perhaps because the relatively subdued box office at home induced Paramount not to bother.
Wadsworth: You see? Like the Mounties, we always get out man.
Mr. Green: Mrs. Peacock was a man?
(Mustard slaps Green who then gets slapped by Wadsworth)
As in the game, a variety of characters (Mrs. White, Mr. Green – Reverend in Cluedo –, Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet, Mrs. Peacock, Professor Plum) gather in a house where a murder is committed. They have each been presented with a murder weapon (as per the game) and once the deed is done, the investigation work begins. Except that in Clue it doesn’t. The mystery is treated as elusive and impenetrable, as ripe for mocking as every character and situation. And there isn’t only one murder. After Mr Boddy – apparently the host of the party, who has blackmail information on each of the guests – is offed, a succession of supporting characters (the cook, the maid, a motorist and – most mirthfully – a singing telegram) also meet unfortunate fates.
Mustard: Why is J. Edgar Hoover on your phone?
Wadsworth: I don’t know, he’s on everybody else’s why shouldn’t he be on mine?
Lynn sets his comedy in 1954 (New England), which, if it feels like a random choice, to an extent it was. He needed more of a crutch than just the rooms and colours from the game and, since he and his wife knew a number of writers who were blacklisted during the ‘50s, it was a ready subject to draw upon. The choice allows for much prodding of the actual “unAmericanness” of America (with the McCarthy witch-hunts in full effect). There’s a wilful irreverence here that might not have been deemed so acceptable otherwise. And it gives the film its best line (“Communism was just… “). But, despite the vague trappings of costume and faux-gothic, it doesn’t feel like a period movie; most of the gags are much too broad for that, and even the political barbs seem designed to carry timeless overtones (particularly with all-seeing Prism surveillance).
Wadsworth: You recognised Yvette, didn’t you? Don’t deny it!
White: What do you mean, “Don’t deny it?” I’m not denying anything.
Wadsworth: Another denial!
It was Peter Guber (the producer who, for no particular reason, wanted Kevin Smith to put a giant spider in his Superman script) who approached Lynn about the project. Tom Stoppard was among a gaggle of writers who previously had a bash at the property. Lynn initially rewrote Landis’ story with the director in mind, but when the latter passed, he was handed the reins. Lynn has commented that he would have written it differently, if he had known he’d be calling the shots… Maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t, as his subsequent big screen career has been mediocre at best.
Wadsworth: I’m not the butler, but I’m a butler.
Lynn and Landis are cheerfully undiscerning when it comes to their gags. They flow thick and fast, hit and miss, and range from lowbrow crudity to mistaken understandings, reversals and sophisticated wordplay. Much of Clue’s appeal comes from its pace; as with all good farces, Lynn knows that keeping up momentum is half the battle. That’s not just down to the writing, but the direction, editing and performances. Everyone here has spot-on timing, and with that and the pleasure of an obvious gag delivered with skill, it’s the difference between a groaner falling flat and flying.
And, in the form of Tim Curry, Lynn has a trump card (the two knew each other, and had attended the same school). Curry plays Wadsworth the butler, and it’s his delirious, madcap energy that drives the film along. There’s an irresistible enthusiasm to Curry that makes you smile even if the jokes fall flat. I’d go as far to say that I couldn’t imagine the film working without him (although John Cleese, who was considered, could have pulled it off). Likewise, John Morris’ witty score perfectly complements the arch tone (Morris was Mel Brooks go-to composer, so knew his comedy).
Wandsworth: He decided to put his information to good use, and make a little money out of it. What could be more American than that?
When the first joke in a movie is a sustained one the basis of having dog shit on your shoe, it’s clear where a film’s aspirations are. The veneer of genteel surroundings and etiquette perversely encourage the more puerile aspects to flourish.
Colleen Camp’s maid (Yvette) comes on, her breasts exploding from her outfit (one might expect Landis to take credit for that one, but Lynn cast her purely because she made him laugh). She’s French, of course.
Peacock: Uh, is there a little girl’s room in the hall?
Yvette: Oui, oui.
Peacock: No, I just want to powder my nose.
I think you get the gist. Characters become amorous with corpses, and there is a cheerful barrage of sexual and scatological gags. The tone is not so different to Neil Simon’s Murder by Death, although Lynn claims never to have seen it (both share cast member Eileen Brennan, here playing Mrs. Peacock).
Mr. Green: So it was you. I was going to expose you.
Wadsworth: I know. So I choose to expose myself.
Mustard: Please, there are ladies present!
The final act is a breathless run around as Curry explains all the nonsense that has preceded it (Lynn insists that everything was reasoned out when he wrote it; given the structural intricacies of his Jim Hacker series this is quite possible).
Three different endings are available (the DVD provides the option to see all three as part of the whole film; this definitely feels more appropriate to the lunatic tone). The intention was to show the film in theatres with a different ending presented at each screening. All three feature repetitions as well as divergences; “Communism was just…” appears in each (and never gets boring). Each feature ridiculous reveals and motives, but the final one is the most involved (and unlikely) and perhaps as a result the funniest. Initially, as many endings were planned as characters, but this was dropped when Lynn realised how long the film would last. A fourth ending was shot but dropped when it wasn’t considered amusing enough.
Scarlet: I hardly think it will enhance your reputation at the UN, Professor Plum, if it’s revealed that you have been implicated not only in adultery with one of your patients, but in her death and the deaths of five other people.
Plum: You don’t know what kind of people they have at the UN, I might go up in their estimation.
The cast acquit themselves with honours. Besides Curry, my favourite is probably Lesley Ann Warren’s deliciously trampish Miss Scarlet. Warren, formerly married to producer Guber, was cast at short notice after Carrie Fisher went into rehab (Lynn tells an amusing anecdote in which fellow studio/production coke fiends Dawn Steel and Debra Hill couldn’t understand why her addiction would prevent her from working). Lynn also looked at Leonard Rossiter and Rowan Atkinson for Wadsworth before settling on Curry. Madeline Kahn (another Mel Brooks regular, as Mrs. White), Christopher Lloyd (Professor Plum) and Michael McKean (Mr. Green) are all in fine fettle, but Martin Mull’s Mustard isn’t too memorable. Jane Wiedlin makes an attention-grabbing film debut as the singing telegram.
Wadsworth: Communism was just a red herring.
Farce is a difficult comedy subgenre to get right on screen (its natural home being the theatre), and it appears more difficult still for it to attract a receptive audience. This may be why these movies build cult followings. Part of the appeal with the likes of Clue and Oscar is seeing the joke coming a mile off and finding it all the funnier because of this. It’s a rare skill, and that’s thanks to UNO W.H.O.