I don’t know of too many successful movies based on popular board games, and, in point of fact, director Jonathan Lynn’s Clue (1985) is not one of them either. Despite its all-star cast, Clue was a miserly flop, under-performing its $15 million budget by a measly $356,003.00. If you have to fail in Hollywood, make it spectacular. Conceived by Lynn and screenwriter/director, John Landis, Clue remains relatively faithful to the characters, events, situations and plotting of its iconic and popularized board game, created by English musician, Anthony E. Pratt in 1944 (and originally titled, ‘Murder!’) as a way to alleviate stress and pass the time spent in bomb shelters during WWII. Rechristened in the U.K. as ‘Cludeo’ by Norman Watson, an executive at the legendary game manufacturer, Waddington, and foreshortened, simply to ‘Clue’ for its North American release by Parker Brothers, the board game went through a series of trial-and-error refinements, beginning in 1949. The movie could have done with a bit more of these too. For although Clue: The Movie greatly benefits from Landis’ penchant for glib repartee between the various suspects in this farce-laden whodunit, the picture increasingly suffers from a congenital ennui that fails to keep the narrative forward-moving or even alive for that matter. Point blank: it is more than a tad challenging to motivate a bunch of characters in a locked room dramedy from doing everything they can to remain in the locked room until at such time when the plot dictates ‘the big reveal’ near the end. Yet, this too is muddled by Lynn and Landis with an excruciating and frenetic summation of the movie’s entire plot, delivered to the point of hyperactive exhaustion by the otherwise absolutely marvelous Tim Curry, cast as Wadsworth, the butler of a dark and brooding mansion on a hill. It was a dark and stormy night…or so the clichés foretold and shortly thereafter, interminably begin to pile up.
Arguably, to maintain fidelity to the game itself, Lynn and Landis conceived of the gimmicky ‘alternate ending’; providing three improbably scenarios with which to conclude the picture; convincing distributor, Paramount Pictures, to vary the finale for the general release prints. Thus, depending on what theater one attended back in the day, it was possible to see Clue three times and discover a different culprit had committed the crimes. Actually, the original concept called for four alternate endings; one, depicting Wadsworth as a sort of grotesque failure in all other aspects of his life and career, aspiring to attain immortality as ‘the perfect murderer’. This finale was jettisoned by Lynn who later deemed, “It wasn’t very good.” Yet, one of the distinct hurdles for the picture is none of the remaining three alternate endings really makes much sense; the loopholes as per each murderer’s motivation filled in by an ad nauseam repetition of ‘the facts’, relayed to the audience by an increasingly breathless Wadsworth, suffering from a perilous bout of verbal diarrhea. Apparently, Lynn and Landis have forgotten a basic screenwriting 101 ‘rule of thumb’: it is infinitely more effective to ‘show’ an audience what is happening, than merely ‘tell’ them about it as a point of articulation. Alas, the real problem with Clue: The Movie is, that for all its clever-clever uber wit and pining for some classic Jo Mankiewicz-styled wordy sophistication, the awkward lobbing about of so many red herrings throughout its scant 94 minutes eventually gives off the odious whiff of day-old pickled octopus in its stead; the farce degenerating into abject tedium and a severe cramping of one’s patience, threatening this whodunit with a why-do-it-at-all? and who-cares? It is not simply that the murders all take place with a sort of random fascination and increasingly implausible and claustrophobic vacuum, merely to increase the body count (indeed, killing the cook, a tap-dancing telegram girl, a passing motorist, and, an unsuspecting cop, merely to deflect from the rigor mortis already settling into our blackmailer of the piece is a little like sinking the Titanic simply to add a few inches of water to its indoor swimming pool), but they also add up with alarming frequency to just ‘more of the same’ instead of shocking surprises that might have helped Clue procure a darker air to its mystery at hand; something the board game was infinitely more successful at securing from its active participants.
Still, whenever the Lynn/Landis screenplay paused long enough from its Agatha Christie-ish pontifications, it is remotely possible to appreciate – if never to bask in – the artful performances given by the likes of Leslie Ann Warren (as woman of ill repute, Miss Scarlet), the aforementioned, Tim Curry, Martin Mull (as Colonel Mustard who, at least in the board game, though not this movie, is afforded occasional props as the murderer with a monkey wrench), Christopher Lloyd (a rather bookish, Professor Plum), Eileen Brennan (as the curmudgeonly senator’s wife, Mrs. Peacock: aside, could the moniker of her never-seen husband in the board game have been the basis for Are You Being Served?’s officious floor manager, Capt. Peacock?), Michael McKean (of Laverne & Shirley ‘Squiggy’ fame, as the closeted homosexual, Mr. Green), Madeline Kahn (Mrs. White, whose two husbands have died under suspiciously similar circumstances), Lee Ving (as the cryptic Mr. Bobby, soon to become the first victim of the piece – twice!), Colleen Camp (a slutty French maid, oddly enough working in a proper English household populated by a mostly American cast…go figure), Bill Henderson (as the ill-fated cop), Jane Wiedlin (fatally stricken, as the ‘singing telegram’ girl), and, Howard Hesseman (a thoroughly amusing Jehovah’s Witness-styled ‘evangelist’/later to be revealed as the Chief of Police, bursting in to break up the mayhem too late in the third act. Utterly wasted in this deluge are Kellye Nakahara, as the nondescript ‘cook’ - Ho, stabbed in the back and stuffed into a walk-in freezer, and, Jeffrey Kramer (as, the unexceptional ‘stranded motorist’, struck in the head by Colonel Mustard’s monkey wrench…though perhaps, not by Colonel Mustard).
Clue is set in New England circa 1954, though exactly why this year should be of particular relevance remains a mystery. As storm clouds gather on the horizon we are introduced to Wadsworth, arriving home with fresh steaks for a pair of seemingly vicious German Shepherds chained near the front door. The dogs bark and bear their fangs until the raw meat is tossed them; the ominousness of the moment diffused as Wadsworth inadvertently steps into some fresh excrement the animals have left behind on the front porch; a sight (and sniff) gag repeated with the arrival of each new guest brought to the manor house. It is the sort of sophomoric detail for which Landis’ script-writing and movies are well known, and so refreshing to see it not overplayed for a change henceforward. In short order, we meet Ho, rather violently brandishing a carving knife; also, the French maid, Yvette, and then, one by one, the roster of suspects: Colonel Mustard, followed by Mrs. White, Mrs. Peacock and Mr. Green. Miss Scarlet’s car suffers a breakdown on the fog-laden highway. She is given a lift to the estate by Professor Plum who also confesses having received a letter beckoning his attendance.
After a few awkward moments of getting acquainted, this unlikely cast of misfits is ushered into the dining room; any and all of their queries deflected by Wadsworth, who remains cryptic in his replies. Late to this party is Mr. Boddy, whom it is revealed is the reason for the evening’s festivities. Indeed, Wadsworth explains to all of the invited, they have been blackmailed by Mr. Boddy for quite some time; Scarlet, for running a house of ill repute; Mrs. Peacock, for accepting political bribes on her husband’s behalf; Mr. Green for his closeted homosexuality; Professor Plum, as a former physician since stripped of his medical practitioner’s license for inappropriate relations with a female patient; Mrs. White, under suspicion for having murdered two of her husbands, and Colonel Mustard, for wartime profiteering in the black market. Wadsworth suggests the police have already been summoned to the manor to take everyone’s deposition. Wadsworth further complicates matters by suggesting everyone tell the truth about being blackmailed; hence, when the police arrive they may arrest Mr. Boddy for extortion and thereafter themselves be freed of concern and further blackmail attempts for the respective errors of their way. But Boddy is a sly fox, presenting each of the attendees with an implement with which they may choose to commit a murder (a wrench, candlestick, lead pipe, knife, revolver, and rope tied in a hangman's knot). Boddy encourages someone to kill Wadsworth – the only person other than him who could expose their secrets. Of course, Boddy will continue to blackmail everyone, but the identity of Wadsworth’s murderer will remain a secret to all as the lights are dimmed to conceal the crime.
As mentioned earlier, Clue is a movie more interested with its craftily slick and deliciously devious dialogue than with concocting an actual plot that makes sense. In fact, nothing much adds up from this moment forward or even in the few preceding it. As example: Wadsworth informs his guests he is working for an employer, but then denies Boddy is this man, even as Boddy later exposes a prior ‘professional’ alliance with Wadsworth . Why Boddy should wish his loyal servant killed, merely to maintain everyone’s silence, is an awkward contrivance. What follows is even more inexplicably odd to borderline ridiculous: Boddy, murdered in the dark; Plum declaring him dead when in actuality he is merely unconscious…or is he merely faking; the blame game enveloping everyone in the room with each of the guests desperate to exonerate themselves of the murder by accusing the others of having committed it. Wadsworth confides he too had a motive for wishing Boddy dead; his now deceased wife was being blackmailed by Boddy until she elected to take her own life. Wadsworth now suggests Boddy’s primary motivation for the bribery was his own patriotism; that he ruthlessly considers each of the participants in this room ‘un-American’ – a naughty work in the post-war era seeded by McCarthy witch hunts.
Wadsworth suggests everyone check on the only two people not in the room; Yvette, who has been recording their conversations on a reel-to-reel in the adjacent billiard room, and Ho, who is discovered stabbed in the back with the knife Boddy gave Mrs. Peacock; her body locked inside the kitchen freezer. Returning to the study to convalesce, the group makes an even more startling breakthrough; Boddy’s body is gone. Removed by the killer? Or perhaps, Boddy was never really dead. Making a quick search of the house, Mrs. Peacock discovers Boddy’s remains, this time bludgeoned by the candlestick and left in the lavatory at the top of the stairs. Wadsworth speculates someone else must be in the house; a rather curiously unsubstantiated twist. As virtually everyone is eager to leave the house as soon as possible, the various members elect – rather idiotically – to split into groups of two to search for clues. Meanwhile, a stranded motorist arrives on the front stoop to inquire whether he might us their telephone to call for help. Miraculously, the front doors, earlier suggested by Wadsworth to have been bolted shut from the outside, now open without restraint, allowing the innocent bystander to be led into the library. Inexplicably, the man is locked up in the library while everyone pairs off to search the house. Miss Scarlet and Colonel Mustard soon discover a secret passage behind an oil painting in the living room.
Meanwhile, the man in the library is murdered with the lead pipe by an unseen killer emerging from another secret passage behind the fireplace. Miss Scarlet and Colonel Mustard eventually stumble upon his body and alert everyone else to their grizzly find. The group is next startled by the arrival of a rather naïve police officer who, having discovered the stalled motorist’s car in the pouring rain, makes his inquiries up at the house; nervously addressed by everyone with blatant denials to ever having encountered the man. Worse, the group now deliberately acts as though the blood from these crimes is ascribed to all; staging a rather awkward and macabre scene of drunken revelry with tinges of necrophilia; Colonel Mustard making out with Ho’s corpse while Miss Scarlet applies a little alcohol to the dead motorist’s lips; slumping him into a chair to feign his having passed out from too much booze. The charade fools the cop. However, not long thereafter he too is found murdered with the lead pipe in the drawing room, and Yvette, strangled with the hangman’s noose; her body splayed across the billiard table. At approximately this same interval, someone shoots a singing telegram girl, newly arrived to warble a tune on the front porch.
Clue now unleashes its most ludicrous pivot of meaningless plot points; a frenetic garble as Wadsworth recaps virtually the entire evening’s events in grave detail at a breakneck pace, racing in and out of the various rooms, trailed by the guests who continue to hang on his every word. Wadsworth points out each of the victims had a connection to one of the guests and were, in fact, Mr. Boddy’s accomplices in his crime of blackmail. Ho, as example, was Mrs. Peacock’s former cook; the motorist, Colonel Mustard's chauffeur during the war; Yvette, an ex-prostitute in Miss Scarlet’s employ, and, the woman who had an affair with Mrs. White's second husband – the illusionist who vanished into thin air. The police officer also was on Scarlet's payroll, while the singing telegram girl is Professor Plum's former psychiatric patient whom he seduced. Before proceeding to one of the three endings ascribed the picture, Wadsworth’s recollections are delayed by the appearance of an evangelist forewarning all, “the 'Kingdom of Heaven' is at hand.” Remember, in theaters, only one ending was shown to summarize the idiotic machinations of the plot thus far: version ‘A’ suggesting, Miss Scarlett, threatening Yvette with exposure of her spurious past as an ex-call girl, now ordered to kill both Mr. Boddy and Ho, before she kills Yvette to keep her ‘business’ secrets safe. Miss Scarlet then produces the revolver, holding Wadsworth and the rest of the group hostage at gunpoint. Wadsworth informs the gun has been emptied of bullets and furthermore, reveals himself to be an undercover FBI agent. The evangelist bursts in with the police; illuminating for all he is, in fact, the Chief of Police incognito. To prove no real harm could have come to any of them, Wadsworth fires the revolver into the air; a single bullet exiting its chamber and severing the chain tied to an elaborate chandelier. It crashes down only a few inches away from Colonel Mustard who is startled, but otherwise unharmed.
In Version ‘B’, Mrs. Peacock is revealed as having killed virtually all the victims, though the motive for her uniformed, if creatively staged slaughter remains rather vague. Once again, Wadsworth comes clean as an FBI agent; but this time, having staged the entire night’s festivities, merely to spy on Peacock and gain new and incriminating insight into her acceptance of payoffs and bribes on behalf of her politico/hubby. As before, the authorities arrive in the nick of time, apprehending Peacock, with the evangelist exposed as the Chief of Police. In Version ‘C’ each of the murders is committed by a different person. Whodunit? They all did; Professor Plum killing Mr. Bobby; Mrs. Peacock dispatching Ho in the kitchen; Colonel Mustard attacking the motorist with his wrench; Mrs. White taking care of Yvette in the billiard room, and finally, Miss Scarlett finishing off the cop in the library with the lead pipe. Again, the motive for these not terribly ingenious murders is weak to practically nonexistent; Wadsworth disclosing, not only that he killed the singing telegram girl, but he is actually Mr. Boddy; the man, Plum murdered, his butler. Wadsworth, so it seems, has brought the other victims to his estate knowing they would killed one another out of revenge. Wadsworth informs the group he intends to go on with his blackmailing of them as there is no one left to bring evidence against him. Only Mr. Green kills Wadsworth with a concealed revolver, before enlightening the remaining guests he is actually the real FBI agent. Everyone is arrested, and the evangelist, as before is exposed as the Chief of Police.
Clue might have worked as a devilishly clever thriller; even as humorously inspired, deceptively ‘black’ comedy. Except it is so far gone down the rabbit hole into precisely the sort of topsy-turvy/Alice in Wonderland type of whack-tac-u-lar nightmare, it knows not when, or even how, to draw back from this farce-laden precipice. The joke, it seems, is on those due diligent in trying to solve these baffling crimes using Sherlockian deductive reasoning, because none of the three aforementioned scenarios is entirely satisfying or even amusedly self-explanatory to the events as prior witnessed. The machinations bringing us to this point of no return are, in and of themselves, utterly nonsensical to a fault, deliberately obfuscating and, in hindsight, meant to be as obtuse in the Lynn/Landis screenplay, more passionate about throwing the novice crime solvers off the scent of any sort of sanity or logic we might wish to ascribe in vain to these proceedings. The thriller aspect thus rendered moot leaves Clue as a ribald comedy full of misleading and inflammatory suspicions; a roller coaster ride whose cars, hypothetically speaking, never return to station by the end.
One virtue of the picture is irrefutable; the good will with which virtually its entire cast is able to sell this tripe with ad hoc hedonism for remaining quaintly silly, yet charmingly ‘above it all’; particularly, Tim Curry. As Wadsworth, Curry is an elegant bon vivant in wolf’s clothing; leering and bawdy, feverishly ebullient and teeming with exactly the sort of unmitigated penchant for petty larceny while emphatically – and even more miraculously – grounding these insane plot developments as the faux voice of reason – in short, a sheer delight to watch from start to finish. Employing a completely different acting style, Madeline Kahn achieves a similar effect via understated and subversive comedic timing, bordering on genius. In her widow’s veil, Kahn’s darkly purposed femme fatale remains unruffled by the thought of being exposed as the ‘black widow’ of the group, responsible for at least two ex-husbands’ untimely passing.
And Kahn, a formidable actress, knows exactly which buttons to push to achieve her character’s glacial insincerity. While the rest of the stars in Clue increasingly rely on troupes and caricature to represent themselves as mere archetypes, Kahn, with limited opportunities to truly shine, nevertheless applies a sort of actor’s time-honored acumen to ‘finding her character’ and unearths nuggets of wisdom with considerable ease in the art of standing out from the crowd; the minimalist of this antisocial gathering. Her performance is both magnetic and purposeful; qualities none of the others achieve or arguably even dare to aspire. It is a sincere pity Clue’s script has virtually nothing to offer the viewer – even on the first time around; and certainly nothing to sustain interest a second or third time, once we have endured the chronic un-spooling of its dreary pratfalls, silly slapstick and second rate Vaudevillian comedy sketches, rather heavy-handed and laid from end to end with a few exhaustive bits scattered throughout and a rather pretentious ordeal to wade through. I rather liked some of the characters who populated this mangled mess of a crime picture: just not enough to give them a second chance any time soon.
Paramount Home Video’s Blu-ray is a top-notch affair. For those who have helped nurture Clue’s cult status ever since it bombed at the box office, this 1080p transfer is decidedly your cup of tea. Hemlock, anyone? Colors are rich, vibrant and absorbing; the palette favoring warm brown hues, with stark splashes of red, green and navy blue. Flesh tones are quite natural and contrast is generally pleasing. Thanks to some rather obvious restoration efforts, age-related artifacts are nonexistent and the filmic appearance – a.k.a. grain structure – is natural without any untoward digital tinkering to deny us its many-textured appearance. I was, in fact, quite amazed by the sumptuousness of the woodwork in the paneling and Gothic bric-a-brac scattered throughout John Robert Lloyd’s exquisite production design; Victor J. Kemper’s cinematography immaculately rendered with virtually zero complaints. Fine details pops as it should, revealing extraordinary amounts of information in skin, hair, fabrics, and background furnishings. Wow and thank you! This is a reference quality transfer. A debt of thanks is owed… less so for the uninspired and thoroughly flat DTS 2.0 audio. Clue is a dialogue-driven movie and this soundtrack is crisp and clean. Where it lags is during moments where music cues and, more importantly, sound effects (like a gun shot or smashing furniture, meant to startle) sound tinny and on an almost linear plain with the dialogue. There is virtually no spatial separation to SFX like the stormy thundershower, the patter of rain on the stained glass muted and dull; the screech of car tires on wet pavement, or sudden clasp of thunder and lightning outside, little more than an intrusive whimper. Unfortunately, Clue gets no extra features, unless, of course, one counts the ‘home video’ version (where all three ‘endings’ are bundled together with inserted title cards to separate and superficially ‘make sense’ of the action). Choosing the theatrical option randomly selects only one ending to be applied to the movie. One can also choose to view each ending separately at the click of a button. Bottom line: Clue is not a masterpiece or even a faithful homage to the celebrated board game from whence it derives its namesake and inspiration. Judge accordingly, but buy this disc with confidence. The transfer is superb.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)