Published on January 17th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Summary: A criminally underrated murder mystery comedy where each cast member pulls their weight. Easily Tim Curry's best performance in men's clothing.
PG | 94 min.
Director: Jonathan Lynn | Screenplay: John Landis, Jonathan Lynn (Based on the board game Clue)
Starring: Tim Curry, Michael McKean, Lesley Ann Warren
Studio: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment | Distribution: Paramount Pictures
In a world where nearly every movie that hits theaters is based on some previous work–be it a novel, comic book, video game or historical text–does it get any more lame than a board game adaptation? Of all the things you could base a 90 minute film on, it can’t get any lower than a folding piece of cardboard with a two-page instruction booklet providing the background story information. When Battleship hit theaters in 2012, nobody was buying in that this was going to be a ticket worth $8.
Audience reaction was similar in 1985 when Paramount green lit a big screen adaptation of Hasbro’s iconic whodunit game Clue (or Cluedo overseas). The Clue film didn’t bomb as badly as Battleship but it still came out under-budget after its theatrical run, despite one hell of a movie theater gimmick.
Part of the fun in Clue the game is that you never know who did it, how they did or where they did it, it changed every game thanks to a random shuffling of the cards. This keeps the game fresh every time you play–unlike Trivial Pursuit, you can play the game forever and it will always be different. Co-writer/Director Jonathan Lynn wanted Clue the film to play much the same way, so they gave the picture three different endings which were randomly distributed to theaters that were playing the film. This meant you could see a different conclusion depending where you saw the movie, which probably made for some awkward conversation between people who saw it at different theaters (“What are you talking about, idiot? Professor Plum didn’t do it!”)
Despite gimmicks and the limits of a board games’s plot, Clue is a fantastic movie and truly one of the funniest ’80s movies you probably never saw. The cast is a dream team of comedic actors: Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show), Madeline Kahn (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein), Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Taxi), Martin Mull (Roseanne, Sabrina the Teenage Witch) and Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York). Along with straighter, more dramatic talents Leslie Ann Warren and Oscar nominee Eileen Brennan rounding out the gang of iconic characters. Plum, Green, Mustard, Scarlett, White, Peacock and the unlucky Mr. Boddy are all represented as well as Curry’s character Wadsworth the Butler, who serves as the film’s main character.
The group of strangers are brought together for a dinner party at a spooky mansion on a stormy night in 1954 New England. They aren’t sure why they’ve been invited and why they’ve been assigned aliases but as the evening unfolds, it’s revealed that they’re all being blackmailed by Mr. Boddy for various secrets they each conceal. Someone else is pulling the strings however as each person is given a weapon and when Boddy turns up dead, they begin trying to figure out who did it–and as more bodies start piling up, the paranoia only increases until finally the mystery is solved by Wadsworth.
This movie is part of the underused subgenre of dinner party murder mysteries. 1976’s Murder by Death, also starring Brennan, is very similar, as well as more serious pictures like Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. All the film’s suspects are gathered together in a single setting for the duration of the action giving the audience the chance to work things out for themselves along with the characters. In Clue‘s case, you can’t really solve the mystery, as the endings change, but it’s a blast just watching the madness unfold.
John Landis co-wrote the screenplay with Lynn, giving the picture another serious comic credential, yet you get the feeling most of the great moments were improvised on-set. Curry is brilliant and once again has me asking the question, why is in so few films? I’m a big Rocky Horror fan but to me, this is his best performance and certainly his funniest. He’s all over the place in one of the most physical roles you’ll see in a comedy picture. Clue takes place in one house for nearly its entire duration but Curry stretches the set from wall-to-wall, using every room for all its worth. In the home video version, you get to see all three endings consecutively and seeing him break down the film’s plot in rapid-fire cadence as he walks us through the solution is a monologue that all aspiring comedy actors should study.
McKean is equally brilliant as Mr. Green, the straightest (*wink wink) male character in the group. When he flies off the handle in sheer terror as the body count rises, his range proves to be gigantic. Coming up with the personalities of these characters that everyone already knew as mere faces on playing cards had to be fun and I feel like they nailed each of them. Warren’s Miss Scarlett is of course sexy and dangerous while Lloy’s Professor Plum is sophisticated and lecherous.
Miss White is the most unexpected personality as she dons all black everything and a persona that matches. Kahn steals pretty much every scene she’s in with pitch dark one-liners about the strange fact that she’s a widow several times over (“Husbands should be like Kleenex: soft, strong and disposable.”)
As lame an idea as a movie based on a video game is, Clue feels less like a cash grab and more like a legitimate attempt at making a funny film. With strong comedic talents behind and in front of the camera, this one gets it right and makes for a great pick if you’re looking for a movie to watch with a group around Halloween time. Just pay attention because the jokes come fast and often–nearly every line of dialogue is a setup or punchline.
And while we’re talking about board game movie adaptations, I’ve got an idea for any studio exec looking to make his fortune.