On a stormy evening in 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era, six strangers meet at the kind of baroque mansion that only exists in movies. Greeting them at the door is Wadsworth (Tim Curry), a stiff English butler who reveals that they are all victims of a blackmail scheme masterminded by the mysterious Mr. Boddy (played by FEAR singer and sometimes actor Lee Ving). Before long, Mr. Boddy expires under mysterious circumstances and as the bodies start piling up the multi-colored cast of characters start scrambling around trying to figure out who did in who with what and where.
When Paramount released Clue in 1985, it was the first board game to motion picture adaptation ever made, and had the added novelty of featuring three different endings that changed depending on what theatre you attended. For some, it was Miss Scarlet with the rope in the billiard room, for others Mrs. Peacock with the candlestick in the hall, and then there’s the final ending of everyone with everything in every room.
The odd thing about Clue is how inessential the plot is to the rest of the movie. Most murder mysteries build a twisting narrative to drop clues, flesh out the cast and to lead characters and viewers astray, and while Clue’s narrative is as convoluted as any dime store detective novel, with its sudden power outages and mysterious phone calls from J. Edgar Hoover, the story comes out feeling thin and inconsequential. Worse yet, unlike the Agatha Christie drawing room mysteries it mimics, there’s no way of guessing the identity of the killer before the big reveal(s). The film is also filled with chunky bits dialogue like: “This all has nothing to do with my disappearing nuclear physicist husband or Colonel Mustard’s work with the new top-secret fusion bomb,” a line that both Madeline Kahn and Christopher Lloyd barely manage to spit out. It does, however, set up one of the most often quoted lines in the movie: “Communism was just a red herring.”
Of course, Clue’s many faults didn’t go over very well with the critics of the day. Roger Ebert dismissed it as being generally unfunny, while New York Times critic Janet Maslin mostly just balked at the film being rated PG and containing so many jokes involving dog poop or the maid’s breasts (portrayed in the film by the breasts of Colleen Camp).
It’s impossible to tell why (or even if) Mrs. White murdered her scientist husband, or why Miss Scarlet, who runs a Washington prostitution ring, would be privy to big enough government secrets to warrant being targeted for blackmail. Clue goes through the motions of dropping hints and red herrings at every turn, but it’s largely for the sake of sticking to genre, and since the narrative has to shoulder the burden of three different endings, everyone’s motives and actions become mighty diffuse mighty quickly.
How did Mrs. Peacock kill Mr. Boddy if she was in the kitchen with everyone else when they found the cook’s body? What is Miss Scarlet afraid of when inspecting the ballroom if she’s the mastermind behind the blackmail scheme? Who clubs the motorist? Who takes the key from Wadsworth’s pocket? Who cares? Whodunnit doesn’t matter.
Writer/Director Jonathan Lynn, a successful British sitcom writer turned feature director whose success ranges from My Cousin Vinny to *ahem* Sgt. Bilko, doesn’t even try to make the central mystery of Clue substantive; the mysteries, the character twists, and even the way people are murdered are all there solely to service the comedy. As much of a cop-out it is to say this, Clue’s sloppy narrative and aloof pacing makes its quick-fire dialogue and wry, if not corny, sense of humor stand out. It’s why the movie works and why it remains so utterly re-watchable. The movie bombards you with jokes, dumb plot twists and sight gags at such a rapid pace that they seem to happen simultaneously, making subsequent viewings rich with picking up funny little details like Professor Plum working for the United Nations Office, World Health Organization, or UNO WHO, which is such a stupid joke that I actually find it endearing.
The mystery acts as a playground where the cast members can stumble over each other, an excuse for quips poking fun at the 50s political landscape (“She had friends who were… Socialists.” “*audible gasp*”) or Wadsworth’s tendency to meander into labored exposition (“and you got a letter, and you got a letter, and you got a letter”). There’s physicality to Clue that has lasting appeal, especially Curry’s sweat-drenched brow as he bounces from room to room explaining away who did what and where. But there are also smaller sequences that stand out, like the scene where Michael McKean’s Mr. Green tries to play it cool in front of a curious cop through terrified, mad eyed smiles:
The film’s frenzied pace and near constant volley of jokes pulls attention away from the otherwise jumbled narrative to the point where you hardly even notice that the plot is nothing but a long series of sleights and misdirection.
Oddly enough, it’s the interchangeable nature of the film’s three endings that makes the movie bizarrely true to the nature of the board game. The first 70 minutes of the film are left so open that the identity of the killer and blackmail mastermind is as random as a shuffle of the cards. There could be many more endings to Clue, one where Mr. Green sheds his twitchy effeminate shell to reveal a stone cold killer who clubbed the motorist because they were former lovers; or one where Professor Plum kills the cop because the man was having an affair with the singing telegram girl. All sorts of crazy shit is possible with Clue’s narrative. According to Curry, there actually was a fourth ending shot but discarded, one which involved Wadsworth poisoning everyone and absconding in a stolen police car, an escape that’s cut short when he’s torn apart by the police dogs that happened to be sitting in the back seat.
If anything, Clue’s multiple ending construct is an interesting, if failed, experiment. The movie works best with all three endings (as Ebert actually notes in his review), because having just one puts too much pressure on the story to be actually, you know, competent, and if it weren’t as aloofly funny as it is Clue would be as bad as the reviews say.