Filmmakers have been using gimmicks for years prior to the 1985 release of Clue and still do to this day. William Castle’s horror movies would break the fourth wall and have someone run through the theater in a monster costume. Sometimes the joy of watching a movie is the escapism it provides even for a couple of hours.
The board game Cluedo or Clue had been out for 40 years by the time a film adaptation hit the theaters. Now, a lot of people were wondering how in the sam hill are you going to make a movie based on a board game? But at the same time, they’re making board games based on popular movies and TV shows.
Jonathan Lynn and John Landis teamed together to make a black comedy based on the game. Its plot is along the lines of the 1976 mystery comedy Murder by Death, but Clue takes it up a notch. The plot involves six strangers all using aliases: Col. Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan who had also appeared in Murder by Death), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren) and Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn) who are all being blackmailed by the mysterious Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving).
Wadsworth (Tim Curry) a butler is preparing for the meeting at a mansion somewhere in New England in 1954. None of the strangers are supposed to know each other but both Mrs. White and Miss Scarlet notice the maid, Yvette (Colleen Camp sporting an outrageous French accent and cleavage that seems close to popping out). Mr. Green tells Mrs. Peacock he knows who she really is as they converse over dinner.
When Mr. Boddy shows up, he gives hints he knows Yvette, but when he tries to leave, Wadsworth has locked the door and Dobermans are outside. So, Mr. Boddy and the others retire to the study where he presents them each with a present. As they open the boxes, they discover a candlestick, a wrench, a dagger, a lead pipe, a rope tied in a noose and a six-shot revolver. Mr. Boddy tells them to kill Wadsworth to get the key to the front door and turns out the lights. A thud is heard then a gunshot. Mr. Boddy is lying on the floor. He’s not shot but Plum claims he’s dead.
And thus begins a movie in which characters are coming in and out of rooms. Later they discover the Cook (Kellye Nakahara) has been stabbed in the back by the dagger and put in the freezer. They discover Mr. Boddy is missing but he’s found dead later with blunt force trauma caused by the candlestick.
A Motorist (Jeffrey Kramer) shows up claiming car trouble and asks to use the phone but gets killed by a blow to the head from the wrench. A Policeman (Bill Henderson) arrives later saying he noticed the Motorist’s broken down car and asks to use the phone too.
And well, you probably can guess what happens if you haven’t seen it already.
Like the board game, the mystery is who responsible. When the movie hit theaters in December of 1985, it came with listings for showtimes with different endings labeled A, B and C. The idea was someone would pay to see the movie three times to discover who did what. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Produced for $15 million, it didn’t even break even. Initial reviews weren’t that favorable either.
So, the movie later found its audiences on the home video market and repeated viewings on cable TV. And that’s where it’s more appropriate. I don’t blame audiences for not wanting to pay three times to see it and having to go from theater to theater, but it was a noble attempt. When it was later viewed on the home video market and cable, all three endings were edited in. Maybe the filmmakers should’ve done this from the start. Either way, the home video edit is one of the first examples of a director’s cut with extended scenes.
What people don’t realize is how brilliant the movie is. Very few movies are set in real time and this one is almost set in real time from the events that start when everyone has arrived to the point of the conclusion. At one point, Wadsworth tells them the police have been notified and should arrive in about 45 minutes. And about 45 minutes later, a law officer (Howard Hesseman), pretending to evangelist shows up at the front door.
There also the way the characters are dressed in contrast to their aliases. Col. Mustard is wearing a ketchup-color suit. Mrs. White is dressed in black. Mr. Green has a blue suit with a red tie as red, green and blue are all primary colors. Professor Plum is wearing an olive-colored suit. Miss Scarlet is wearing green and Mrs. Peacock is wearing gold and orange.
There’s also the clever witty dialogue and delivery of the actors. What is ingenious all of the actors are normally casted in supporting roles. This is great because not one actor needs to stand out. McKean later said he was surprised he was asked to audition and Mull said he was expecting they wanted him to Green. I heard Carrie Fisher was originally considered for Mrs. White but had to decline because she was entering a rehab for substance abuse. I think it would’ve been stunt casting. I don’t think anyone but the late Kahn could’ve pulled off a role.
All actors seem to work off each other. McKean has a shy nervousness to his role as Green, who claims he’s a secret homosexual. Warren seems to reveal in her performance that is a throwback to femme fatales. And Brennan, who had played the very authoritative Captain Lewis in the Private Benjamin movie and TV show, is playing more of a socialite, which is the exact opposite of her role as Lewis. Mull is always good and Lloyd proves why he is an underrated actor, being able to disappear into so many roles as colorful characters. But it’s Curry who steals the show as Wadsworth. You can see he’s having a lot of fun when he’s running around the house trying to explain to everyone how he knows how each character was killed and by who.
Not to give away too much about what happens and who is responsible, but Mustard drops a hint early one when he quotes Rudyard Kipling by saying, “The female of the species is more deadly than the male.” And if you watch really closely, you can see a picture of the Motorist with one of the six strangers dropping a hint on who kills him.
Audiences may not have been interested in seeing a dark comedy at this time. But the times were changing. By the end of the decade, more people found the humor in these movies. One of the most memorable scenes involves actress/singer Jane Weidlin popping up as the Singing Telegram Girl only to be shot seconds later. Lynn is one of those directors who can handle darker movies and make us laugh. He would later find huge success with My Cousin Vinny, a comedy about a murder case.
The legacy of this movie has extended over the years. I heard one of my friends has a young son in elementary school who is a big fan. Mull and Warren were later cast as the parents of Brita (Gillian Jacobs) on the TV show Community, which was funny because neither characters liked each other in Clue.
There’s been talks of remaking it for the past 10 years. I’m not sure that’s a good idea. A movie like this doesn’t need to be remade. I’m not sure a better cast or director could be chosen to make a story like this. Another friend said she tried to write a play based on the movie but couldn’t finish it. And it would work probably as a play.
Clue is a great mixture of slapstick, dark humor, rapid-fire dialogue and performances that elevate the characters. There’s something about how Mull talks about “losing his mommy and daddy” that’s funny. Or how they’ll say, “Too late,” after Wadsworth keeps saying, “To make a long story short.” And Kahn delivers a line that she totally improvised about being upset with Yvette that only Kahn could say.
Pardon the pun, but it’d be a crime to remake it.