In 'Clue', Communism Is Just a Red Herring

by Chris Barsanti

5 August 2012

The 1985 movie of the murder-mystery board game is really just an excuse for this band of comic actors to play around with a locked-room sex farce that’s also a light satire on witchhunts.
cover art

Clue: The Movie

Director: Jonathan Lynn
Cast: Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Lesley Ann Warren, Colleen Camp, Lee Ving, Bill Henderson, Jane Wiedlin

(Paramount Pictures)
US DVD: 7 Aug 2012

“Husbands should be like Kleenex: soft, strong, and disposable.”
—Mrs. White

Somewhere buried deep in an email chain that’s been slung like Spider-man’s web from producer’s office to various screenwriters to yet other producers in Hollywood right now may well reside infinite variations on this question: How do we make a movie out of the board-game Clue? The murder mystery has been a staple of the big, not small, screen for years now, so the basic premise of the game will seem somewhat out of step with the current creative criminal vogue (where’s the bloody-hair DNA sample? Send it to trace!).

That whole alien invasion angle didn’t work quite so well in Battleship, so perhaps going too far afield isn’t the best idea; though admittedly, that was a more limited game premise to build a film around, like trying to craft human drama out of Stratego. It’s extremely likely that nowhere in this abstracted committee of moviemaking has anybody suggested, “Hey, how about making it into something of a sex farce that’s also an allegory for the McCarthy era?” That’s not just because it was already done but because such an idea would never fly.

Except it did, in 1985. Somehow. The lamentably extras-free Blu-ray release of Clue: The Movie doesn’t include anything about the film’s genesis, so it’s difficult to know how producers must have taken the original pitch. Those who were skeptical were likely proven “right”, as the film wasn’t what anybody would call a hit. Likely somebody piped up and wondered why, in the dead middle of the Reagan ‘80s, were they putting out a movie based on a family board game which kept referencing the House Un-American Activities Committee in negative fashion? But somehow, such negative voices were silenced, and one of the decade’s more curiously successful comedies was allowed to move ahead.

The scenario cooked up by director Jonathan Lynn (later responsible for lowest-common-denominator infamies like The Whole Nine Yards) with his co-writer John Landis (coming off a strong pop-horror stretch with Thriller and An American Werewolf in London) seems at first a perfectly sensible one for a locked-room murder mystery like Clue. On a dark and stormy night, several people arrive one by one at your prototypical gloomy and remote manor home. Not long after their arrival, there will be a murder, which they’ll have to solve before the police show up.

Although everybody shows up with the codenames remembered from the game (Col. Mustard, and so on), their secrets are quickly bared by the arrival of their “guest”: a slimy blackmailer named Mr. Boddy (get it?) who is played by Fear singer Lee Ving as a hybrid of Robert De Niro and some Damon Runyon character. One Boddy is killed off in the few seconds after somebody turns out the lights, the guests start to panic and accuse, and more bodies start turning up.

Leaving the untangling of the actual murders to the end – the bodies start piling up fairly quickly – the filmmakers spend most of the film’s beginning playing off the characters’ various eccentricities and teasing out the real reasons they’ve been brought to the house. This entails a fair amount of double entendre that’s so broad it would make a vaudevillian cringe, not to mention making a mockery of its PG rating. It’s all about as deep as a Playboy cartoon circa 1959: the men (Christopher Lloyd, Martin Mull) are buffoonish and leering, while the women (Eileen Brennan, Lesley Ann Warren, Madeline Kahn) are either sluttish or shrewish, and there’s even a bosomy maid (Colleen Camp) tipping about in a Halloween-worthy get-up (lacy frills and all) to ensure that the men have plenty to bug their eyes out at.

But in between the poor jokes robustly delivered, there creeps a light satire on the nature of McCarthyism and witchhunts. All of the characters have something to hide, but the mood of the time and the fact that everyone is politically connected, delivers that extra edge of panic (homicidal, on occasion) which keeps the film rollicking toward farce territory. When panicked paranoia isn’t enough to keep the film moving, Lynn throws curveballs, like the singing telegram girl (Jane Wiedlin) who barely gets three words out before being shot dead or the sight of two crowds of people pulling on opposite sides of the same door (one shouting “Let us in, let us in!”, the other, “Let Us Out! Let Us Out!”).

Playing the butler Wadsworth, Tim Curry is alternately deadpan and ravingly clownish; he’s the arched-eyebrown center that keeps the whole enterprise together as much as possible (“I’m a butler, sir. I butle”). As crackerjack as the rest of the cast is with the downright silly material – Kahn in particular, with her brittle and manic songbird voice – Curry is the standout here, orchestrating the mayhem with aplomb. He’s as gimmicky as the house’s honeycomb of secret passages or the multiple endings (each revealed a different murderer; at the time theaters ran different ones in the hopes of getting people back multiple times, while all three run together at the end of the Blu-ray disk).

Wadsworth is also the only character who seems above casting aspersions; while the other guests are busy denying their secrets or gasping audibly when hearing about somebody who was a socialist, he’s simply trying to keep a lid on things. It’s the same sort of resolute behavior that ultimately defeated old Joe McCarthy himself (glimpsed in one scene just for a second, sweating angrily), a point that somehow seems to matter, even in such a National Lampoon-style revue such as this.

Clue: The Movie


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