Twenty-seven years on from this picture, 'Clue' survives wonderfully as one of the best comedies of the '80s, the black comedic farce based on the Parker Brothers board game featuring six equally great performances as the famed house guests and murder suspects, and a commanding comic performance from Tim Curry as the venerable butler. 'Clue'’s wicked mixture of dead-pan wit and wicked slapstick feels like Mel Brooks lampooning 'Rules of the Game' as an Agatha Christie mystery.
Clue (1985) dir. Jonathan Lynn
Starring: Tim Curry, Michael McKean, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Madeline Kahn, Lesley Ann Warren, Martin Mull
It’s 1954 New England, an Agatha Christie set-up, a rainy night and a group of strangers gathering for a dinner party at a gloomy hill top mansion. Dramatic crashes of lightning and other delicious music stings establish a heightened sense of mystery and intrigue, and the dreamy early rock and roll music cues as a counterpoint to the delirious murder and mayhem to come.
The affable but secretive butler, Wadsworth (Curry), welcomes the guests who are given six fake names, known to us by the charcters in the board game; Prof Plum (Lloyd), Miss Scarlett (Warren), Mrs. White (Kahn), Mrs. Peacock (Brennan), Mr. Green (McKean) and Col. Mustard (Mull). The six deadly weapons are also cleverly integrated into the mix when Mr. Body, the nefarious host who is revealed to be blackmailing all the guests for the various indiscretions, gives each guest a weapon to kill Wadsworth. Of course, it’s Mr. Body who winds up dead and everyone is a suspect.
Jonathan Lynn’s direction is unstylish but effective, choreographing his action using wide shots to put as many characters in his frames as possible. Lynn’s camera moves invisibly throughout the space to capture the reactions of all the characters to the zaniness of the action all at once. And so, it’s the rhythm of dialogue which sets the pace of the scenes. Cast mostly by supporting actors, no one particular character stands out. Each complements the other, bringing their own comic flavours to the table - an ensemble in the best sense.
The actors are just as comfortable timing their witty one-liners as performing pratfalls and other traditional slapstick material. Tim Curry's performance is the most inspired, as he sells gags like the quick insults aimed at the slow-witted Col. Mustard and controls the pace with his remarkable manic physicality.
As written by Lynn (with John Landis), the script could not be any tighter. It only takes an hour or so before Wadsworth proclaims to know who the killer is. The entire third act is a delirious sequence, featuring Curry as Wadsworth retelling and re-acting the entire film we just saw with the aggressive franticness of the Marx Bros.
Equally inspired are the three endings shot for the film and released as three separate movies back in its theatrical release. It was a terrific marketing hook, which to my knowledge hasn't been repeated since. Since it's only been on home video we get to watch all three endings at once, adding one last marvelous post-modern comedic gag to cap off this terrific film.
Clue is available on Blu-ray on August 7 from Paramount Home Entertainment, presumably timed with the release of another board game adaptation, 'Battleship'. The results couldn't be any more extreme.