Filmhydra
Tim Curry and Madeline Kahn
Above: “I’m merely a humble butler.”

Clue (1985)

🔧🔧🔧🔧 Ttheater gimmick backfired, but Clue was ultimately funny enough to find its audience.

Reading time: 4 minutes.

When Clue was released in theaters I was obsessed with the board game, but depended on my parents to get me into movies. Dad was aggressively uninterested, and — for the theatrical release — with pretty good reason. Obviously a marketing tie-in movie for Parker Brothers, it’s easy to mistake Clue as an two-hour ad.

Also the multiple-ending gimmick didn’t sit well with many people. When you went, you only got to see one of them. This was supposed to be fun, but I remember Dad saying “When I go to a movie, I want to see all of the movie.” That you could only see the whole movie by watching it a minimum of three times rubbed many people the wrong way.

There is, perhaps, another reason the multiple endings gimmick flopped. For many mystery stories, particularly the parlor mysteries Clue parodies, people like to think that if you follow all the clues, ignore the red herrings, and pay close attention, you can figure out who the killer is. It’s not just a story, it’s a puzzle. Trying to solve it before the big reveal ending makes these movies fun.

A closeup of a huge pipe wrench

In the… place… with the… this thing

Of course, the difference between a red herring and a real clue has everything to do with what ending the author has written. It is fiction, after all, and just about any murder mystery in this classical style could have the same silly games played with it. But knowing that the ending is both arbitrary and artifical makes it really difficult to get engaged with the story — to enter that fictional world.

It is entirely possible that Paramount (and regular John Carpenter producer Deborah Hill) didn’t think a silly movie about a board game required maintaining the illusion of solvability. But it did, and the movie bombed both critically and financially.

The cast looks at a body on the floor

Is that our profits down there?

Home video releases, fortunately, dumped the random-ending gimmick and showed all three sequentially — insisting the third was “what really happened.” I think this, combined with the much lower financial investment of a movie rental, contributed to Clue eventually finding its audience. I, myself, have lost count of how many times I’ve seen this, and with how many friends.

Much of Clue is, of course, pulled from the board game. You can tick off all the highlights. The secret paths from the study to the kitchen and the conservatory to the lounge all get special attention. The classic murder weapons are all represented. It’s hard to keep the layout straight in my head, but it, at least, roughly matches the board game — with a couple of extra additions. This by-the-numbers matching of elements of the game to the movie feels forced. It requires, for example, closeups of all of the potential murder weapons. And there are a lot of them. Tedium creeps in here, just as it does when we are required to pay polite attention to the mansion’s floor plan.

Everyone gathered in one place

Col. Mustard, Ms. Scarlet, Mr. Body (on the floor), Ms. White (Background), Ms. Peacock, and the Yvette the maid.

The rest of the movie resembles the 1976 parlor-mystery parody Murder By Death, with an all-star ensemble cast of comic actors. That movie suffered by having too many forceful personalities crowding the screen at once. Clue improves this by yielding center stage to Tim Curry. Tim’s butler starts out stiff and proper, but becomes almost maniacal as the story progresses. Much of the rest of the cast ends up serving as a proxy for the audience.

That cast includes the immediately recognizable Madeline Kahn and Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd, whose made a career playing cracked-professor types, plays somewhat against type as the oily, lecherous Professor Plum. Khan is Mrs. White — dressed entirely in black in a joke that’s a bit on-the-nose. If there’s anyone equipped to play off of Curry’s mania, it’s Khan. But Ms. White is an uptight, snooty, narrow-eyed character poorly suited to Khan.

Much more flamboyant, and perhaps better suited to Khan, is Ms. Peacock. But that role is played by Eileen Brennan, also a veteran of Murder by Death and its followup, The Cheap Detective.

The cast finds Yvette dead in the billiards room

Oh.

Martin Mull (Col. Mustard), Michael McKean (Mr. Green), and Leslie Ann Warren (Ms. Scarlet) round out the rest of the main characters. Mull I recognized from various guest-star turns on sitcoms in the 80s. If you mentally slick back McKean’s hair, you might recognize him as Lenny from Laverne & Shirley. There is very little overlap in the kinds of movies Leslie Ann Warren did and the kind I watch, but I saw her on that one Muppet Show episode.

Among the background characters is Colleen Camp as Yvette the French Maid. Camp was a Playboy model, but also had roles in movies like Apocalypse Now and Valley Girl. Kellye Nakahara, Nurse Kellye from M✻A✻S✻H, is the nearly silent butler. Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s and Howard Hesseman (WKRP) get cameos. So Clue is a very name-heavy cast — for a certain tier of name — but still in the end it’s Tim Curry’s show.

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