For film fans the world over, yesterday marked a definitive step into the future, as it was the day of Marty McFly’s forward leap in the iconic Back to the Future franchise. For Your Thursday Theater this week, however, I want to talk about a film with both feet squarely in the past. In the same year that the original Back to the Future was released, 1985, Christopher Lloyd (who played McFly’s frenetic sage Doc Brown) also played a somewhat more composed intellectual named Professor Plum in a cult classic comedic mystery: Jonathan Lynn’s Clue.
Lynn, who later directed the highly-regarded legal drama My Cousin Vinny, both wrote and directed this film (with some story collaboration from director John Landis—whose work includes The Blues Brothers, Animal House, and Trading Places). Christopher Lloyd was joined in an ensemble cast by a slew of other gifted character actors, including Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Eileen Brennan, and Martin Mull. This is a film with humble ambitions that surpasses expectations; it is a film which was cared about and well-executed at every level, and which cleverly presents a tongue-in-cheek treatment of the entire mystery genre.
Clue was one of the many products of Hollywood’s longstanding tradition of turning anything with name recognition into a movie. Clue was based on the North American edition of the board game, which means little, except for some minor details like the game being called “Clue” rather than “Cluedo” and the initial victim being called “Mr. Boddy” rather than “Dr. Black.” It is clear that the film was designed to be accessible and familiar to North American players of the game, and it could easily have just ended up a phoned-in cash grab. It was neither the first nor the last movie to be based on a board game, but it is easily one of the best (unless Jumanji doesn’t count, in which case it seems to stand alone at the top).
To fully appreciate Clue, though, it is far less important for one to understand the board game, and far more important for one to understand its context, which means knowing a little about the tradition of the mystery genre in television and film. Growing up, my father and I watched our way through his complete collections of shows and films from the 1930s-60s starring iconic actors as detectives, like Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, and Warner Oland as Charlie Chan. Such films, adapting and building on the immense popularity of mystery writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the writer behind Sherlock Holmes) and Agatha Christie (the writer behind both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot), rely on a linguistic system of structural and dialogical tropes.
There are plenty of structural patterns—based on the detective visiting a foreign place or being approached by a suspicious stranger, for instance—after which, once a dead body surfaces, a work of mystery could be expected to be built. The most often utilized, and most often lambasted (in affectionate parodies like Clue as much as in a full-on farces like Murder by Death), is the scenario wherein a murder mystery takes place at a small social gathering in a fixed location, leaving a finite pool of suspects, often all with apparent motives. Indeed, the number of murders which these works depict happening at high-class dinner parties and weekend vacations could make anyone understandably skittish about recreation.
Clue takes place almost entirely within one gigantic mansion, marrying that trope to the scope of the game. The mansion itself becomes emblematic of the narrative, as the progressively deepening mystery is matched with the discovery of circuitous secret passages and exploration of unknown areas. Both the mansion and the weather outside become sources of tension and comedy. Meanwhile, the dedication to the singular location frames the parodical proceedings, with locked doors leading to as much humor as they do murder. The house itself factors into the comedy, with the density of the home’s maze-like construction putting Curry’s character under a shower head, and the necessity to keep all of the doors locked leading to a humorous run-in with a police officer.
The most important aspect of this particular sort of mystery, for the purposes of the film’s jokes, is definitely its use of characters. In order to establish a great many distinct possible murderers as quickly as possible, these single-location mysteries are almost always jam-packed with cartoonish one-dimensional stereotypes, from languishing intelligentsia to fast-talking executives to put-upon servants.
Almost every sort of classic mystery character imaginable is accounted for in Clue by the aforementioned character actors’ portrayal of individuals named after game pieces, whose traits are then turned up to their absolute maximum. Lloyd plays Professor Plum, a man at once pretentious, lascivious, and academic. Kahn plays Ms. White, an aloof femme fatale with an excessively passionate and homicidal past. Brennan plays Mrs. Peacock, a high-power, overly-chatty hostess full to the brim with vanity, insecurity, and eccentricity. You get the idea. And all of these players are tied together by the brilliant, grandiose, fastidious figure of Wadsworth the butler, played by Curry.
So the structure is all in place, and yet I have left out so much, from the tactful implementation of minimal slapstick to the clever repartee to the amazing way that the movie toes the line between moments of genuine tension and disarming swathes of charming comedy (a line which other movies often inelegantly trample). As I have presented this recommendation without spoilers, I will state vaguely that the crowning jewel of this movie is a lengthy climactic sequence that pokes fun at the mystery genre’s only truly immutable staple: an excessive, minutely detailed, energetic account of how and why the crimes were committed.
Clue is a film that does not take itself too seriously at any time, and which seems to be having as much fun as its audience. Whether you are a long-time fan of mysteries or merely a fan of good light-hearted comedies, this movie is one you can not miss. And one last word of advice: if the version of the film to which you have access allows you to choose between ‘a random ending’ and ‘all endings,’ select ‘all endings’ for the best possible viewing experience. Trust me.
Parody Done Right: