As a kid, I enjoyed mysteries. The Encyclopedia Brown books were my favorites, and I watched detective shows with my parents (Diagnosis Murder was a house favorite). I soon moved into science fiction before I could read more adult mystery novels, but I adored playing the game Clue.
The game is straight from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction – at a large country house, the owner, Mr. Boddy (Mr Black in the UK) has been murdered, and the houseguests (ie the players) have to identify the killer. So the movie is building off a well-established genre. What makes it fun is that, instead of a serious murder mystery, it’s a screwball comedy.
Writer/director Jonathan Lynn made his name on the British satirical sitcom Yes, Minister, about the Minister of Administrative Affairs and his staff (think Veep in Thatcherite England). So he brings that wit to the mystery. The easier tonal decision would be to make it a grim black comedy, but instead, Lynn makes it silly. The script is filled with double entendres, zany dialogue, misunderstandings, awful puns, with slapstick sprinkled on top. Sample exchanges:
Mustard: Wadsworth, am I right in thinking there’s nobody else in this house?
Mustard: Then there is someone else in this house?
Wadsworth: Sorry, I said “no” meaning “yes.”
Mustard: “No” meaning “yes?” Look, I want a straight answer; is there someone else, or isn’t there? Yes or no?
Mustard: “No, there is,” or “no, there isn’t?”
Wadsworth: The game’s up! There are no more bullets left in that gun.
Murderer: Oh, come on, you don’t think I’m gonna fall for that old trick?
Wadsworth: It’s not a trick. There was one shot at Mr. Boddy in the Study; two for the chandelier; two at the Lounge door and one for the singing telegram.
Murderer: That’s not six!
Wadsworth: 1 + 2 + 2 + 1.
Murderer: Uh-uh, there was only one shot that got the chandelier. It’s 1 + 2 + 1 + 1.
Wadsworth: Even if you are right, that would be 1 + 1 + 2 + 1, not 1 + 2 + 1 + 1.
Murderer: …’kay, fine. 1 + 2 + 1 — SHUT UP!
The cast has comedy heavy hitters like Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and especially Tim Curry as the butler Wadsworth. The butler was invented for the movie (because what good murder mystery doesn’t have a butler), and he functions as the ringmaster, keeping everyone focused on uncovering the killer. However, Mr Boddy isn’t the only murder victim, and as bodies start piling up, the guests become ever more suspicious of each other.
The parody is pretty spot-on for the genre, too. There’s always the classic scene where the genius detective gathers the suspects to reveal just how the victim was killed, and Wadsworth gives that exact speech while running all over the house, recreating the crimes (often at the expense of the other guests). The most arcane of details becomes the most damning of clues (monkey brains!). And everyone is deceiving everyone else, hiding their sordid backstories, to where even the guests lose track of who betrayed who.
The game has a few hundred potential outcomes of potential killer, weapon, and location, and to recreate that, the original run had three different endings. Starting with the VHS print, and carrying over to DVD, all three endings are shown, with the final one being labelled, “Here’s What Really Happened.” The official ending is my personal favorite because it’s the only one that fully captures the zaniness of the movie.
The three endings are the weakest part by far – the first two don’t add anything because the movie admits they aren’t what really happened, and by the time the third ending – the “real” one – starts, the movie is running out of steam. The original strategy was to randomly give each theater an ending, so I guess people were supposed to see it three times, but it just caused confusion (Roger Ebert details his confusion over which ending his local theater was supposed to receive). It almost broke even during its initial run, but found a second life as a cult hit – I remember watching it many times on Comedy Central in the 1990s.
As with any successful comedy, fans can cite favorite lines and scenes, and Clue provides plenty. Wadsworth knocking around Mr. Green. The “thud” of bodies being dropped. People being killed multiple times. Everyone distracted by the maid’s cleavage. The pseudo-swinger party. “Flames… on the side of my face.” And all this humor is window dressing for subtle communist politics.
Or maybe that’s just a red herring.