It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that Clue might just be the best adaptation of a board game out there. Yeah, okay, when your main competition is Battleship, that might not mean much — however, this 1985 whodunnit nonetheless makes incredibly clever use of the original board game’s premise, relying on an incessantly humorous, rapid-fire script, tight pacing, and some of the most enjoyably hamfisted performances from the movie’s stellar cast you’re bound to see anywhere.
Set in the bleak New England countryside during the height of 1950s Cold War paranoia, six strangers (Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Brennan, and Lesley Ann Warren) attend a mysterious dinner party hosted by a man who is blackmailing them all. The dinner proceedings are overseen by a British butler named Wadsworth (Tim Curry), who reveals each of dinner guests’ crimes that they are being blackmailed for to the entire party, before they are joined by their host himself, Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving).
When Mr. Boddy tries to persuade the party’s guests to discreetly kill Wadsworth, ensuring that their secrets remain unknown to any outside parties, Mr. Boddy is abruptly killed by one of the guests. With everyone in the house having a motive, the guests must find out who killed him, where, and with what, before the police arrive and their secrets are exposed for the world to see.
In many ways, Clue is essentially a comedic version of And Then There Were None, blending the plot of Agatha Christie’s novel with the premise of the original board game (the characters being referred to by colorfully specific pseudonyms [Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet, etc.], the iconic list of weapons found in the game, and so on). However, it’s worth noting that a movie never really feels like a straight, self-aware parody — not in the same way as something like Murder By Death, for example, just like it never really feels like a self-aware adaptation of its board game counterpart.
Instead, director Jonathan Lynn injects enough originality into his film adaptation to help translate the board game’s thin plot into something more rounded and three-dimensional while also distancing itself from some sort of half-baked Christie imitation. (It’s not exactly Clue the board game, nor is it a straight Christie knock-off, but something right in the middle.)
Still, the similarities between Christie and the film are there. The classical setup of Clue itself — six strangers alone in a mansion with a dead body, one of whom is guilty — is the setup for practically every Christie story, after all. However, instead of ignoring those similarities, Lynn embraces them, using Christie as a reference point and inspiration for the film. For example, in typical Christie fashion, Lynn gives the characters not only a reason for why they’re there in the mansion, but a motive that also explains why they’re all suspects — they’re all broke, pissed-off blackmail victims who have done some pretty terrible things in the past, and are desperate to keep their problematic pasts a mystery.
What’s more (and once again no doubt conceived as a nod to Christie), the guests are all upstanding citizens in the public eye — high-ranking military officials, politicians, government workers, and so on, with each of them involved in the happenings of Washington, D.C. in some way, shape, or form.
This serves not only as a knowing reference to Christie’s parlor mysteries — many of which are populated by characters who appear as respected members of society at first (judges, career soldiers, doctors, or lawyers) but are soon revealed to have committed some horrendous acts in their past that they’re trying to cover up — but a commendation of modern politics in general (but most especially the ultra-conservatism of the 1950s — an era where a character was a social pariah for holding socialist views or being a homosexual, as is shown in the film).
As we see in Clue, these characters are so vain and concerned with hanging onto their lavish lifestyles and holding onto whatever power their offices grant them that they will literally kill people if it means they can go living in Washington, their reputations untarnished.
They’re two-faced liars, selfish and self-obsessed to the point of homicide — and yet, the actors give them so much through their exaggerated performances, you strangely can’t help but like them in the end. They’re almost like cartoon villains, Captain Hook, Yzma from Emperor’s New Groove, or Yosemite Sam — characters that are not sympathetic or even likable, but who you can’t help but laugh at and enjoy seeing.
How well the characters translate off the script and how likable they become is almost definitely rooted in how over the top the actors go in their performances. Loud and in your face, you don’t forget for one moment that each of the actors is playing a stereotype, but they pull it off so well and take themselves so seriously, it doesn’t seem forced or too ridiculous (not like how cheesy and forced Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey are in Batman Forever, let’s say). Instead, they find a balance, feeding off each other’s onscreen energy and performances without stepping on any of their fellow actors’ toes.
Similar to how different each characters’ backstories and roles in the film, their respective personalities are as stark in contrast to one another as their designated code names are. There’s the sleazy, sex-crazed Professor Plum, a disgraced, poor excuse for a medical practitioner; Miss Scarlett, the seductive temptress espousing not-so-subtle innuendos left and right; the old-fashioned, conservative-minded Colonel Mustard, tough and put-together on the outside, but weak-willed, spineless, and prone to temptation below the surface.
The outwardly eccentric Miss Peacock, who hides her more sinister, greedy self behind her flamboyant personality and quirks; the grim, morose Mrs. White, suspiciously widowed one too many times; the accident-prone, literal-minded Mr. Green, who is confused about seemingly everything; and perhaps the greatest actor of them all, Wadsworth himself, who is far more than the proper English butler he appears to be.
Each cast member brings a good deal of manic energy into the movie, but interestingly, all of the energy in the movie seems distinctly its own. (Michael McKean’s easily-astounded Mr. Green never has his own set of neuroses separate from Martin Mull’s oafish Colonel Mustard or Tim Curry’s over-caffeinated Wadsworth.) The result is kind of like a pizza with everything on it: unexpectedly fresh and enjoyable, with one topping not too overpowering, but all of them working well in harmony together.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD
Another unique feature of Clue is the fact that it’s one of the few movies that I know of to have multiple endings — the movie cleverly ends three times, with a different killer attached to each ending. It’s up to viewers to decide which ending they prefer best (personally, I enjoy how well-thought-out Ending C is), but either way, it’s bound to be an original and pleasant surprise for viewers watching the movie for the first time (and if that’s the case, I apologize for giving that surprise away).
Unfortunately, at the time of its release, Clue was a critical and commercial flop, failing to gross over its budget of $15 million and earning mostly negative reviews from critics. Thankfully, the film’s reputation has only continued to warm over time, with the movie a now fairly well-known cult film that is gradually becoming more popular with each passing year.
If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I’d describe Clue as a fairly lighthearted, ceaselessly funny whodunnit that feels like Agatha Christie hopped up on sugar and coffee — loud, fast-paced, and memorable for its off-the-walls energy. At first glance, it may be a natural instinct to dismiss the film or not take it too seriously — movies based on board games not exactly being the best recipe for a good movie. However, I highly encourage you to ignore those instincts, and to settle back in for a night of fun as you watch the talented cast of actors have a great time delivering their exaggerated performances.
Clue: The Movie is streaming on Prime Video.
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