Cinematic Century

1985 – Clue

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Last week I eschewed some more obvious picks, a whole bunch of classic sci-fi and fantasy films for the most part, and chose a weird comedy as my favorite film of 1984. It was a hard choice, but I had to go with my heart and pick what film I enjoyed most, not necessarily what I would label as the “best” film of the year. And, history is repeating itself for 1985, folks. Because there are a lot of great, great movies from 1985, movies that I feel like a majority of people would probably pick to highlight. And I’m going with Clue. You just got to go with the flow, people. Because there are a lot of great movies from 1985. And, weirdly enough, most of them were also classic sci-fi and fantasy flicks. The most obvious film is definitely Back to the Future, a near-perfect film which rightfully deserves its status as one of the most popular and beloved films of all time. I adore it, but it just couldn’t get across the finish line. Similarly, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a fascinating and insane journey, one of my all time favorite dystopia films, and just one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, with one of the bleakest endings to boot. I’m also a huge fan of After Hours, probably Martin Scorsese’s weirdest film, and one that I feel like often gets forgotten when considering his filmography, but that I really enjoy. And, there’s a lot of stuff that I feel like people has a nostalgic love for, but that just does nothing for me. I have never been a John Huges fan, which I know can be a little sacrilegious, and while The Breakfast Club is probably the highschool film of his I enjoy the most, I still don’t like it. Likewise, and probably even more so sacrilegious, I have never been a fan of the Goonies. There’s really nothing wrong with it, but I never saw it as a kid and was never able to build up any sort of nostalgic affection for it, so whenever I finally did check it out it just didn’t do much for me, and never really has. But, in the face of all those classics, and countless more left unmentioned, I decided to go with the bizarre cult classic farce based on a board game, Clue. And I don’t regret a goddamn thing.

I’ve talked about quite a few adaptations on this project before, novels that hit the public consciousness hard and were inevitably brought to life on the big screen. But, this is the first time I’ll have talked about a movie that is based on a board game. I shockingly couldn’t find a whole lot of details surrounding the genesis of this film, other than the fact that John Landis just thought it would be funny to make a parlor-room mystery based on the game. He seems to have worked up quite a few plot elements, and then passed the movie onto an increasingly strange parade of potential screenwriters, including Tom Stoppard, Stephen Sondheim, and Anthony Perkins. It eventually landed in the hands of Jonathan Lynn, who would also make his directorial debut with it. They decided to make the film a throwback to fifties farces, full of quick dialogue and witty repartee, while also lampooning the parlor-room murder mystery. And, to show respect for the source material, they even decided to write and film multiple endings, which were then randomly attached to different cuts, meaning that people potentially got completely different endings in the theater, having no idea that there were other options until talking to people who saw it differently. And, with that set up, they assembled a murderer’s row of comedic talent, stacking the film with some of the funniest people working in Hollywood at the time. But, unfortunately, it didn’t really work out for them. Say it with me folks, the movie was a commercial bomb at the time, being quickly forgotten by most audiences. But, when the movie was put onto cable, including all three alternate endings woven into the last chunk of the movie, it finally started to find some appreciation. The movie became a cult success, and is now remembered quite fondly, despite some increasingly problematic elements of the plot. I saw it as a kid, and it’s a movie that I find myself revisiting just about every year, because it’s just a wonderfully weird little bit of cinema.

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Clue takes place on a dark and stormy night in 1954 as a series of people arrive at a large mansion for a dinner hosted by someone none of them know. They’ve all been asked to arrive at this specific location, and to only use a series of code names. And, one by one, they arrive and are met by a butler named Wadsworth who introduces them and pushes off any of their numerous questions. Eventually though they all arrive and are brought into a dining room where they begin to figure out who they all are. We have Colonel Mustard a military man working at the Pentagon, Mrs. Peacock the wife of a senator, Ms. Scarlet the owner of a popular brothel in Washington, Professor Plum a disgraced psychologist working for NATO, Mrs. White the widow of a government scientist, and Mr. Green a closeted gay man working for the State Department. They all find it very odd that they all work in government, and quickly realize they also have something else in common. They’re all being blackmailed. And, as they begin getting riled up about that, a new guest arrives, a man named Mr. Boddy. Wadsworth explains that Boddy is the one blackmailing them, and that he took it upon himself to bring all of these people together in order for them to reveal the various skeletons in their closets so they can expose Boddy. But, Boddy has a different suggestion. He passes out a series of deadly weapons to the guests, and offers for them to just kill Wadsworth and leave as if nothing happened.

But, when Mr. Boddy turns out the lights so no one has to know who killed Wadsworth, things go wrong. There’s the sound of a gunshot and a body falling down, and when the lights are turned back on they find Wadsworth alive, but Boddy dead. Wadsworth then explains that he too was being blackmailed by Boddy, and had concocted a plan to get Boddy to confess his crimes, but now sees that everything has spiraled out of control. No one knows who the murderer might be, but they decide to keep an eye on each other, and bring in the only other two people in the building, Yvette the maid and the cook. They get Yvette, but find that the cook has been murdered in the kitchen as well, suggesting there might be another killer on the loose. Which becomes even more possible when they return to the study and find Mr. Boddy’s body missing. So, they decide to split up and search the mansion, after locking all of the weapons up. But, things get a little complicated when a stranded motorist arrives at the mansion, hoping to use their phone. They lock the man inside a room and begin searching the mansion, only return to find the motorist dead, and all the weapons unlocked and missing. They also find Mr. Boddy, dead once more, but with new injuries.

The group gets ready to continue their search of the mansion when another unexpected guest arrives, this time a police officer who is investigating the missing motorist whose car was crashed on the road.  The policeman asks to use their phone, so they find another vacant room that doesn’t currently have a corpse in it, and lock him in so they can continue their search. Unfortunately, while searching the mansion the power is cut off, and things really start to fall apart. The cop is killed, Yvette is killed, and a random singing telegram arrives at the house only for her to be shot as well. When the lights come back on the group gets back together, and Wadsworth announces that he’s figured out what has happened. Wadsworth recaps the events of the night, and even reveals that the motorist, the cop, Yvette, and the singing telegram were all people who had worked with Mr. Boddy and were integral in Boddy’s blackmailing of them.

And, it’s at this point that three different possible explanations arrive. In one of the endings we find that Ms. Scarlett was the killer, who worked in conjunction with Yvette, one of her call girls, to kill everyone so she can keep up her schemes, only to be stopped when the FBI arrive to arrest her. Another ending has Mrs. Peacock be revealed to be the killer, having been guilty of accepting bribes from foreign powers, only to be arrested by Wadsworth, who is an undercover FBI agent. But, the most elaborate ending is the third one, where everyone was the killer. We find that Professor Plum killed Mr. Boddy to end his blackmail, Mrs. Peacock killed the cook who had been her former cook and had told Boddy her secrets, Colonel Mustard killed the motorist who served under him in the war and revealed his dirty secrets, Mrs. White killed Yvette who had an affair with her late husband, and Ms. Scarlet killed the cop who had been on her payroll. And, who killed the telegram girl? Wadsworth. It turns out that he has been Mr. Boddy this entire time, with the other man serving as his butler. And, he announces that he’s going to continue blackmailing them until Mr. Green reveals himself to be an undercover FBI agent. He shoots and kills Wadsworth, just in time for the FBI to come arrest everyone else for their murders and crimes.

 

 

 

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Clue is an absolute delight. I’ve been a fan of mysteries for basically my entire life, so I was always a big fan of this board game. Which, didn’t really mean that I was naturally going to love this movie, since the board game isn’t exactly a plot-based event. But, that affection for the board game was what spurred me to watch this movie as a kid, and I’ve always found it to be one of the most consistently hilarious movies I’ve ever seen. There are aspects of it that have aged incredibly poorly, like a majority of comedies, but at it’s core it’s just a downright hilarious little farce, featuring some of the most gifted comedic performers of the era just swinging for the fences. Back to the Future is probably the most nostalgic film of 1985, full of affection for the 1950’s, but Clue honestly gives it a run for its money. Because the entire movie really feels like a throwback to the quick-witted farces of the 1950’s, full of ridiculous high-energy performance and featuring a staggering joke-per-minute ratio. It can switch between slapstick comedy to wordplay to goofy innuendo in a matter of moments, giving something for everyone. It’s a very tight film, one that could easily be transferred to a stage production, relying almost entirely on the performances. And, it pays off. Everyone is phenomenal in this film, and they help carry a pretty threadbare plot, serving as a delightful send-up to parlor-room mysteries while also becoming a pretty solid entry into the genre itself. Plus, the whole idea of the multiple endings is absolutely brilliant, and even contributes to the general love for the 1950’s that this movie has, because multiple endings is definitely something I’d expect from some cinematic huckster like William Castle.

But, it’s not just aesthetics that the movie is borrowing from the 1950’s. One of the things that I find most interesting about this movie, and something that actually does make it more than just a very well-made comedy, is the fact that this movie actually does have some cutting commentary about the Cold War, specifically the era of Joseph McCarthy. The movie even features a brief bit of footage of McCarthy, hammering in this weird paranoid feeling that goes through the entire film. It’s a story about a bunch of people who are integral to the inner workings of Washington DC, all of whom have done something worthy of blackmail. And, obviously, they’re all terrified that this has left them open to the great threat of the time, the Russians! But, as the film reminds us time and time again, Communism is just a red herring in this story. There are no evil communists here to destroy them, just some co-workers and fellow Americans, all of whom are looking for any excuse to stab them in the back. It isn’t some grand conspiracy featuring world powers, it’s just a story about a bunch of shitty people who are fighting against each other, jumping at any chance to screw each other over in order to save themselves. Which, is a pretty fitting metaphor for the entire McCarthy era. McCarthy probably didn’t care about communism. It was just a vehicle that he could use in order to take people down and to prop himself up. And, communism doesn’t matter here. It’s just good old fashioned capitalism, trying to find some way to screw over a stranger and make a quick buck doing so. Because what could be more American than that?

 

Clue was written and directed by Jonathan Lynn and released by Paramount Pictures, 1985.

 

 

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