Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: of all the things you can turn into movies, board games are one of the weirdest, and an ice-cold box office performance on the part of Battleship would appear to demonstrate that audiences have cottoned to this fact. So before the Powers That Be decide to kill this bastardly new genre in its crib, let us step back in time to the last time that such a brave, counter-intuitive gambit was attempted.
But Clue, hell, it's practically a playable Agatha Christie novel already: six shady characters, a dead body, a country house filled with rooms and weapons. And the player has to figure out whodunnit. No, the only real problem with making Clue into a movie was that it was so obviously a narrative that the narrative had already been filmed several thousand times stretching into the silent era.
And that is precisely the knowledge that helped writer-director Jonathan Lynn (a TV writer making his directorial debut), co-scenarist and executive producer John Landis, and producer Debra Hill shape their 1985 Clue movie (for that is, of course, what we've been talking about all along) into something that is mostly successful and entirely strange. Viewed from this angle, it's a remarkably square attempt to upgrade a '30s style mystery movie to the then-present day; viewed from that angle, it's a thick slab of meta-commentary so deliberately alienating that the film's harsh reception from critics and audiences at the time is far less surprising than the reverse would have been. It is at once both the most sincere and fully-conceived adaptation of the game's details into cinematic form, and a movie that barely lets a single scene go by without nudging us in the ribs to make sure we get how utterly dumb the whole idea of turning a board game into a movie is in the first place.
In addition to the six characters imported from the game, Lynn and Landis added a seventh main character in the form of a butler - can't have an elegant country home murder mystery without a butler - giving us a hefty cast of seven main characters all given nearly equal narrative prominence, and played by a cast that would have seemed a shitload more impressive in '85 than it does today: Wadsworth the butler is portrayed by Tim Curry, while the guests, in order of arrival, are Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren), and Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd). Those aren't their real names; those are pseudonyms assigned by their mysterious host, Mr. Boddy, who has invited them all to his mansion on a hill without quite explaining why. And when we meet Boddy (Lee Ving), it turns out that he's not even the one who invited them all over, though he is the link between them: turns out that he's a professional blackmailer, and has all six guests under his thumb. Which gives all of them a good motive for killing him, and when he turns up dead on the floor of the study where they've all gathered to hear Wadsworth reveal the first of many secrets that will be spilled over the course of the movie's variable running time, it's anybody's guess which of the six - or seven, with Wadsworth - or eight, with the untrustworthy maid Yvette (Colleen Camp) - done the deed.
Giving away more than that wouldn't just be unsporting, it would be goddamned hard, because from this point, Clue is off and running with a plot that subscribes to the old screwball comedy philosophy that you can sell the audience just about anything if you do it fast enough, and follow up with new details so quickly that we never have a chance to get our footing. This might seem like an odd way to put a murder mystery together, except that Clue isn't actually a murder mystery; it's a travesty of the genre, a comic romp that doubles as a parody and triples as an ironic deconstruction of the form. Partially, it gets there by the sheer weight of absurd pile-ups: from a set-up that's so convoluted that I didn't really try to do more than gesture at it, to the complications that make the simple issue ("one of us is a deranged killer!") infinitely harder as dead bodies and suspicious cops start adding up, and the already unhinged characters start to dive right off the deep end. The implication being that a murder mystery is already so absurdly contrived that turning it into an outright farce is barely even a step.
But mostly, it gets there via a gimmick that's half sheer brilliance, half one of the worst ideas in the history of mainstream Hollywood marketing. Clue, the game, you may or may not know, is different every time in that the combination of Who, Where, and With What Weapon changes every time (that is, indeed, the point); to pay tribute to this, the filmmakers made three different endings for their movie, so that during its theatrical release, the viewer only had a one-in-three chance of seeing any of them. This is, on the face of it, crazy: it is reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieślowski's failed plan to produce several different distinct cuts of The Double Life of Véronique for its theatrical run in France, and I think it is merely the objective truth that if an idea is too difficult for a famously challenging European art film, it is maybe not suited to a mainstream American comedy with an all-star cast. For starters, you're all but informing the viewer that they got a "fake" movie, and that there are two other versions that they need to pay to see - and for that matter, I don't have any idea if theaters in '85 advertised which cut they were projecting; if not, the whole thing becomes that much more of a crapshoot. And this idea of there being "wrong" endings is compounded if one of the three is better or worse than the others, which turned out to be the case; the ending presented third on home video (which has, from the start, presented them all as "What if?" scenarios, right in a row, though the DVD offers the option to watch with a randomly selected single ending) is better than the other two to such a commanding margin that it's sort of infuriating to think that two-third of the paying audience in '85 didn't get to see it.
But let's spot the filmmakers the idea, which is conceptually authentic to the game, and which permits them a gesture of meta-commentary that's all but unheard of in studio filmmaking: basically, by informing the viewer right up top that the film they're about to see has an arbitrary ending, Lynn and Landis are pointing out that mystery storytelling - and by extension, all film storytelling - is aribtrary by its nature. There's no "real" ending because these aren't real people, and no matter how many clues the writers sneak into the preceding hour and change, it's all just artificial and impossible to outsmart; the best you can do is make the same arbitrary leap that the writers did (this is the same argument, albeit much more sophisticated in its presentation, that Neil Simon put forth in the 1976 Murder by Death). Ordinarily, movies do not go out of their way to remind us that they are fake constructs; Hollywood style has been constantly refined and revised over the course of ninety years and more to the exact aim of erasing any and all such reminders. But here we have Clue, merrily saying, "Nope, it's all bullshit, ain't that funny as anything?" And is for this reason, too, that Clue has to be a farce: between the heavily artificial generic constructs and the ridiculous charge to make a game into a movie, there's absolutely nothing about it to take seriously, and no style takes itself less seriously or is more aware of its own contrivance than farce.
So, we have a dynamite cast, any idiotic concept that is played straight and made fun of not just at the same time but for the same reason (the solemnity with which weapons are introduced, and Curry's insistence on only explaining the plot if he's standing in the room where a killing happened being among the most primary examples), and a really earnest attempt to recreate the language of a vintage style of farce - Clue has damn near everything it need to be a superlative, intelligent comedy. Except, and here's the caveat about personal taste in humor being highly subjective, etc.: it's kind of not funny. Parts of it work like gangbusters, especially as it gets more manic near the end and the cast really starts leaning on baffled reaction shots. But the movie is agonsingly slow in the early scenes - a scene about stepping in dog shit that Lynn adores so much that he repeats it four times leaps to mind - and other than Warren, the cast has a hard time finding the right register to mine actual comedy out of their pointedly one-note characters, until Boddy finally dies and the energy ramps up. The film is set in New England in 1954, and spends an inordinate amount of time establishing the mores and cultural assumptions of McCarthy era Washington (all of the characters are D.C. residents), and why it does this, I truly cannot say: it doesn't do much for the jokes (except for a wheezing pun about "red" herrings that shows up in each of the endings, meaning we get to endure it three times in the home video cut), and there's no obvious thematic resonance; and if it was just about adding more genre value to the murder mystery setting, the '20s, or '30s would have been considerably better choices.
And yet, even though I don't really find Clue funny until the second half, and then only intermittently, I still rather like it. Part of it is undoubtedly my weakness for structural gamesmanship, and for genre riffs; and the film's immensely handsome production helps a lot too. Perhaps it is fair to call it a fun movie, rather than a funny one, which is still a touch disappointing for a film this smart and with such a pedigreed cast, but it's something; and it's all in service to a project that, whatever it does right or wrong, can't be faulted for not being utterly unique.
You know what else it doesn't have? Aliens. It doesn't have aliens come down to kill Mr. Boddy. Fuck you, Battleship.