20 May 2012


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.

If you're going to turn a classic game into a motion picture - and for the purposes of this thought experiment, the idea that you would not turn a game into a motion picture is not permitted - you could hardly pick a better subject than Cluedo, or Clue as it was renamed in America. Risk -too generic (it's just a great big war like the one we had from 1939-'45). Monopoly -not even the semblance of narrative or characters (who are we and why are we buying Atlantic City?). The Game of Life -too sprawling and probably too serious. Sorry -makes Monopoly look like Proust. Battleship and Stratego -both could inspire a setpiece but hardly a full narrative.

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.


Danny F. said...

Aw, I'm disappointed that you didn't like this more- although "Clue" is one of those movies that I just have an unusual amount of nostalgic affection for. I now find it hilariously dated, and pretty juvenile at times, but I fondly recall Young Me laughing for hours at the singing telegram part. And I am still known to use "flames... on the side of my face" on occasion when I get angry. You are definitely right that "fun" is the best way to describe it, but I think I still had more fun with it than you seemed to!

FWIW, I could have sworn I once read that the movie listings had designations for endings A, B and C back in the day, so audiences could actually choose which of the endings they would see. Don't ask me to cite this, though.

franklinshepard said...

One of the few cult films that I am an enthusiastic member of the cult for. I remember watching this on HBO when I was ten, and I love it just as much now, if not moreso. I like to recite the lines along with the movie when I watch it, and I'm genuinely surprised when everyone else watching with me doesn't have the script memorized.

Of course, humor is totally subjective, and my last girlfriend fell asleep while watching this with me, but I find it absolutely hilarious quite frequently. Even the dog poop joke gets funny after the first fifty times you've watched the movie.

Colin said...

Like Danny F., I and my friends are wont to use the phrase "flames... on the side of my face" in everyday conversation.

And like Danny F., I too am somewhat disappointed to learn that you do not have a higher opinion of the movie. Even the beginning, before the death of Mr. Boddy, contains some gags which I can remember laughing out loud at, like Yvette guilelessly pouring out of her dress as she serves dinner to the house guests, and the male among them's inability to look away, or said males synchronized leg crossing when Madeline Kahn(at least I think it's Madeline Kahn) confesses to castrating her husband. And of course I cannot now hear the song "Sh Boom Sh Boom (Life Could Be A Dream)" without seeing Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, and Christopher Lloyd canoodling with inanimate corpses. And Mull and Brennan walking down the basement steps at the same time, their combined shoulder widths too wide for the stairwell? Pure comedy gold.

Zev Valancy said...

Joining the parade of people who simply adore this movie. I'll agree that the dogshit joke is weak, the third ending is vastly superior, and it doesn't really get going until the first murder, but there are few movies in this world that make me happier. If I were to make a guess as to the reasons for the era in which it was set, I'd imagine it's a combination of lingering 50s nostalgia (HAPPY DAYS was still on TV) and the fact that the Cold War is well suited to a story of hidden identities and agendas. I'd say the whole cast is ace at creating character and chaos, with Curry and Kahn best in show (like everyone else, "flames...flames on the side of my face" is a personal catchphrase). But this is a movie on which I have very little critical distance--and I don't want to have any. So there.

Tim said...

Aw, y'all are making me feel bad that I don't love it. I remember loving it, but I hadn't seen it in ages and ages before this review.

I will say, about "Flames..." that it's the best argument I have for how much it must have sucked to see the movie during its theatrical run: Madeline Kahn's best moment and maybe the best part of the whole film, and it was only in one-third of the theatrical prints. That just seems rude.

Rick said...

Danny F., you are right. The "singing telegram" bit STILL makes me laugh...even now it makes me smile.

Sorry Tim, but on this beging somehow bad we cannot concede. Clue is a guilty pleasure of which I am unashamed of.

My only thing is, I remember seeing all three endings at the theater, but perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me or it was some sort of revival. I was very young when it came out, so perhaps I'm hazy on that, but I still love to hear, "Ta-da ta-da-da-da. I Am Your Singing Telegram..." shot, door close.

Sssonic said...

Lest Tim feel all alone here, I'll offer my own bit of support: "Clue" is a Movie I like more than love. As you say, it is enjoyable enough from start to finish, and I'm a sucker for just about anything with Tim Curry OR Christopher Lloyd, so having them both in the same movie is a nice personal treat, but on the whole there are very few gags that actually got a good laugh out of me, or struck me as particularly funny in and of themselves. I WILL say, though, that when Curry's character breathlessly leads the whole cast through the Mansion, explaining each and every "clue" thus far gathered, it had me in stitches the first time through.

Not Fenimore said...

Just saw this movie for the first time, and I'm kind of in two minds about it: on the one hand, I agree with the commenters against Tim that it is pretty hilarious, at least the last two thirds. (My favourite moment, at least the first time through, was the discovery of Yvette's body. Everyone's deadpan non-reaction as they file in, observe yup, there's another corpse, then file back out…) On the other hand, I went in warned to just bull through the first twenty minutes, and it doespick up after that, but God, no farce that manages to inch over 80 minutes by including three different endings should be allowed to write off a quarter of the runtime like that.

On another note: it's almost structurally a slasher, innit: bunch of people in an isolated location, deranged murder, random drop-ins who get offed almost as fast as they can get shovelled onto the set ("I! Am! Your singing telegram!")… But the tension doesn't rise, because we know nobody with a colour for a name is going to die and after about the halfway point the cast stops pretending they don't know it too. Which is probably the funniest part of the satire (see: Yevette, death of and reaction to, above).

Finally: I saw this as a play, first, actually, at Ottawa Fringe some years back, and it honestly worked a bit better there - IIRC they tightened up the opening a bit, and madcap farce seems to work better for me onstage for whatever reason - but it sadly meant that I'd had the last line spoiled for me. If "seeing it cold in some other context" counts as spoilers.