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Non-Review Review: Clue

Clue is an interesting movie. It’s an obviously flawed one, but it’s also conducted with such impressive energy and a cheeky sense of fun that it’s quite easy to overlook some of the structural problem, and rather glaring plot holes. It’s an affectionate parody of those classic “whodunnit” mysteries, stories like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, featuring a small cast trapped together, investigating a murder. Based on the game Clue (or Cluedo to us Europeans), it’s the first movie based on a boardgame, and I can’t help but feel that it’s still the best.

The usual suspects...

Part of the fun of Clue, and what sets it ahead of movies like Transformers, is the fact that it never seems to take things too seriously. The movie is gleefully aware of how silly it is to try to base a narrative on a property like a boardgame, because the board game doesn’t really have a set narrative. It has a background that the players buy into, but then it’s all random chance, rather than a pre-destined outcome, which is grand for a boardgame, but crap for a film. Trying to build a story around the separate elements is a thankless task, as the entire game is just randomly generated to begin with.

Thankfully, Clue is aware of that, and knows that any attempt to construct a plausible mystery around this would just be silly. In the game, there’s no logic involved in deducing the identity of the murderer and his or her methods, you’re just trying to guess three cards in an envelope. It would seem disingenuous to remove that randomness from the film. So we have the movie’s key gimmick, and one that overshadows the film itself: the three random multiple endings, where the killer is reveal to be three separate people (or groups of people).

Dead to rights...

It’s actually really fantastic, because it’s so perfectly random, illustrating that there can’t be a valid mystery hidden in the narrative – just elements that support three (equally plausible or ridiculous) outcomes. It’s a gleeful Schrodinger’s Mystery, where the valid clues and red herrings are only revealed as such depending on the ending that you watch, and a brutal parody of the “fair play” mystery. In one ending, Mrs. White points out how random it all is, by asking about the red herrings, “This just has nothing to do with my disappearing nuclear physicist husband or Colonel Mustard’s work with the new top secret neutron bomb?”

In another ending, the question “who did it?” is answered with an exasperated “they all did!” There can be no mystery, because there’s no need to separate the innocent from the guilty. I admire it, because it actually feels like a lampoon of these sorts of stories, a mystery that confesses it was all made up as it went along, and that there is no “real” way to deduce the culprits, because there were no “real”culprits until the ending started to role. However, as much as it parodies these sorts of stories, one senses a genuine affection for the mystery genre in the execution, with the atmospheric location, the cheesily executed (yet strangely classic) setup, and the gleeful observance of murder mystery tropes.

A Plum role...

One guest of the house seems to be ready to blow the lid off the whole thing, by pure chance. On the phone, he confesses he knows some of the guests, “One of them is my old boss from…” Of course, he’s cut off mid-sentence, before he can give away more than a tasty tidbit. Later on, a police officer is about to call in reinforcements, and the directions are on the tip of his tongue, “You know that big creepy house on top of…” He doesn’t get to finish the sentence. “Looks like a secret passage,” Colonel Mustard remarks, as he and another guest discover the mandatory clandestine method of navigation required in films like this. Because a creepy gothic mansion just wouldn’t be complete without a set of secret passages.

The dialogue sparkles with a wonderful old-fashioned wit. Talking to a black widow about her husband, the butler remarks, “He disappeared.” She retorts, “That was his job, he was an illusionist.” He clarifies, “But he never reappeared.” There are any number of other equally pithy exchanges, but I do like the following comparisons. “Husbands,” Mrs. White, observes, “should be like Kleenex… soft, strong and disposable!” Another guest comments on a possible resurrection of an earlier victim, “Life after death is as improbable as sex after marriage.”

Another one joins the dead pool...

There’s also a fairly interesting subtext bubbling beneath the surface. Using the film’s setting (“New England, 1954”) to provide more than just atmosphere, the film seems to offer an unlikely commentary of fifties America. It’s revealed that the master of the manor, Mr. Boddy, has been blackmailing his guests over what he considers to be “Un-American” activities, like being gay. Which is fascinating, because it suggests that Mr. Boddy doesn’t consider “blackmail” to be an “Un-American” activity. It’s also fascinating that such a patriot should fill a staff including an Asian cook, a British butler and a French maid.

When he thinks there’s a pretty wild party going on, the cop (who is later – possibly – revealed as corrupt), explains that there’s nothing wrong with that. The butler, making the classic comedy mistake of thinking he’s found the bodies, asks to make sure it’s okay. “Of course it is, this is America!” the cop proclaims. “It’s a free country!” The irony seems to be that it’s free for criminals rather than ordinary citizens, with the fear of the House Un-American Activities Committee hanging over the heads of our characters. Indeed, the villain (in the primary ending) is motivated purely by capitalism. As if criticising the flimsy justification for the McCarthy witchhunts, all three endings include the line, “Communism was just a red herring.”

Food for thought...

The ending is the very definition of “good fun”, an extending sequence featuring an overjoyed Tim Curry reencting the film almost frame by frame, dancing through the manor with the unrestrained enthusiasm of somebody who finally “got it.” I think anybody watching or reading a mystery has had that moment where it finally clicks, and I think that Clue might offer the most wonderful attempt to capture it on-screen. I especially love the moments where Tim Curry fakes his death several times, play acting as the dead body, as if teasing the possibility that his deductions and revelations could be cut off just before he gets to the good stuff.

Taht said, there are one or two problems, most of which stem from the application of logic after the fact. Rather than trying to convince us that this is a cast of characters with a collection of improbable names, we’re asked to accept that the familiar names (“Professor Plum”, “Colonel Mustard”, “Mrs. Peacock”) are all pseudonyms. However, when several members of the cast recognise each other, and when everybody knows everybody else’s secrets, it does seem a little pointless to keep up the farce. Again, this is something that is excused “in the moment”, and seems like more of a nitpick. There’s also a similar plothole with the endings (all three of them). I won’t spoil it, but it does make the death of the cop (in particular) seem a little nuts. It wouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s strange that the movie is farcical and yet grounded, so the final revelation just pushes it into the realm of the surreal.

Did the Butler do it?

Still, those are small complaints. Clue is just good fun. It’s incredibly energetic, carried off with enough skill and momentum to carry you along in its story. It has a solid ensemble, but a gleefully enthusiastic leading performance from Tim Curry makes it all worth a look of itself.

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