Skip to main content

Communism was just a red herring.


Clue
(1985)

Any movie based on a board game that isn’t Battleshit instantly has something going for it. But I’m not sure Clue was received with any greater approval when it was released back in 1985. The general feeling was that director (and writer) Jonathan Lynn was slumming it (it was sandwiched between the series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister). The broad, slapstick tone and predilection for crudity had more common with producer John Landis. If the film wasn’t a disaster, neither was it a big hit. That wasn’t the end of it, though. As with a later farce directed by Landis and also starring Tim Curry (Oscar), an underwhelming reception didn’t prevent it from developing a cult following.


Wadsworth: I’m merely a humble butler.
Mustard: What exactly do you do?
Wadsworth: I buttle, sir.

Clue is based on the board game Cluedo (or… Clue, as it’s known in the States). For some reason the title was never changed for its UK release. Perhaps because the relatively subdued box office at home induced Paramount not to bother.


Wadsworth: You see? Like the Mounties, we always get out man.
Mr. Green: Mrs. Peacock was a man?
(Mustard slaps Green who then gets slapped by Wadsworth)

As in the game, a variety of characters (Mrs. White, Mr. Green – Reverend in Cluedo –, Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet, Mrs. Peacock, Professor Plum) gather in a house where a murder is committed. They have each been presented with a murder weapon (as per the game) and once the deed is done, the investigation work begins. Except that in Clue it doesn’t. The mystery is treated as elusive and impenetrable, as ripe for mocking as every character and situation. And there isn’t only one murder. After Mr Boddy – apparently the host of the party, who has blackmail information on each of the guests – is offed, a succession of supporting characters (the cook, the maid, a motorist and – most mirthfully – a singing telegram) also meet unfortunate fates.


Mustard: Why is J. Edgar Hoover on your phone?
Wadsworth: I don’t know, he’s on everybody else’s why shouldn’t he be on mine?

Lynn sets his comedy in 1954 (New England), which, if it feels like a random choice, to an extent it was. He needed more of a crutch than just the rooms and colours from the game and, since he and his wife knew a number of writers who were blacklisted during the ‘50s, it was a ready subject to draw upon. The choice allows for much prodding of the actual “unAmericanness” of America (with the McCarthy witch-hunts in full effect). There’s a willful irreverence here that might not have been deemed so acceptable otherwise. And it gives the film its best line (“Communism was just… “). But, despite the vague trappings of costume and faux-gothic, it doesn’t feel like a period movie; most of the gags are much too broad for that, and even the political barbs seem designed to carry timeless overtones (particularly with all-seeing Prism surveillance).


Wadsworth: You recognised Yvette, didn’t you? Don’t deny it!
White: What do you mean, “Don’t deny it?” I’m not denying anything.
Wadsworth: Another denial!

It was Peter Guber (the producer who, for no particular reason, wanted Kevin Smith to put a giant spider in his Superman script) who approached Lynn about the project. Tom Stoppard was among a gaggle of writers who previously had a bash at the property. Lynn initially rewrote Landis’ story with the director in mind, but when the latter passed, he was handed the reins. Lynn has commented that he would have written it differently, if he had known he’d be calling the shots… Maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t, as his subsequent big screen career has been mediocre at best.


Wadsworth: I’m not the butler, but I’m a butler.

Lynn and Landis are cheerfully undiscerning when it comes to their gags. They flow thick and fast, hit and miss, and range from lowbrow crudity to mistaken understandings, reversals and sophisticated wordplay. Much of Clue’s appeal comes from its pace; as with all good farces, Lynn knows that keeping up momentum is half the battle. That’s not just down to the writing, but the direction, editing and performances. Everyone here has spot-on timing, and with that and the pleasure of an obvious gag delivered with skill, it’s the difference between a groaner falling flat and flying.


And, in the form of Tim Curry, Lynn has a trump card (the two knew each other, and had attended the same school). Curry plays Wadsworth the butler, and it’s his delirious, madcap energy that drives the film along. There’s an irresistible enthusiasm to Curry that makes you smile even if the jokes fall flat. I’d go as far to say that I couldn’t imagine the film working without him (although John Cleese, who was considered, could have pulled it off). Likewise, John Morris’ witty score perfectly complements the arch tone (Morris was Mel Brooks go-to composer, so knew his comedy).


Wandsworth: He decided to put his information to good use, and make a little money out of it. What could be more American than that?

When the first joke in a movie is a sustained one the basis of having dog shit on your shoe, it’s clear where a film’s aspirations are.  The veneer of genteel surroundings and etiquette perversely encourage the more puerile aspects to flourish.


Colleen Camp’s maid (Yvette) comes on, her breasts exploding from her outfit (one might expect Landis to take credit for that one, but Lynn cast her purely because she made him laugh). She’s French, of course.

Peacock: Uh, is there a little girl’s room in the hall?
Yvette: Oui, oui.
Peacock: No, I just want to powder my nose.

I think you get the gist. Characters become amorous with corpses, and there is a cheerful barrage of sexual and scatological gags. The tone is not so different to Neil Simon’s Murder By Death, although Lynn claims never to have seen it (both share cast member Eileen Brennan, here playing Mrs. Peacock).


Mr. Green: So it was you. I was going to expose you.
Wadsworth: I know. So I choose to expose myself.
Mustard: Please, there are ladies present!

The final act is a breathless run around as Curry explains all the nonsense that has preceded it (Lynn insists that everything was reasoned out when he wrote it; given the structural intricacies of his Jim Hacker series this is quite possible).


Three different endings are available (the DVD provides the option to see all three as part of the whole film; this definitely feels more appropriate to the lunatic tone). The intention was to show the film in theatres with a different ending presented at each screening. All three feature repetitions as well as divergences; "Communism was just…" appears in each (and never gets boring). Each feature ridiculous reveals and motives, but the final one is the most involved (and unlikely) and perhaps as a result the funniest. Initially, as many endings were planned as characters, but this was dropped when Lynn realised how long the film would last. A fourth ending was shot but dropped when it wasn’t considered amusing enough.


Scarlet: I hardly think it will enhance your reputation at the UN, Professor Plum, if it's revealed that you have been implicated not only in adultery with one of your patients, but in her death and the deaths of five other people.
Plum: You don't know what kind of people they have at the UN, I might go up in their estimation.

The cast acquit themselves with honours. Besides Curry, my favourite is probably Lesley Ann Warren’s deliciously trampish Miss Scarlet. Warren, formerly married to producer Guber, was cast at short notice after Carrie Fisher went into rehab (Lynn tells an amusing anecdote in which fellow studio/production coke fiends Dawn Steel and Debra Hill couldn’t understand why her addiction would prevent her from working). Lynn also looked at Leonard Rossiter and Rowan Atkinson for Wadsworth before settling on Curry. Madeline Kahn (another Mel Brooks regular, as Mrs. White), Christopher Lloyd (Professor Plum) and Michael McKean (Mr. Green) are all in fine fettle, but Martin Mull’s Mustard isn’t too memorable. Jane Wiedlin makes an attention grabbing film debut as the singing telegram.


Wadsworth: Communism was just a red herring.

Farce is a difficult comedy subgenre to get right on screen (its natural home being the theatre), and it appears more difficult still for it to attract a receptive audience. This may be why these movies build cult followings. Part of the appeal with the likes of Clue and Oscar is seeing the joke coming a mile off and finding it all the funnier because of this. It’s a rare skill, and that’s thanks to UNO W.H.O.



Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.