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 that 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 in the States 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 the 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 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 Paul 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 it 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 U.N. 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 U.N., 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 (it’s 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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

What about the panties?

Sliver (1993)
(SPOILERS) It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct, but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it.

Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare (Clear and Present Danger, Salt) also adept at “smart” smaller pictures (Rabbit Proof Fence

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.