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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

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…

This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that.

Schindler’s List (1993)
(SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

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…

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder (1990)
(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.