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

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

Can you close off your feelings so you don’t get crippled by the moral ambiguity of your violent actions?

Spider-Man Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

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…

What, you're going to walk in there like it's the commie Disneyland or something?

Stranger Things 3 (2019)
(SPOILERS) It’s very clear by this point that Stranger Things isn’t going to serve up any surprises. It’s operating according to a strict formula, one requiring the opening of the portal to the Upside Down every season and an attendant demagorgon derivative threat to leak through, only to be stymied at the last moment by our valorous team. It’s an ‘80s sequel cycle through and through, and if you’re happy with it functioning exclusively on that level, complete with a sometimes overpowering (over)dose of nostalgia references, this latest season will likely strike you as just the ticket.

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

How can you have time when it clearly has you?

Dark  Season 2
(SPOILERS) I’m not intending to dig into Dark zealously, as its plotting is so labyrinthine, it would take forever and a day, and I’d just end up babbling incoherently (so what’s new). But it’s worth commenting on, as it’s one of the few Netflix shows I’ve seen that feels entirely rigorous and disciplined – avoiding the flab and looseness that too often seems part and parcel of a service expressly avoiding traditional ratings models – as it delivers its self-appointed weighty themes and big ideas. And Dark’s weighty themes and big ideas really are weighty and big, albeit simultaneously often really frustrating. It came as no surprise to learn of the showrunners’ overriding fixation on determinism at work in the multi-generational, multiple time period-spanning events within the German town of Winden, but I was intrigued regarding their structural approach, based on clearly knowing the end game of their characters, rather than needing to reference (as they put it) Post-It…

Doesn't work out, I'll send her home in body bag.

Anna (2019)
(SPOILERS) I’m sure one could construe pertinent parallels between the various allegations and predilections that have surfaced at various points relating to Luc Besson, both over the years and very recently, and the subject matter of his movies, be it by way of a layered confessional or artistic “atonement” in the form of (often ingenue) women rising up against their abusers/employers. In the case of Anna, however, I just think he saw Atomic Blonde and got jealous. I’ll have me some of that, though Luc. Only, while he brought more than sufficient action to the table, he omitted two vital ingredients: strong lead casting and a kick-ass soundtrack.

Spider-Man with his hand in the cookie jar! Whoever brings me that photo gets a job.

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
(SPOILERS) Spider-Man 3 is a mess. That much most can agree on that much. And I think few – Jonathan Ross being one of them – would claim it’s the best of the Raimi trilogy. But it’s also a movie that has taken an overly harsh beating. In some cases, this a consequence of negative reaction to its most inspired elements – it would be a similar story with Iron Man Three a few years later – and in others, it’s a reflection of an overstuffed narrative pudding – so much so that screenwriter Alvin Sargent considered splitting the movie into two. In respect of the latter, elements were forced on director Sam Raimi, and these cumulative disagreements would eventually lead him to exit the series (it would take another three years before his involvement in Spider-Man 4 officially ended). There’s a lot of chaff in the movie, but there’s also a lot of goodness here, always providing you aren’t gluten intolerant.