One of my favorite board games growing up was the murder mystery, Clue. The premise is simple: one night at a big old house with secret passages, Mr Boddy is found dead, and one of the six guests—Professor Plum, Miss Scarlet, Colonel Mustard, Mrs. White, Mr. Green, and Miss Peacock—is the culprit. There are six possible weapons—pistol, knife, wrench, rope, lead pipe and candlestick—that could have been used. There are nine rooms—kitchen, dining room, lounge, ballroom, hall, conservatory, billiard room, library and study—in which the murder could have occurred. The kitchen and study is connected by secret passage, as are the lounge and the conservatory. You move your piece around to the various rooms trying to figure out who killed Boddy, where, and with what. It could even be you. First one to discover the murderer wins. For decades, Clue, was the top dog of murder mystery living room entertainment. And somehow, someway, in the middle of the 1980s, somebody convinced somebody else that it would be a good idea to make this board game with the thinnest excuse for a story into a full-length motion picture.
And you know what? It was awesome.
The story is pretty simple. One night in the 1950s, Plum, Scarlet, Mustard, White, Green and Peacock are all invited to a forboding mansion for a dinner party. They are met by Wadsworth, the Butler and Yvette the maid and Mrs. Ho, the cook. As dinner gets underway, the guests all discover they all have dirty secrets in their background for which they are being blackmailed. It turns out, Wadsworth is also being blackmailed by his employer, Mr. Boddy, who is at the party. Wadsworth suggests they all turn Boddy in. Boddy has other plans: he gives everybody murder weapons and turns out the lights, so somebody might kill Wadsworth under the cover of darkness. When the lights come back on, Boddy is on the ground, and for the next hour or so, our guests run around in increasingly frantic circles trying to figure out which of them is the killer. Meanwhile, additional people visit the house, and all are murdered in short order, and as the bodies literally start to pile up, the guests’ nerves all fray to wonderful comedic effect. By the end of it all, the whole thing takes on a kind of manic energy like some kind of Howard Hawks stage play about dinner and death. You kind of stop caring who did it. You’re having too much fun watching these people freak out over it.
The weird thing about Clue was that it was released with three different endings. (A fourth was shot but abandoned.), This confused audiences at the theatre, and the movie was a huge flop, but it got a second chance on home video where it became a cult favorite. For many who later discovered it, the movie became an instant love, and that has built a strong cult following. The rapid-fire dialogue, the quirky characters, the sudden murders…it all comes together in a farcical mixture that no other movie has ever matched.
Clue is kind of a time capsule of 1980s talent. Martin Mull plays Mustard, a guy with a history of defrauding the government. Colleen Camp plays Yvette, a buxom temptress who escapes nobody’s gaze. Michael McKean plays Green, a jumpy milquetoast who just wishes this ordeal would just end already. Eileen Brennan plays Peacock, a perpetually sauced member of the Washington elite who can’t believe this dinner party turned out to be so tacky. Christopher Lloyd plays Plum, a scientist with a penchant for sleeping with the wrong women. And Lesley Ann Warren is Scarlet, a no-nonsense madam who, if she can’t manipulate people with charm or looks, bullets will do. But the twin titans who really make this movie are Madeline Kahn as White, and Tim Curry as Wadsworth, the butler.
It cannot be understated how much this movie hinges on Curry’s increasingly unhinged performance. He delivers phone books’ worth of dialogue at a machinegun’s rate of fire, never letting his crisply clipped accent suffer through a single syllable of it. He forms the center of a movie that otherwise would have none, as the various guests split up, search the house, scare the daylights out of each other, grow suspicious, discover more dead bodies, and wearily resign themselves to the fact that by the end of the evening, everybody in this damned house is probably going to end up dead or arrested. He runs through this thing knowing that in every murder mystery, the assumption is that the butler did it, and he’s going to prove to everyone that maybe, just this once, it isn’t true.
But the top is Madeline Kahn, who plays White, a black widow whose husbands keep disappearing under violent and/or mysterious circumstances. She exhibits a kind of brittle sanity when we first meet her, and as the evening progresses, her ability to hold it together chips away until at the end of it all, she hits us with the movie’s moment of truth, an ad-libbed bit of dialogue that has to be seen to be believed. She starts off admitting to one of the evening’s many murders, but when she tries to explain why she did it, she descends into a kind of fugue state fueled by incoherence that would have gone on forever had Wadsworth not rescued her by cutting in. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s easily the funniest scene of the movie, and that’s counting the shortest singing telegram in the history of film and an extended debate over how many bullets a six-shooter holds. Clue might not have gotten the success or acclaim it deserved, but the world is a better place with this movie in it. Anything that features Tim Curry at the height of his powers and Madeline Kahn losing her grip on hers is something special, indeed.