You know how it works. Someone with a color-coded alias picks up a weapon and commits murder in a mansion room. You have to solve the mystery. Yes, it's Clue, the classic board game that became a movie that is now the subject of this blog post.
In 1985, when Clue hit the big screen, it was a novel concept. Clue was a movie based on a board game, but also a movie that unfolded like said game. You watch the ensemble cast wander from room to room. You keep tabs on who is where and who has access to which weapon. You look for any indication of guilt. You try to solve the mystery. With three possible scenarios, there’s a chance your guesses might be right.
The first time I saw Clue was with my parents, it was in our family room, either thanks to cable TV or VHS. I was young, somewhere between the end of elementary school and the beginning of junior high, and had already spent too many hours playing the board game. I tried to solve the mystery before any of the endings appeared on screen. I couldn’t. Still, the movie became a quick favorite, part of a short list of ’80s films whose lines I began to memorize. Thanks to Clue, I learned the meaning of the idiom “red herring.”
The difference between board game Clue and cinematic Clue is that you can only try to solve the movie once. Somehow, though, the makers of this film kept people like me coming back for more.
A dark comedy with a top-notch ensemble cast, Clue had familiarity on its side. Even if you didn’t know the names of the actors, you knew them from somewhere. As kids, we would watch this and say, “Hey, he’s from Back to the Future!” when we saw Christopher Lloyd as Dr. Plum, to which the grown-ups might respond, “Don’t forget Taxi.” Certainly, the core cast– Tim Curry (Wadsworth), Madeline Kahn (Mrs. White), Michael McKean (Mr. Green), Martin Mull (Col. Mustard), Lesley Ann Warren (Mss Scarlet), Eileen Brennan (Mrs. Peacock) and Lloyd– had achieved varying levels of recognizability before Clue was released. On top of that, there were the cameos. Jane Wiedlin, who played the Singing Telegram Girl, was part of The Go-Go’s. Lee Ving, who played Mr. Boddy, is an L.A. punk legend, the infamous frontman of Fear. That’s some cool casting.
It’s hard to tell whether or not the humor in Clue is still relevant. The thinly veiled jokes about sex and death are always funny. They’re funny when you’re a kid, even if it takes a few seconds to get it, even if you have to pretend to know more than you do. They’re funny when you’re adult, despite the fact that, at this point in your life, you’ve heard variations of the same jokes thousands of times. The one-liners in here are still golden, even when they’re kind of cheesy.
Underneath the jokes about Mrs. White’s former husbands and Col. Mustard’s penchant for Miss Scarlet’s employees, there’s a good amount of political comedy going on in Clue. The setting is Washington D.C. in the 1950s and the characters all have some sort of tie to the political world. The murder mystery unfolds under the cloud of the Cold War. Fear of communism intertwines with fear or U.S. government reprisal. As we head deeper into the story, we realize that there’s a possible political motive for every suspected murderer in the mansion.
For the children of the ’80s watching Clue, the setting is a past we never knew. However, that uneasiness surrounding communism was still something we could kind of understand in the days when the Soviet Union still existed. We could watch the movie, piece together the jokes– like the oft-repeated line “Communism is just a red herring”– and make sense of it. Now that decades have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, I can’t help but wonder if some of that context is lost. Is Clue simply a relic of a bygone era?
Perhaps not. After re-watching Clue a few times recently, something deeper emerged from the movie. Each of the three endings presents a different resolution. The murderer changes, as do the motives. Some of the dialogue stays the same, but that’s all recontextualized. Different characters might say the same lines in different endings and the meaning of that sentence or two alters the plot. However, the sentiments remain. Of course, there’s the old notion that everyone has something to hide. Beyond that, though, there’s the idea of the red herring. Maybe the big, beastly concepts that are presented as enemies — like communism back in the Cold War days — are just distractions blinding us from the clues that will help us solve the problems that are closest at hand.
Image: Paramount Pictures