Culling inspiration from print, screen and pastime, Clue manages to eke out an engaging ensemble comedy from the skeleton of a board game’s rule book, filling in the gaps with tropes pinched from Ten Little Indians and its umpteen cinematic iterations. The employment of shadowy photography and playful gallows humor conjure warm sentiments, striking a tone to match the secret passages and black-gloved malcontents of a thousand mysteries, but leavening any homicidal inclination with a healthy dose of bungling slapstick and saucy banter. The resulting bricolage is frivolity incarnate, a confection of heaving bosoms, vigorous comic performance and jaunty whodunit.
As grey clouds form overhead and spine-tingling organ complements the deluge of rain, guests begin to trickle into Hill House, an ominous manor tucked away at the farthest reaches of New England. The year is 1954 and our unsuspecting visitors mask their trepidations beneath dinner-party-appropriate attire, ladies in evening gowns and matching broaches, gents donning their finest suits and puffing on fragrant pipe tobacco. The mahogany hues of the drawing room are just as evocative as the fashion and part of Clue’s allure is its attention to period detail and capacity for mimicking the visual texture and mise-en-scene of its forebearers.
Supplied with a pseudonym upon arrival, each plucked from the aforementioned party game, the lodgers take solace in their temporary anonymity, slurping up their bowls of monkey brain soup and apprehensively playing a game of question and answer. Though none of the invitees know their host or why they’ve been summoned for a late supper, all quickly uncover their political affiliations and deduce that they share a collective blackmailer, one well-versed in their sexual dalliances and murderous impulses.
Brandishing a unique armament and harboring criminal intent, the company stews quietly over their “financial liability” while Wadsworth (Tim Curry), the effete butler, reveals their transgressions and unveils their mutual exploiter, the disreputable Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving). Pleading for his life and pointing the finger at Wadsworth as the nefarious orchestrator of the evening’s events, the foolhardy Boddy tries to charm his way out of the crosshairs, but a flick of the lightswitch and discharge of a pistol find the scofflaw lying dead on the parlor’s Persian rug. As the guests deliberate over the identity of the killer and suspicions mount, the narrative gets whipped into a frenzy, shuffling through surprise guests, jumpscares and candle-lit clichés, abandoning coherence in the name of brisk pacing and scads of flimsy wisecracks.
The indulgences of the performers and screenwriters plaster over these lapses in continuity, coasting on a juvenile sensuality and winsome hamminess that knowingly wobbles toward the absurd. Taking a page from the Hammer Films book on sexual stimuli, breasts play a role prominent enough to garner screen credit, pouring out over the fringes of a garment’s bustline, acting as a distraction for partygoer and audience member alike. Making the most of her part as duplicitous femme fatale, the buxom and eager Yvette (Colleen Camp) stuffs herself into an exhibitive French maid outfit, one certainly designed for a woman of a smaller cup size and forthright enough to act as muse for Christopher Lloyd’s salacious Professor Plum. Nearly toppling headfirst into her chest as she lays the place settings and boring holes into her bodice with his eyes in the billiard room, Lloyd’s character flails mercilessly at the whim of Ms. Camp’s physique, drawn to her chest like a moth to a flame, recoiling only at the playful swat of her feather duster.
Tim Curry’s performance as Wadsworth is just as playfully unhinged, panting wildly as he lugs the bedraggled troupe through every salon and library in the mansion, expatiating on his elaborate theories concerning the motivations of the killer(s) and chronology of events. Unfortunately, the reveal provided by this handiwork is of little consequence, considering the presumptuous nature of his detection and the three distinct resolutions incorporated into the film’s home video release. This substitution of vigor for logic certainly makes for a convoluted script, but Clue’s success hinges exclusively on its ear for dialogue and unflagging enthusiasm, a moxie that admirably recreates and lampoons the Old Dark House-style mystery in equal measure.
Clue (Paramount Pictures, 1985)
Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Written by Anthony E. Pratt (board game), Jonathan Lynn (story/screenplay) and John Landis (screenplay)
Photographed by Victor J. Kemper