Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch moving from July to October, we’re singling out other ensemble comedies to watch instead.
Among the comedies produced during the movie-spoof gold rush of the late 20th century, Clue stands in the middle of the pack. The board game adaptation isn’t as ingeniously frenzied as prime Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. It lacks the satirical sharpness of Mel Brooks in the ’70s, or Keenen Ivory Wayans in the ’80s. Yet Clue is also a film that’s easy to love, with screwball patter and pratfall-filled set pieces that land hard enough to distinguish it from the pretenders scrambling to bottle some Airplane! lightning. Under the direction of a post-Yes Minister, pre-My Cousin Vinny Jonathan Lynn, those moments also elevate a murder-mystery that must create enough wiggle room to accommodate a marketing gimmick dreamed up by producer John Landis: Clue was distributed to theaters with three different endings, an element of chance mimicking the source material’s card-shuffling combinations of culprit, weapon, and location.
Landis, Lynn, and company needn’t have bothered, and not just because the ploy failed to inspire repeat trips to the movie theater. They had the perfect ending in the one the home-video cut’s cheeky title cards refer to as “what really happened.” For one thing, it contains the indelible ad lib that’s helped sustain the cult of Clue well into the digital age. For another: In the ensemble spirit of the piece, it’s only right that Clue should take the Murder On The Orient Express route and answer its whodunit with “All of them.”
That can’t be construed as much of a spoiler; even the best of these conclusions is as incidental as the plot that leads up to them, a blackmail scheme in shades of Red Scare that embroils the pseudonymous guests assembled for a dinner party that gradually turns homicidal. The game of Clue is a role-playing charade, its setting more well-defined than any of the drawing-room archetypes moving around it. The movie’s advantage is in its cast, a murderers’ row (make no excuses for the pun—Clue certainly wouldn’t) of talent who all separately helped to shape the cinematic landscape in which the film initially failed to take hold.
Madeline Kahn, Eileen Brennan, and Lesley Ann Warren had all garnered Oscar nominations for comedic performances—Kahn twice over, which feels practically impossible from today’s vantage point. (But if any performance could do it, it’d be her electrifyingly exhausted portrayal of Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles.) Michael McKean and Martin Mull were underground darlings who’d each experienced a big-time television crossover in the ’70s. Clue debuted just five months after Christopher Lloyd converted his Taxi space-cadet routine into mad-scientist schtick for the biggest movie of 1985. Bringing all the pieces together is Tim Curry, precisely the dry English wit you want serving as master of campy ceremonies during a dark and stormy night in a creaky old manor house.
There are individual choices made throughout Clue that still shine all these years later: Curry’s motormouthed recaps of lethal actions and fatal mistakes, Warren’s treatment of every surface in the house as something to strike a pose against. (Her Miss Scarlet hails from the Jessica Rabbit School of Femme Fatale, where the fantasies of 12-year-olds and drag queens intersect.) And then there’s Mrs. White’s confession in the third ending, in which Kahn devolves into improvised incomprehensibility, yet remains entirely emotionally articulate. It’s only a few seconds of screen time, but it lingers in the memory for much longer.
Working with dialogue that was far more airtight than Clue’s central mystery, the cast had largely committed to the words of Lynn’s script—Kahn’s delivery of “Flames… on the side of my face” was simply too funny to leave on the cutting room floor. But that moment, like so many others in Clue, is boosted by the acting and reacting going on around it. Once the weapons are handed out and the bodies start piling up, the film takes on an incredible group energy. Every character’s a suspect, but they’re also a head and two legs in a slapstick chimera racing from room to room in a million-dollar 3D rendering of the Clue board. The filmmakers take advantage of this not only in the actors’ verbal ping-pong matches (“A double negative!” “A double negative—you mean you have photographs?”), but also shots that squeeze them together into door frames, or spread them out across the vast expanse of the entry hall. It’s no wonder Clue flags whenever it splits the characters up to explore the grounds—as Colonel Mustard puts it while absentmindedly waving the wrench around, “There is safety in numbers.”
The canonical Clue is the one with all the endings. After all, that’s the version that actually inspired people to go back and watch a second and third (and fourth, fifth, sixth… ) time on VHS and cable. (The DVD release eventually restored the original grab bag experience.) When the endings are all shown in sequence, Clue comes the closest to hitting the high-pitched, callback-laden notes of its era’s best movie spoofs. But it’s still hard not to envy the moviegoers whose first times were with the last ending, a solution to the mystery that requires all the principals’ involvement and draws on their strengths: Curry’s poise; Brennan’s socialite haughtiness; Lloyd’s wild-eyed takes; Mull’s parody of alpha male obliviousness; Warren’s amusement even as Miss Scarlet is being correctly accused of murder; the way McKean, as the closeted Mr. Green, caps it all of with “I’m gonna go home and sleep with my wife!” All that, and they got to be the first people to witness the flames on the sides of Madeline Kahn’s face, too.