Clue (1985) Directed by Jonathan Lynn; screenplay by Jonathan Lynn and John Landis; produced by Debra Hill.
When I was 9 years old, I saw Clue on video. It immediately became one of those movies that my sister really liked and thus was on all the time for a few months, but I remember getting pretty sick of it. I haven't really seen it very much since then, but pieces of it are kind of stamped into my brain. So when I saw it was on Netflix (and disappearing in a few days), I thought, what the hell. Lots of people of my generation--or at least with dispositions similar to mine--seem to love Clue, so why not revisit it?
Based on the board game, the movie gathers a bunch of comic actors and puts them in a thin retread of Murder by Death. It seems like it should be something of a slam dunk premise, but the movie just doesn't work. And honestly, that might be the most fascinating thing about it.
You've got six actors with great comic timing--Martin Mull, Lesley Ann Warren, Michael McKean, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd and the great Madeline Kahn--as six strangers who are being blackmailed by the same man. They respond to mysterious letters that have them meeting at a mansion on the hill on a dark and stormy night. There's Colleen Camp as a French maid and Tim Curry as the butler, Wadsworth, and they're at a dinner to confront the man who's blackmailing them all. It's 1954 during the McCarthy Army hearings. Tension is in the air.
You've also got a truly gorgeous mansion set to do this all in. This movie is a minor triumph of set design and costuming. It's a really, really good-looking movie that has the potential to be moody and atmospheric. You've got a bunch of funny people and Tim Curry leading them all in a heroic performance that holds the whole thing together. And hell, you've even got a mystery that actually works logically, with enough twists and turns to it, and--and this really impressed me--as the bodies keep mounting up, every single one is a person who comes in from outside. Great plot device: the potential murderers don't keep getting eliminated one by one, leaving it up in the air the entire time who the real killer is instead of narrowing it down.
So why doesn't this movie work on any level?
It's all there. You have all the ingredients. But something's gone wrong in the mixing process and now the cake is flat.
This is a lifeless movie, and it's hard for me to tell what went wrong. I think there's definitely a problem with how the movie is directed and edited. Sometimes it's edited in a way that throws the timing of gag bits off, which is death to a movie like this. There's some good wordplay and some great physical gags, but a lot of them get lost in a flurry of editing and too much camera movement. Jonathan Lynn as a director doesn't seem to know when to nail the camera down and let the actors play off of one another, so the cast never really adheres into a unit, which is death to a mystery movie.
I think there's a problem with the tone, too. All of the background political stuff which starts the plot off and running is quickly forgotten, and so the movie loses all sense of time and place. I think that's wrong. You need isolation for the plot to work, but you can't ignore details that later come into the resolution, because they seem unimportant. Three times we hear "Communism was a red herring," but by then I'd forgotten the entire Communist implication that drove half of the blackmail set-up.
But the worst tone problem is the comedy. The filmmakers seem to have never decided what kind of comedy they were making. I think it could have been marvelous if they'd made a mystery movie with humorous elements that get louder and louder as the movie gets more and more frantic. Establish a mood, then gradually deconstruct that mood until you're practically in a farce. This should have been The Cat and the Canary with Bob Hope; a straight genre movie with the characters taking it less and less seriously. I think it would have really worked, too, because Tim Curry really is very good and he really is the one who holds the whole thing together.
But the filmmakers seem to have approached it as a comedy first. It's not even a parody. It's not a farce, it's not a burlesque, it's just a comedy that doesn't work as a comedy because there's too much plot to keep track of and the characters are underwritten. The actors all seem frustrated at not having much to play. Which is doubly odd, because Lynn and John Landis seem to have decided to put in suggested lines with the feeling that the actors would improvise something good.
It's a shame it just doesn't work. The actors, except for Tim Curry and Colleen Camp, are mostly wasted. But that set is just gorgeous.
Here's a personal, prurient note: this movie makes me really, really horny.
The reason I've never really forgotten this movie is obviously Colleen Camp, whose generous breasts were of extreme importance to me at the age of 9. I can see, like, five of my fetishes began with this movie and specifically with Ms. Camp and her performance. I love Colleen Camp, I think she's a really fun actor every time I see her. But I have lusted after her for the last 30 years, and, well, thank you for that, Clue. I always remembered that this movie made me bizarrely horny. Turns out it still does.
This movie is the source of my Lesley Ann Warren lust, which continues, unbroken, to this day.
Hey, like Roger Ebert once joked, I put everything into my reviews.