If you grew up anywhere in the civilized world, you probably played Clue (or Cluedo outside of North America) at some point in your life; maybe you still play it. Along with things like Monopoly, Scrabble, Parcheesi, chess, and checkers, it continues to be among the most-popular board games in the world. There are even video-game versions of it for electronic devices. It’s no wonder, then, that in 1985 Paramount took it a step further, turning it into a motion picture. Not a particularly good one, mind you, but at least a stab (if you’ll excuse the pun) in the right direction.
The trouble is that people expect board games to be fun, entertaining, which indicated to the studio the movie had to be a comedy. Why was that trouble? A number of reasons: First, Columbia Pictures had already beaten them to the punch with a popular comedy-mystery, “Murder by Death,” about a group of people in an old dark house. Second, even though Paramount put together an amiable-enough cast, they couldn’t hope to compete against the likes of Peter Sellers, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, and the like in the earlier film. Third, the screenwriter for “Clue,” Jonathan Lynn (from a story by John Landis), wasn’t up to the comic standards of Neil Simon, who wrote “Murder by Death.”
But most important, comedies can be notoriously difficult to pull off successfully. What strikes one person as hilariously funny may fall completely flat with another. “Clue” begins well enough but then loses its creativity to waves of pure silliness. Fortunately, there is little in “Clue” an audience might find offensive, beyond the idea of murder as fun; this is, after all, a black comedy. It’s just that the viewer might not find any consistently big laughs in it, either.
Not only did Jonathan Lynn (“Nuns on the Run,” “My Cousin Vinny,” “Sgt. Bilko,” “The Whole Nine Yards”) help write the script, he directed the film as well. And he does his best with the material at hand, which, unhappily, isn’t much. Well, when it comes right down to it, there isn’t much to the board game; it’s a simple matter of elimination as the players try to find out what cards their opponents are holding. So, the director and screenwriters had to make up most of the story beyond the old house and the familiar characters.
Still, we get the game’s characters intact, plus a few new ones, played by delightful if lightweight actors. Starring as the game’s six original playing pieces are Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock, wearing a goofy, peacock-looking hat; Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White, a mysterious woman in a black-and-white outfit; Lesley Ann Warren as Miss Scarlet, a sensual, flamboyant lady; Christopher Lloyd as Prof. Plum, a scholarly, if horny, fellow; Michael McKean as Mr. Green (originally called Reverend Green outside of the game’s North American edition), a mousy sort of guy; and Martin Mull as Col. Mustard, looking very stiff and military. In addition, the movie adds Lee Ving as Mr. Boddy, only mentioned in the game, here a temporarily live character; Colleen Camp as Yvette, a very sexy maid; and, most important, Tim Curry as the butler.
As we might expect, Curry steals the show. He becomes the ringmaster, so to speak, leading all activities in the house, from inviting the guests to exposing their secrets.
The real star of the movie, however, is the house itself. It looks just as you imagine the house from the game, with all of its secret passages and Victorian designs. The hardwood flooring in the hallways even has a square-block design, just as in the game board. Moreover, the time period for the action is 1954, a few years after Parker Bros. in America introduced the game to the public. And outside the mansion, it’s a dark and stormy night. Nice attention to detail.
Unfortunately, a few good actors and a setting alone can’t carry an entire movie, especially when the story so invites a viewer to keep comparing it to “Murder by Death.” I mean, the two movies even begin in the same way, with guests arriving at the mansion, being introduced one by one, and then finding themselves locked in. The thing is, though, while “Murder by Death” kept up a continual string of inventive comedy from beginning to end, “Clue” is able to sustain its humor for only the first half of the film.
The plot concerns each of the guests having a hidden past, a blackmailer threatening to expose each of them, Mr. Boddy turning up dead, and the finger of guilt pointing to one among them. But which one?
Wadsworth: “Well, to make a long story short….”
Col. Mustard: “Too late.”
In the second half of the film the suspects begin running from room to room in a frantic effort to find out which one of them committed the murder. It’s at that point the story turns from clever verbal comedy to frantic slapstick. Things get pretty manic before arriving at the big gimmick, the multiple endings.
When Paramount released the movie to theaters, they tagged on one of three different endings depending on where you saw it. On the Blu-ray disc, they have provided the option of watching all three endings in succession or any one of the three independently. The trouble is, none of the endings make much sense. In fact, I defy anybody seeing the film for the first time to figure out any of them, even after their lengthy explanations. Worse, none of the endings are very funny. They’re just stultifyingly convoluted and dull.
So, the movie “Clue” provides good visuals, a few good performances, and a couple of good laughs. The penalty is having to put up with the rest of the nonsense.
Paramount video engineers use an MPEG-4/AVC codec and a dual-layer BD50 to transfer the film to Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio, 1.85:1. There is some grain evident throughout the movie, no doubt inherent to the print and providing a realistic, if somewhat rough, film-like quality to the picture. Overall, the image is fairly sharp, contrasts strong, black levels deep, and colors rich and natural in appearance. You’ll get no serious complaints from me.
With the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, however, it’s a different story. The sound is probably just as audiences heard it in a movie theater back in ’85, which doesn’t make it any better. It’s monaural, rather thin, with a hard, sometimes harsh, sometimes hollow quality. The midrange is clear enough, true, but it’s accompanied by a light background noise, more audible at some times than others.
The primary extra is having all three endings to watch, individually or consecutively, at the end of the film. Beyond that, there are fifteen scene selections; bookmarks; a widescreen, standard-def theatrical trailer; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The first half of “Clue” works better than the last half, which gets awfully harebrained and threatens to lose the audience along the way. It lost me, and I found none of the “surprise” endings satisfactory, mainly because by then I was beyond caring. Nevertheless, for fans of the board game, it’s fun seeing the characters and particularly the old mansion come to life; and there are a few laughs along the way. Just forget the second half happened.