Friday, April 5, 2013

Film Friday: Clue (1985)

With Scott reviewing Battleship, which is based on a board game, it’s time to review one of my favorite comedies, which also happens to be based on a board game: Clue. Clue was a box office bomb that his since become a cult classic for the same reason we discussed about Highlander becoming a cult classic, i.e. this was a good film which confused the generic public.
Plot
Directed and co-written by Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny), co-written by John Landis (The Blues Brothers, Animal House), and produced by Debra Hill (who typically collaborated with John Carpenter), Clue involves an all-star cast who find themselves stuck in a mansion on a rainy night in the 1950s. Each of the people invited to the mansion has been given a false name to hide their identity and a potential murder weapon. The audience will recognize these names from the board game “Clue.” Soon, Mr. Body turns up dead and they all have motives for killing him. They must solve the murder before the police arrive. In the meantime, they need to deal with the fact that the staff and everyone who shows up at their front door ends up being killed. Simple enough, right? Well, that’s a matter of some debate.
What Makes This Film Work
Clue failed with general audiences, but has since become a cult classic. The conventional wisdom is that cult films are bad films that somehow find an audience because they are quirky and quirkiness magically finds audiences. As I mentioned when discussing Highlander, however, I don’t buy that. I suspect cult films are actually good films which fail with general audiences because they put too much faith in their audience and they don’t spell things out clearly enough for general audiences to understand them.

In Highlander, the problem was that the film lacked the exposition general audiences need. It flashed back and forth between the present and the past without a character saying, “Do you remember what things were like 400 years ago?” It also used clever dialog rather than exposition to give the audience background information, such as having a character read two words from the newspaper (“baffled” and “incompetent”) rather than having a character explain through exposition the status of the current police investigation. This was beyond general audience’s ability to comprehend.

Clue does the comedy version of this. Indeed, the film is packed with jokes that are not highlighted and punchlines that require the audience to remember what they were told earlier. For example, when Michael McKean’s character (Mr. Green) refers to himself as a plant, Leslie Ann Warren (Ms. Scarlet) quips, “I thought men like you were called a fruit.” This is a reference to his having been outed earlier as gay, but no one reminds you of this when she makes the quip. . . you need to remember. That apparently asks too much of general audiences and this film is full of these moments where the writers leave it up to the audience to piece the jokes together. In fact, the only time Clue actually reminds you of something to make sure you got the joke was when Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn) tells you that her husband is dead. This is the punchline to a joke from several minutes earlier where White was asked what her husband does and she acts cagey before responding, “He just lies around all day.” In this instance, the writers felt the audience wouldn’t get it, so they had Ms. Scarlet remind everyone of White’s earlier statement by saying, “So that’s what you meant when you said ___!” This feels incredibly clunky when it happens and it stands out as the film talking down to you. But ironically, it only feels that way because the film doesn’t do this at any other point; most films did this so often that you stop noticing they are doing it. So why would the writers of Clue do this? Because it preserves the pacing and it makes the dialog punchier and more natural when you aren’t constantly stopping to explain things to the audience.

Clue is also crawling with unexplained jokes which take a quick mind to spot. Consider this joke by Professor Plumb (Christopher Lloyd). He is asked who he works for and he responds, “The United Nations Organization.” But, someone asks, aren’t you a psychiatrist, not a politician? He responds that he works for a sub-agency called “the World Health Organization.” Nothing more is said to drive the joke home and general audiences probably didn’t even know there was a joke here. Yet, the people who would become the film’s cult audience pretty quickly realized that the initials of these organizations together are “WHO UNO,” which was actually what they were trying to figure out – who they all knew in common. This is similar to two jokes in Men in Black, where Will Smith refers to their car as a “Ford POS” and where Zed says to the failed applicants, “You’re what we’ve come to expect from years of government training.” Neither joke is ever explained and I can tell you that the audience I saw the film with missed both jokes, but a couple people got them.
Even beyond this, Clue does lots of things you have to think about to get. When they separate, for example, they manage to put the most perfectly incompatible people together as teams, such as people who threatened to kill each other earlier or how Yvette (Coleen Camp), who every man is after and who flirts with every man, gets randomly teamed up with Mr. Green, who is gay. At no point do the characters say, “hey, we’re incompatible,” but if you’ve been using your brains throughout, you quickly realize the irony in all of the pairings. Similarly, the character names are all ironic in one form or another. Mrs. White is a black widow who dresses head-to-toe in black except for a white liner on her cape. Ms. Scarlet runs a house of prostitution, i.e. a “red-light” establishment, and is later accused of being communist (i.e. a red) – Communism is then described to as “a red herring.” Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull) is a Major and reveals himself to be a coward (i.e. yellow). Mr. Green is a plant and plants are green. Professor Plumb is a psychiatrist who plumbs the human mind. Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan) is an overdressed, ostentatious woman who fits the expression “proud as a peacock.” In each instance, these jokes are there for you to see them if you can spot them, but the filmmakers never explain them or point them out.

The film also includes a lot of wordplay where you need to be able connect the fact that the characters are using different means for the same words. The best example of this is when Mrs. Peacock is revealed to have taken bribes in a mensroom in exchange for delivering the vote of her husband the Senator. When this is pointed out, it gets asked rhetorically “What do you think of that?” Scarlet responds, “I think it stinks.” Peacock immediately counters, “How would you know? When were you in that mensroom?” Notice that her response not only ascribes a different meaning to the word “stinks” than Scarlet meant, but it also flips the subject of Scarlet’s comment from the bribe to the mensroom. This is a great verbal trick, but it requires the audience to think and it requires the audience to realize that a joke has been told. Most films would alert the audience to this by having a character say, “I think she meant the situation, not the mensroom stank!” and that’s the point when general audiences finally laugh. Clue didn’t do this.

This is what I suspect turned off general audiences. As with Highlander and several other cult classics that come to mind, few of the jokes were spoon-fed, and that led people like Roger Ebert (who was King of the Simps despite pretending to be erudite) to see the movie as a series of “throwaway gags and one liners” which he didn’t think were funny. Clearly though, he just didn’t understand the jokes because few of them can legitimately be called one liners, as each was carefully set up over time, and as none of the gags were throwaways as each provides clues as to the motives of the characters.
Finally, there’s one more thing which hurt this film. When the film was originally shown in theaters, they used a gimmick to market it. The film was shot with three possible endings. Depending on which theater you went to, you saw a different ending. The idea was to get people to see the movie three times (these days, all three are stuck together), but this proved a problem with general audiences because the public wants the story in a tidy package, they don’t want to work for it. Giving them multiple possible endings puts the onus on them to finish the story and general audiences don’t like that.

Ebert tries to justify his own need to have things spoon-fed to him by claiming that having multiple endings made the entire film “meaningless.” That’s a rather telling conclusion. Alternate endings are highly prized by film buffs who love seeing the “craft” and enjoy thinking about the possibilities that were considered. The idea of alternate endings also forms the foundation of the human fascination with reliving the past and asking the “what if” question that is so popular in science fiction. To see a film as “meaningless” merely because it offers you different endings to choose from speaks of a one-dimensional mind that doesn’t want to use independent judgment, not any flaw within the film.

This is why Clue struggled with general audiences but has since found a cult following, not because this is a stupid quirky film, but because it is a good, extremely well-written film which just didn’t spoon-feed general audiences enough.

40 comments:

tryanmax said...

Way to speak ill of the dead. ;-)

Clue is one of my all-time favorite films and my favorite board game! The best part about the alternate endings is that they all work with the action of the film, which shows an incredible amount of craft on the parts of the writers and directors.

AndrewPrice said...

I'm grandfathered in because I spoke ill of the man before he died and was instantly canonized.

I agree about the endings, I think it's interesting that each ending could work, which isn't always true with alternate ending films.

Personally, I love the way the jokes are consistent throughout -- they never drop a joke -- and how they never dumb them down. It's like a movie that really trusts you to "get it" and you have to see it more than once to take in all the nuances. I really appreciate that kind of intelligence in a movie.

Voz said...

I think it's in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart...maybe I'll swing by there after work and snag a copy if I can find one. I've always wanted to see this but never have.

ScottDS said...

Would you believe just last week, USA's Psych aired their 100th episode... and it was a parody of this film?! They even got some of the same actors to guest star in it.

I saw this film for the first time in its entirety under the best possible circumstances. (Well, second best...) :-)

A week after moving to LA, my roommates invited me to a midnight screening of this film at the Nuart Theatre in Santa Monica... but it wasn't just any screening. It was done in the style of Rocky Horror... with performers acting out the film on stage as the film played on the screen behind them. Audience participation was encouraged and we all had a blast!

The film itself is borderline genius. I'm not intimately familiar with much of Jonathan Lynn's work (he also did Yes Minister for television) but of the films he's directed, this has to be the best written of them all. The cast makes it look so effortless. (And man, Colleen Camp was hot back in the day!)

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, I think you'll enjoy it very much. It's really an entertaining film. It does a lot right and it's really funny. It's obviously not the kind of film that will set the world on fire, like Ghostbusters but it has a very strong following for a reason.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You should check out Colleen Camp's IMDB history at some point. It's amazing how many famous films she's been in without anyone noticing. She was even one of the Playboy Bunnies in Apocalypse Now.

I think "borderline genius" is a good way to put it. Everything in this film fits together like a puzzle. Nothing is wasted and nothing is meaningless. BUT you have to think about all of it or it comes across just like Ebert said - a series of dumb gags and one liners.

I wasn't aware they gave this one the Rocky Horror treatment, but I could see that.

rlaWTX said...

I have seen pieces, but never the whole thing (that I can remember)... I'll make an effort.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, It's worth the effort! :)

Anonymous said...

Lies, lies, all three endings are lies I tell you!

(puts on tin foil hat and behaves like paranoid conspiracy theorist)

We all know Colonel Mustard killed everybody! He did it with the wrench in the kitchen, the study, and the library.

(suddenly regains sanity)

On that note, Andrew, you couldn't be more right about this movie's writing. You have to think, and the deliveries are slick. As for my favorite, I'm torn between:

-Tim Curry's "I'm shouting!" spiel before being hit by the candlestick;
-Christopher Lloyd's "Then who did I kill?"
"That was my butler."
"Ah, nuts."
-And Tim Curry's exchange with the cop:
"It's a free world."
"I didn't think it was THAT free."

-Rustbelt

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I love that line from Curry with the cop -- "I didn't think it was THAT free!" LOL! The whole movie is full of little gems like.

Glad you agree about the writing because I think that's the case. This film is packed with so much fantastic writing, but you have to use your brain to understand it -- you can't wait for the film to feed it to you.

You're right about the deliveries as well. This is a lot like an early Marx Brothers film in that regard where the dialog flows with amazing timing, it's quick, witty and punchy, and they move on to the next gag almost before you realize there was a joke. This is an all around super film and truly has been underrated by general audiences.

Dwizzum said...

I always liked this movie. It is clever and funny. I remember watching this all the time on cable after it came out. They showed all the endings one after another in that format and it worked well.

Funniest part was Madeline Kahn(Mrs. White) "Flames" speech. I still laugh when I think about that.

AndrewPrice said...

Dwizzum, This is a movie with a high re-watchability factor. I watch it every time I run across it on television and it never grows old.

To me, one of the funniest moments is actually when Tim Curry is telling everyone what happened and he starts chasing people around the room like he's going to kill them.

T-Rav said...

I saw this once a long time ago--I think I found it on TV and thought, "What? They don't really mean as in the board game, do they?"

Anyway, I don't remember a lot of it now, but I do remember a couple of visual/dialogue gags, like when Mr. Green said "...but I was removed from my job for being a homosexual," and the two men on the couch with him immediately crossed their legs. That made me giggle.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I think the way they deal with him being gay is funny throughout. I love when Yvette asks if anyone will go with her and each of the men says, "Yes," "Yes", "Yes" and he says, "No, thank you." I find the whole movie really clever.

PikeBishop said...

"Cult Status?" I think you may be stretching it a bit here. I haven't even thought of this movie since I watched it on Showtime in 87 and they ran all three endings back to back.

Cult? Famous?

In all the years since I have never heard anyone who knows film mention this as a "have you ever seen" like they do Highlander, Buckaroo Banzai or Remo Williams, to name just a few.

I had forgotten it existed.

AndrewPrice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
T-Rav said...

I honestly couldn't say whether it's in "cult status" or not. I don't hear people talking about it, but then I also don't hear them talking about Rocky Horror or Highlander either. So I'm probably not traveling in the right circles.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, This is a film which is still on television constantly. They're planning a remake for 2013. It's been parodied/homaged in a sit com. Those are things that indicate a cult following. So is the fact the film's rating have gone way up since its release.

Also, the Wikipedia says the film has achieved cult status: LINK. So does the IMBD LINK, where the film scores an impressive 7.2 from 36,000 users which is a lot for an old movie that well predates the creation of the IMDB and which isn't one of the mega hits like Star Wars.

And as Scott notes above, he even found a joint showing with Rocky Horror.

That's all pretty solid evidence of cult status.

(had to fix the html)

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Rocky Horror is probably the classic example of a cult-classic film.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

It wasn't a "joint" showing with Rocky Horror... it was a single screening done in the "style" of midnight Rocky Horror screenings. There's a group in LA called Sins 'O The Flesh that does one Clue event each year... but they do Rocky Horror every week.

Here are some photos from the 2005 screening. (I think I was at this one, if not 2006.)

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the clarification Scott. I had no idea anyone did that for Clue. Cool.

Voz said...

Murder by Death is kind of in the same vein...good cast, lots of one liners and visual gags...

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, This is a lot like Murder by Death, only a little faster paced perhaps. Murder By Death is another of my favorite comedies -- so it The Cheap Detective.

PikeBishop said...

Andrew, I don't doubt what you said. I am assuming you live in New York or LA and things are probably different. I have lived in Pittsburgh and Houston. I have never seen it on Saturday afternoon movies on local stations and have maybe seen it pop up on HBO or Showtime maybe once a decade.

And as pointed out before, have almost never mentioned it or heard it mentioned in film buff type conversation.

Oh well, your review has probably gotten me to give it a second look. Thank you.

PikeBishop said...

And Andrew, a friend just scored a copy of "The Cheap Detective" and gave it to me. One of my all time favorites as well. Its a shame that little gem has been forgotten.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I'm glad you've decided to give it a second look! Hopefully, you'll life it! :)

I'm also glad to hear that you're a fan of "The Cheap Detective." I love that movie and you're right, it's sad that one got forgotten. That one deserves to be much better known because it's really, really funny and clever.

BTW, for the record, I live in Colorado.

PikeBishop said...

Andrew: A thousand pardons asked for "assuming" you lived in one of the big media markets. I should not have been like a liberal and assumed I knew things without facts.

Actually I had you confused with my old friend: Baron von count Heinreich Schitzengruber....the official German military attaché to Cincinnati.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, No harm! LOL!

I believe I know the gentlemen. Isn't he the one who tried to stop Duchard from opening a small French restaurant in Oakland?

PikeBishop said...

And because of his accent he had trouble pronouncing "baubles." He was a crazy dude, once got a toilet seat slammed on his hand during a bar fight! ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

I love that line! "They slammed the lid on it!" LOL!

PikeBishop said...

After her question, "What happened, were you shot?"

AndrewPrice said...

I also like how all he cares about is the permit and how she gets really pissed at him over that. It's a great parody.

Koshcat said...

Interesting. I have never seen it so I will have to hunt this down.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I think you'll enjoy it.

Jocelyn said...

I know I am way late to the commenting party but just wanted to comment about jokes not being explained in movies. One of my fav movies of all time, Shrek, has a line where Donkey says "blue flower, red thorns, blue flower, red thorns, this would be so much easier if I wasn't color blind!" I saw this in theatre when it was released in 2001 (I was in middle school, man I feel old) and I was the only one in the theatre who laughed out loud. Sadly, In more recent years I have met people who think all animals see in color. Now I know why I was the only one laughing in the theatre.

I also rediscovered Clue on netflix recently and I really enjoyed it. I didn't catch the UNO, WHO reference, but I got most of the jokes, and I really enjoyed it. It's like talking to your best friend in code, where you two are the only ones who understand whats being said.

Thanks for the review Andrew!

AndrewPrice said...

Jocelyn, That's exactly what it's like! It's like talking to your best friend when you're one of the only people in the theater to get it! :)

I remember that line from Shrek and I thought it was hilarious. And you're right, most people probably don't know that animals are color-blind.

I know what you mean about feeling old. When I think of things that seem like they happened a couple weeks ago and I realize that it's really been 20 years, that's kind of a lousy moment. But... growing old beats the alternative!

djskit said...

Watched this for the first time on Amazon Prime last night. And it really did live up to the reccomendations here.

For some reason, I found the funniest moment was when Martin Mull opened the door and was hit in the head with the ironing board. Tim Curry was brilliant from beginging to end.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, Great! I'm always happy to hear that I've introduced people to movies they will like! :)

I totally agree about Curry, he's brilliant throughout. He really does a fantastic job.

On the ironing board scene, I don't normally like physical comedy, but in this film I really did like the physical humor because they set these jokes up so well with tension to get you to really pay attention right before the physical punchlines.

PikeBishop said...

Can I change direction to add to one to Andrew's idea about when you're the only one in the theatre to get it.

Back in day when I attended movies some friends and I went to "The Brady Bunch" movie (after a few beers and looking for something fun.

I had once read that Anne B. Davis made her fame as "Schultzie," Bob Cummings loveable secretary on Cummings' show.

Anne had a cameo as a truck driver, who got on the CB and announced, "This is Schultzie."

I was the only one who lol'd in that whole packed theatre.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I had no idea! LOL! I'll have to remember that the next time I see that film.

I have to say that I liked "The Brady Bunch" movie a lot. I thought it was an hilarious parody that really had its heart in the right place and was wickedly funny if you got all the innuendo.

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