CLUE: Communism Was Just a Red Herring

Clue (1985) – Directed by Jonathan Lynn – Starring Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Lesley Ann Warren, Michael McKean, Christopher Lloyd, Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Colleen Camp, Lee Ving, Bill Henderson, Jane Wiedlin, Jeffrey Kramer, Kellye Nakahara, and Howard Hessman.

CLUE is in that rare class of movies that I watched a million times as a kid. Along with the Cannonball Run films and the Star Wars movies, we rented CLUE from the town’s video store whenever we couldn’t find something else to watch. I loved watching CLUE; unlike Cannonball and Star Wars, my parents would watch CLUE with us, so there was a sense of “adultness” to CLUE that the other films didn’t have because of that. We figured, if our parents are watching it with us, this film must be more for them than us. Looking back on it, of course, there’s just as many adult jokes and themes in Cannoball as CLUE, so it’s really just a matter of my parents not liking that movie and liking this one.

There’s always a bit of trepidation when I watch a movie I haven’t seen in years that I used to love. CLUE was such a big part of my movie-watching childhood that I was always going to love the movie for what it meant to me, but whether I would still love it or not …

It took about three minutes for me to realize I still love CLUE just as much now as I do then, and any movie or TV show or book that you can love as a child and as an adult is a special thing.

If you’ve seen CLUE you probably know what joke they pull a few minutes in that sealed the deal, but if you haven’t, let me assure you that CLUE gets more laughs out of Wadsworth the Butler (Tim Curry) stepping in dog poop than most movies get in 90 minutes. There’s nothing graphic about the poop stepping, either. At a wonderfully spooky mansion, Wadsworth placates the two snarling, yapping guard dogs with a couple cuts of fresh meat. With the dogs distracted, he shortens their leash so they can’t attack the night’s guests. At the end of his moment of triumph, Wadsworth makes a face and looks down and you know he’s stepped in it. From there, each of the first few guests smells the poop, too, and does the same “check the shoe when no one’s looking” routine.

People looking for poop on their shoes isn’t high comedy or particularly deep comedy, but it is wonderfully observational. Each person waits until Wadsworth’s back is turned to check their shoe as they balance their need to know with potential personal shame. It helps that CLUE is full of funny people, but it also demonstrates how clever the movie is by not overplaying their hand. No doubt, if the movie was made by today’s cinematic comedy stars, the urge would be to show the poop or to have the guests refer to the poop. Maybe it would work, but CLUE shows that it can be just as successful to generate laughs from quiet moments.

It helps, of course, that CLUE has a ridiculously funny cast. In a true ensemble piece, we’ve got Martin Mull (Colonel Mustard), Eileen Brennan (Mrs. Peacock), Michael McKean (Mr. Green), Lesley Ann Warren (Miss Scarlett), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), and Christopher Lloyd (Professor Plum) joining Tim Curry for all the festivities.

The plot is wonderfully simplistic, set up to get our crew together and create enough suspicion that everyone is on edge as the murdered bodies start piling up. The players have been assembled because they’re all being blackmailed by an unknown person. When Wadsworth reveals that Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving) is their blackmailer, the murders start happening. Boddy gets killed (twice), the cook (Kellye Nakahara), Yvette the maid (Colleen Camp), a passing motorist (Jeffrey Kramer), a cop (Bill Henderson), a telegram singer (Jane Wiedlin) … and all the while our blackmailed visitors are growing more nervous and tense.

CLUE works because all of the actors willingly share screen time. Everyone here is a total pro and no one tries to do more than their character need. With the bodies piling up and the nerves fraying, CLUE puts itself in a position to be successful.

CLUE has one of the great endings of all time. Originally, the theatrical release contained only one of the three endings (which one you got varied by theater), but in the home release they’ve all been cut together, and the result is a fantastic, wild, “here’s what happened” finish. Each of them feature Howard Hessman as an undercover cop, but the whodunit changes each time.

CLUE is one of those movies that I could watch 1,000 times and never tire of it. If you haven’t see it, do yourself a favor and correct that oversight.

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2 thoughts on “CLUE: Communism Was Just a Red Herring

  1. So you were the person that kept renting this movie out whenever I’d be looking for it at Music Forum… This, in my book anyway, really is one of the all-time great comedies. I still hear the ‘Tim Curry runs around the house explaining things’ music in my head anytime somebody starts telling a particularly convoluted story to this day.

    I have a hard time watching it without getting just a little sad though. Even more-so than Young Frankenstein, this film really points out what a tragedy it was to have lost Madeline Kahn when we did. I feel the same way watching Gilda Radner in Haunted Honeymoon…

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  2. Of course the real mystery in CLUE is how Lesley Ann Warren managed to keep her girls in that dress…

    I discovered CLUE on HBO. It’s one of those movies that they seemed to show all the time, no matter when I turned on the TV. And you know what? I didn’t care. CLUE is one of those movies that I just never seem to get tired of watching. It makes for a great double feature with MURDER BY DEATH, a movie it shares a lot of similarities with.

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