My Misspent Youth In Films...
Directed by: Jonathan Lyn
Starring: Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn
Released: December 13, 1985
What I Thought Then
We taped this one off television and watched it constantly, so my memory of this film is of a very specific edit that had most of the jokes cut out of the first half. As a result, my impression of this movie has always been that it starts out dark and broody and then builds up a crescendo of silliness. In fact, the first time I watched it I thought it was a serious murder mystery right up until the third act.
What I Think Now
I mean, the recurring dog-shit joke is a bit much, but man this thing holds up. Take a bunch of veteran character actors and give them a nice meaty script and the result is joyous. Of course, the whole thing is held together on the strength of Tim Curry's delirious performance as Wadsworth, the butler, the closest thing to a main character in the ensemble. And casting Lee Ving, front-man for the punk band Fear, as Mr. Boddy was a stroke of genius. The actors have incredible on-screen rapport considering none of the characters actually get along with each other. The closest thing to an alliance is between the busty French maid Yvette and the gay Mr. Green, the only man in the house who doesn't spend the movie ogling her. Apart from those two, any two characters in the same room automatically become rivals who are forced to work together because there's a murderer in the house. There's not a great deal of plot, so all of the narrative tension comes from a mystery in which all seven people are playing the role of detective, suspect, and potential victim.
That dynamic is important because Clue is a small film with a small cast and basically one location. It's almost a stage play. In fact, it's quite farcical, almost a comedy of manners. The laughs come from the contrast between the silliness on the screen and the seriousness of the subject matter--if the characters are in the joke, it stops being funny. So the fact you have comic geniuses like Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, and Martin Mull all playing this ridiculous movie with completely straight faces is just hilarious. And then when they finally get to cut loose, they're upstaged by Tim "Dr. Frank-n-Furter himself" Curry, who delivers the manic final act at a dead sprint. And it sounds like I'm selling them short, but I'm absolutely not. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to not only sell the joke, but to do it without winking at the camera.
And since I was only five when it came out, I missed out on the central gimmick: the movie had three different endings, but only one of them would play. I don't believe this was something that was widely publicized. Rather, it was an elaborate joke on the public, as different people would see different showings, they would have potentially seen different endings and disagreements would ensue. Fun! Home video and TV versions would show all three.
A few parts of the film haven't aged tremendously well. There's a teensy bit of gay panic humor around Mr. Green's character. The general treatment of Colleen Camp's Yvette isn't great and reads as misogynist to a modern audience. But you also have Madeline Kahn kneeing Lee Ving in the balls, so... #feminism?
It's another classic. If you haven't seen it, definitely do.