Based on the Hasbro board game of the same name and structured like dinner theater, Jonathan Lynn’s Clue makes a fascinating case for a seemingly doomed project being met with the most precise and rewarding attitude, not only by its writers, but by its director and cast as well. A cheeky mystery game on the board, Clue is here turned into a spiked bon-bon of a film, filled with a whipped mixture of morbidity and macabre humor—cinematic vaudeville with notes of winking subversion and wonderful, rhythmic bouts of verbal dexterity.
When speaking of these particular facets, the role of John Landis in the making of the film—he’s credited as a storywriter—becomes illuminating, as the Swiss-watch exactitude of the gags here is reminiscent of the same sharp sense of timing found in Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and, in smaller doses, Coming to America. As Landis and Lynn see it, the key to adapting such a property is in the inherent playfulness of the scenario: They succeed in representing both the basic structure and darkness of the game, and the lively, communal aura that playing the game produces.
And like any game, really, the thrill and comfort of it is in the boiling down of priorities, the masking of the complexities of daily life by cherry picking a few extravagant ones; in Monopoly, the goal of collecting money and owning land, in Life, the building of a professional career and a social microcosm. It is this notion that Lynn and Landis toy with, as a gaggle of “perverse” government drones, each one a victim of blackmail, are rounded up in a mansion and offered the chance to solve their problems with a few quick murders, their careers and social exploits each curdling into some dastardly, dark agenda by film’s end.
They’re led by the butler, Wodsworth, played with astounding comic energy by the inimitable Tim Curry, a decision itself that suggests a bit of satirical ribbing on the subject of class. Communism, homophobia, mutilation, necrophilia, and, worse of all, J. Edgar Hoover also provide a fair share of set-’em-up, knock-’em-down rim shots, but the bulk of the film’s humor derives from the physicality and quick verbal wit of its performers. The jokes are rampant and repetitive in the best way: Christopher Lloyd’s not-so-subtle eyeing of the maid’s ample cleavage; Michael McKean’s squealing “I didn’t do it”; the opening dog-shit gag; Madeline Kahn’s icy demeanor and reactions; the sheer insanity of Eileen Brennan’s dress and hat. And Lesley Ann Warren’s scheming Madame and Martin Mull’s disgraced army man add ample notes of their own to the mix.
Lynn doesn’t give the film much of an expressive vibrancy, but his technique is at once loose and exact. The deaths are shot with a haunting eeriness, helped immeasurably by the great cinematographer Victor J. Kemper and John Morris’s electrifying score, and Lynn has a modest yet undeniable talent for using disorienting angles and pans in tight spaces. The film never lags, largely because Kemper’s camerawork, and Lynn’s concept of how the film should be paced, remains as consistently active and inventive as the performers.
The key to the film’s success, however, is its humility, even its logic. Slogging through the unmerciful, pro-warfare bore that was Peter Berg’s humorless Battleship, one was moved to cynicism as the sharing of the title with the naval board game seemed to simply give the producers and writers an added selling point of nostalgia with which to infuse their sub-Bay sci-fi trifle. Clue is comfortable with its pedigree, even giddily enthused by it, which gives its creators freedom to produce not a nostalgic entertainment, but a sustained and sincerely old-fashioned entertainment, laced with wicked miscreancy.
Though lacking in extras, Paramount’s packaging of Clue on Blu-ray boasts a very strong A/V transfer, retaining a healthy grain level throughout the picture. Black levels are near-perfect, nice and inky; the textures of the women’s dresses and the men’s sports jackets, along with the nuances of the house, are clearly retained. The colors pop, whether it’s Ms. Scarlett’s emerald dress or the pinks of Mrs. Peacock’s outfit, and there’s little sign of manipulation from the transfer. The audio is equally good, keeping the voices clear and out front, with John Morris’s excellent score and classics like "Shake, Rattle and Roll" filling out the back nicely.
A trailer is included, along with the option to view the film with all three endings or with one picked randomly. Wasn’t expecting an hour-long behind-the-scenes featurette, but still.
A spiked bon-bon of a film, Clue arrives on Blu-ray with a handsome A/V transfer but little in the way of extras to sort out the film’s brilliant showcase of comedic performance.