CLUE was released on December 13, 1985, underperforming at the box office and receiving mixed reviews. It was the first and pretty much only of its kind: a movie with multiple endings. Depending on which theater you saw it at, the ending might have been different than the one showing at another theater across the street.
This concept didn’t really grab audiences the first time around, but thanks to the movie showing up on cable airings and home video with all three endings attached as possible outcomes, it managed to find its own cult afterlife.
Building upon the basic elements of the board game, six strangers with pseudonyms are gathered together for a dinner party at a secluded mansion. Soon they find themselves caught up in a mystery after their supposed host, Mr. Boddy, is suddenly murdered. In 1954, when McCarthyism and communistic paranoia were at an all-time high, Mr. Boddy has been blackmailing his guests due to certain unseemly aspects of their private lives and their questionable ties to Washington, D.C. — giving them a direct motive for murder. Unfortunately, Mr. Boddy isn’t the only one on the chopping block. Comedy then ensues as the bodies pile up, and they all attempt to discover who is behind the killings.
CLUE began its life in the mid-1980s, when John Landis took on the task of writing an adaptation of the famous Parker Brothers board game. It was a gimmicky concept — one that Universal Pictures attempted to replicate years later with BATTLESHIP. Landis also chose not to direct the project, instead handing it off to Jonathan Lynn (mostly known later on for directing MY COUSIN VINNY).
Lynn was, up until CLUE, a stage director, which explains why the movie feels almost like a stage play. Lynn also co-wrote the script, and brought aboard a cast of familiar faces — including Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Brennan, Michael McKean, Lesley Ann Warren, Martin Mull, Lee Ving, Colleen Camp, and Howard Hesseman. (Trivia: According to the director, Carrie Fisher was originally hired to play Miss Scarlett, but Lesley Ann Warren took over when Fisher left the project to enter a drug rehabilitation program.)
Produced by Debra Hill of HALLOWEEN and THE FOG, the movie began shooting on May 20, 1985 on sound stages at Paramount, with exteriors shot later in Pasadena. Besides utilizing a couple of ’50s rock and roll songs, a traditional orchestral score was composed for the movie by John Morris, who also created the scores for almost all of Mel Brooks’ movies — including BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.
The movie was shot with four different endings, but only three ended up in the final cut. In one, Miss Scarlett and Yvette the maid are behind it all; in another, it was all Mrs. Peacock’s doing; in the third ending, everyone did it — including Wadsworth the butler, who reveals himself to be the real Mr. Boddy. The unused fourth ending exposes Wadsworth as the sole killer — who poisons everyone in attendance to avoid witnesses. When the police show up and attempt an arrest, Wadsworth manages to escape in a squad car… but not before a Doberman in the back seat attacks and kills him.
Although murder and mystery are the main course, CLUE is also a comedy. As such, many of its highlights include memorable comic performances. Tim Curry steals the show, performing a break-neck recap of the film’s events in order to reveal who the murderer is, all while the remaining guests jog from room to room to keep up. Madeline Kahn is also brilliant — her ad-libbed speech about why she murdered Yvette and how much she hated her provides one of the movie’s funniest moments:
The style of comedy is comprised of pratfalls, occasional slapstick, and dry, witty dialogue peppered with corny one-liners. The murders themselves are treated with suspense, and not really played for laughs. However, things begin to get ridiculous — as anybody that enters the movie who isn’t a part of the main cast is likely going to bite it quickly. It makes the line from Mrs. Peacock, when the doorbell rings later, all the more funny: “Whoever it is, they’ve gotta go away or they’ll be killed!”
Unfortunately, because of the movie having multiple endings, the plot itself is never resolved satisfactorily: Once the movie is over and all has been revealed — particularly in the home video version that declares that the final ending is the real ending — rewatching and breaking down the events as they happen proves that none of them totally work. For instance, in the scene where Yvette is strangled with a noose, the voice that speaks to her beforehand sounds more male than female. Yvette also seems to be dropping her French accent during this moment as well. It’s inferred that it’s her lover, and that something bigger is going on with Yvette than has been revealed. Sadly, this is never really paid off, and it leaves more questions than answers.
It’s also unclear why Wadsworth would invite even more guests other than those assembled; they seem to show up accidentally rather than intentionally. The rain-soaked driver says that his car broke down and he needs to use the phone; the policeman says that he’s investigating that abandoned car; and the singing telegram girl is… well, doing her job. It doesn’t really make sense that Wadsworth invited them all. Not only that, but if Wadsworth is pretending to be a butler, it doesn’t make much logical sense as to why the supposed “fake” Mr. Boddy would just go along with pretending to be the real Mr. Boddy. One might say he could have been blackmailed into it, whereby saying anything would only cause him harm… but if he came there with the intention of having Wadsworth murdered, why the masquerade? Ultimately, the point of the movie isn’t its resolution, but its characters and comedic elements — which I’m sure left some folks feeling cheated.
Although it has been released on DVD and Blu-ray, CLUE is still one of many cult titles in a major studio’s catalogue that has yet to receive the full-fledged Special Edition treatment. A dream of seeing some of the deleted scenes, as well as outtakes, audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes material, and a new documentary on the making of the movie, can and should become a reality.
For anyone wishing to learn more about it, there are a few options: There are plenty of moments in the movie’s theatrical trailer featuring alternate takes, lines, and scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut; and there were also books based upon the movie when it was originally released (a novelization paperback and a hardcover storybook, the latter including a couple stills from the unseen fourth ending).
Despite any flaws mentioned, CLUE is still one of my all-time favorites. There are very few movies in my life that caught me early on like CLUE did — I saw it when I was very young, not long after it first hit home video, and I’ve been hooked on it ever since. Nowadays, it’s considered a cult classic, but at the time, it was a little shunned by most, including folks from my own inner circle.
Other similar murder mysteries were released throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, including MURDER BY DEATH and HAUNTED HONEYMOON, but CLUE has always been my personal favorite of the bunch. It’s a little messy — but I still believe that it’s worthy of the kooky idea behind it. Edging it towards more of a comedy was probably a good idea too, as it would have been difficult to take a movie based upon a board game seriously. (Again, see BATTLESHIP for reference.)