Whodunit to "Clue"?
Was it Colonel Landis, in the story conference, with a plodding structure? Or Professor Lynn, in his writing room, with his sodden wit? Or Mr. Guber and Mr. Peters, in the executive suite, with a "high concept"?
"Clue" is based on the popular Parker Brothers board game in which the players try to guess, well, whodunit, and where, and with what weapon. You leave it with one conviction: stick with the game.
My own guess is that cinematographer Victor Kemper did it, on the set, with a camera, which, in his hands, has always been a blunt instrument. The framing is slapdash and haphazard, and it's hard to remember a movie so badly lit -- the image is either blasted out with hard white light or so dim it might have been shot through coffee grounds.
But let's not be picky. The job for cowriters John Landis and Jonathan Lynn was to come up with a framework that would throw the various characters from the board game together: Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), Miss Scarlett (Lesley Ann Warren), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn) and Mr. Green (Michael McKean). Their solution couldn't be more obvious -- they add a butler, Wadsworth (Tim Curry), who invites them all to a mansion for dinner.
So "Clue" becomes "Murder by Death," or more accurately, boredom by death, as it's revealed that all the characters, in some way, figure in government corruption. Of course, there must be murder -- that's the game -- so Landis and Lynn drag in a blackmailer, Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving), who's onto their duplicity. He gets it with a candlestick. Or was it a rope? Or a wrench?
The household includes a cook, who dies, and a maid (Colleen Camp), who dies. A fellow who's had some engine trouble knocks on the door and asks to use the telephone. Boy, is he in for a surprise!
Landis and Lynn might have opened "Clue" up, taken the characters seriously and created a real murder mystery, but that might require some work in developing the story, something that certainly wouldn't interest Landis. Say what you will about Landis, at least his films ("Animal House," "Trading Places") used to have a reckless comic energy, but in his recent directorial efforts ("Into the Night," "Spies Like Us") and here, he seems perfectly content to go through the motions with his left hand. He likes his body counts, and he's become obsessed with the crude idea that the law is corrupt.
Lynn, who also directs, edits the movie as if it were some smart '30s comedy, jumping off the lines like a man with a hotfoot, but his idea of a gag line is neither smart nor '30s: "Is there a little girl's room in the hall?" "Oui oui madame." "No, I just want to powder my nose." Lynn's background is as a theatrical and television director, and he hasn't got a cinematic eye, though he has got an eye for something. Throughout, he seems most interested in the female bosom, either Camp's or Warren's or both, and that ends up being what's most interesting about "Clue" -- it's a kind of "Dueling Cleavages."
What's worst about Lynn, though, is that he's assembled a cast of fine, even brilliant, comic actors, and then never leaves them alone, so that they all play at the same dull level. Instead of giving Lloyd, Mull, Warren and the rest some elbow room for improvisation, he's constantly harrying them with the hup-two-three of the plot, herding them into a group.
"Clue" will appear in different theaters with three separate endings, and when, in one of them (Ending C, which, if anyone cares, is the best), Madeline Kahn launches into a delightfully nutty neurotic monologue, Lynn lands on her with a shock cut. It's almost as if he's scolding her for being interesting.