Throughout the 80s, theatre became progressively more cinematic, culminating with the rise of the blockbuster rock operas of Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. Yet film also reabsorbed that plastic sense of spectacle, embracing a new era of theatricality as well. Few films capture that moment quite as adeptly as Clue, Jonathan Lynn’s adaptation of the Hasbro board game, originally called Cluedo in its 1943 British incarnation. Growing up, I always found that Cluedo, as it was also known in Australia, had the most atmospheric board of the classic board games. While my friends and I all had slightly different versions, they shared one defining feature – a combination of highly cinematic images of the different rooms in Mr. Boddy’s house, and a more abstracted version of the house in the gameplay tiles. That combination of lush mise-en-scene and stylised formalism also suffuses the film adaptation, which revolves around a group of people who find themselves invited to a New England mansion on a wild and wintry night in 1954. Wadsworth, the host, butler and compere, played by Tim Curry, tells Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), Mrs. White (Madeleine Kahn), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull) and Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren) that they are all being blackmailed by one Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving), who he encourages them to murder, with a variety of weapons, when he too arrives.
This paves the way for an increasingly convoluted plot that often feels like playing a game – or like watching a game, since Clue leans heavily into the way that the best board games can become spectator sports in and of themselves. In particular, Lynn preserves the mood and ritual of the game in the ceremonial, almost fetishistic, unveiling of objects. The narrative quickly abstracts into games within games, much as Lynn unfolds spaces within spaces, continually augmenting the coordinates of the house through deep focus, tracking shots, and elaborate points of view, while also delighting in the mechanics of the mansion, the fixtures that provide its rhythm, from a prominent bell to a hidden book-door. At the same time, Clue captures the attentive spirit of a game, the heightened mindfulness that sets in when the stakes have been laid, resulting in periodic pregnant pauses, beats where the characters try to figure stuff out, or deduce their relations to each other, and the murder weapons around them. Lynn contours these tactile silences against operatic bursts of noise, from a gong ringing to the slurps of people sipping soup, as if trying to capture the combination of frantic discussion and sombre contemplation that distinguishes classic board games. With only 40 minutes to solve Wadsworth’s conundrum, the guests are tied to a game-like timeframe too.
Insofar as this innovative fusion of cinema and board game approaches a recognisable genre, Clue often feels like a musical in spirit. The characters often speak in chorus, the dialogue quickly approximates patter songs, and individual differences soon melt away as the troupe dance around the house in elaborate choreographies, in a tribute to the collective business of theatrical labour. The histrionic delivery, which often devolves into shouting matches, feels pitched to an enormous theatre, as does the sheer energy of the actors, since the ensemble quality of the narrative means that all the actors have to be “on” at all times, which in turn imbues the film with the intensity and immediacy of a live performance. The onstage/offstage threshold is somewhat deflected into the way individual characters pop in and out of discrete parts of the house, and especially the way in which they dance around a monumental pair of doors, but they only ever get a second’s reprieve before they return to the troupe once more.
Of course, the main difference from a musical is that there is very little music here, especially in the opening scenes, when the silence is so palpable and pregnant that it almost becomes a character in and of itself. But the dialogue and choreography stands in for music – the dialogue by forcing people to repeat and exchange words in the same manner as a song, producing elaborate ensemble conversations in which everyone speaks with one voice, dispersing and reuniting in complex contrapuntal flows; the choreography by devising ingenious trajectories to ensure that all the characters remain in as many frames as possible, even or especially when they’re not the ostensible point of focus. With all the characters present all the time, you become hyper-aware of the physicality and plasticity of the body – it’s there in Mr. Boddy’s very name – to the point where Clue frequently teeters on pure slapstick, utter farce. These are pointedly live bodies, and share the same visceral relation with the floor that live actors share with the theatrical stage. Most of the second act is driven by individual bodies tumbling to the floor, or being dropped on the floor, or flying out of cupboards onto the floor, even as Lynn testifies to the buoyancy of the troupe as a whole in floating above it, in not being grounded by it. As marginal characters fall, one by one, the troupe only floats higher; with each actor that succumbs, the troupe becomes more resilient.
This tension between the pull of the floor and the aspirations of the troupe produces an elegant ungainliness, a compulsion to test just how tipsy this collective synergy can become. Hence the third act, which starts with individual pairs breaking away from the troupe to explore the house together, in a different kind of dance, a side dance that sees one pair squeeze through a narrow corridor together, another tiptoe into a dark cellar together, until all of them trip over each other and come to rest just shy of a chandelier that crashes to the floor before them. It’s this awkward elegance, this determination to flow despite discomfort, that cements Clue as a queer classic. All of the characters are being punished for artifice, performance and camp, but for that very reason are determined to continue their flow, retain their pleasure in the face of Mr. Boddy’s blackmailing efforts to rein in what their bodies should be. Among other things, this produces one of the more naturalistic gay characters in the mid-80s, in the form of McKean’s Mr. Green, whose secret is his homosexuality. This is the last secret that Wadsworth announces, but any horror is offset by Mr. Green’s benign and banal observation that he feels no shame for his desires, just a pragmatic concern that being outed might cost him his job as a Washington diplomat. At the core of Clue’s high camp lies this queer naturalism, as if Lynn, and the entire cast, have to invoke layer upon layer of artifice, or reduce realism to so much artifice, to discover a new kind of queer-friendly reality.
Given that all of the characters hail from Washington DC, and need to keep their secrets to retain their viability in the District, Clue offers a challenge to the nation-state as a whole, and the reality-principles that it promulgates across American culture. The last part of the third act plays as a line of flight from this reality, as the characters now run from space to space, moving in total unison, and hyperbolising the dialogue until it becomes pure music, and then exceeds the pitch of musical theatre altogether. Here, finally, we are at an untested nexus between cinema, musical and board game, as people hit the floor with more chaos and violence than ever before, but the troupe also grows more rarefied, more resilient, continually revising and remediating every event of the film until it’s absorbed into their buoyant flotation. This leads to the most renowned formal feature of Clue – its alternative endings, “How It Might Have Happened,” “How About This?” and “Here’s What Really Happened,” each of which is both individual movement and fugue-like recalibration of what we have seen. In the last, and presumably the most “official,” we learn that Mr. Green was only pretending to be gay, but no sooner has he retreated from homosexuality to the “legitimate” distance of the FBI than he invokes the notoriously gay J. Edgar Hoover as his best friend. Then, in a tongue-in-cheek apotheosis of the film’s camp, he almost-winks at the audience as he insists that “I’m gonna to go home and sleep with my wife!” Poised at the very brink of the 80s closet, Clue never provides us with a “real” conclusion to resolve its artifice, but instead revels in the world-changing and reality-resetting power of performance itself.