Detective stories were among Hollywood’s very first franchises, offering durable structures and just enough variation to keep people wanting more. For the most part, these films were based on popular literature by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, to say nothing of Arthur Conan Doyle’s perennially popular Sherlock Holmes. The drawing room mystery has waned in popularity since then, occasionally revived by hits like last fall’s Knives Out. But around forty years ago, the genre was sufficiently familiar for a pair of comedies to burlesque its more irritating tropes. First was Murder by Death (1976), with an ensemble of characters whose names spoofed famous detectives from Hammett, Agatha Christie and Earl Derr Biggers, all brought together to solve a nonsensical murder mystery. Then there was Clue (1985), adapted not from a book but the board game of the same name, with its motley crew of color-coded suspects. As it happens, both movies have the same top-billed actor, Eileen Brennan (who earned this distinction, to be clear, by going first in the alphabetical listing common to ensemble films).
The similarities hardly end there. All the well-worn generic elements are present in each film, often with heightened fakery. We have the capacious mansion on a dark and stormy night, complete with trick doorways and secret passages; a mysterious and vaguely threatening host; ample opportunities for rounding up all the suspects so the brilliant detective can dramatically piece things together; and a butler who may or may not have done “it.” Furthermore, in addition to an array of gags at the characters’ expense, both movies deflate the possibility for a straightforward solution to the mystery with their endings: Murder by Death spins a nesting-doll series of increasingly unlikely revelations, while Clue took the still-unique approach of filming three different endings and distributing the three versions to different theaters. All three are included in the home video cut of the film, with the last one evidently being definitive, but still one is left with the impression that the killer’s identity is arbitrary, which is all too appropriate to the game that inspired the film.
With a lightly mocking script by Neil Simon, Murder by Death arrived during the era of the paranoid thriller, in which no one can be trusted and conspiracies might be unstoppable. If that kind of feeling was in the air, the movie does nothing to draw attention to it. The joke is merely on the long-established gamesmanship of detective fiction, with the eccentric host who invites the detectives for “dinner and a murder,” Lionel Twain, complaining about the ways that they cheat their readers. In an enjoyable piece of meta casting, this role is played by Truman Capote, innovator of the true crime genre with his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. Twain predicts an unsolvable murder at the stroke of midnight, and given that the only guests are the detectives and their traveling companions, and that the house is otherwise only occupied by a blind butler (Alec Guinness) and a deaf-mute maid (Nancy Walker), the possibilities for both perpetrator and victim are severely limited. Twain’s desire to humiliate the detectives would demand that none of them be the victim, leaving him with what would seem to be an impossible needle to thread. And yet.
Clue is a period piece, taking place at the height of the McCarthyism era, another time of notable mistrust and danger. The movie mostly uses this for jesting references to the Red Scare and homophobia. Each of the six suspects has some vaguely defined connection to the U.S. government, and each is being blackmailed by the story’s primary victim, Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving, frontman of the band Fear). This gives all of them a motive for killing him, but it’s at this point that the narrative has a problem. As far as board games go, Clue tells a pretty complete story, with gameplay consisting of walking from room to room collecting evidence to solve the murder. But translating this two-dimensional scenario to a film is tricky. How to make it seem like any of the six people present could have done it? The movie’s solution is to assemble everyone in the same room and shut the lights off, but of course none of the characters can even see what he or she is doing at that point, making what happens look a lot more like an accident than murder. Further complications ensue, with a great deal of yelling and frantic rushing about. The references to the game are done with a wink: the colorful names are all aliases, the weapons are given to the characters in boxes wrapped with bows, and the rooms from the game board are practically spoken with the verbal equivalent of capital letters (the Lounge, the Study, the Billiard Room). A pair of secret passageways, so handy for getting around in the game, are also convenient for raising the possibility of a character from the opposite end of the house suddenly swooping in to kill someone and then escaping just as quickly.
Both of these movies are only mildly funny, I’m sorry to say. It’s possible that I give a slight edge to Murder by Death mostly because I grew up with it, but even that movie doesn’t do much for me anymore. With the exception of Peter Falk’s Sam Diamond, whose Humphrey Bogart impression and acerbic banter with Brennan’s Tess Skeffington is still quite effective, the character humor is simplistic and forgettable. “Offensive” isn’t even the right word for Peter Sellers’s portrayal of a Charlie Chan stand-in; it’s too boring for that. I wanted the whole thing to be more clever than it ultimately is. Even so, there are some nice bits of wordplay, from the butler’s name to the “pitting of wits.”
The wordplay in Clue, by contrast, is tiresome. (For example, Miss Scarlet [Lesley Ann Warren] says “Search me!” and Colonel Mustard [Martin Mull] proceeds to frisk her.) I’ve made two attempts with this movie and found it exasperating both times. More effort is put into the aforementioned yelling than in any real attempt to capture the imagination. This goes for Jonathan Lynn’s direction as well as his script, co-written with John Landis. One low-angle shot comes to mind, in which the eye is directed to a candlestick inexplicably resting atop a doorframe, so that we spend the shot’s duration waiting for it to fall on someone’s head. But Clue has its moments too. Most of the characters earn at least one good laugh: Colonel Mustard getting hit in the head with an ironing board, the butler (Tim Curry) searching in the dark for a doorknob and turning on a shower. The great Madeline Kahn, as Mrs. White, is unique in the film for nailing not one but two bits of verbal humor. First, in response to the question, “How many husbands have you had?” she says, “Mine or other women’s?” Second is the famous “flames” outburst of the finale. But, to balance that out, she also delivers the line, “Life after death is as improbable as sex after marriage,” which is as contrived, tepid and pointless as most of the rest of the script.
Even setting aside the laugh-o-meter, Murder by Death has the edge for its many weird bits of atmosphere, from Twain’s eyes peering through the dog painting and the mounted moose head, to the shrieking doorbell and the death mask, to the array of traps set for our heroes. It’s these glimpses at the rich and perverted, perhaps even more than the ins and outs of a clever mystery, that make the genre being spoofed such a treat in the first place.