“Clue” is a 1985 American mystery comedy film based on the board game of similar name. The film is a murder mystery set in a Gothic Revival architecture mansion, and is styled after the “old dark house” whodunit genre of films (wherein a mysterious killer preys on a group of strangers trapped at an isolated location), such as “The Bat Whispers” (1930), “The Old Dark House” (1932), “One Frightened Night” (1935), “The Cat and the Canary (1939 film)” (1939), “Hold That Ghost” (1941), “And Then There Were None (1945 film)” (1945), “Ten Little Indians (1965 film)” (1965), and “Murder by Death” (1976), which itself was a parody of the genres. The film was directed by Jonathan Lynn, who collaborated on the script with John Landis, and stars Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren. The film was produced by Debra Hill.
In keeping with the nature of the board game, in theatrical release the movie was shown with one of three possible endings, with different theaters receiving each ending. In the film’s home video release, all three endings were included. The film initially received mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office, ultimately grossing $14,643,997 in the United States, though later it developed a cult following.
“Clue” was Paramount’s first adaptation of a now-current Hasbro property, though at that time “Cluedo” was owned by Waddingtons and licensed in the United States (as “Clue”) to Parker Brothers; Hasbro later bought both Waddingtons and Parker Brothers. This predated by 19 years Paramount’s deal to distribute other films and television series based on Hasbro properties. Universal Studios announced that a remake was in the works with a release date set for 2013, though the project was later shelved.
In 1954 New England, against a backdrop of McCarthyism, six strangers are invited to a party at a secluded New England mansion. They are met by the house butler Wadsworth, who reminds them that they have been given pseudonyms to protect their true identity. During dinner, the seventh attendee, Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving), arrives. After dinner, Wadsworth takes everyone to the study and reveals the true nature of the party: all of the guests are being blackmailed:
- Professor Plum is a psychiatrist who lost his medical license because he had an affair with a married female patient. He now works for the United Nations’ World Health Organization. (UNWHO (You know who))
- Mrs. Peacock is the wife of a United States Senator who has been accused of accepting bribes to deliver her husband’s vote. However, she claims she is innocent and that she must pay blackmail money to avoid the story being used for a political witch hunt.
- Mrs. White is an alleged black widow who was drawn in to avoid a scandal regarding the mysterious death of her nuclear physicist husband. She was previously married to an illusionist, who also disappeared under mysterious circumstances. She claims innocence, but pays the blackmail to avoid public ridicule.
- Miss Scarlet is a madam who operates an illegal brothel and escort service in Washington, D.C.
- Colonel Mustard is thought, at first, to have been blackmailed for scandalous photographs with one of Miss Scarlet’s employees, but it is later revealed that he was a war profiteer who made his money from selling stolen radio components on the black market during World War 2. He now works at the Pentagon on a private thermonuclear fusion bomb.
- Mr. Green is a homosexual, a secret that would cost him his job with the United States Department of State if it were widely known.
Finally, Wadsworth reveals Mr. Boddy’s secret: “he” is the one who has been blackmailing the others. Wadsworth has gathered all the guests together to confront Mr. Boddy and turn him over to the police. He also reveals this plan is his revenge against Mr. Boddy, who is both his former employer and Boddy’s blackmail had resulted in the suicide of Wadsworth’s wife.
Mr. Boddy reminds the guests that he can reveal their secrets in police custody and offers them an alternative proposition: by using weapons he has provided (wrench, candlestick, lead pipe, knife, revolver, rope), they can kill Wadsworth and destroy the evidence, keeping their secrets safe. Escape is not an option as Wadsworth holds the only key to the mansion, and vicious dogs patrol the perimeter. Mr. Boddy turns out the lights in the room, creating a moment of chaos in which someone shoots the revolver. When the lights come back on, Mr. Boddy is pronounced dead by Professor Plum, seemingly murdered by an unknown cause since there is no gunshot wound, just a bullet hole in the wall. Everyone denies killing him, and are later proven right as Mr. Boddy is ultimately found murdered with the candlestick in the hall, but not before Mrs. Ho the cook was killed with the knife in the kitchen. Wadsworth and the guests try to deduce who killed Mr. Boddy by splitting up and searching the house, in case there is someone else inside. During the course of the evening, three others visit the house: a stranded motorist, a police officer investigating the motorist’s abandoned car, and a singing telegram girl. They are respectively killed with the wrench in the lounge, with the lead pipe in the library, and with the revolver in the hall. Yvette, the maid, is killed in the billiard room with the rope.
Wadsworth comes to the conclusion that he knows who the murderer is and runs through a frantic re-enactment of the entire evening with the guests in tow. At one point, they are interrupted by an evangelist who is talking about the “Kingdom of Heaven.” Wadsworth also points out that the victims were Mr. Boddy’s accomplices in blackmail. Each of them had a connection to one of the guests, enabling Mr. Boddy to find out the secrets he later used to blackmail them.
- The cook had earlier been employed by Mrs. Peacock.
- The motorist was Colonel Mustard’s driver during the war and knew of his involvement with the black market.
- Yvette had worked for Miss Scarlet and had an affair with Mrs. White’s husband. Colonel Mustard’s scandalous photographs were of him and Yvette “in flagrante delicto” (caught in the act).
- The police officer had been on Miss Scarlet’s payroll for his silence.
- The singing telegram girl was one of Professor Plum’s patients. He once had an affair with her.
In preparation to reveal the murderer of Mr. Boddy, Wadsworth turns off the electricity to the house.
At this point, the story proceeds to one of three endings: A, B, or C. In the film’s initial theatrical run, some theaters announced which ending the viewer would see. In the VHS home video and releases, and most television broadcasts (including on Netflix), the three endings are shown sequentially, with the first two characterized as possible endings, but ending C being the true one. The DVD home release also provides the option of a random single ending.
Having used her former call girl Yvette to murder Mr. Boddy and the cook, Miss Scarlet killed Yvette and the others to keep her true business of “secrets” safe, planning on using the information learned tonight for her own benefit. While Miss Scarlet holds the group at gunpoint with the revolver, Wadsworth tries to tell her that she used up all the bullets in the gun, but unbeknownst to Miss Scarlet, Wadsworth and all the guests, she still has one left and threatens to kill him. Wadsworth reveals himself to be an undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and arrests Miss Scarlet as police arrive and secure the house. The evangelist is revealed to be an agent. Although insisting to Miss Scarlet the revolver is empty, Wadsworth realizes she was right when he accidentally fires the last bullet into the air, hitting a chandelier and causing it to crash closely behind Colonel Mustard.
Mrs. Peacock is revealed as the murderer of all the victims and escapes after holding the others at gunpoint. However, Wadsworth reveals himself as an FBI agent with the night’s activities set up to spy on Mrs. Peacock’s activities, believing her to be taking bribes by foreign powers. As Mrs. Peacock makes her way to her car, she is captured by the police, and the evangelist is revealed to be a FBI agent.
Each murder was committed by a different person, with a different weapon, in a different room:
- Professor Plum killed Mr. Boddy in the hall with the candlestick (knowing he was still alive all along).
- Mrs. Peacock killed the cook in the kitchen with the dagger.
- Colonel Mustard killed the motorist in the lounge with the wrench after locking the remaining weapons in a cupboard. The group attempted to get rid of the key, but Mustard snuck off with it to get the wrench out of it (he snuck into the lounge using the secret passageway in the conservatory).
- Mrs. White killed Yvette in the billiard room with the rope, out of a strong hatred towards her (she turned off the power to lure Yvette downstairs and also admits that she killed her husband).
- Miss Scarlet killed the cop in the library with the lead pipe.
Mr. Green is then accused of killing the singing telegram (in the hall with the revolver), but insists he didn’t shoot her. Wadsworth then reveals not only did he shoot her himself, but that he is in fact the “real” Mr. Boddy (the man Professor Plum killed was simply his butler). He had brought the other victims (his accomplices in the blackmail scheme) to the house to be killed by the guests and thus plans to continue blackmailing them now that there’s no evidence against him. But Mr. Green then draws a revolver and kills the blackmailer in the hall. Mr. Green reveals to the others that he’s actually an undercover FBI agent and the whole evening was a set-up to catch the criminals. The police and FBI arrive and arrest all the guests for murder as the evangelist is revealed to be an agent. When asked who “done it,” Green acknowledges that all of the guests are guilty of murder now, but that he killed Mr. Boddy “in the hall...with the revolver” in reference to the original game. Also, Mr. Green’s previously stated homosexuality was presumably just part of his cover, because his final line of the movie is, “I’m gonna go home and sleep with my wife.”
In an unused fourth ending, Wadsworth committed all of the murders. He was motivated by his desire for perfection. Having failed to be either the perfect husband or the perfect butler, he decided to be the perfect murderer instead. Wadsworth reports that he poisoned the champagne the guests had drunk earlier so they would soon die, leaving no witnesses. The police and the FBI arrive, and Wadsworth is arrested. He breaks free and steals a police car, but his escape is thwarted when three police dogs lunge from the back seat. This ending is documented in “Clue: The Storybook”, a tie-in book released in conjunction with the film.
- Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock, the wife of a U.S. Senator who is accused of taking bribes.
- Tim Curry as Wadsworth, a butler who once worked for Mr. Boddy and is seeking justice for his wife.
- Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White, the widow of a nuclear physicist who died under suspicious circumstances.
- Christopher Lloyd as Prof. Plum, a disgraced former psychiatrist working for the World Health Organization.
- Michael McKean as Mr. Green, a State Department employee, who is a closeted homosexual.
- Martin Mull as Col. Mustard, a war profiteer implied to be a client of Ms. Scarlet’s service.
- Lesley Ann Warren as Ms. Scarlet, a sassy Washington, D.C. madam.
- Colleen Camp as Yvette, a maid who formerly worked as a call girl for Miss Scarlet and was recognized by Mrs. White as the mistress of one of her husbands.
- Lee Ving as Mr. Boddy, a man who has been blackmailing the six guests of Hill House and Wadsworth’s wife.
- Bill Henderson as The Cop, an unnamed police officer whom Ms. Scarlet has been bribing.
- Jane Wiedlin as The Singing Telegram Girl, a former patient of Professor Plum with whom he had an affair.
- Jeffrey Kramer as The Motorist, Col. Mustard’s driver during World War II.
- Kellye Nakahara as The Cook (Mrs. Ho), Mrs. Peacock’s former household cook.
- Will Nye as Cop #1.
- Rick Goldman as Cop #2.
- Don Camp as Cop #3.
- Howard Hesseman as The Evangelist/The Chief (uncredited), the unnamed chief of police who posed as an evangelist in all three endings.
The multiple-ending concept was developed by John Landis, who claimed in an interview to have invited playwright Tom Stoppard, writer and composer Stephen Sondheim, and actor Anthony Perkins to write the screenplay. The script was ultimately finished by director Jonathan Lynn.
A fourth ending was filmed, but Lynn removed it because as he later stated, “it really wasn’t very good. I looked at it, and I thought, ‘No, no, no, we’ve got to get rid of that.’” In the unused fourth ending, Wadsworth committed all of the murders. He was motivated by his desire for perfection. Having failed to be either the perfect husband or the perfect butler, he decided to be the perfect murderer instead. Wadsworth reports that he poisoned the champagne the guests had drunk earlier so they would soon die, leaving no witnesses. The police and the FBI arrive and Wadsworth is arrested. He breaks free and steals a police car, but his escape is thwarted when three police dogs lunge from the back seat. This ending is documented in Clue: The Storybook, a tie-in book released in conjunction with the film.
Carrie Fisher was originally contracted to portray Miss Scarlet, but withdrew to enter treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. Jonathan Lynn’s first choice for the role of Wadsworth was Leonard Rossiter, but he died before filming commenced. The second choice was Rowan Atkinson, but it was decided that he wasn’t well known enough at the time, so Tim Curry was eventually cast.
Clue was filmed on sound stages at the Paramount Pictures film studios in Hollywood. The set design is credited to Les Gobruegge, Gene Nollmanwas, and William B. Majorand, with set decoration by Thomas L. Roysden. To decorate the interior sets, authentic 18th and 19th century furnishings were rented from private collectors, including the estate of Theodore Roosevelt. After completion, the set was bought by the producers of Dynasty, who used it as the fictional hotel The Carlton.
All interior scenes were filmed at the Paramount lot, with the exception of the ballroom scene. The ballroom, as well as the driveway gate exteriors, were filmed on location at a mansion located in South Pasadena, California. This site was destroyed in a fire on October 5, 2005. Exterior shots of the Pasadena mansion were enhanced with matte paintings to make the house appear much larger, and these were executed by matte artist Syd Dutton, in consultation with Albert Whitlock.
Mrs. White’s famous “Flames” speech was improvised by Madeline Kahn.
The film was released theatrically on December 13, 1985. Theaters received one of the three endings, and some theaters announced which ending the viewer would see.
The novelization was written by Michael McDowell based on the screenplay by Jonathan Lynn. There was also a children’s adaptation entitled Paramount Pictures Presents Clue: The Storybook written by Landis, Lynn, and Ann Matthews. Both adaptations were published in 1985, and differ from the movie in that they feature a fourth ending cut from the final film. In this ending, Wadsworth says that he killed Boddy as well as the other victims, and then reveals to the guests that he has poisoned them all so that there will be no witnesses and he will have committed the perfect crime. As he runs through the house to disable the phones and lock the doors, the chief detective – who had earlier been posing as an evangelist (Howard Hesseman) – returns, followed by the police, who disarm Wadsworth. Wadsworth then repeats the confession that he had given earlier to the guests, physically acting out each scene himself. When he arrives at the part about meeting Colonel Mustard at the door, he steps through the door, closes it, and locks it, leaving all the guests trapped inside. The police and guests escape through a window, while Wadsworth attempts to make a getaway in a police squad car, only to hear the growling of a Doberman Pinscher from the backseat.
The movie was released to home video in VHS format in Canada and the United States in 1986 and, on February 11, 1991, to other countries. The film was released on DVD in June 2000 and Blu-ray on August 7, 2012.
The home video, television broadcasts, and on-demand streaming by services such as Netflix include all three endings shown sequentially, with the first two characterized as possible endings but the third (Ending C) being the true one. The Blu-ray and DVD however, gives viewers the option to watch the endings separately (chosen randomly by the player), as well as the “home entertainment version” ending with all three of them stitched together.
In February 2011, La-La Land Records released John Morris’s score for the film as a limited-edition soundtrack CD.
The film was initially received with mixed reviews. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote negatively of the film and stated that the beginning “is the only part of the film that is remotely engaging. After that, it begins to drag.” Similarly, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 2.5 out of 4 stars, writing, “Clue offers a few big laughs early on followed by a lot of characters running around on a treadmill to nowhere.” Siskel particularly criticized the decision to release the film to theaters with three separate endings, calling it a “gimmick” that would distract audiences from the rest of the film, concluding that “Clue is a movie that needs three different middles rather than three different endings.”
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a 2 out of 4 stars review, writing that despite a “promising” cast, the film’s “screenplay is so very, very thin that [the actors] spend most of their time looking frustrated, as if they’d just been cut off right before they were about to say something interesting.” On Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, both agreed that the “A” ending was the best while the “C” ending was the worst.
The film-critics aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 65% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 31 reviews, with an average score of 6.06/10. The critics consensus reads: “A robust ensemble of game actors elevate Clue above its schematic source material, but this farce’s reliance on novelty over organic wit makes its entertainment value a roll of the dice.” On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 36 out of 100 based on 11 critics, indicating “generally unfavorable reviews”.
Clue has grossed $14.6 million in North America, just short of its $15 million budget.
Universal Studios announced in 2011 that a new film based on the game was being developed. The film was initially dropped, then resumed as Hasbro teamed up with Gore Verbinski to produce and direct.
In August 2016, The Tracking Board reported that Hasbro had landed at 20th Century Fox with Josh Feldman producing for Hasbro Studios and Ryan Jones serving as the executive producer while Daria Cercek was overseeing for Fox. The film will be a “worldwide mystery” with action-adventure elements, potentially setting up a possible franchise that could play well internationally. In January 2018, Fox announced that Ryan Reynolds, who had established a three-year first-look deal with the studio, would star in a live-action remake of Clue, with Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, writers for the Reynolds-led Deadpool, its sequel, and Life, as scriptwriters. In September 2019, The Wrap reported that Jason Bateman was in talks to direct the film, but by February 2020, Bateman was no longer attached to it, and instead, James Bobin had been in talks with 20th Century Studios for directing the film.
References in other media
- The episode of Psych entitled “100 Clues” features Clue stars Martin Mull, Christopher Lloyd, and Lesley Ann Warren as suspects in a series of murders at a mansion. The episode, in addition to many jokes and themes in homage to the film, includes multiple endings in which the audience (separately for East and West Coast viewership) decides who is the real killer. The episode was dedicated to the memory of Madeline Kahn.
- Warren guest starred on a 2019 episode of Mull’s sitcom The Cool Kids as a love interest for his character. At the time her role was announced in November 2018, it was largely touted by the press as a Clue reunion, despite it featuring only Mull and Warren.
- The Family Guy episode And Then There Were Fewer is based on the movie along with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
- A documentary about the movie is being made, including interviews already filmed with the director, writer, and several cast members including Lesley Ann Warren, Michael McKean, Colleen Camp, and Lee Ving.
- The episode “No Clue” of the 2020 SyFy series Vagrant Queen draws heavily on the movie, and the game to a lesser extent.