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Before ‘Knives Out,’ There Was ‘Clue’

The two whodunits may be separated by years and artfulness, but both understood that the most important parts of a mystery are the characters embroiled within it

Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

“Look around,” a detective (LaKeith Stanfield) says to his partner early in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out as they try to get to the bottom of the death of famous mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). “The guy practically lives on a Clue board.” He’s referring, of course, to the classic board game, but his comment could also double as a nod to Clue, the 1985 comedy that kept classic whodunit tropes alive and recognizable for a generation raised on basic cable. There may not be a direct line between Johnson’s fresh take on the genre and Clue; Johnson is quicker to cite Peter Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot films and The Last of Sheila as influences, and drawing from those sources, Knives Out takes the form of a cleverly plotted and innovative mystery that plays with the mechanics of the whodunit in ways that keep viewers guessing about where it’s going next. Clue … well, Clue isn’t that. But they share one notable trait: Both films understand that the mystery itself is the least important element of a good whodunit, that its deepest pleasures come from its characters and the world in which they live.

English musician Anthony Pratt created the board game Clue (known as Cluedo in Great Britain, and first released in both countries in 1949) with design help from his wife, Elva. Pratt drew on the elements of classic whodunits by Agatha Christie and others, books in which death lurks in the shadows of stately homes, everyday objects become weapons of opportunity, and anyone is capable of murder. Pratt’s game populates a 1920s English country house with whodunit stock characters who have color-themed names, from the femme fatale Miss Scarlet to the maybe not-so-faithful servant Mrs. White to the bewhiskered military man Colonel Mustard. Clue’s look changed a bit over the years—in North America “Reverend Green” became simply “Mr. Green”—but the game essentially remained the same, cementing an idea of what kinds of characters get embroiled in murder mysteries into the popular imagination, as well as an idea of where such mysteries take place and what devices can be used to snuff out inconvenient victims.

The 1985 film refreshed the characters a bit, changing the setting to 1950s New England while tying the action, however loosely, to the politics of its time. Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan) transformed from a grand dame to a senator’s wife, Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn) shifted from servant to a nuclear scientist’s widow, Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren) became a D.C. madam, and so on. The aristocratic trappings looked much the same, however, even in a country without an aristocracy. The film also preserved another key element of the game: chance.

The film’s originators include filmmaker John Landis, who planned to direct, and producers Peter Guber and Debra Hill. Landis came up with the idea of filming multiple endings to be shown in different theaters in an attempt to replicate the gameplay, presenting an enormous problem that fell on writer, and eventual director, Jonathan Lynn to solve. But Landis thought the benefits would outweigh the problems. “Landis thought it would be really great box office. … He thought that what would happen was that people, having enjoyed the film so much, would then go back and pay again and see the other endings,” Lynn told BuzzFeed in an exhaustive 2013 history of the film.

This didn’t happen. Not many people saw Clue even once upon its original release in December 1985, much less multiple times to see the three endings—an undertaking that in most cities involved driving to different parts of town to catch versions “A,” “B,” or “C.” The very idea seemed contrary to what draws viewers into a mystery film. Though advertised as “The Movie We Dare You To Solve,” the multiple endings meant that Clue wouldn’t be playing fair. If a mystery could be fundamentally undone by changing a few developments in its final moments, what was the point of everything that came before? All the suggestions, evidence, and, well, clues ultimately mean nothing if they don’t feel like they’re pieces of a carefully constructed larger puzzle. As critic Gene Siskel put it in his review for At the Movies, “If we know that, walking into the movie, then we really can’t get too excited about guessing who done it because, think about it, literally anybody could have done it. … And that cuts the heart out of the tension of a mystery.”

Siskel may have been right but, in the long run, it turned out no one cared about Clue’s shortcomings as a mystery. Fans who missed it in the theaters embraced the film when it arrived in video stores and, especially, when it became a cable staple a few years after its release. The pleasures of Clue have little to do with the mystery that sends its characters running up and down its creepy mansion (and occasionally through secret corridors). After a slow start and some unfunny business involving dog poop, Lynn’s script turns into an assault of one-liners, double entendres, and running gags. Not all of them land, but they just keep coming and the willing cast gives them their all.

In addition to Brennan, Kahn, and Warren, the cast includes Martin Mull, Michael McKean, Colleen Camp, and Christopher Lloyd. There’s not a weak link in the bunch—though it’s Tim Curry as Wadsworth the Butler, the closest thing the film has to a sleuth, who holds the film together. Curry tears through dialogue and leads the cast from room to room as if tasked with single-handedly keeping the energy of the film from flagging. On the page, Wadsworth might have been just a device by which to deliver exposition (leaving aside the ending in which he reveals himself as a murderer). This was Curry’s first Hollywood film since Annie in 1982, and he threw himself into it (just as he’d throw himself into playing evil itself in Legend, which wouldn’t see its U.S. release until the following spring). To craft the character, Curry studied butlering via an instructional video and worked with a personal trainer who he described, in an interview with the Hackensack Record, as “some kind of nightmare Rambo figure,” working him into the shape he needed to be in for all that running.

Whatever it took, it worked. It’s Curry’s frantic flailing from room to room that makes the film so memorable. And Kahn’s “flames on the side of my face” moment. And wordplay like Warren and Curry’s “kill you in public” versus “threatened, in public, to kill you” exchange. And strange visual gags like faking a desperate make-out session with a pair of corpses designed to throw nosy police off the scent.

The film’s silliness might have helped win over fans, but Lynn’s script isn’t without its elements of social critique. Clue makes some jokes at the expense of Mr. Green’s (McKean) homosexuality, but it mostly seems on board with his refusal to be ashamed of it. (Though, unfortunately, one of the endings of the film undoes this detail.) Elsewhere, a doomed cook watches the McCarthy hearings on TV, contributing to a general atmosphere of paranoia. The occasional intrusion of rock ’n’ roll via Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Shake Rattle and Roll” suggests that the time for Clue’s high-society world—and its characters’ moment as dominant cultural forces—would soon draw to a close. Clue appeared in the middle of the ’80s, a decade whose conservative forces liked to depict the 1950s as a golden age of American prosperity and virtue. Like another 1985 release, Back to the Future, it insists the decade was pretty messed up.

Knives Out is a better film than Clue. It’s tighter, more thoughtfully constructed (there’s no way to swap out its ending for another one), and the characters have considerably more depth and complexity. But much of what Clue does right, Knives Out does as well. It uses a mystery as an excuse to enter a corner of the world we might otherwise never see, here the memento-filled (and Clue-board-like) home of a successful, aging mystery writer. Knives Out stuffs that world with colorful characters who might be up to no good—from a son frustrated that his dad won’t let Netflix turn his mysteries into a profitable series, to a daughter-in-law who’s run out of money, to a budding internet Nazi—all of them brought to life by an array of actors who might not otherwise have any reason to be in the same movie. (What other sort of film besides a comic whodunit could bring together Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, and Chris Evans?) It also sneakily brings in some political commentary that becomes more pronounced as it builds to an unforgettable final shot. That Knives Out also delivers a satisfying mystery almost feels like a bonus.

If there’s a secret at the heart of whodunits, it’s just that: The mystery is merely the engine that keeps all the other parts moving. There’s a reason everyone remembers the ending of Murder on the Orient Express but virtually no other Agatha Christie mystery: It’s bizarre and unexpected. But that doesn’t make other Christie stories, or the whodunits of others, lesser by comparison. It’s the details of wartime England and scenes of Alastair Sim poking around for clues that linger after Green for Danger and the observations about a generation of kids who’ve internalized the logic and morality of slasher films that make Scream memorable. It’s Poirot’s haughty manners and ridiculous facial hair and, now, Daniel Craig’s Southern charm as Benoit Blanc, the last of the gentlemen sleuths, that make an impression, not what they uncover in their investigations. And, of course, it’s the cast of Clue panting as they rush around trying to uncover the murderer in their midst. It’s what these stories allow us to see along the way that matters. Who done it? It doesn’t really matter.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.