Murder mysteries have largely fallen out of favor in modern cinema, mainly because so many of our mysteries are adaptations of Agatha Christie work. Because Christie remains immensely popular, people go into a mystery already knowing who is responsible. This begs the question: why watch a mystery when the mystery is already solved? Perhaps the best answer to that question lies in the cult classic film Clue, which takes from and parodies Christie while also troubling our expectations of her work and the murder mystery genre. Much like its board game, the film is preoccupied with evidence, rooms, and weapons, or the pieces themselves rather than what they lead to. The murderer is far more elusive and interchangeable, and arguably, less important. The murderer is thus the film’s greatest red herring.
“Well, It’s a Matter of Life After Death. Now that He’s Dead, I Have A Life”
I recently watched Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and was extremely disappointed. I found that surprising, given that I enjoy most PBS adaptations of Christie work. I couldn’t figure out why a big budgeted film felt so inadequate, especially as it had a talented cast. I first assumed that it had to do with being familiar with the mystery, as nothing in the film was particularly original. But then again, I had enjoyed seeing other adaptations of the same work at home, even after I was familiar with the plot. So why did the film bother me?
Upon reflection, I think it’s because I wasn’t used to seeing traditional murder mysteries at a movie theater. It isn’t a space I generally associate with the genre, and I had never seen famous movie stars play Christie characters. Sure, some PBS adaptations have the occasional famous actor, but that is a rarity and it’s usually limited to one movie star, not the entire cast. Branagh’s film felt wrong because these actors added a certain width to Christie’s story, which doesn’t work because her stories are so small scale. This recognizable cast prevents one of the more predominate features of Christie’s work: isolation. I already knew what kind of characters the actors usually play, and so I had preconceived ideas about their characterization even before the murder occurs. Likewise, being in the theater was such a strange experience, as I typically watch murder mysteries at home. They make a lot of television shows and limited series based on the classic mystery model, but it rarely translates in film. Thriller mysteries make for amazing big budget films, with gore and scares, but these classic isolated murder mysteries with little old ladies and inheritance? Not so much, but that might be changing.
“Being Killed Is Pretty Final, Wouldn’t You Say?”
You might not have read Christie’s work, but you are probably familiar with the way she structures her stories, maybe even the way her stories end. Reading or watching her work is a bit like a game, where you can play along and guess who did it and why. It is hard to discuss your theories while watching the movie at a theater, and I think that is one of the reasons tv murder mysteries are so successful. That, and episodic isolation.
There is a reason so many murder mysteries take place either in the past or in a small town. It’s an easy way to isolate your story or character and really examine their motivations and background. People aren’t nearly as isolated today as they were when Christie was writing, and close-knit communities are rapidly dispersing in our contemporary landscape. It is hard to justify a film which focuses on a small story and ties up every loose end. The very nature of film is that, unlike an episode, it doesn’t continue on. All the characters are done at the end of the film, versus a show, where a detective continues with different investigations in other episodes. This means a few things. First, isolation is key for murder mysteries, otherwise there is too much going on. But film, it would seem, is too isolated. Its mysteries can only last for 2 hours, and then they end. That, in combination with Orient Express’ all-star cast, is too mismatched. Christie’s story was isolated, as was the film medium, but the cast was all over the place.
Now that said, murder mysteries never disappeared from cinema, rather, we transformed this classic model into the thriller genre. We still get mysteries, but they are generally large-scale life and death sort of situations about corrupt institutions rather than figures. That way, the mysteries and characters aren’t as isolated as the classic mystery subjects. Even after the film ends, the institutions are still a problem, and so they outlive the mystery.
“Why Are You Screaming?”
Here is what generally happens in a classic murder mystery, just for context. They almost exclusively happen in a house or small town/environment. They feature one investigator, or a small team, who eventually puts the clues together and calls out those responsible in a parlor scene. There are aspects of this model which seem rather repetitive or even unrealistic. We have seen so many versions of these tropes that they now feel oversaturated, but the genre is still filled with possibility.
We are slowly returning to this model in film, given the success of Knives Out (2019). Although Knives Out also features a famous cast, it is also an original mystery, which makes a big difference. However, that is a post for another day. Today, however, I want to talk about the greatest murder mystery film of all time, a film which proved that this classic model is both hilarious and engaging. I am referring, of course, to Clue.
“Can You Keep a Secret? So Can I”
Clue was my favourite game growing up, although I cheated constantly (maybe that should win you points when you are solving a murder). I was hesitant about the film, as movies based on board games are usually terrible. Clue is the reason people keep making board game films, as it picks up on the original game while also masterfully expanding it. I don’t think there has been another film which has done as good of a job parodying both source and genre, as the film makes fun of board game conventions and where they come from. It addresses that people play along with mystery investigation, whether its reading, watching, or playing the actual game. One way it does so is by featuring familiar characters, like a suspicious butler and a sultry black widow. Although we have just met these characters, it feels like we already know them because we recognize the older traditions which they belong to. The film makes our engagement even more apparent by naming each of the characters a colour, just like the board game pieces. We can tell a lot about the characters based on the colours they represent (like Mrs. Peacock’s loud interjections and screaming), but even more about the secondary characters. I mean, one guy is called Mr. Boddy. The film clearly wants us to know what kind of characters we are dealing with. It wants us to play along, but it also troubles that gameplay.
The film complicates our expectations of the genre by removing this investigator figure. In most murder mysteries we get one character who figures everything out and tidies up the mystery. That is sorely lacking in Clue, and the characters are very aware of that absence. They must investigate on their own, which is challenging, as every character could be guilty, and the audience doesn’t know who to trust. This positions the audience as an investigator, but one who can’t interact with the suspects, and ultimately has no way of solving the mystery. Despite its hilarious nature, Clue is an extremely complicated mystery which doesn’t stop to focus on a single detail until the end. Characters occasionally disappear from the backgrounds of scenes, but because no one draws attention to it in the moment, they are easy to miss.
“The Double Negative Has Led to Proof Positive!”
The film ends with a parlor scene, where everything is revealed, but even then, it is not a straightforward resolution. It comes with three different endings and three (or more) different killers, and when the film was initially released, each theater got a different version. As a result, people in different neighborhoods saw entirely different endings and they only realized this when discussing the film with friends. Today, all three options are available on the DVD menu, and audiences are encouraged to pass their own judgement. Most versions show you all three in succession, and then suggest that the third option, the one where everyone did it, is actually what happens. It’s interesting that this third option makes the film an adaptation of Christie’s Orient Express, which feature multiple overlapping killers. This is clearly intentional, as it’s another way the film evokes the classic mystery genre while also parodying it, giving three options for the audience to choose from.
The “Life Could Be a Dream” sequence is a good example of how the film reverses our expectations on murder mysteries. The dinner guests must disguise three bodies, so a police officer doesn’t become suspicious. What makes this a unique scene is that it shows us the mystery from the criminal’s perspective, and not from the detective. Typically, we see from the investigator’s perspective as they arrive at the scene of a crime and do some inspection. We only discover how the clues connect later in the mystery, usually during that big parlor scene. Clue does something different in a similar situation, as we get this investigator, but he doesn’t see any of the suspicious things going on at the house. We see how things are covered up in the moment, rather than later. This suggests that the film is less interested in traditional investigator types, characters like Poirot and Miss Marple. When the police officer arrives, it seems like he will uncover the murderer, just like a Christie mystery. Instead, he is killed off before he can reveal information. He is threat to the characters, but not for long.
“How Can You Make Jokes at a Time Like This?”
“It’s My Defense Mechanism”
Because the characters create this elaborate cover up, while still claiming to be innocent, the viewer in left in a strange position. We are somewhat implicated in the crime because we see how it happens as it happens. We might not see the murder, but we do see the mechanics of the mystery. While the characters put themselves in these terrible positions, we do as well, and the helplessness and absurdity of the whole thing is funny.
Compared to your standard murder mystery, Clue isn’t all that surprising when it comes to death. Although the main characters assume that they are in danger throughout the film, only secondary characters die. It becomes a running joke, as there is eventually 6 bodies and yet none of the guests have died. The shock of death runs out about midway in the film, and the characters no longer care who lives or dies, just if they survive. This is done so the viewer cannot rule out any characters. Each could be the murderer at any point, and as the film’s three endings suggest, there are multiple ways to read the evidence and motive. To kill one of the suspects would destroy one of these readings, which the film will not allow.
“But if you wanna know who killed Mr. Boddy, I did. In the Hall. With The Revolver”
Clue remains entertaining because it offers an insane degree of possible killers, motives, and red herrings (which are sometimes important, other times not, depending on which ending you like best). That is in par with its board game origins, where there are always several possibilities depending on how you play the game. That said, for a movie so interested in the mystery genre, it ultimately challenges that tidy ending which Christie style mysteries so often use. It is more focused on the comedy within these mechanics, less on the result. In other words, it likes the clues more than the killer, the buildup more than the resolution. The film itself is a like a joke, as the punchline is important, but not as noteworthy as the quick wit which leads to it.