Clue [1985]

The major conceptual paradigm for mystery novels it the so-called “Fair Play Method”, where the reader must have sufficient information to solve the mystery at the same point as the detective begins his revelation. Just why this should be the dominant form, and just how authors distort this basic concept while still trying to “play fair” is all terribly interesting, but really only notional. I don’t really believe that people read detective stories as a game any more than I believe they read super hero stories to find out whether Good ™ triumphs over Evil (r) or kitchen sink dramas to learn anything real about anyone. I don’t propose a general theory of Art ™ in this post, but if I were to gesture in that direction it would be toward Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which should be mandatory reading in modern Western society.

The concept of the detective story as a game is rather brilliantly captured in the board-game Cleudo, where the six suspects travel the house where Dr Black (Mr Boddy in the USA) was killed. Via a process of elimination, a guilty person is determined. I particularly like this because it has just the right level of unreality – in a “fair play mystery” the various characters aren’t characters at all, they are entities in a logical system of guilt determination. This artificiality is, I surmise, a key part of the genre’s appeal. Cleudo works better as an abstract concept than as a game because the simplistic move-expose-guess routine wears thin long before you have enough information to guess, and when you do, it really is a simple matter of elimination. In real detective stories, almost all of the pleasure comes from the author’s control of the details, not from the structure, and that detail-emphasis is entirely eliminated from the game’s generic details.

Spoilers from here on, I’m afraid.

Clue is a movie of a game of a movie formula. That makes it a kind of parataxis, impossible to evaluate purely on its own terms because it is so highly referential and its internal juxtapositions so poorly explained. The natural question is whether this has closed the loop by functioning and operating as a “whodunit?”, or whether it has descended further down the precession of simulacra to being its own self-referent, or whether it exists somewhere inbetween the formula and game, or what?

As each character arrives, they are introduced by their pseudonym – ostensibly for their own protection. They are all being blackmailed, and, voila, the blackmailer is brought forth just in time for the revelation of that commonality. He is, obviously, murdered immediately. To ensure that the action doesn’t stall, additional visitors and murders occur, each before “vital” information could be divulged, incriminating the killer. Random details about each of the characters are provided, but these are very much in the mode of “clues” rather than revelations that matter to the characters, who are all essentially 1D cardboard cut-outs.

This setup means that we get something fairly similar to the twists and revelations of the traditional Country Manor House, but with the major difference that almost none of these revelations or additional events add constraints onto the possibilities of guilt. That means that while the revelations and twists might sway us toward perceiving guilt, they do not actually affect who could possibly be guilty. Thus we have no material to work into a Holmesian deduction – it is a “mystery” without clues.

This hearks back to a pre-Holmes mode of detective fiction writing, as outlined by Franco Moretti in “The Slaughterhouse of Literature”. In pre-Holmes fiction you sometimes have clues, and sometimes those clues matter, and in Darwinian terms, the successful (high selling and hence preserved) detective fictions have clues that matter. Clue is a very good look at a kind of primitive proto-detective story, where what I think it wants to be is a very clever post-detective story. The film itself hammers this point home conclusively by offering three different endings, and while it presents these in a prioritized way, it is clear that none is any better supported by the facts than any other.

I interpret all this as meaning that the aspirations of the film were not excessively high. I think that while I’ve tried to look at its doubled prism and the details of its structure, what it mostly aspires to is a straightforward parody/screwball comedy. I think we are supposed to simply laugh at the hijinks and wildly improbable characters. The analytic stances I’ve been tentatively exploring are opened as a feature of its highly referential nature… essentially loose ends getting caught on peripheral matters.

In that doubled exploration, I think we see that its openness has unraveled all possible “meaning” – it points out the meaninglessness of the classical “whodunit?”. It brings to mind Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder”, again:

Personally I like the English style better. It is not quite so brittle, and the people as a rule, just wear clothes and drink drinks. There is more sense of background, as if Cheesecake Manor really existed all around and not just the part the camera sees; there are more long walks over the Downs and the characters don’t all try to behave as if they had just been tested by MGM. The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.

There is a very simple statement to be made about all these stories: they do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction. They are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world. They try to be honest, but honesty is an art.

Clue representing the opposite of this statement. The style is robust, the Manor clearly doesn’t exist: just what the camera sees, and it is patently dishonest. It points out that it is itself a lie.

I think that as a first approach at the “problems” with the classic “whodunit?”, Clue nails all of the problems, and does so in a hilarious way. For someone who’s read a lot of detective novels, however, it has little to sustain it other than the comedic surface. In some ways I’m reminded of the other Mrs Longman-Sinclair’s critique of Weird Al’s “Yoda” – that it’s a parody of a song that didn’t take itself or its subject too seriously to start with (one could also critique “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi” in these terms, and probably others). Clue is a parody of a joke of something that’s vaguely comedic to start with; its own awareness of this core of emptiness saves it from total banality, and the comedic timing of the screwball comedy team takes that sliver of meaning and makes it funny.

Generally… recommend, but don’t watch it too closely.

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3 Responses to Clue [1985]

  1. Hamish says:

    I just watched this for the first time earlier this year and I agree. Much like Sherlock, I found the pleasure was in the actors’ performances and the script rather than the mystery.

    Have you watched and written about Sherlock yet?

    • alasdair101 says:

      I’m not the biggest Sherlock Holmes fan. I watched the TV show, and a sampler of Elementary, but I don’t really have much to say about them beyond what you’re alluding to here: they run purely on charisma.

  2. Pingback: Nobody Expects the Unexpected | My One Contribution To The Internet

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