Clue (1985)

2010 #28
Jonathan Lynn | 93 mins | TV | PG / PG

Although Disney have recently treated (I use the word loosely) us to a glut of films based on theme park attractions, movies adapted from good old board games seem a lot rarer. This is probably for good reason — even more so than Disney rides, the majority have no kind of useable narrative. Cluedo (aka Clue in the US) is one of the few that does, and consequently is one of the few (only?) board games that has reached the silver screen. So far, anyway.

I’m going to put Clue into the same category as Flash Gordon: it’s the kind of film that’s unremittingly daft, but it knows it is, and if one gets on board with that then it’s a very enjoyable experience. The story sees an exuberantly excellent Tim Curry gather a group of disparate-but-secretly-connected individuals at a remote stately home, each under a fake name based on those infamous monikers from the game. Eventually there’s a murder, and then a few more, all of which is conveyed in a mix of hilarious farce and fast-paced screwball comedy. It’s Agatha Christie meets Fawlty Towers.

It’s not all funny, certainly — there’s a fair share of puerile gags — but the abundant good bits more than make up for them. On the other hand, you may agree with Roger Ebert that most of the gags fail to hit home. That it has a cult following (plus frequent airings on digital channels like ITV3, suggesting it might pull relatively decent viewing figures (all things considered) whenever it’s on) goes to show it’s all a matter of taste.

Other than the board game connection, Clue is best known for its three different endings, all of which were released, with each screening having just one attached. On TV the film shows with all three consecutively, and they perhaps work best this way — there’s a rising scale of ridiculousness, and the varied repetition of a couple of gags underlines rather than steals their amusement value. My personal favourite variant was the first, incidentally.

Surely the only reasonable reaction to a task as ludicrous as adapting a board game into a film is to turn it into a comedy. Clue does so with aplomb. Ridley Scott, take note.

4 out of 5

Clue placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.

Clockwise (1986)

2008 #76
Christopher Morahan | 92 mins | DVD | PG / PG

ClockwiseClockwise, so I’m told, was written after John Cleese (who, I should point out, isn’t credited as the writer) attended Robert McKee’s famous screenwriting seminar. What this means for your average viewer is that Clockwise is expertly constructed. More importantly, it’s also very funny.

The first 15 minutes are a little dubious, but it soon becomes apparent that some of McKee’s principles are being followed (if you’re aware of them, of course) as this opening serves to establish the everyday life of Cleese’s character, headmaster Brian Stimpson. The point of this soon becomes apparent: when everything goes to hell over the next hour-and-a-quarter, the viewer can fully appreciate the impact on Stimpson’s existence. And all go wrong it does, in a manner that’s rather reminiscent of Fawlty Towers — not in the sense that Cleese is repeating himself, but rather that you could replace Stimpson with Basil Fawlty and merrily carry on along much the same path; though, I hasten to add (to this over-punctuated sentence) that Stimpson is not a clone of Fawlty, but he is prone to ending up in similar accident-and-misunderstanding-based farcical situations.

I imagine that Clockwise is less well known than it deserves because it is so very British. The humour — largely based around issues of punctuality, politeness, and social custom — is particularly British, as are the countryside settings and the finale set at a public school conference. And, in the first instance, everything goes so spectacularly wrong thanks to our wonderful language’s multiple meanings for the word “right”. From this point Cleese & co escalate the hopelessness of the situation beautifully (and very much in keeping with McKee’s ideas of good structure), gradually crafting more absurd events and dragging in more and more characters, most of whom come together in that finale. This final section perhaps goes on too long, with a rather inconclusive ending, and it lays on the anti-public school gags with a trowel — though that suits me just fine.

Some have argued that Clockwise is more like a series of sketches than a cohesive whole, but all the independent scenes are connected by a common goal, meaning very few (if any) feel genuinely out of place or inelegantly shoved in. The calm pauses between the comic scenes also allow it to remain hilariously funny so consistently — an all-out assault of comedy, no matter how good, can become rather wearing. Again, this ebb-and-flow is something the filmmakers may well have picked up from McKee.

While you could probably use Clockwise as a mini masterclass in applying some of Robert McKee’s structural principles, that’s thankfully not the be-all of it. Very funny once it gets going, this is one that fans of Fawlty Towers will likely especially enjoy — and, really, who with a sense of humour isn’t a Fawlty Towers fan?

4 out of 5