Battle of the Murder Mystery Comedies: Clue vs. Knives Out

I’d been considering comparing these two mystery comedy films for quite a while, and the recent passing of legendary star Christopher Plummer, the murder victim of Knives Out, gave me further incentive for doing so. But 34 years before that movie was released came 1985’s Clue, a big screen version of the beloved Parker Brothers board game.

Directed by Jonathan Lynn, who would later direct the classic comedy My Cousin Vinny, Clue begins in 1954 with a man named Wadsworth (Tim Curry) going to the New England mansion where he works as the butler, and after warding off the guard dogs with big hunks of meat, he prepares for the evening’s incoming guests. These are Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. White (Madeline Khan), Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), and Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren). Things begin taking a turn that would do Dame Agatha Christie proud as the guests, who are asked to use pseudonyms rather than their real names, become puzzled because they’ve never met, and yet they have quite a bit in common.

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This confusion escalates with the arrival of their host, Mr. Boddy. After dinner, Wadsworth lays it all out: all six guests are being blackmailed and Mr. Boddy is the one responsible. But Mr. Boddy pulls out his own ace in the form of a suitcase with giftwrapped packages which he quickly hands out to the guests. Said gifts are weapons: a candlestick, a rope, a lead pipe, a wrench, a revolver, and a knife. He tells the guests that the only way they can ensure their reputations won’t be ruined is for them to kill Wadsworth.

Alas, when he turns out the lights, the gun goes off and everyone soon sees Boddy’s body on the floor. Wadsworth soon discloses that he’s the one who invited everybody because Boddy’s machinations resulted in his wife’s suicide and the party was his way to ensure Boddy would get his comeuppance.

But with the authorities on their way, they must now discover who’s bringing murder to the table. This task gets more difficult as five more victims join Boddy, including the maid Yvette (Colleen Camp). But Wadsworth soon deduces the culprit with a hilarious, intricate reenactment of the evening’s events.

This includes his revelation that each of the murder victims had a connection with one of the six guests. A passing motorist is revealed to be Mustard’s former driver. The mansion’s cook once worked for Peacock. An investigating cop was regularly bribed by Scarlet. Yvette had an affair with White’s husband. A passing singing telegram girl (Jane Wiedlin) had an affair with Plum. Wadsworth reveals that he invited all the victims as well, so they could force Boddy to confess to his crimes.

This movie’s climax is famous because there’s not one ending, but three of them. The first has Miss Scarlet as the perpetrator, the second has Mrs. Peacock as the culprit, and the third has each guest commit one murder each with the revelation that Wadsworth is really Mr. Boddy. All three endings conclude with the police arriving, led by a detective (Howard Hesseman) posing as an evangelist.

When the film first appeared in cinemas in 1985, only one ending played per screening. The film’s producer, John Landis, reasoned that this would encourage people to repeatedly view the film to see the mystery solved in different ways, much like playing the board game. Ironically, this tactic only confused people. However, the home video market was taking off by the mid-1980s and Paramount, which distributed Clue, made the smart decision to put all three endings on the video release. This is when the film’s audience really began to grow, and Clue became a cult favorite.

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Unlike Clue, 2019’s Knives Out was an instant hit.

Novelist Harlan Thormbey (Christopher Plummer) is celebrating his birthday at his Massachusetts estate. But the festivities are cut short when his housekeeper Fran finds him in bed with his throat cut. While the case appears to be a suicide, detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is called in to investigate at the request of an anonymous client.

His investigation reveals that Thrombey didn’t have the most ideal relationships with his family members. For instance, he threatens to reveal to his daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) that her husband Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on her. Thrombey has also cut off the allowance of his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) after he discovered she was stealing from him. He also fired his son Walt (Michael Shannon) from the family business.

Blanc eventually discovers that the one person who has answers is Thrombey’s nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). A flashback reveals Marta accidentally mixing up Thrombey’s medications and poisoning him, but as he dies, Thrombey insists on making his death look like a suicide to protect Marta and also her mother, an undocumented immigrant. Marta sneaks out of a window and is spotted by Thrombey’s mother (K Callan), who luckily in her dementia mistakes Marta for Thrombey’s grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). And when Thrombey’s will is read, Marta is named the sole beneficiary of his estate, pissing off his family members, although Ransom offers Marta a shoulder to cry on and she confesses everything to him.

Marta later receives a mysterious note which threatens to reveal her culpability in Thrombey’s death. After Marta and Ransom learn the medical examiner’s office has been burned down, a subsequent email proposes a rendezvous with the blackmailer. But Ransom is arrested after his great-grandmother says he was in Thrombey’s room on the night of his death. At first, the blackmailer appears to be housekeeper Fran, until Marta realizes Fran’s been drugged and she quickly dies. After calling 911, Marta confesses everything to Benoit Blanc, but he says Ransom already saved her the trouble. Marta decides she must reveal the truth to the family, but Blanc stops her when the full toxicology report reveals that Harlan had no fatal doses of medication in his system.

Blanc deduces that Ransom attempted to swap his grandfather’s meds, but Marta unconsciously switched them back to the correct ones, because she’s a skilled enough nurse to recognize them by their appearance. It turns out Ransom is the one who anonymously hired Blanc, in order to frame Marta for the murder. But Fran witnessed Ransom tampering with the crime scene, which is why he killed her by drugging her with morphine. Marta gets Ransom to confess to all of this by lying to him and saying that Fran is still alive and can identify him as the murderer. Marta then pukes all over Ransom—you see, it was revealed earlier in the movie that Marta has a compulsion to vomit any time she lies—which enrages Ransom enough to grab a nearby knife from a big ass knife display. Fortunately, all of Thrombey’s knives are fake collapsible blades.

This attack along with a recording of Ransom’s confession leads to him going to jail. The movie ends with Linda belting Richard when she reads a note from her dad revealing Richard’s affair, while Marta looks down at the Thrombeys from what is now her estate. I wonder if she also got Thrombey’s Shakespeare collection and his fancy Bird of Prey.

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Both films have great casts and good laughs. Curry is definitely the scene stealer in Clue, while de Armas makes for a likeable protagonist in Knives Out. It’s also fun seeing Craig sport an American accent. I watched Clue so often growing up that I’ve memorized the whole film by now. Likewise, the puking gag in Knives Out ends up giving gross-out humor a good name because it’s funny and serves the story. But truthfully, I always thought the funniest moment in Knives Out is when Linda calls Marta a bitch after the former realizes that she won’t be getting her dad’s fancy estate. Maybe it’s the way Curtis delivers the line, but that moment cracks me up.

Knives Out has the sharper (pardon the pun) screenplay. A follow-up is reportedly in the works with Craig potentially reprising his role.

Meanwhile, I’ve always wondered why there’s no victim connected to Mr. Green in Clue. Yes, one could say the third ending (the one cited by title cards as “what really happened”) answers that in some way, but it’s still a plot hole. Incidentally, a fourth ending to the film was reportedly written but not shot, although it did turn up in the novelization.

But I suppose I’ll give the edge to Clue because its multiple endings, intentionally or not, may have influenced how most films now have multiple endings readily available among the deleted scenes on most Blu-rays now. The film also made me a fan of the board game itself.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is The Thoughts of a Proud Nerd: A Story of Hope, available now from Amazon.

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