A Lovely Murder-poo
Well, The International has reached its conclusion but I shall not be expressing my feelings on that. This is my month of positivity so I must post things that I adore! Last week I spoke at greater length than was necessary about one of my favourite bands. This week I want to focus on a different medium: movies! Get any group of people together an invariably a discussion about the latest or bestest moving picture is. Have any great desire for discourse on the subject and you’ll invariably get the dreaded question: What is your favourite movie.
Of course, picking a favourite movie is as hard as picking a favourite book, song or video game. There is just way too much breadth and variability to compare the different experiences offered by entertainment to ever really pick a true answer. How do you compare a really good comedy to a really good tragedy? Neither seek to produce the same emotion or entertainment and it is near impossible to ever say which is better when they share such few metrics for comparison. It is invariably a lot easier to ask one what is their favourite in a genre since those works are a lot easier to break-down and contrast.
Unless, of course, your movie crosses genres.
At any rate, I’m going to talk about two comedies. These aren’t necessarily my favourite comedies either but they are both similar and warrant a combined look nevertheless. I have fond memories of both, coming across them at different times in my life. I wouldn’t say they are equivocal–but both take a different approach to their shared goal that it’s hard to hard to say, ultimately, which I prefer over the other.
I am, of course, discussing Clue and Murder by Death. Oddly enough, it was the more recent Clue that I saw first. I was perusing the old Jumbo Video (and that alone should date me) with my aunt when I stumbled across this peculiar flick. As a child, I was intrigued. I loved the boardgame and here was a video ostensibly made with all the familiar characters of Miss Scarlet, Colonel Mustard and Mrs. Peacock. I was a little concerned as I took it to my aunt for permission as it did bill itself as a murder and I didn’t know if I would be allowed to view it. To my mind, you could not break categories and to have both a comedy and mystery in one was something I didn’t fully comprehend.
But I loved the thing the moment it went into the VCR. It was silly and off-the-wall. But just as it came to an end, something peculiar happened.
The movie didn’t stop but rewound to an earlier moment and picked up from Wadsworth’s explanation. Unfortunately, given our dated technology, the tape of the movie could not accurately replicate the theatre experience. For what I was witnessing was something I had never seen before. There was not one ending to the movie but three. Years later I learned that all three were produced and shipped to different locations. Depending on where you saw the film, there was a different culprit to the murder.
It was strange and it was brilliant. This silly little film did something rather extraordinary. With the inevitably discussion that would follow later with peers, people would discuss the film and its conclusion only to discover that their answer to the mystery may not be the conclusion their friend saw. I can only imagine the confusion that this would cause and it perfectly sums up the frantic style of the movie as well as being faithful to the boardgame it spawned. Despite its rather shallow and meagre offering, Clue presents a rather intriguing undermining of audience expectations by toying with the very frame which movies are made. I’ve seen it multiple times since and each ending works with the film. It may not have the strongest dialogue and it wastes quite a bit of time with filler antics but otherwise it sets up multiple explanations for the murders which occur. When Wadsworth is explaining how a culprit could perform the deed, if you rewatch those scenes the possible guilty parties are absent. There’s an attentiveness to small details that just brings the entire package together.
More than that, however, Clue plays joyfully with the tropes of a mystery. Our expectations for these capers is that there is one correct explanation which the investigator must solve in order to crack the case. But for this movie, that is not the case. It almost exists in a certain quantum uncertainty–this made even more apparent with the DVD format restoring the ability to randomize how the film will end each time you view it. Dotted lovingly throughout the film are red herrings surrounding nuclear physicists that make me wonder if the quantum analogy isn’t perhaps done purposefully. It forms the audiences expectations for a tidy conclusion then insidiously destroys them the moment you stand up and speak to someone else about the conclusion.
Murder by Death is, surprisingly, a movie along the same vein. It follows a group of individuals brought to a mansion where a murder occurs and locks them inside until the mystery can be solved. Whereas Clue embraces its nebulous narrative and uncertain outcome until the conclusion is reached, Murder by Death instead lampoons the mystery genre rather than its structure. Each guest is an immediately recognizable caricature of a famous fictional detective. We have a Sam Spade, Ms. Marple, Hercule Poirot and others. Each are brought alive by similarly famous actors like Peter Falk, Maggie Smith and Peter Sellers.
However, whereas Clue struggles in unnecessary scenes, some misplaced slapstick comedy and rather uninspiring dialogue at times, I find Murder by Death far more searing in its discourse. There’s more wit in its scenes and treatment of characters–fueled on by its need to satirize the mystery genre in its entirety. The detectives are revealed, one by one, to be cheap charlatans who rely on cheap toys and tricks in order to further their suspense in unnatural and baffling ways to keep their audience on their toes. These very same tricks are utilized by the movie in order to showcase how these manipulative devices are used to deny the audience of its mystery. There’s a condemnation at the heart of Murder by Death’s ridiculous action and its towards the authors and their penchant to cheat the audience of playing the detective themselves. The movie is fascinating as it’s almost a video essay on the director’s opinion of how not to write a mystery. That meta-genre knowledge is really what drives the humour of the flick though there are plenty of other jokes for those less savvy on the genre.
But while Murder by Death may be scathing in its view of the mystery genre, it is also an ode to its accomplishments as well. It reads like a love letter but a disgruntled but otherwise devout fan. At the end of the day (or night in Murder by Death’s case), while it recognizes that the motivation for the vast majority of writers is money, there still exists the love of mystery. We end with the bumbling detectives much as they were, unhumbled by their experience and heading home to repeat their romps in whatever fashion that has made them famous. But the closing scene reveals a final twist which still leaves the audience wondering and guessing over the villains plot, that air of mystery still leaving us wondering, guessing and desperate for more.
Ultimately, both Clue and Murder by Death are more than just comedies–they’re examinations of the mystery genre and the tropes used by their authors. They both seem well aware of the faults too typical of their medium. They’re bold in their bare-faced, unapologetic frailty. They demonstrate that no work is perfect but those imperfections need not detract from the overall experience. As the credits roll, they still had fun and, truly, is that not what we strive for with our entertainment?