Jonathan Lynn’s dark comedy Clue, inspired by the mystery-solving board game, is easily one of the best whodunits of the 20th century. Lynn and co-writer John Landis (director of The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London) fool the audience with subtle tricks and twists, as six guests are invited to a New England mansion to get to the bottom of a nasty blackmail conspiracy. Their dirty laundry (war profiteering, adultery, political corruption) creates motives for six subsequent murders — Mr. Boddy, who arranged the meeting; a cook; a motorist; Yvette the maid; a cop; and a singing-telegram performer. But all the victims are also co-conspirators in the plot.
There’s a lot to muck through in the fast-paced setup, but the film’s most ingenious twist is the three different endings, where the butler Wadsworth (Tim Curry) reveals three different answers to whodunit. Each ending was sent to different theaters as a studio ploy, meant to lure viewers into paying to see the film several times in first release. The idea failed — Clue was a box-office flop — but it found cult status on home video, where people could see all three endings back-to-back.
Problem is, only one of those endings works out mechanically. Ending A (spoiler alert!) has the guilty party as Ms. Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren) and Yvette the maid (Colleen Camp) in tandem. In ending B, Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan) did the killings on her own. In ending C, everyone but Mr. Green (Michael McKean) is guilty. There’s even a fourth “lost” ending (we’ll call it D), unreleased because it was considered too dark. Because the movie moves so quickly, all three endings look plausible at first glance… but are they? Opinions vary, depending on who’s talking — Kotaku claims there’s no “real” ending, while Looper’s Clue explainer says it’s “strongly indicated” that C is the real ending. Problem is, while that ending is the clear fan favorite — it’s the most detailed and entertaining one, complete with Madeline Kahn’s heavily memed “flames on the side of my face” improv — it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Let’s begin with ending B, with Mrs. Peacock acting alone. The cook’s death requires Mrs. Peacock to sneak past everyone to murder her while the rest of the guests are trying to stop a screaming Yvette from panicking. To do so, she has to avoid detection by using a secret passage from the kitchen to the study — an element inspired by the board game. But how did Mrs. Peacock know about the passage if she’d never been to the mansion before? Her killing Mr. Boddy is viable: she joins the others in the kitchen to check on the cook late, and in a hurry. But then the motorist’s death occurs, which requires her to use another secret passage, from the conservatory to the lounge. Again, how did she know about it? Yvette dies next, but she approaches her killer with enough ease to suggest trust — but she and Peacock hadn’t met before, so how could they have such a relationship? The rest is viable from there, courtesy of Yvette — you’ll see what I mean when we get to ending A.
Ending C, the free-for-all, is the most popular ending. Again, the issue of the cook being killed by Peacock using the secret passage crops up. Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd) killing Mr. Boddy isn’t really viable either, since Plum does show up in the kitchen initially, then mysteriously vanishes, but for too brief a period to kill Boddy and get back. Later, he can’t carry Boddy, even with help, which also hurts this claim. Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull) killing the motorist doesn’t work for the same reasons Mrs. Peacock killing him didn’t work. Neither does Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn) killing Yvette — those two hated each other, so why would the former approach the latter completely at ease? Ms. Scarlet couldn’t have gotten into the library to kill the cop: The door was locked and she didn’t have a key!
Wadsworth killing the telegram girl is also iffy: right after she’s shot, he’s seen accidentally walking into a bathroom and soaking himself in a shower, which would be a tad hard to do right after the killing, since he was in the room next to Mrs. White at the time. To do that, he’d have had to slip downstairs undetected by those already there (Scarlet and Mustard, the former in the middle of killing the cop), open the door, shoot the girl, and then race back upstairs — all in maybe 10 seconds!
Ending D is an odd case, since it starts with Wadsworth’s usual reveal, claiming the killings were a team effort by Plum and Peacock. Then Plum denies it and says whoever has the gun is the real killer. It turns out Wadsworth killed everyone. Per Birth Movies Death:
“Because all his life he wanted to be perfect. He wanted to be the perfect husband, but his wife killed herself. He wanted to be the perfect butler, but then he was driven to killing his boss… so he then decided that he would at least commit the perfect murder, but that it wouldn’t be fun without an audience.”
The guests are that audience, until Wadsworth reveals he poisoned their drinks and they’ll die without help, so he plans to lock them in after running around ripping out the phones. He’s interrupted when the police arrive, but he mesmerizes them with another whodunit spiel — and uses the opportunity to slip out and lock everyone in. (They eventually break out through the Conservatory.) Meanwhile, Wadsworth drives off, but finds one of the German Shepherds from the beginning of the film waiting in the back seat of his car.
This ending is particularly full of holes, maybe because it was never polished up for release. Wadsworth was on screen when Boddy and the cook died, so when did he do it? The usual problems apply with him killing the telegram girl — how did he get by White, Mustard, and Scarlet, through passageways and locked doors, then back upstairs again, without being detected? The German shepherds out front were both chained to doghouses — how did they get loose? And how did that dog open and then close the car door?
But ending A, the team effort by Scarlet and Yvette, actually works as a plausible end to the film. The latter kills the cook, using the knife after Peacock drops it, then races back to the billiard room to begin screaming. This answers the question of why Yvette, supposedly panicking, didn’t scream earlier when Boddy is thought to be dead. (It’s a long gap between his death and her response.) As for Boddy’s killing, Yvette is the only one who never shows up in the kitchen to check the cook — she’s in the study killing him! Why did she do it? She’s under orders from her boss, Scarlet, as confirmed during the summation. Scarlet then used the secret passage to kill the motorist. How did she know about the passage? Yvette told her!
As for the last three murders, Scarlet has Yvette meet with her and kills her to silence her — their boss/employee rapport justifies Yvette’s willingness to approach her. What about the locked library door? Yvette strikes again. As a maid, she’d need keys to clean the rooms — she either made a spare set for Scarlet, or Scarlet took her keys from her body. Scarlet then opened the library, killed the cop, picked up the gun, opened the front door with another key when the doorbell rang, recognized the telegram performer from the blackmail file, and killed her.
It’s convoluted, complex, manipulative… and plausible, especially compared to the other endings. But even if two of the released endings can’t work, the film’s brilliant wit, clever masking of the killings, and fast pace, courtesy of the limited time to uncover the killer before the police arrive, make it a true rush to experience every time. The two non-working endings could even make the film more appealing: they bring people back to the original board game, where the fun of uncovering the real killer is in figuring out which leads or possibilities are wrong the whole time. Clue’s invitation to participate in the mystery keeps creating new generations of fans, who can perpetuate the film’s legacy by repeating a bit of dialogue that recurs in all three endings:
“There’s one thing I don’t understand.”