“This is war, Peacock”: Clue and Cumulative Transferative Psychosis
This is three thousand words about eighty-two seconds of film.
Except it’s not just about those eighty-two seconds. The best films are fractal; the pieces reflect the complexity of the whole, each scene resonating with an entire picture’s worth of story and character. Clue is one such film, and the matchstick scene in particular is a prism into the film’s unique character dynamics and sense of humor.
OK, and also it’s a funny scene. It’s a throw-away comic short film that could have been excised wholesale without any loss to story or character. But the simple fact of it not being thrown away is the first remarkable feature of the scene. This was director Jonathan Lynn‘s first feature film after a sizable career in British television. Lynn brings a uniquely European perspective on comedy to the film, a perspective that is chiefly characterized by patience.
Appreciating the matchstick scene in Clue requires that you understand just how hard it is to use patience in an American comedy film. Americans, even back in 1988, are a rambunctious lot, drawn to novelty, turmoil, and chaos; it’s a way that we deal with our insecurities about how many centuries’ head start every other nation has had. The American cinematic eye will sometimes willfully blind itself to inaction in the current moment if action is promised later.
This presents a problem in comedy as it queers the tension-release architecture that makes jokes work. The typical modern solution to the problem is to put more focus on the release, and to reduce the overall “cycle time” of each joke. But then you wind up with a very “noisy” movie, a big list of punchlines, that somehow feels like bottom-heavy, un-nutritious comedy.
What you need to make silent, nearly static scene like Clue‘s matchstick scene work is:
- skilled comedy craftspeople, and
- a director with European sensibilities who understands
a) if you properly establish the stakes, and
b) if you don’t promise a monster truck rally in the next scene that this scene is in the way of, and
c) if you sit the camera back and let the actors do their thing,
then you will be able to hold the attention of any viewer on Earth for almost any length of time.
But looking beyond the mere feat of endurance, this approach also creates a canvas on which new character articulation and nuance can be painted. In this essay we will break down this scene micro-beat by micro-beat, and in doing so we will see how this spacious yet tension-filled approach to comedy results not only in better comedy but in opportunities to deepen our understanding of the plot and the characters, which in turn makes the comedy better still.
Crucial note: As Hagakure tells us, the end is important in all things. To properly examine the middle of a film, we must know its ending, and in the case of Clue that is not so simple. Clue was famously released to theaters with one of three randomly chosen endings. On home video release, all three endings are concatenated one after the other with little cutesy intercards. If you don’t remember the endings, this is a great refresher. (Or you can just rewatch the film, which you know you want to do anyway.)
For the purposes of this investigation, we will be ignoring the first two filmed endings and we’ll only be considering the footage contained in “But here’s what really happened” (hereafter referred to as “the True Ending”) as the diegetic truth. That is to say, we will consider what the camera shows us in this ending (and only what the camera shows us) as the unadulterated events of the actual story.
45:09 – Cut to cutting
Wadsworth is using a carving knife to cut fireplace matches into four separate lengths, two apiece. The camera cuts between the knife and Wadsworth looking with disgust at the guests clustered on the other side of the kitchen island. The sound is clear and crisp; we feel violence in how he sinks the knife into the wood then lifts the tail of the match around the fulcrum of the blade. We hear every gristle-like twist of the wood in his hands.
The shots of the guests are similarly illuminating. They cluster together like hunted birds, the island between them and Wadsworth, as if distancing themselves from the inevitable threat that Wadsworth’s actions represent: One of them, at least, will be doomed to be paired up with a murderer. One of them, at least, already is a murderer, and that person dreads the lot-drawing as representing a threat to their anonymity. (Wadsworth presumably shares these feelings too, as he will also draw a match, but he is not framed in solidarity with the crowd. More on this later.)
At 45:18, Colonel Mustard draws attention to himself by taking a grimace-inducing shot of whiskey. If this is our first time viewing the film, this is a mild joke, the cliche of taking a “bracer” before some stressful act, and it is out of place against the terrified stillness of the rest of the group.
But if this our two hundredth time viewing the film, we remember that this scene falls in an auspicious spot in the Colonel’s narrative. A few minutes ago (40:53), the Motorist arrived unexpectedly at the front door. The Colonel (we later learn) recognized him as his driver during the war, and later realize he must have been Mr. Boddy’s informant, providing the basis of Mustard’s ongoing blackmail.
After the Motorist is safely locked away in the lounge, Colonel Mustard goes to great, one might even say “farcical” lengths to re-introduce doubt about the possibly of there being some unknown person in the house (“‘No, there is’, or ‘No, there isn’t’?!”). It is on the basis of this (objectively flimsy) over-abundance of caution that Mustard is able to convince all the guests plus Wadsworth and Yvette to draw lots for a pairwise search of the house.
We know that Mustard has already decided to kill the Motorist. He has killed before (we presume), in the war, but perhaps not as directly as he will have to do tonight, and probably never in a situation where he will have to use guile and falsehood to trick or kill a terrified civilian squadmate in order to accomplish his objective unobserved, and then remain near the crime scene for hours to come.
Colonel Mustard taking that drink is him screwing his courage to the sticking-place. He must try to peel back the layers of public-servant paper-pusher that he has accrued since V-J Day to find the soldier — albeit a crooked one — that he used to be.
45:37 – The Drawing Begins
Thus we begin the single uncut take that will constitute the rest of the scene.
Mustard leads the charge, decisively pulling out a second-shortest match, followed quickly by Mrs. Peacock. They compare and do not match. The audience expects a cut at this point; surely no need to watch eight matches being drawn along with the twenty-eight requisite comparisons. Surely this isn’t “the scene,” is it?
But it is, and the scene is off and rolling. As Peacock makes her pick, note Eileen Brennan’s odd character choice throughout this scene. She frequently keeps her lips agape, as if she is horrified at nothing in particular. At first glance this allows us to continue to dismiss her as a doddering socialite, but if we know the ending, her performance (both Brennan’s and Peacock’s) takes on a different tenor.
If we know the ending, we know that by this point in the evening she is one of the select few at this party who has already committed murder. She has killed the cook while the guests interviewed Yvette — no mean feat from behind with a short blade. Moreover, she accomplished this task with enough coolness to know to make use of a secret passage in the meat freezer (perhaps common in fancy houses like hers) to return to the study unobserved.
Mrs. Peacock is a snake in the grass, playing upon the sexist assumptions of the 1950s American testocracy to operate below everyone’s radar. Her gaping is part of that act, a crude physicalization of stereotype that she is hiding inside.
45:54 – Step 3: Comedy
Miss Scarlet draws, then Mr. Green. An exquisite pacing and rhythm is achieved which prevents any pair from being too quickly matched. Scarlet fails to match with Peacock. Colonel Mustard, holding his shortish match in an oddly delicate, pinky-curled manner, fails to pair with Green’s very long match. Ripples of awkwardness flow between the characters as they struggle to remain civil and appropriately somber, despite the absurdity of the activity. They (and we) realize this is a ludicrous, mimed rendition of the summer-camp buddy-finding exercise.
This is where we see the comic geniuses really flourish. No dialog, no music, no helpful cuts or camera moves to guide the audience towards the funny. A half-dozen stories are spun out of nothing more than costumes and matchsticks.
Mustard gives little embarrassed smiles after each failed match, as if he’s playing a parlor game. Green spends a long time just wanting to get his match, but can’t squeeze his shoulders past the throng. Everyone makes way for Yvette, but once forward, she traps Green’s arm, outstretched from drawing his match, and now he has to thread his limbs backwards through the crowd that just keeps pressing and pressing like the Three Stooges going through a doorway, while still trying to compare his match to the others.
Everyone who doesn’t have a match wants one, and everyone with one just wants to find their partner, and no one wants to make way for anyone to get what they want because fuck these murderers, I’m getting out of this house one way or another so let’s just get this over with.
Both Wadsworth and camera refuse to budge, neither of them willing to pierce the balloon of absurdity that keeps filling and filling as bodies crowd the frame.
46:02 – Scarlet and Mustard
Finally we get a little resolution. Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet discover their matches match. Mustard seems to give Scarlet a leer, to which she gives a huge comic-opera eye roll of disgust. Remember that at this point Scarlet hasn’t killed anyone and (probably) isn’t planning to; her eventual victim, the Cop, hasn’t arrived yet. Her only concern is surviving this evening alive and un-fondled. She clearly does not fear Mustard on the first point.
But Mustard is not leering. As we’ve said, he knows he will have to somehow outwit his partner, and now he knows that he and Scarlet will be searching the ground floor, which he knows better than any other floor the house. He knows Scarlet, at least a little, from their acquaintance through her prostitution business, and he has already started to formulate the plan that will silence the Motorist. He’s smiling because everything’s coming up Mustard.
46:11 – White and Wadsworth
Second-to-last to draw is Mrs. White, who, after Plum draws his match, sees Wadsworth holding her counterpart from across a few feet of space. We watch her walk towards Wadsworth (and the camera) as if in a dream, holding the match ahead of her like a magnet that is pulling her. We do not see Wadsworth’s face, but we see that they lock eyes for a long, haunted moment as the camera drifts away.
Recall that a few minutes ago (42:44) White publicly and explicitly threatened to make Wadsworth “sorry you ever started this. One day when we’re alone together…” Are they thinking about that threat? Is Wadsworth afraid for his life? Is White afraid that Wadsworth will kill her preemptively? These are fears in addition to the already existing problem of who has killed Mr. Boddy and the Cook, fears that are not shared by the others, fears that are their own.
Let us add to that the known facts. She was (probably) already a murderer before she showed up that night; Wadsworth knows that. In addition, Mrs. White may already have decided to kill Yvette; perhaps she’s been working on it since she first saw her way back at 6:17.
So worming its way through her fear could be a dark core of animal cunning. Like Colonel Mustard, she may be hatching her own scheme to evade her partner and take a life — though the exact mechanism, the probable location of the power switch, will not be pointed out to her until a few moments later.
As for Wadsworth… we’ll return to him later.
46:18 – Yvette and Green
At this point the audience is palpably craving movement, and the much-anticipated camera pan away from Wadsworth’s shoulder finds Yvette and Mr. Green holding their full-size matchsticks together like the Wondertwins. Yvette is turned towards him, delivering both barrels of bosom to him (but not the camera) and we’re treated to Green’s embarrassed, averted gaze and wan smile.
At the time we think this has something to do with his homosexuality, and we chuckle at the thought of the most and least heterosexual characters being forced to team up. Later of course, we learn that Green is straight and married, so probably his look is partially how he thinks a gay man would react, and partially the frustrated embarrassment of a fidelious husband confronted with sexuality made flesh.
Perhaps I sell Yvette short. She also is playing a secret charade like Special Agent Green, and she undoubtedly overheard Mr. Green’s confession earlier in the evening. Has she ever spent time with a gay man in her “Yvette” character? How many openly gay men would she likely have met in the early 50s? Would he be as fooled as the others who are so willing to dismiss her as a sex object?
Ultimately, though, Yvette and Green are the innocents in our play. This pair will not survive the night intact. The real payoff in this beat is the deadpan Professor Plum reaching his tiny matchstick fragment between them to compare it against their massive lengths. There are at least four layers to this joke (they’re clearly already a pair, theirs is clearly bigger than his, the pathetic reach-through like an outcast, the trademark Lloyd deadpan bug-eye), and the rhythm is as satisfying as pastry.
46:24 – Peacock and Plum
At the chronological and geographical end of the scene, way off on stage left, Professor Plum finds Mrs. Peacock standing alone, gaping at her tiny match, and we are given the first line of dialog in almost a minute: “It’s you and me, honey bunch.” Just a silly little button on the scene, another chance to laugh at Plum’s bizarre sensuality and Peacock’s pearl-clutching gasps.
But I’ve always found this line of dialogue more momentous than it appears at face-value. Remember that, according to the True Ending, these two are the only two actual murderers at this point in the evening, excluding Mrs. White and her history. Unlike the other guests, their goal is to avoid detection (in addition to death; they each know they didn’t kill the other’s victim), and so they must both be thinking about how to appear as innocent as possible during their time together.
But both the dialogue and their body language speak to more connection than that. Does each detect in the other that they have taken a human life within the last hour? Professor Plum first fired upon, then bludgeoned Mr. Boddy from behind. Mrs. Peacock pushed a knife into the spine of the Cook, from behind. Both took the time to maneuver the body into an enclosed space before it fell, like a predator caching prey for later. Perhaps such a thing leaves a pheromonal trace. Perhaps they are both secretly relieved to be among their own kind.
The Problem of Wadsworth
Although we have otherwise taken Clue‘s True Ending at face value, throughout this essay we have referred to Tim Curry’s character as “Wadsworth” and Lee Ving’s character as “Mr. Boddy.” Recall that in the final reveal, Mr. Green concludes, to Wadsworth, “You’re Mr. Boddy!”, meaning the man who is blackmailing everyone, and Wadsworth then dismisses the man we know as Mr. Boddy as “my butler.” This is a massive flip-de-doo revelation, and everyone (guests and audience) are so blown away (and possibly confused) that the accelerating climax arrives before the pieces can be fully put together and everyone leaves satisfied.
But all the pieces do not fit. As we have said, we will believe the on-screen events of the True Ending, that Wadsworth certainly did say those things, but we do not believe they are objectively true. Otherwise, how are we to reconcile Mr. Boddy’s utterly believable presence at dinner and in the lounge, and Wadsworth’s subsequent exposition of the blackmailing scheme? If we take Wadsworth’s words in the ending literally, we must dismiss all of those early scenes as just playacting, and that is both hard to believe and absolutely no fun.
What if Wadsworth is who he says he is after Mr. Boddy is first shot: a domestic servant and a widower, dedicated to avenging his wife’s suicide by exposing their blackmailer. But his plan goes wrong; Mr. Boddy outsmarts him by proposing a diabolical game involving deadly weapons, and people start dying.
At some point in the evening, the pressure and guilt of this horrible night gone awry added to his wife’s suicide and years of indentured servitude to a sociopath, causes in Wadsworth a psychotic break. As fear continues to mount and the bodies continue to stack up, Wadsworth begins to believe himself an evil person, a person as guilty and as evil as Mr. Boddy. Only such a fiend could have lured these six victims into spending the night in a house of horrors.
When Mrs. White puts out the lights, a switch is turned inside him. And when the Singing Telegram arrives (also at Wadsworth’s request) he considers shooting her immediately as an act of mercy. Besides, what is a little more blood on his hands?
After Wadsworth’s hysterical bout of logorrhea recounting the numerous sins of the evening, Mr. Green chooses to label Wadsworth as Mr. Boddy, which Wadsworth accepts as a personal cross to bear. He might as well be Mr. Boddy, for all the suffering he’s caused. Worse, even; Mr. Boddy never killed anybody. Compared to Wadsworth, the real Mr. Boddy is merely a butler.
What does this have to do with the matchstick scene? We propose that this scene is where Wadsworth’s break occurs. His obvious tension, his looks of disgust where previously he had been courteous, the long period holding the matches unmoving, not engaging with anyone. Perhaps this is why Mrs. White’s face is even more ashen than usual as she joins their matches together. Perhaps she sees something in his eyes, which we cannot see, that gives her reason to be hesitant when joining him.
So what is the point of all this, this minutia-raking and fan-fiction about some ancient board game movie?
Our thesis is that practices like these allow us appreciate levels of film quality beyond what we take away on first viewing. Unpeeling the onion like this takes dozens of viewings, a fast thumb on the pause and rewind, and hours upon hours away from the screen turning things over in your head. Sometimes that kind of investment in a movie is all for naught, but every once in a while a film like Clue comes around which both hints at hidden complexities and stands up to exhaustive (and exhausting) analysis.
The point of this exercise is both to provide a potentially new lens through which to view the events of Clue (trust me, the film seems completely different if you hold the True Ending in mind throughout), and also to provide a blueprint of how similar deep dives might be conducted on any film.
I don’t just mean hard-twist films like The Sixth Sense (though, yes, totally), but also less obvious but equally nutritious “fractal scenes” in other movies: the beach scene in Sleepless in Seattle, Spock’s quarters scene in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the opening church scene in Boondock Saints, the job interview scene in Being John Malkovich, just to name a few off the top of my chart.
One of the fun things about movies, something far too frequently forgotten, is that they’re not meant to stop giving pleasure when the credits roll.
Clue‘s Flickchart stats:
- Global rank: 692
- Wins 48% of matchups
- 12,288 users have ranked it
- 42 users have it at #1
- 511 users have it in their top 20
- Most popular matchup discussion: Clue vs. Ghostbusters