Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after Jonathan Lynn’s Clue.
We’ve all been there. You google “movies like Clue” and you’re greeted with a mosaic of sub-par game adaptations and non-homicidal funny films from the ’80s. Does Google not know? Is the algorithm okay? All you wanted was pun-heavy dark comedies about a murder mystery!
Well, unclench your fists, pals. First-time director Jonathan Lynn’s 1985 ensemble mystery comedy classic — yes, based off the Hasbro whodunnit board game of the same name — has many forefathers. Each goofier than the last.
There is a stark contrast between how Clue was received upon its initial release — it singlehandedly killed the theater gimmick — and how it is widely regarded today. Which is to say: as a clever, cast-driven spoof.
The film follows a group of strangers — or are they — who are brought to a forbidding mansion under unknown circumstances: Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), Mrs. White (Madeline Khan), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), Mr. Greeen (Michael McKean), Col. Mustard (Martin Mull), and Miss Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren).
They are welcomed by the estate’s giddy butler (Tim Curry) and sultry maid (Colleen Camp) and then quickly learn that they have a common enemy: the man who is blackmailing them.
Mercifully, Clue survived its initial critical pummeling thanks to the discovery and affection inherent in well-worn TV-movies. It remains, for my money, one of the great screwball comedies, sustained by a quick wit, a corny sensibility, and an endlessly quotable script.
So if you like goofs, gags, and grandiose character acting, strap in because it’s time to explore the mansion — of warm, fuzzy, and invariably silly murder mysteries:
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1942)
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Is that Alec Guinness dressed as a fancy lady?” The answer, I am delighted to say, is yes. Kind Hearts and Coronets follows a poor underclassman named Louis (Ten Little Indians‘ Dennis Price) who learns that he is a distant relative of the wildly wealthy Duke D’Ascoyne.
Unfortunately, a gaggle of poncy relatives outranks him in the will — all eight of them played by Guinness. Desperate for wealth and status, Louis resolves to murder everyone ahead of him in the line of succession to inherit the title.
Kind Hearts and Coronets isn’t a whodunnit per se, but it is an essential ensemble murder comedy. An ensemble largely made up of one man, that is. In addition to being darker than molasses, the “cooky aristocratic family all played by one man” gimmick is an absolute hoot.
Lest we forget, pre-Star Wars, Guinness was known as the guy who could play multiple parts in a single film. Guinness’ antics help to soften Louis’ grim quest to climb the ladder by force.
And Then There Were None (1945)
Perhaps the ensemble murder to end all ensemble murders, And Then There Were None is a classic, a banger, and the unkillable elder of its peers. The film is based on the 1939 book by Agatha Christie, which, despite its bafflingly racist title(s), holds fast as the best-selling crime novel of all time. And for good reason: it’s a tight, twisting maze of accusations, deceit, and danger, epitomizing a format that remains influential to this day.
Eight strangers with wildly different backgrounds arrive at an isolated island. Their hosts have yet to show, but thankfully, they’ve left instructions…and a phonograph record accusing everyone present of murder. Almost immediately, people start dying. And as the title (the good one) suggests, the deaths don’t stop.
There have been many adaptations of Christie’s novel, but René Clair‘s 1945 film was the first, and in my estimation, the best. The cast is marvelous, the mood is macabre, and the suspense is palatable. What more can you ask for? Best enjoyed in the glow of a roaring fire on a drab day, tea in hand.
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The only thing that Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) loves more than solving crimes is bungling them. Directed by frequent Sellers-collaborator Blake Edwards and penned by William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist), A Shot in the Dark is the only original run Pink Panther film centered around a murder mystery — the very hot maid is a suspect.
Not that our bumbling hero finds these heightened stakes especially motivating. Much like Clue, solving the case is a lot less important than the clumsy journey itself. Which, in Clouseau’s case, involves nudist colonies, synchronized watches, and fourth wall breaks.
Next up, putting the homoerotic in homicide, we have Sleuth: a darkly goofy film about two men who “yes, and…” themselves into murder. The film takes place on the vast, luxuriant country estate of Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), a successful crime novelist who has been cuckolded by a dashing young hairdresser named Milo Tindle (Michael Caine).
Andrew invites Milo over to discuss matters. And, to Milo’s surprise, Andrew all but thanks him for taking his wife off his hands. But he inquires as to how Milo will afford her expensive tastes. Leering and giddy, Andrew suggests that Milo steal a cache of jewels from the manor, the loss of which Andrew will recoup from the insurance claim. But, as things begin to get out of hand, Milo learns, all too late, that Andrew’s intentions aren’t exactly pure.
Despite its grim trappings, Sleuth absolutely does not play its hand with a straight face. Caine spends much of the film in a literal clown costume and Olivier gnaws on the scenery like it’s made out of premium smoked ham. And it’s this goofy gait that ultimately casts the film’s more macabre beats into genuinely disturbing territory.
So, if you’re hankering for a single-location murder mystery with twists, turns, and contagiously chaotic energy, you can’t go wrong with Sleuth.
Post-script: if you’re thinking of checking out the 2007 remake with Caine in the Olivier role, don’t! Watch the much better, Sleuth-reminiscent Deathtrap instead — the leads actually kiss in this one.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Young Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen,” of course), is the gold-plated genre spoof to which all other genre spoofs aspire. Hell, Brooks considers the film to be his finest work.
A parody of Mary Shelly’s original novel and Universal Monster movies, Young Frankenstein tells of a successful neurosurgeon (co-writer Gene Wilder) who inherits the estate of his grandfather, Dr. Victor von Frankenstein. In the end, the young doctor is not just the heir to a castle, but to a generational desire to prove that there can be life after death.
Of all the films on this list, Young Frankenstein‘s ties to Clue are probably the least obvious. There are, however, plenty of tangible similarities: a playful relationship to genre, plenty of wordplay, a god-tier use of Madeline Khan.
Ultimately, Clue‘s relation to Young Frankenstein is one of intent. Namely: to weave a titillating comedic tapestry so tight you could bounce an abnormal brain off it. I consider Airplane! in this camp too: joke-dense genre parodies with highly-scripted silliness.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Did you see this one coming? American businessman and victim-du-film Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark) certainly didn’t! When most folks hear the phrase “ensemble murder mystery” they’re likely to think of one of two Agatha Christie classics: the aforementioned And Then There Were None or Murder On the Orient Express, which does exactly what it says on the tin.
There is indeed a murder — of our good friend Ratchett. And it does in fact happen on a train! Luckily, also on-board is mustachio’d murder-solver Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), who must use the powers of deduction to find the killer in a train full of wildly accomplished thespians (Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave…).
There have been many adaptations of Christie’s novel, but if you stump for anything other than the Sidney Lumet classic, you’re a fool. While not a comedy, per se, Murder On the Orient Express is a kinetic, spry ensemble piece that feels cozy despite its macabre subject matter. Plus, it’s hard not to think of Lumet’s film during Clue‘s perspective-shifting ending montage — thanks, TV-edit!.
Murder By Death (1976)
Because comedy tends to be of-a-time and reference-heavy, it often requires a bit more context than drama. Murder By Death has an absolutely bananas premise that assumes its audience is up-to-date on pre-’70s detective fiction.
Luckily, the setup is familiar: a group of strangers is summoned to a secluded manor by a mysterious host (Truman Capote) who challenges his guests to solve his own murder. And the guests are well up to the task since they’re all spoofs of famous fictional sleuths.
Send-up targets include Hercule Poirot (James Coco, accompanied by a butler played by James Cromwell, in his first feature film), Miss Marple (Elsa Lanchester), The Thin Man‘s Nick and Nora Charles (David Niven and Maggie Smith), Sam Spade (a hard-boiled Californian detective played by Peter Falk, with the long-suffering secretary, played by Eileen Brennan, in tow); and finally, Charlie Chan (Peter Sellers).
Now, forgive the lengthy footnote, but Sellers’ role requires some extra care because … well: yellowface. The character of Charlie Chan has featured in some four dozen films, where he was played almost exclusively by white actors. Of all the sleuth spoofs in the film, Chan is the one audiences are least likely to be familiar with. Which is unfortunate. Because getting the “joke” of Sellers’ portrayal depends on knowing the casting controversies surrounding the character.
The good news is that the charms of Murder By Death are weighty enough to distract from its age. The gags are supremely silly and a mile-a-minute. At the end of the day, Murder By Death takes aim at the good, bad, and ugly of its genre with the ruthless yet loving touch you only find in ’70s spoofs.
The Cheap Detective (1978)
The Cheap Detective is, in my opinion, the film on this list that vibes the hardest with Clue. The film isn’t playing in an Agatha Christie-shaped sandbox, like many of the others on this list, but it is a fantastic, joke-heavy send-up that leans on a great script and unbelievable ensemble cast. Oh right, and most importantly: it is very, very silly.
The film is a kinda-sorta-spinoff of Murder By Death that expands on Peter Falk‘s San Francisco Humphrey Bogart parody (albeit, under a different character name). Setting the sights of its water gun squarely on film noir, The Cheap Detective follows P.I. Lou Peckinpaugh as he attempts to prove his innocence after his partner is murdered.
The cast is absolutely bananas (Eileen Brennan! Sid Caesar! Madeline Kahn! Stockard Channing! Ann-Margaret! Dom DeLuise! Paul Williams!). And the bits are absolutely amazing. One recurring joke has Falk casually pulling fully-made cocktails out of unassuming cupboards. Another has Kahn making up increasing ludicrous aliases.
The Cheap Detective is silly, stupid, and splendid: the holy trinity of a good spoof.