In the Mood for Clues

Clue (1985) | In the Mood for Love (2000)

illustration by Tom Ralston

On a dark and stormy night, a group of strangers race through a house, trying to solve a mystery laden with hijinks. As soon as they think they’ve solved it—finally found the one answer that fits all the disparities of the case—the film cuts to an intertitle: “That’s how it could have happened.” And then: “But how about this?” After rewinding, redoing, reassessing, a different solution reveals itself, only to come undone with another intertitle: “But here’s what really happened.”

When Clue, the 1985 adaptation of the popular board game, was originally released, three different endings went out to theaters. If you wanted to discover the three different ways the film’s mess of murders could have happened, you’d have to buy three separate tickets. The gambit didn’t pay off; the movie bombed at the box office. When it was finally released for home viewing, the three endings were cut together, with the intertitles inserted between each. 

These intertitles were a clever way to layer the endings—so they became alternate versions of each other rather than offshoots—but by adding them in, the tone shifted slightly. The intertitles maintain the film’s madcap sensibility while dropping in the suggestion of an omniscient narrator, someone who’s been watching the characters run around the mansion like chickens with their heads cut off and finally decides, Fine, I’ll let you know what I’ve seen, I can’t let this keep going on like this. It’s someone coming into the room, pointing, and saying: I’ve got this; I know exactly what happened; no matter how wrong you are right now, I’ll make sure you get it right in the end.

In the Mood for Love is a film parenthesized by intertitles. They’re beautiful and melancholy in the way that Clue’s are zany and funny, but still, the intertitles imply a narrator stepping in and providing context for the film’s central mystery—the feelings that exist between its main characters. There’s so much beneath the surface between them, so much left unsaid. By gesturing at the characters’ silence—“She has kept her head lowered to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage.”—the intertitles make sure their silence is writ loud.

In both Clue and In the Mood for Love, these intertitles and their version of narration serve as another container amongst many. Both are also contained by claustrophobic settings and a Russian doll-style nesting of stories within stories.

The walls are closing in; emotions are weapons; no one is safe.


Mysteries have always made sense to me. It started with Nancy Drew and her crooked staircase, then quickly evolved outward, toward the Bobbsey Twins and Encyclopedia Brown and Hercule Poirot. The rote of mystery is just so comforting: piecing together a set of clues, deciphering their relationship to each other, finding the tidy conclusion at the end of it all. The story starts; it happens; it ends. There are no unknowns leftover. No questions left to answer. 

In so many ways, the genre itself is best-case scenario (despite the murders involved). The story structure necessitates an extended investigation. The characters have the time they need to turn over every stone, to dissect every clue, to examine every possible cause. Who wouldn’t want to be their own detective? When something goes wrong, when you’ve been betrayed or hurt, wouldn’t it be nice to pause time and stay there until you figure out exactly what happened? Mysteries are so comforting because that is what they offer. Closure.  

In my more deranged moments, I can become insistent that everything, at base, has some relationship to the mystery genre. My love of mysteries is what originally made me want to write. Writing a story is like trying to solve a mystery. Writing this essay has been like trying to solve a mystery. Existing in the world is like trying to solve a mystery. Everything is a mystery!

Which is also why I’m drawn to movies like Clue and In the Mood for Love. Two movies that probably couldn’t be more different, but in both, characters use storytelling to investigate their cratered lives. The solutions they find—or almost find—perhaps aren’t as clean as other classics of the genre, but in each film, it’s the investigation that really matters, the fact that they press on the questions and see them through to the end. Closure is impossible; closure is worth trying for.

That’s how it could have happened. 

Clue (1985) | Paramount Pictures

Clue opens as the players are dropped off, one by one, outside of an imposing, ivied mansion. The butler, Wadsworth, greets them at the door and assigns them each a pseudonym—the classically named Miss Scarlet, Mrs. Peacock, Mrs. White, Mr. Green, Colonel Mustard, and Professor Plum. None of them know each other, at least not directly, but all have been summoned because they’re being extorted by the same man. The evening has been constructed by Wadsworth, as they later find out, to draw that extortionist out of the shadows, but things quickly go off the rails when said extortionist is found murdered in the study—and then again in the hallway closet, having not been properly murdered the first time around.

The characters had all been blackmailed for various wrongdoings—bribery, murder, infidelity, war profiteering, homosexuality, murder—all of which are presented as if they weigh the same on the scale of justice. Here, the stakes are both high and not the point. Instead, they’re used as tent posts for the story to drape over. The playing field is level and secrets are the currency of the evening.

What matters is they’re all there; all potential victims; all potential suspects. Before their extortionist, Mr. Boddy, died, he gifted each of them a Clue-classic weapon. Miss Scarlet received the candlestick, Mrs. White the Rope, Mr. Green the lead pipe, Colonel Mustard the wrench, Mrs. White the dagger, and Professor Plum the revolver. So when the lights go out, a gunshot goes off, and a body goes down—any of them could have done it.

This is something Clue gets exactly right: everyone is a threat and everyone is in danger.

Wadsworth, finally, has his detective moment, when he says he knows what happened. But in order to tell them, he has to run back through the events of that evening. Literally. As one, they retrace their steps, running back over the paths they carved in the evening, replaying the arguments and surprises and scares. I imagine the ghosts of their paths like threaded loops through the house, a skein that grows thicker with each repetition.

They’re testing their story for give, trying to find where its warp and weft are the weakest. This is part of what those three separate endings do—they offer alternative endings, sure, but looked at another way, they also serve to test Wadsworth’s hypotheses. Perhaps this story fits the set of facts the best, and if it doesn’t? Let’s try this other one instead.

That Clue doesn’t find a clean conclusion is a feature, not a fault. Maybe that third ending is the correct ending; maybe it isn’t. What matters is that the characters found their way out of the loop. They did their best to solve for X and, finally, they can go out that front door and drive home. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all could say the same.


My favorite subgenre of mystery is the “closed circle”—a mystery that takes place in one location with one group of characters, the murderer among them. Agatha Christie was a master at this particular subgenre—there’s And Then There Were None, its characters all kept on the same island as a murderer picks them off, or Murder on the Orient Express, everyone locked on a train with nowhere to go. There’s no running away or pretending that what’s happening isn’t really happening. The characters have to face what’s going on—or else.

In closed circle mysteries, the settings become reflections of the story, constant reminders of the ongoing threats surrounding the characters. Clue is a perfect example: The house is as mysterious as their circumstances; there are secret passageways and revolving fireplaces; the windows are large and looming and the fixtures are ornate. As the story unfolds, the characters’ trajectories orbit out, away from the hallway, only to be pulled back in toward the entryway, where it all began and where it all will end.

Sometimes I like to think of story structure as a house, where every room is a different scene you can return to, stay in, set on fire. There are rooms that don’t belong, rooms that maybe only exist at certain times of the day, rooms that look out on a different backyard than the rest. But because they’re all there, within the same container, they all hew to the same story spine.

Yes, I said that I consider everything a mystery, but I also consider everything a house.  

 A house that, sometimes, has to be learned all over again in the wake of betrayal, as a character traces over the wreckage, discovering secret passageways behind portraits and revolving fireplaces that hadn’t been there before. Truths they hadn’t thought to look for. A house made fresh with loss, like how the world can seem so strange and unknown when you’re adjusting to a new reality after a loss.

The house in In the Mood for Love is two neighboring apartments, a dimly lit restaurant, and an alleyway where it’s always raining. The characters can’t escape what’s been done to them, no matter how insistently they may have tried to look away from it all. And it’s because of this, because they’re contained in the scaffolding of that betrayal, that they feel so compelled to figure out exactly what happened and why. Together, they work to map over the house where they thought they’d been living—those frameworks of loving relationships and assured futures—with their new reality: a house filled with rooms they’re not welcome into.


Set in 1960s Hong Kong, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love opens when two couples rent rooms in neighboring apartments. We only see one half of each couple, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), a newspaperman, and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), a secretary. From the beginning, belongings are mixed up. The couples both move in on the same day and the movers try to put wardrobes and shoes and books in the wrong apartments—a foreshadowing of what’s to come. We never see their spouses’ faces. Instead, they’re shown as suggestions: a silhouette, the backside of a head, a disembodied voice. Within the first ten minutes, the film’s language and terms are clear. 

At first, Chow and Su only interact when they pass each other on the stairway, one headed out for food and the other returning. Their silent routine is interrupted when Chow invites Su out for dinner, to ask after her handbag. It’s nice, he says, he’d like to get one for his wife, and would Su mind telling him where she’d gotten it? In return, Su asks about Chow’s tie. She’d like to get the same one for her husband. But Chow’s wife already has that same handbag and Su’s husband already has that tie. They’re testing to see if the other knows what they do: that the gifts had been purchased in duplicate. One for the spouse. One for the lover.

“I thought I was the only one that knew,” Su says. Later, on the walk home, she adds, “I wonder how it began.”

So they press on their shared bruise together. They playact how it might have begun between their spouses. Su plays Mrs. Chow and Chow plays Mr. Chan. Won’t his wife complain about his getting home so late? No, of course not, she’s used to it. When Chow as Mr. Chan places his hand on Su as Mrs. Chow’s wrist and asks if they should stay out that night, Su stops him and insists, “My husband would never say that.” Chow knows this is less a denial of what might have happened and more a hope that, maybe, her husband hadn’t made the first move. They start from the top. 

Su with the purse in the restaurant booth. Chow with the tie in the alleyway.  

Chow and Su order their spouse’s preferred dishes for each other. When Su complains about the heat of the dish, Chow pats a bit of mustard on the rim of her plate, just like his wife would have. In the back of a taxi, Su asks why he hadn’t called her at work. The line between play and reality is slippery. When she touches his hand, it’s Chow’s wife touching Su’s husband’s hand, but it’s also, still, Su reaching out for Chow. 

If you’re looking for the weapons here, you’ll find them everywhere. The close quarters are a threat; the neighbors playing mahjong through the night while Chow and Su hide out in Chow’s room are a threat; the narrow hallway, the rainy alleyway, the feelings they have for each other, the ticket Chow asks Su to buy him to Singapore—all of it is a threat. And the threat of love? That, especially, is the weapon that sits, beckoning, between them. 

They weren’t going to become like their spouses; they didn’t think they’d fall in love; but they did. Of course they did. When you’re stuck at the scene of the crime, playing a scenario over and over, it’s easy to forget you’re reenacting, not acting. They’ve become the crime. 


In the third solution at the end of Clue, Wadsworth turns on Mrs. White and accuses her of killing Yvette the maid because Yvette had slept with Mrs. White’s husband—the same motive she had for killing her husband. “Yes,” Mrs. White says. “Yes I did it. I killed Yvette.”

Here, the infamous, improvised, perfect performance from Madeline Kahn. “I hated her so much,” she says. Her hands raise up on either side of her face, fingers bent into claws. “It, it,” she stammers. “Flames. Flames—flames, on the side of my face.” 

“Breathing—breath—heaving breaths.”

 The moment is comedic and large, but while writing this essay, I kept thinking about Su and that quiet fury she carried with her throughout In the Mood for Love, everything she kept just beneath her skin. When she noticed the doubled purses; when she saw the note from Chow’s wife, stamped from Japan, where her husband was for work; when she realized, after helping her boss carry on an affair for so long, she was now the wife being called with excuses. 

She couldn’t express her flames. She wouldn’t have her own affair. In the absence of either, she chose fiction, first as a way to try and understand, then as a way to escape. A better method than murder, probably, and whom among us hasn’t used hypotheticals to heal: Maybe they didn’t mean to hurt us. Maybe it was all an accident. Maybe it wasn’t really love. Maybe, maybe, maybe.


At the end of the movie, Chow has moved to Singapore. Over dinner one evening, Chow tells a coworker what people “in the old days” used to do with their secrets: “They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud, and leave the secret there forever.”


Over the course of several years, Chow and Su almost see each other again. (Another weapon: “almost.”) In Singapore, she goes to his apartment but he’s out. Back in Hong Kong, he visits their old apartments and asks after whomever lives next door; it doesn’t occur to him that the woman living there with her son might be Su. And then Chow goes to Angkor Wat; he has something he’s wanted to confess, all this time. He whispers a secret into a rock wall and tucks it in with a wad of moss to keep it there, safe and unknown.

There’s no detective here, coming in at the 11th hour. It’s a mystery until it isn’t any longer. The story’s forked, found another home. The intertitles return: “He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see but not touch…” 

In the Mood for Love (2000) | Block 2 Pictures/USA Films

Calling everything a mystery, calling everything a house—it’s all saying the same thing: How do you contain a wound? What lens will you look at it through? These are all just ways of exerting control over the uncontrollable. The characters have all been wronged; the characters all have secrets. And while these secrets and betrayals are huge, they’re also not the point. What matters is the investigation, and the story scaffolding they’ve built to contain the wrongs done.

Out in the real world, story arcs aren’t clean and closure is rare. But here, within the bounds of a narrative, we can point at a conclusion and say: Look, it was Mrs. White with the rope in the study; Su with the noodle thermos in the hallway; Chow with the martial arts serials in the bedroom. Here, we don’t have to accept that we won’t ever fully understand, because here, we’ll have our beginning, our middle, and our end.

The film cuts to a closing intertitle, with a clear and easy explanation. There are no more hidden rooms in the house and no more weapons lurking around the corner. The secrets have all been tucked away. Everything has been solved. Everyone is safe. The credits roll.