Category: DVD Review

TV Series Review: Nero Wolfe (1981), Part One

The 1981 Nero Wolfe TV series is a controversial topic. For many fans, this fourteen-episode series is bad, with the critically acclaimed A Nero Wolfe Mystery making the series look even shabbier. Others have fond memories of the series, and it may even have been their introduction to Nero Wolfe.

I’ve wanted to watch the series for some time. After many years of waiting, we finally have an official DVD release. I have finally seen the whole series, and I’m ready to wade in with my opinion. This will be a long review as we take a look at many aspects of the series.

Key Adaptation Decision

Probably the most critical decision made with Nero Wolfe was to make it a contemporary program. This sets it apart from the period setting of A Nero Wolfe Mystery. It’s a perfectly defensible creative decision because Rex Stout had been writing Nero Wolfe up until six years previously and he’d always set the books in contemporary times.

This helped the series in some ways but hurt it in the look of the show, the way characters were portrayed, and the challenges of adapting stories that happened decades previously as if they occurred in 1981.

Casting

While the cast is not as good as the 1979 TV Novie’s, it’s solid. William Conrad has some good moments as Wolfe. Critics point out Conrad was shorter than Wolfe and  wore a beard plus Conrad’s usual mustache. Wolfe only wore facial hair in one book. Personally, the height’s not a big deal, and I like the beard. It distinguishes Wolfe from Frank Cannon and it makes him look distinguished which actually helps me buy him as Wolfe.

To be sure, I have problems with the way Wolfe’s portrayed, but it comes down more to writing than to acting. There was not a scene in all fourteen episodes where I thought, “This would’ve been better with another actor.”

Lee Horsey as Archie Goodwin is the best asset the series has. He makes a good 1980s take on Archie Goodwin. Because of the era, his performance is different from the book, but Horsey maintains the character’s charm and humor while still being a solid legman.

The one casting choice which doesn’t work is Allan Miller as Inspector Cramer. In the books, Inspector Cramer has this working-class, almost rumpled feel to him. He walks around chewing a cigar. Allan Miller is too smooth, polished and dapper to be Inspector Cramer regardless of the era. If they wanted the characterization Miller brought to the role, they would have done better to give Wolfe an original-to-TV police foil.

Adaptation Positives

There are some good touches for the series. Good effort went into building the set.  An April 3, 1981 story in TV Guide details how Art Director John Beckman flew out to New York, studied how Browstones were built, and paintstakingly created the facade on the Paramount lot. They built a four-story oak spiral staircase as well as a four-story working elevator that cost $175,000 (or half a million dollars today.)

On top of that, you have the crown jewel of the series, the Orchid Room. This is the one area where Nero Wolfe outdoes a Nero Wolfe Mystery, a lot of thought and effort went into creating a beautiful orchid room with 2,655 plants brought in. It’s a beautiful set and seeing it is a highlight of the series.

I also have to give the series credit for taking one of my favorite Nero Wolfe moments from The Rubber Band where Wolfe hides a client from the police in the orchid room under plants and working it into an original story even when that novel wasn’t adapted.

The series does have some good scenes with Wolfe arguing with people over cooking and orchids. Those scenes are true to the spirit of the character.

I also have to give them credit for keeping Wolfe house-bound for all but two of the fourteen episodes. It’s a far better ratio of housebound to not than the New Adventures of Nero Wolfe or even the original stories.

In researching the series, I learned from Charles Transberg’s book William Conrad: A Life and Career that Conrad had strict working hours in his contract and if the filming went past his time for departure, they’d have to finish filming without him. That’s the sort of thing Nero Wolfe would have in his contract if he ever became an actor.

Adaptation Negatives

There are a lot of issues I could take with this series, ranging from the trivial to the really serious flaws. I’ll start with the lesser ones and work to the big ones. I’ll save a look at issues with specific episodes for Part Two.

First of all is the office set. My first big annoyance is the set lacks a “red leather chair,” the most important piece of furniture (aside from Wolfe’s own chair) in the novels.  However, a bigger issue with the office furniture is just how cluttered the office looks.

The TV Guide article revealed that $250,000 was spent in to fill the Brownstone set with antiques. There’s some nice pieces, but it doesn’t look particularly well-put together and seems a bit busy. It looks a lot like my desk, with various and sundry things seemingly where they are at random and it shouldn’t. Based on the amount of order and rigor Wolfe puts into the house, you imagine its very orderly,  and not like the great detective needs a decluttering consultation with Marie Kondo.

A more serious blunder was choosing to adapt whole novels into one-hour episodes. A Nero Wolfe Mystery had the right idea when they did novel adaptations in two episodes and short stories in one. Doing it in the way Nero Wolfe does it ends up with many plots feeling rushed and important moments are missing.

The series also tended to have a clumsy approach to introducing aspects of the Wolfe world and/or Wolfe’s eccentricities. The story pauses briefly to show us the set designer bought a big globe like the one in the novels. Another story has an entire brief scene where Wolfe guzzles down a glass of beer and tosses the bottle cap in the drawer with no one else around.

The worst introduction of a part of Wolfe lore came in the thirteenth episode, “The Blue Ribbon Hostage.” In the novels, Wolfe insisted others be seated so that their eyes would be on the same level as his. Throughout the first twelve episodes of the series, this was not an issue at all as others stood while Wolfe sat or Wolfe stood while others sat with no mentions of “eyes at level,” until thirteen episodes in they decided to have him do it.

You simply can’t have Wolfe inconsistent on his eccentricities. To quote Wolfe in his first novel, “I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.”

However, the biggest issues with the series come down to the character of Wolfe himself.  Nero Wolfe eliminates most of the character’s less likable habits.  Wolfe is never lazy and never has any hesitation about taking on work. He doesn’t have the mercenary sense of Wolfe in the book.  The one negative trait he’s left with is his opinionated nature on orchids and cooking. Other than that, if he’s not dealing with a murderer, he’s a large teddy bear of a man who is actually called “sweet” in one episode.

The problem with that is it’s not true to the nature of Nero Wolfe. It’s like the opposite of today’s “grim and gritty” reboots  where instead Wolfe is relieved of the burdens of his faults and rough edges. Yet, the decision calls to mind G.K. Chesterton’s warning, “Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.”  The way the character is written, there’s a whole lot less Nero Wolfe to him.

Rex Stout wrote Wolfe as a fully developed human being, replete with flaws. In the course of the books, Wolfe does have many great moments where he surprises you and you get see more his sense of honor, his kindness, and his appreciation for different parts of his family. Yet, it’s done in a way that’s understated and true to Wolfe’s approach to life.

Since the series gets Wolfe wrong, it hurts the most important relationship in the books, that between Wolfe and Goodwin. In the books, the two men have gifts and talents that compliment each other and have an almost symbiotic relationship. However, they also tend to clash because of their differing personalities, with Archie providing his unique interpretation of Wolfe’s actions and beliefs.

While Wolfe is technically the employer and the boss, Archie is the one who balances Wolfe’s checkbook and often times has to spur  Wolfe to work when he would rather sit around and read all the day long when he’s not eating or tending his orchids. Several times, Archie has to deal with Wolfe losing interest in a case and his “relapses” into a semi-depressed state.

It’s an interesting state of affairs that provides for lots of interesting plots in the books. In the TV series, the two work together with little friction at all. The only exceptions are a book-accurate scene  in The Golden Spiders and a scene in the final episode where Wolfe orders Archie not to go to a meeting that Wolfe feels is a trap and threatens to fire Archie. Archie chooses to quit instead. It’s not great, but this conflict is as close as the series get to capturing the nature of these two characters.

Next week, we’ll finish up and talk about the individual episodes and my overall thoughts on the series.

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Telefilm Review: Nero Wolfe (1979)

Nero Wolfe was an adaptation of Rex Stout’s novel The Doorbell Rang starring Thayer David as Nero Wolfe. It was supposed to be a pilot for a Nero Wolfe TV Series. However, David’s untimely death meant the series didn’t go forward. Though the telefilm was filmed in 1977, it wasn’t broadcast until 1979 and has rarely been replayed since then. It was released on DVD along with the 1981 Nero Wolfe TV series starring William Conrad (which we’ll be discussing next week.)

Following the plot of The Doorbell Rang, a wealthy realtor named
Rachel Bruner (Anne Baxter) turns to Wolfe to get the FBI to stop harassing her after she bought hundreds of copies of a book critical of the FBI and sent it to many important people. Wolfe is reluctant to take the case but Mrs. Bruner offers way too much money for him to turn it down. In short order, Wolfe and Archie (Tom Mason) are targeted by the FBI who begin spying on them and try to get their licenses pulled.

David was just magnificent as Wolfe. I prefer his take over Maury Chaykin’s in 2001’s A Nero Wolfe Mystery. He manages to capture all of Wolfe’s ego and eccentricity. The adaptor gave him Wolfean dialogue and he nails every line. His take on Wolfe is quite a bit less shouty than Chaykin’s and it feels closer to the book. The one thing David is knocked for is not being big enough to play Wolfe, but that I’m willing to cut him slack on. The main goal of a casting director isn’t an exact lookalike but capturing the role’s heart. In addition, David had been bigger earlier in his career, with health problems including cancer that would ultimately contribute to his fatal heart attack.

Tom Mason was great as Archie. He had Archie’s banter and mischievous nature down perfectly. He plays off David well, and I love the way they portray the nature of the relationship between Archie and Wolfe. The films open with Archie trying to badger Wolfe into taking a case as they’re running out of money and then back-pedals and doesn’t want Wolfe to take a case involving the FBI.

The rest of the cast is pretty solid. Anne Baxter brings a big dose of charm and starpower to the role of Mrs.  Bruner.  Biff McGuire has one big scene as Inspector Cramer and a couple smaller scenes he appears in, but he absolutely nails the role, particularly in his big scene.

The only odd casting decision was Charles Horvath as Orrie Cather. Cather was the youngest of three detectives Wolfe hired frequently in the novels. Horvath was older than Thayer David, and like David passed away before the film aired. However, Orrie’s part in the novel is so minor that it’s not a huge deal. In fact, IMDB didn’t even catch that Horvath was playing Cather.

The film is set in 1965 rather than 1977 because Fritz does reference J. Edgar Hoover and the film maintains the book’s ending scene, which would be impossible in 1977 as Hoover was dead in 1977. However, there’s little evidence of an effort to make the film look like it’s set in 1965. The cars, for example, appear to include 1970s models. However, for the most part, the men and women in the movie wear professional outfits and stay away from anything that screamed 1970s, so the era remained ambiguous.

Beyond that, the film stays true to the spirit of the book with most key events occurring as Stout wrote them in terms of who done it, Wolfe’s plan for dealing with the FBI, and the iconic ending. There are quite a few details changed, such as the location of the murder, what Wolfe does while he’s out of the Brownstone, a couple of scenes in Wolfe’s office at the end are condensed into one, etc, but the essentials of the story are the same.

Slightly more significantly, the film makes subtle changes that have Wolfe and Cramer working closer together than in the book. In addition, Wolfe is too friendly with Mrs. Bruner and has dinner with her in the kitchen of the brownstone after the case is solved, maintaining a charming , almost flirtatious line of conversation. That’s out of character for Wolfe, who’s notoriously cool towards women. Though, that may also be a by-product of the character being played by Anne Baxter.

Most of all, the changes made for the TV movie either were harmless or served to make for a better viewing experience.

The only moments I thought were bad was when someone prompted to Wolfe to quote back a piece of his own dialogue that he’d once said. It was a tad indulgent, but ultimately forgivable in the grand scheme of the film.

Overall, this was a fine movie, and I think it would have made a great television series had it been picked up. It’s a fair debate whether this film was  as good or better than A Nero Wolfe Mystery’s adaptation of the same story, and I may write an article comparing the two some time in the future.

For now, it’s fair to say Nero Wolfe stands on it own merit as a well-directed, well-acted film that’s  a must-watch for any Nero Wolfe fan.

Ratings: Very Satisfactory/4.5

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DVD Review: The Reformer and the Redhead

In the Reformer and the Red Head (1950), June Allyson stars as Kathleen Maguire, a zoo tour guide and the daughter of the local zookeeper. When her dad is fired at the behest of a local political boss, she turns to reformer Andrew Hale (played by Allyson’s husband Dick Powell) to expose the corrupt boss and get her father’s job back. Hale sees an opportunity to bolster his fledgling candidacy. However, he finds himself drawn into the lives of the Maguires and their menagerie of wild animals that they keep as pets around the house.

Allyson is great in this. Kathleen Maguire is eager, earnest, sincere, and with a good bit of temper. She’s really the heart of the film and Allyson makes her likable and a delight in every moment she’s on the screen.

Powell’s character is interesting. While he’s running as a reformer, it’s mostly a cynical marketing ploy. It’s his best line of attack. If he can find a way to settle with the bosses and win the election easily, he’s happy to do that. As the film goes on, he changes. Kathleen is a true believer in the things he says to win votes. As they fall in love, they come to a big inevitable conflict where he has to choose between Kathleen and an easy path to political power. Powell manages to portray this conflict while also doing great with the comedy.

I also to have comment on the animals, particularly the domesticated lion. The animals are fun throughout the film, delivering some cute moments as well as some big laughs. There are some great gags, including a really fun scene in a car towards the end.

The film is predictable. If you’ve seen similar movies from this era, you could sketch out the plot of the entire film. While its predictable, it’s never boring. The leads have great chemistry, the animals are fun, and the moral is good. It’s not a classic epic, but it’s a good time. If you like these films, or are a fan of Dick Powell or June Allyson, this is a pleasant 90 minutes.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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TV Series Review: The Prisoner

“I’m the new Number Two.”
“Who is Number One?”
“You are Number Six.”
“I’m not a Number, I’m a Free Man!”

Most episodes of the 1967-68 series The Prisoner begin with this meeting between the hero of the series (Patrick McGoohan, who also created the series and wrote several episodes) and his antagonist of the week.

The Prisoner is about an unnamed British secret agent who abruptly resigns and returns home to pack for a trip to Bermuda and is gassed and wakes up in the Village. On its face, the Village is a pleasant, happy community set in a gorgeous environment. In reality, it’s a police state where everyone goes by numbers instead of names.

The organization that runs the Village wants to break Number Six and obtain the valuable information stored inside his head, beginning with an explanation for why he resigned. The Village is administered by Number Two, who also directs the Village’s campaign of psychological warfare against the Agent, designated by the Village as Number 6. Each week, there’s a different Number Two to serve as a foil for Number 6, although some Number Twos repeated.

Patrick McGoohan turns in a stunning performance at every turn, capturing the character’s default defiant mode, but also the reactions to all of the Village’s attempts to break him really make them believable.

The rest of the cast is generally solid, including the rotating Number 2. Each actor brings something different to the role, but my favorite is Leo McKern (who would star in Rumpole of the Bailey.) The penultimate episode, “Once Upon a Time” becomes a two-hander between McKern and McGoohan for almost the entire run time and it’s an acting tour de force.

The series has solid writing, but not all stories are episodes are created equal. McGoohan said  he only wanted to do seven episodes of the Prisoner but the network (ITV) wanted more than that in the series. Thus, seven episodes would be considered essential and the rest merely filler. McGoohan didn’t specify which episodes were the essential ones. The popular fan theory is  the first six episodes to be filmed plus the finale were all McGoohan wanted. However,there are other theories including the idea McGoohan didn’t want hour-long episodes at all, but seven ninety minute episodes, with each containing elements of two of our existing episodes.

Regardless, there are episodes rife with social commentary and deeper meanings and there are episodes that are little more than superb 1960s Spy programs littered with sci-fi content. The only episode I  didn’t care for is, “Do Not Forsake Me All My Darling” which features Number 6 swapping minds with a man known as the Colonel and then being taken back to his life in London as the Colonel and is having to try and convince someone that he really is himself. The reason the story was written this way was so  McGoohan could appear in just the opening and final scenes and therefore be able to take off from filming to go  film the movie Ice Station Zebra. Creative decisions made for reasons like this rarely go well.  The story isn’t horrible, it’s just a bit middling for a great series.

The production values on this series are superb.  Visually, the series stands up better than anything I’ve seen from the 1960s. Portmeirion in North Wales was an absolutely fantastic location for most of the Prisoner’s location work.  However,  there’s a lot of real workmanship involved with every episode. In an age when many TV dramas were just point and shoot, there’s some deliberate choices made to frame shots to communicate the mood and add layers to the story.

The Western episode  of The Prisoner, “Living in Harmony” was well-filmed and felt authentic in the setting, costuming, and most of the characters.

The Prisoner has other weird and wonderful touches such as inventing a new sport named Kosho in which Number 6 and his opponent bounced around on trampolines wearing kimonos, helmets, and boxing gloves while trying to knock each other into a pool. Then there’s the episode where the Prisoner showed that week’s Number Two doing some great martial arts moves…for no apparent reason.

Not everything weird that the Prisoner tries works. The ending, for example, was so controversial  McGoohan had to go into hiding for several day after its airing. To this day, lots of people  think it was a horrible way to end the series. However, its oddness and the questions it raises does fit the rest of the series, and fans overall give the episode an 8.1 out of 10 on IMDB.

The Prisoner is a television experience.  It’s incredibly rewatchable, and not just because there are only seventeen episodes, but three alternate viewing orders have been recommended by various fans over the years to better enjoy the series. Overall, this is an unforgettable classic.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

Currently, the series is available to watch for free for Amazing Prime subscribers.

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DVD Review: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 1

The Murdoch Mysteries series is based on characters in novels by Maureen Jennings. The series stars Yannick Bisson as Detective William Murdoch. In early twentieth century Toronto, the detective’s innovative methods solve baffling crimes.
 
The first season featured thirteen episodes. The series features robust mysteries that don’t feature obvious solutions. Instead, the mysteries are complex with plenty of twists along the way. The first season features historical figures from the era. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Geraint Wyn Davies) appears as does Nicola Tesla. (Dmitri Chepovetsky)
 
The strong principal cast gels together in Season 1. Helene Joy plays pathologist Doctor Julie Ogden. Thomas Craig is Inspector Thomas Brackenridge. Finally, Johnny Harris is Constable George Crabtree. The Constable is wet behind the ears but enthusiastic.
 
The series includes many neat historical details that add credibility to the series. The gorgeous design and cinematography bring home the feel of the era.
 
The first season isn’t without its flaws. A couple times, modern sensibilities intrude into an era where they didn’t exist. This takes viewers out of the story. The show should’ve stuck to issues raised in the era. For example, the suffragettes, temperance, and freed American slaves. The series did best when exploring those sort of situations.
 
The series establishes Murdoch as a Catholic in the first episode. In the second, it establishes, at the time, he couldn’t get promoted because of his faith. From there, the series creates many situations to challenge Murdoch’s faith. Doing this once could be interesting and is fair game. Doing this repeatedly during the first season was repetitive. Further, the writers strained to give Murdoch personal stakes his cases. A ridiculous number of cases involve people Murdoch knows or his personal issues.
 
Overall, the Murdoch Mysteries first season got off to a promising start. It has good action, great production values, and well-crafted mysteries. Intrusive modern issues and a couple overdone plot lines did hamper the series. Still, if you can stomach those flaws, and you’re a Victorian-era mysteries fan, it’s worth watching.
 
Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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