Category: Golden Age Article

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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Audio Drama Review: The Prisoner, Series One

The classic British Sci-Fi series, the Prisoner,  comes to audio in a series of four episodes produced by Big Finish as Number 6 tries to escape the Village. Here’s a break down of the episodes:

“Departure and Arrival” is a re-imagining of the first episode of the TV series which finds Number 6 arriving in the village after offering his resignation. The story does a good job establishing the dystopian world of the Village. Most of the cast performed well, though  it took star Mark Elstob maybe the first twenty minutes to feel right as Number 6, and John Standing was a little over-the-top cheery as the first number 2.

At 78 minutes in run time, the story does go on a little longer than necessary and could have been tighter. I chuckled at the idea that leaders of British Intelligence wait at home like fathers whose children are out late after a dance because they’re meeting with a contact. It introduces Cobb and gives us a sense of how he knows Cobb (as opposed to the TV series which just had number 6 asserting that he knew him.) Otherwise, much of the new material before Number 6 is sent to the Village doesn’t add much.

Other change may have been disorienting but did work. The idea of online payments and AIs being part of the village  seems out of place for a series set in the 1960s and it seems to suggest someone had all of this technology since the 1960s but didn’t release it. However, the technology and feel of the village served to wow and capture the imagination of the original audience and if the audio version is to work, the technology has to impress twenty-first-century listeners.

In, “The Schizoid Man,” after seeming to escape, Number 6 ends up back at the Village (of course) and discovers Number 9 can do mentalist card tricks. Number 6 wakes up the next day to find himself with a mustache and using the wrong hand. Number 2 informs him that he is Number 12 and he’s been sent here to discomfit Number 6 about his identity. Number 6 returns to what he believes is his house to find a doppelganger of himself there.

There’s a lot going for this episode. The music and sound design is among the best Big Finish ever turned out. The story is intriguing and manages to capture a different angle on the horror that Number 6 feels. It’s helped that the audience really has to pay close attention to tell the two apart. The acting is great. Elstob is improved over a mostly solid performance in the first episode. Celia Emrie steals the show as Number 2. In this performance, she outdoes every TV Number 2 except Leo McKern. She is clever, cunning and manipulative, she plays cat and mouse with Number 6 and Number 9 and knows exactly how far to let them go before bringing them back. She wants them to feel like they might get away before bringing down the hammer.

My criticism centers around the ending. The original TV episode left some questions open, including  where did the “other” Number 6 come from and how did the woman in the TV episode gain this power of being able to see the card that Number 6 was holding away from her. Instead of leaving these as mysteries, this production decides to answer the questions. However, the answers are  stock sci-fi cliches and anti-climatic. It seems like an attempt to make the show less scientifically impossible. But one of these tired answers is more absurd and far-fetched than if it was left as a mystery.

Still Celia Emrie’s performance really does carry the day, and other than the attempted explanations, the story is still solid.

“Your Beautiful Village” finds Number 6 and Number 9  plunging into the midst of a horrific situation where all of their senses are challenged and for once, you begin to wonder if the Village is actually behind this.

This is a well-done episode and a necessary one. On television, the Prisoner was such a visual program, writing an episode that could only be done over audio was a must. The result is brilliant. You do have to focus hard on this, but the difficulty in the audio quality brings you to Number 6’s world where everything is spiraling out of control and his senses are coming and going rapidly, including his sense of time.

Sara Powell and Romon Tikaram are great as Number 9 and Number 2. Tikraram is particularly good at making subtle changes throughout the performance. However, Mark Elstob has to carry most of the weight of this performance, and he is masterful.

If I did have any complaint, it was that Number 6 has been made a slightly weaker character than the character on the TV show. The situation comes close to breaking him. Left to his own devices, he would have crumbled. If this method came that close, then there are  many interrogations methods that would have worked.

Still, despite a few conceptual problems, this is entertaining and does a good job of establishing the potential of the Prisoner in an audio format.

In the “Chimes of Big Ben,” Number 6 tries to help the Village’s newest arrival, a Lithuanian woman designated as Number Eight. He comes up with a bold plan by which they both can escape the Village.

Of the three adapted stories, this feels closest to the original episode with tweaks being added that improve the story, but otherwise it captures the same feel as the original.

While the entire cast performed well and Elstob was at his best, the highlight of the episode was Michael Cochrane’s Number 2 who begins the story exuding a lot of joviality which masks some far more sinister aspects.

Overall, this is a good set. I didn’t love every change made, but the changes didn’t objectively hurt the franchise. While the audio drama is different than the TV series, it’s not different in a bad way.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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Book Review: Murder on the Links

Murder on the Links is the second Poirot novel by Agatha Christie and entered the public domain in the United States on January 1 of this year. Poirot is summoned to France by a wealthy man needing his urgent assistance. Poirot arrives to find the man murdered and sets out to solve the case.

There are some marked improvements from the first Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. For one thing, the action gets going far more quickly. We have the dead body at the end of Chapter One.

The plot itself is clever, with a nice collection of red herrings and misdirection for Poirot, Hastings, and the reader to sort through. In addition, there’s a mysterious woman who Hastings is smitten with and may have something to do with the murder.

In this book, Poirot is still developing into the man he’d become in the later books, but he does take several steps away from the more Holmesian feel of the first book as he indicates his focus is more than the psychological than physical evidence. Captain Hastings in love is also an interesting character, even though he complicates Poirot’s efforts because of his feelings for the young woman twice (though he only did it intentionally once.)

The one thing I think didn’t work awas the idea of giving Poirot a rival investigator to play off against. Though in the book it doesn’t bother me as much as it did in the TV and radio adaptations.

Overall, this was a well-crafted mystery with a clever solution. It’s nice to see Poirot’s development as a character, and this book holds up pretty well.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

If you’re in the United States You can download Murder on the Links for free from Project Gutenberg

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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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Audio Drama Review: Wizard of Oz

Big Finish’s adaptation of the Wizard of Oz harkens goes back to L. Frank Baum’s original novel. Dorothy (Ally Doman) is thrown into Oz along with her dog Toto where she kills the Wicked Witch of the East when her house lands on the witch.

The adaptation is faithful to the novel and its darker tone rather than the more universally known 1939 film version. People who have only seen the film will be surprised by Dorothy getting the Wicked Witch of the East’s Silver Slippers, and even more shocked by the grisly tale of how the tin woodsman was changed from a normal woodsman to his tin form.

That’s not to say that the story is oppressively dark or over-accentuates these elements. It only does enough to convey what was in the original. The story moves at a good pace from one fantastical scene and setting to another, and the characters develop throughout. The score is nice, doing a good job setting the tone without overwhelming the story.

While Big Finish is a British company, the accents were very good for the most part. Canadian Actor Stuart Milligan was good as the Wizard and the narrator throughout the rest of the story. They did decide to make the lead flying monkey a British “Jobsworth” character, but I actually enjoyed it.
Overall, this an enjoyable take on a classic story.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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