Tag: Nero Wolfe

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

See Part One and my review of the 1979 Nero Wolfe TV Movie starring Thayer David which is included on the same DVD.

A Look at Nero Wolfe Episodes

Most TV versions, the two 1930s feature films, and the CBC radio series took the approach of adapting Nero Wolfe stories written by Stout. The Old Time radio versions of Nero Wolfe created original stories for Wolfe. The 1981 TV series is unique in that it chose to do both with six episodes based on Wolfe stories and eight original episodes.

The Adaptations

I’d split the six adaptations into three categories. The good, the bland, and the bad:

The Good:

This series features the only adaptations of “Might as Well be Dead,” and “Murder by the Book.” I enjoyed both of these novels, and was mostly pleased with the TV adaptation of them. The biggest challenge is the one hour format, which does lead to a lot of compression. Still, the essential story line from both books are transferred over quite nicely.

The Bland:

“Before I Die” was the only Nero Wolfe short story adapted and was an odd choice given the series’ contemporary setting. The original, “Before I Die” was set after V-E Day. In the heat of the war, Wolfe had patriotically refused to use black market meat. However, with the war all but over, rationing continued so enough meat could be provided for starving people in Europe. That didn’t seem like a good reason to skip his favorite cuts of meat to Wolfe, so he ends up becoming involved with in a dangerous dispute between two crime families to get black market meat. It’s a story with a lot of humorous and ironic moments.

Setting the story in 1981, that’s all lost and Wolfe’s involvement is more pedestrian. Thankfully, the underlying mystery has some pretty good twists, but it’s unflavored compared to the colorful original.

Death of a Doxy was adapted as, “What Happened to April?” where a woman with ties to one of Wolfe’s investigators is murdered. As Orrie Cather was not in this TV series and Saul Panzer was Wolfe’s only freelance operative on TV, the story was changed for TV to have Panzer accused. Unlike in the book, the relationship between Panzer and the murdered woman was strictly platonic.

Most of the key plot ideas from “Death of a Doxy” was carried over to the TV episode. However, the story was sucked of all of its flavor. The character of Julie Jaquette, one of the most interesting characters Wolfe ever met up with, is nowhere to be seen in the TV show.

I can understand why certain elements of the original story were changed as “Death of a Doxy” was a darker story. However, that doesn’t excuse the changes as they have chosen one of the many Wolfe stories that could be done justice on 1981 network television.

The Bad
Adapting In the Best Families was the weirdest decision made on this series. “In the Best Families” was the third novel in the Zeck trilogy. In it, after crime boss Arnold Zeck interferes with yet another Wolfe case, Wolfe leaves the brownstone, apparently retiring and ordering his home sold. Archie is ticked off by this and starts his own private detective agency and runs it until Wolfe returns, having lost a ton of weight, grown a beard, and infiltrated Zeck’s criminal organization in disguise.

The problems with adapting this story are multitude, particularly for this series. First, without the first two novels, the extreme nature of the housebound Wolfe’s actions are not justified. Those first two novels are vintage stories. One deals with an old time radio program, the other includes Wolfe exposing a Communist in part of his plan to catch the murderer. You would have to make a lot of changes to fit these into 1981. In addition, you have to get rid of the weight loss element since the actors old enough to play Wolfe will struggle to lose a large amount of weight quickly. Of course, to do this story right, you would need at least two episodes for this story as well as episodes to build up to it.

What we get instead is a one-hour adaptation of, “In the Best Families” where Zech’s character is renamed to Arnold Dorso. Like in the novel, after Dorso attacks the Brownstone, Wolfe abandons ship and announces his retirement. Since Dorso and Wolfe have no history, this makes little sense. However, instead of embarking on a cunning scheme to bring down Dorso, Wolfe goes undercover as a chef at his favorite restaurant, Rusterman’s.

Wolfe’s TV brilliant plan involves Archie pretending the hours that have passed since Wolfe abandoned him have made Archie willing to take on a life of crime. The story then continues mostly according to the basic plot of the book, but with all the changes, the plot is nonsensical and Dorso looks likes a colossal fool.

If “In the Best Families” succeeded at anything, it was making the mystery more interesting. In the book, after Wolfe left, the mystery of who committed the murder was put to the side and dealt with in a perfunctory manner at the end. However, in the TV adaptation, Wolfe’s ruse takes less time and is nonsensical, so the solution to the mystery is more interesting by comparison. In addition, Conrad does a bang up job delivering it. Both he and the murderer were standing (contrary to Wolfe’s typical M.O) but here it works like a charm as the shots are beautifully framed. The denouement of the episode was a nice end to what had been a train wreck of an episode.

“The Golden Spiders” started out well with the visit of a local neighborhood kid to see Nero Wolfe that found Archie letting the boy in just to annoy Wolfe. However, the boy has a tip on a potential case that gets Wolfe interested and Wolfe agrees to split any reward. The boy is hit by a car with clear evidence that he knew something. Wolfe begins to investigate and unravel the complex web of lies around the events.

The biggest change is one I can understand. Unlike in the book, the boy lives. In fact, not only does he live, he makes an appearance in the last episode of the series. I can understand you couldn’t broadcast a mystery in 1981 where a child is killed. It’s an upsetting idea, and it’s always a challenge when adapting The Golden Spiders.

However, this episode was the most hurt by the decision to adapt Nero Wolfe novels into one-hour episodes. The story is confusing and poorly paced, and includes a sex-related twist that wasn’t in the book and comes out of nowhere on TV.

The Original Stories

I much preferred the stories original to the TV series over the adaptations. I won’t list all of them, but they slot comfortably under the category, “Typical 1980s Mystery fare.”  Two episodes, “Gambit” and “Death and the Dolls” got technical Emmy Nominations.

I enjoyed seven of the eight of the original stories. The most interesting of them were, “The Blue Ribbon Hostage,” “Death and the Dolls,” and “Gambit.”

In “Blue Ribbon Hostage,” a burglar breaks into Wolfe’s orchid room and makes off with his most expensive orchid. He shows up to blackmail Wolfe into helping clear him of a murder charge in exchange for the return of the orchid. I love the concept of this story, it’s a plot I could imagine Rex Stout writing.  The mystery is clever and the relationship between the burglar and his ex-wife is kind of sweet. The story does have a somewhat unrealistic consequence of the kidnapping, but otherwise this is an exciting episode.

“Death and the Dolls” opens with a rich man getting on a yacht and it being blown up. The man’s daughter comes to Wolfe suspicious her father was murdered by his new young wife. (Christine Belford, Banacek) This is a clever story with a pretty surprising conclusion.

In “Gambit” (no relation to the Wolfe Novel of the same name, ) the Brownstone is taken over by a man who fought in Wolfe’s unit in World War II and who Wolfe had reported for betraying the unit. The man had gotten into the Brownstone several times by pretending to be various repair people and interacting with a different member of the household on each visit and going with a slight disguise (only one of which was obvious.) This is a suspense-filled episode as Wolfe’s own house is turned against all of its inhabitants and the episode does have a few nice surprises.

My least favorite original episode was, “Sweet Revenge”  which has a criminal that Archie and Wolfe put away back out and seeking revenge. After “Gambit” and “In the Best of Families,” this was the third episode in a fourteen episode series that featured someone coming after Wolfe or Archie which makes this repetitive. The key to the mystery is realizing the villain is wearing a ridiculous disguise. I give the episode credit for giving us a rare dose of real Archie-Wolfe tension even though the execution is only so-so.

Series  Evaluation:

Some TV shows are so bad, it’s painful to watch. Nero Wolfe isn’t one of them. While a lot in this series is not true to the books, this series can be enjoyed in the same manner as the 1951 radio series, which had many deviations from how Wolfe operated in the books.

In general, I find myself in agreement with Peter Boyer of the Associated Press, “I know, I know, the show pales next to The Rockford Files. But I’ve tried it a couple of times and I think there’s a good TV series there, obscured, admittedly, by some inane scripts.”

In his biography written by Charles Tranberg, William Conrad is quoted as saying, “I was really excited about doing a show called Nero Wolfe. I thought it couldn’t fail. Here we had one of the most popular characters in mystery fiction; everybody has read a Rex Stout novel. The books still sell, although they were written 50 years ago. But do you know how long we lasted? Just 13 weeks. Try to figure that one out.”

The  reason Nero Wolfe didn’t come back was it was broadcast in the 1980s. From the late 1960s on until the late 1980s, Americans were treated to many popular detective and police shows. The glut of options meant many fine detective shows didn’t make it due to the stiff competition. Good series like Ellery Queen and Hawkins only lasted a single season and those series had far fewer issues than Nero Wolfe. In addition, Nero Wolfe was  expensive to film, and it wasn’t going to get a chance to recover from a sub-par start.

The series is worth watching for fans of Nero Wolfe. You get to see the best representation of Wolfe’s orchid room on film, adaptations of two Nero Wolfe stories that haven’t been done elsewhere, and assorted Easter eggs. In addition, the original to the TV series episodes represent new Nero Wolfe stories, some of which are good. Give the DVD set comes with a made-for-TV movie adaptation of The Doorbell Rang, the DVD is a solid buy.

If you don’t care much about Nero Wolfe, but like TV detective shows from this era, this isn’t a bad series, but there are too many better ones to buy.

Overall, I’ll give the DVD box set a dual rating of satisfactory and a numeric rating of 3.5 out of 5.

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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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Book Review: Three for the Chair

This review was originally published August 27, 2011.

While shopping in the thrift store, I found a 1968 Bantam Paperback copy of Three for the Chair, a 1957 compilation of three Nero Wolfe novellas. While the book was not my planned next Nero Wolfe read, I decided to grab it cheap and enjoy the book.

Each story in this book will be reviewed in its own right.

A Window for Death

A man left his family under a cloud of suspicion and then made a fortune in mining. He returns home and apparently dies of natural causes. Members of the family aren’t so sure, and are suspicious of the man’s partner who inherited the entire mining interest. Wolfe is hired to determine whether there is enough to call the police in.

This story is very workmanlike. There’s little action. The majority of the story involves Wolfe questioning witnesses in the Brownstone and the rest involves Archie doing so outside. No added deaths occur and there are no real plot twists. Inspector Cramer does not appear in the story. A Window for Death ends with Wolfe composing a note to him. Still, the actual solution is pretty clever.

Rating: Satisfactory

Immune to Murder

At the request of an Assistant Secretary of State, Wolfe leaves the comfort of the Brownstone for a rustic fishing resort to help with sensitive oil negotiations by cooking fish for the ambassador who had specifically requested Wolfe. Wolfe hates the locale and plans to leave after lunch. Wolfe’s plans are upset when Archie discovers the Assistant Secretary of State lying dead in stream.

The potential suspects include members of a diplomatic delegation who are immune to prosecution and two rich oil magnates. The District Attorney suggests absurdly that Archie was there as a hired assassin. The truth doesn’t come out until the murderer does something that insults Wolfe’s vanity.

This story was adapted for television on a Nero Wolfe Mystery as the last episode and was panned by fans. In my opinion, there was nothing wrong with either the episode or the story. It was, however unfortunate to make this the last episode. We had none of the familiar supporting characters that fans loved, plus in the context of a final episode, the solution was unsatisfying. However, in the context of a Nero Wolfe reading binge, the story represents a nice change of pace.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Too Many Detectives

Thanks to Archie’s interest in learning about wiretapping, Wolfe agrees to help a man tap his own phone. Later, Wolfe learns he was duped and the man who hired him didn’t own the phone being tapped.

Wolfe’s embarrassment is deepened when he’s summoned to Albany and forced to endure a long car ride to discuss the matter. Wolfe and Archie find several other detectives waiting.

When it’s their turn to testify, they learn the man who fooled them claimed they knew the wiretap was illegal. When it was time for the phony client to testify, he’s found dead, and Wolfe and Archie are arrested as material witnesses.

While Archie and Wolfe are released on bail, they can’t leave the jurisdiction, a situation Wolfe can’t tolerate. The only way out is for Wolfe to find the killer.

Wolfe compares notes with the other detectives and finds all but one of them was taken in by the same scheme as Wolfe. Wolfe then gets all six detectives to share every available operative back in New York City to solve the case, leading to a surprising and satisfying solution.

This story is notable for featuring Dol Bonner. Ms. Bonner had appeared in her own novel in 1937 and also appeared in a Tecumseh Fox novel. She and Wolfe got along well which had Archie nervous. He figured Bonner was that rare woman Wolfe could actually fall for. Archie even imagines a situation where Archie, Wolfe, Bonner, and Bonner’s assistant Sally Colt are all in the Brownstone solving cases together. Thus, even great authors have intriguing ideas occur to them which, if tried, would wreck their franchise.

As an aside, the story makes me curious to read Stout’s Dol Bonner novel.

As for Too Many Detectives, it was truly a good use of an hour and deserving of a:

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Overall rating for the Collection: Very Satisfactory

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