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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