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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Reach Exceeding its Grasp? Nero Wolfe (1981)



[Ignore the video's caption; the video is the adaptation of Rex Stout's In the Best Families (1950)]

After 34 years (gulp!), I have finally re-seen a slew of episodes from the 91981 series Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, which starred William Conrad and Lee Horsley. Set in what was then the present day, the series critical reception' was, as the reviews rounded up at the link above show, tepid to contemptuous. But in re-viewing the episodes, the reasons I enjoyed it so much as a 14 year-old watching with his grandfather, and how they drew me to the books, are clear.

First, it's clear that the production team tried very hard and spent a lot of jack on the principal sets. Wolfe's office, while less impressive than the set in the sumptuous and brilliant A&E series, A Nero Wolfe Mystery, is quite impressive. The Conrad versions of the office, the kitchen, the pool room, the greenhouse, are all quite good. The decor of the office in particularly is good--if you look closely, the key elements Stout describes are all there.

One can say the same of the cast.

Conrad's Wolfe is growlier than was Maury Chaykin's, and less stoical, but the famous rudeness is there. Conrad laughs more than Chaykin, and smiles more, but in one of the two episodes I want to talk a bit about, In the Best Families, Conrad absolutely sells Wolfe's contemptuous cross-examination of the murderer, and the psychology Wolfe uses to make him crack. He's implacable, severe, and insightful. In what is one of the two most important scenes in the book, Conrad soars.

Guest star Robert Loggia is a very effective Arnold Zeck (here renamed "Arnold Dorso" for some reason), and Lee Horsley holds his own in the other most important scene in the book. The primary flaw--

--Do I need a spoiler alert for a 34 year old TV show and a 65 year old novel?

Oh, very well. Here it is:

Spoilers...




Right, back to business. The primary flaw in the adaptation is that it's rushed--we lose the great scene of Archie having a meet-up with Cramer, with Cramer bringing Archie his beverage of choice (milk). (A quick shout-out to Allan Miller's Cramer--for a man who looks nothing like the description of the character, he brings it anyway.) We also lose the suspense of the plot of Wolfe's disappearance; it's resolved in minutes, where Stout leaves Archie on his own for months (and we discover that Archie can make his salary from Wolfe alone and unaided). They could have seeded the clash by adapting the other two Zeck novels, as well. The primary flaw is that the novel is done in one episode, not two.

Well, that and the fact that it's unfilmable.

I mean that. The main plot, in which Wolfe disappears, loses a hellish amount of weight, infiltrates Zeck's organization, and then brings Archie into the organization to bring off a deadly coup de theatre can't be done without absurd padding or two actors.

A Nero Wolfe Mystery didn't try to do In the Best Families, and you can see why.

The Conrad/Horsley adaptation came up with a clever, if imperfect, solution: Wolfe disappears, as in the novel, but takes shelter in the restaurant run by his old friend Marko Vukčić, where he poses as a chef. Wolfe being absent at the denouement, though, is a great loss. Still, considering the constraints--one episode, the need to skirt Stout's primary plot device--it's a clever, well-done job,on the whole.

On to the second episode, The Golden Spiders. Just as did A Nero Wolfe Mystery, so too did the 1981 series use this novel as its pilot episode. It's softer than either the novel or the Chaykin-Timothy Hutton version--Pete Drossos lives, for one thing, and Wolfe is kinder to him. But still--it's a reasonably faithful version of the novel, if also a bit hurried.

A Nero Wolfe Mystery was brilliant in a way that this series never came near. Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin get under the skins of Archie and Wolfe, and capture every nuance Stout gave them. Truly brilliant acting. But Conrad and Horsley are no slouches, and do very good work. The decision to set the later adaptation as a period piece with a repertory cast worked brilliantly, but the present-day setting of the 1981 series was in keeping with how Stout wrote them--A Family Affair, published in 1975, is set during the climax of Watergate, in 1974. In that sense, the 1981 adaptation was just as faithful to the original as was the later A&E series. Still, the period setting, the music and artistry of the later series place it head and shoulders over its predecessor.

We're comparing, of course, a solid, if dated, piece of television, to a brilliant one, so the earlier series suffers by the contrast. But at its best (the 7 episodes based on Stout's writing), and for its time, it was quite good.

And say this for it--it had the guts to tackle the single hardest novel in the series, and didn't make too bad a job of it.

[Edited and revised for clarity.]

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