Thu 5 Feb 2009
THE DOORBELL RANG. Made for TV. A&E Network, 22 April 2001. Season 1, Episode 1 of A Nero Wolfe Mystery. Tim Hutton (Archie Goodwin), Maurie Chaykin (Nero Wolfe), Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), Saul Rubinek (Lon Cohen), Colin Fox (Fritz Brenner), Conrad Dunn (Saul Panzer), Fulvio Cecere (Fred Durkin), Trent McMullen (Orrie Cather) R.D. Reid (Sergeant Purley Stebbins). With Debra Monk, James Tolkan, Francie Swift, Robert Bockstael, Nicky Guadagni, Gretchen Egolf. Based on the novel by Rex Stout. Teleplay: Michael Jaffe. Director: Timothy Hutton.
I haven’t been talking to you about most of the television shows I watch — the regular series fodder, almost all of it on DVD — but in this case I’m making an exception.
As indicated above, this two hour adaptation of one of Rex Stout’s most highly rated Nero Wolfe novels — and some would say that it is his best — was the first episode of the finest TV series ever based on the works of an American mystery writer.
Is there one that I’m not thinking of? One that’s better than this? I don’t think so, and I’ll get back to this in a minute.
There were two seasons of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, preceded by a pilot film, The Golden Spiders, which premiered on March 5, 2000. There were 27 episodes in those two season, filming in delightful fashion eight novels, seven of them in two parts, and 12 novellas. For a hint of how well staged and photographed the settings and the players are, I’ll add a half-dozen scenes from the film, but keep in mind that it’s only a hint.
The story in The Doorbell Rang is relatively simple, at least on the surface. I could do a more detailed synopsis that would include all of the complexities, but after several minutes thinking about it, I’ve decided to keep it, as I say, simple.
A wealthy woman has read a book critical of the FBI and its activities and has been sending books to friends and people in high power across the country. (The book is real: The FBI Nobody Knows, by Fred J. Cook, 1964, Macmillan.) Convincing that the FBI is retaliating by having her followed and tapping her phones, she hires Wolfe to get them off her back.
Inspector Cramer gets involved, and so does the unsolved murder of a newspaper writer who was supposed to have been writing a series of articles about the FBI, also critical of the way J. Edgar Hoover was using his position of power. Wolfe needs leverage, and solving the murder is one way of getting it.
I taped this series, both seasons, while it was on, but I never watched any of them, except in passing. Once on tape, though, you can fast-forward through the commercials — a big advantage, as far as I’m concerned — but on the other hand, once on tape, you’ll never find the time to go back and watch them — again as far as I’m concerned. (I don’t know about you.)
So I never really saw any of the series until now, after I purchased the complete A&E set during a recent pre-Christmas sale at well over 50% off, an absolute bargain. This is a shameful admission, I admit, because as I stated above, I can’t think of a better adaptation of an American mystery series into TV or movie form than this A&E production. (A previous version of Nero Wolfe with William Conrad and Lee Horsley isn’t it.)
Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason comes close, but I think the TV version was on the air so long that Erle Stanley Gardner started writing his books with Burr in mind, rather than the other way around.
I stand to be corrected, and any and all suggestions are welcome.
I believe that all of the stories in the A&E version, which I will be referring to from now on, are altered into taking place in the 1950s — and absolutely beautifully photographed, by the way — no matter when the books themselves took place. The Doorbell Rang was published in 1965, for example. (I may be in error in saying this. See the comments.)
No matter. For the most part, Stout’s stories are timeless. It’s the people in them, who don’t really change all that much over the years, and (for example) the interior of the Manhattan-located brownstone where 80% of the stories take place, that’s what’s important.
Wolfe’s yellow shirts, that is, the dining room, the orchid room, and Wolfe’s office, complete with the large globe, Archie’s desk at an angle to Wolfe’s, the chairs that can be rearranged facing the great detective, the hidden peephole designed so someone not in the room can look and listen in without being discovered — all wonderfully rendered, even though in my mind’s eye I had everything mirror-image reversed, left and right.
The apartment is also much larger than I pictured it. I sensed tighter quarters.
And whole chunks of dialogue from the book appear to have been repeated verbatim. (I haven’t checked, but I’d be mildly surprised if I’m wrong.)
As for the players, some brief impressions: Maurie Chaykin is — how shall I say this? — the right girth and weight, but he’s not nearly as handsome as I see Wolfe, but I have an idea that as I lend an eye to more of the episodes, how I see Wolfe and the others will start to change. What Chaykin does have is the eccentric genius concept down pat.
Tim Hutton as Archie? Near perfect. His stride seems a little too jaunty to me, and his hat is too big. Of course I (as well as everyone else) am no longer used to seeing anyone wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Colin Fox as the live-in cook, Fritz Brenner, is perfect. Bill Smitrovich as Inspector Cramer seems a little too agitated to me; I seem to think of him as a calmer sort of fellow, not that Nero didn’t usually get under his skin, and badly.
The others of the regular cast generally weren’t on the screen long enough to say aye or nay, but if it turns out to be nay for any of them as I watch my way through the series, I will be greatly surprised.
From the general reaction that this series has produced from readers and critics alike, I don’t suppose I’m saying anything very much new here. I regret being so long to catch up with everyone else, but I’m glad I have.