Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Nero Wolfe Mystery

I was going to talk about Champagne For One this week, but then I decided to talk about something which I'm sure you'll find much more enjoyable. Although I do recommend that you read Champagne for One, which is a very good mystery novel, particularly if you're interested in reading about how to poison someone across the room and in front of a dozen dancing witnesses.
Nero Wolfe was an American television show that unfortunately ran for only two seasons in 2001-2002, although a pilot was made in 2000 (The Golden Spiders) but it's not as good as the series. Nero Wolfe is one of the best adaptations of a detective series ever made. It was based upon the series of novels that Rex Stout wrote between 1934 and 1975. Rex Stout is my favourite American mystery writer, because his crimes were ingeniously written while still maintaining a sense of humour and a cast of eccentric suspects. And also rather than creating the traditional detective with a sidekick, he divided the role of the detective into the two separate characters of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin in order to solve his mysteries.
Nero Wolfe is one of the most stylish shows ever created. Most of the episodes were set in the Fifties, in order to make sets, cars, costumes and historical events easier to follow, although there are a few episodes that are set during the War and one or two set during the Sixties.
The great Canadian character actor Maury Chaykin plays Nero Wolfe, a certified genius, confirmed eccentric and gourmand who almost never leaves his New York brownstone. He loves his thousands of orchids, beer and the colour yellow. Since he almost never leaves his house and is lazy when it comes to working (it interferes with the hours he spends daily with his orchids and reading a wide selection of books) he relies on information given to him by his clients, Archie, the police and a small selection of freelance detectives he sometimes hires in order to solve the crime.
Along with producing the series and directing four episodes, Timothy Hutton (who's late father also played Ellery Queen) plays Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's assistant. Since Wolfe hardly ever leaves the house, Archie acts as his leg man by gathering information on the cases, finding evidence or people that the police have overlooked and bringing suspects to the brownstone, sometimes by force. Archie also studies the behaviour of people, particularly women, and reports back to Wolfe word for word. It is also Archie's job to push Wolfe to work on cases and to, occasionally to find potential clients with a large enough bank balance when Wolfe is running low on funds. I think that Archie falls into the "All American" character type and he is also very clever and better at dealing with people then Wolfe is. Archie loves milk, using colloquialisms, dancing and his wardrobe.
In the books, it is hinted that he is a snappy dresser and boy do they run with that in the show. He wears suits of almost every colour, including red, burgundy and bottle green. He also wears hats whenever he leaves the house, since this was set in the time before Kennedy killed the hat.
He also wears the coolest collection of ties you've ever seen. Seriously, sometimes I just look at the ties (and the ones on the other male characters aren't too shabby either) instead of paying close attention to the scene. Archie is also the writer of the books and acts as the noir-ish narrator in the series.
Also living in the brownstone is Fritz Brenner, the Swiss chef who works and argues with Wolfe over food. Food is an important part of the series, Rex Stout even wrote a Nero Wolfe cookbook. Fritz also has an amazing collection of waistcoats and is one of the greatest chefs in the world.
Inspector Cramer of Homicide is their main police contact. He's the one they call to attend the revelation of the murderer at the end of the episode. Cramer is envious of how Wolfe and Archie are able to solve a crime, but he secretly admires their abilities although he is always trying to one day get Wolfe for withholding evidence. Cramer is very much a New York cop, he also shouts a lot, never swears (he says "cheese and rice" instead) and he always chomps on a cigar, but he never smokes it.
What makes the series unique is it's use of a repertory cast of supporting characters instead of using different actors every single week. So you will see the same Canadian and American character actors every week, but as different characters wearing different wigs and costumes. Since they are character actors, you will see people that you recognize as "hey, it's that guy from that thing with whatshisname". Although there is occasionally someone famous, like George Plimpton, Nicholas Campbell, Joe Flaherty, Carlo Rota and Carrie Fisher. Of all of the repertory cast, Kari Matchett is the most frequently seen, since she plays the majority of the female characters along with playing Lily Rowan, Archie's wealthy girlfriend who is a very good dancer.
Everything in the series is right and the attention to detail is superb. From the cars,
to the really cool shots.
Even something like the above scene, which lasts maybe twenty seconds, is marvellous to look at. The sets are very appealing to the vintage aesthetic and everything down to the little knick knacks is so detailed, you'd never know that everything was shot in a studio in Toronto. Unlike other period dramas, like Mad Men, you can watch Nero Wolfe over and over again due to it's use of colour, detail and humour and always see something new.
Since most of Wolfe's clients and suspects are men, there is a wide variety of Fifties male wardrobe staples to look at, including scarves, hats and really cool ties.
Plus, all of the actors have accurate period haircuts and facial hair.
Of the female characters, most of them are wealthy widows, heiresses and actresses.
Plus, there are quite a few early businesswomen, career women and lawyers, so there are a number of suits to look at.

And now picture spam:

I don't know why it was cancelled by A&E, but I think it might have to do with the American shift towards the cheaper to produce reality television fad. However, both seasons are available on DVD in Regions 1, 2 and 4.


Bruce Partington-Plans said...

I love this series, but it hardly ever gets shown here in England! You're right about watching it over - I once watched a recording of The Silent Speaker three times in a row! The dialogue is brilliant and the actors are perfect and really seem to be enjoying themselves. I just adore Archie's outfits - I wish I could find suits like that. Wolfe's office is great too, wonderful use of colours.

Millie Motts said...

Got this for Christmas, too. Watched the first one last night and loved it! Thanks for a great recommendation!