Wednesday, October 24, 2012

At the (old) movies: 'Meet Nero Wolfe'

Notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

If you’re a mystery reader, chances are that once you’ve read a whodunit, you never pick it up again.

But if you’re an experienced mystery reader, you might have exceptions to this rule.

Mine include Ross Macdonald, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler -- and Rex Stout.

Stout’s genius lay in his creation of two characters who were uniquely American mirror images of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Perhaps “funhouse mirror” images would be a better way to put it, for unlike Holmes, Stout’s Nero Wolfe did not like to work and especially did not like to leave his house. And unlike Watson, Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s assistant, who narrates the Wolfe stories, isn’t exactly in awe of the lead character.

Archie’s brisk prose style and his arguments with Wolfe – and Wolfe’s arguments with the long-suffering Lt. Cramer of Homicide -- make the Wolfe stories worth reading, and that’s a very good thing because, as even some of Stout’s admirers will tell you, the plots of the Wolfe stories are generally not much to write to Baker Street about.

The first Wolfe book, “Fer-de-Lance,” was published in 1934, when Stout was in his late forties. One year earlier, another late bloomer, Erle Stanley Gardner, three years younger than Stout, published his first Perry Mason book.

Around this time, “The Thin Man,” based on Hammett’s last novel, became a surprise hit for MGM, so it’s probably no coincidence that other studios decided to see what they could do with (or, perhaps better yet, to) Wolfe and Mason.

Warners made several movies based on Mason books, but they were heavily influenced by the “Thin Man” film’s mix of comedy and mystery. As played in most of the movies by Warren William (the B movie equivalent of William Powell), Mason was a wise-cracking bon vivant, and there was so much joking around that the plots, although faithful to the books, seemed like grudging afterthoughts.

Gardner hated these movies, and when Mason reappeared years later on television, Gardner made sure he had total control over the show.

Something similar happened with Nero Wolfe. Columbia made two Wolfe movies, “Meet Nero Wolfe” (in 1936 with Edward Arnold) and “The League of Frightened Men,” made one year later with Walter Connolly.

“Meet Nero Wolfe” was based on “Fer-de-Lance,” and the screenwriters (there were three of them) pretty much stuck to the plot, probably because that was the least of their worries.

One big problem (in more ways than one) was the corpulent Wolfe himself. How were they going to make such a crabby character palatable to the movie-going public?

The books succeeded because Wolfe and his world were filtered through Archie Goodwin’s hilariously jaundiced first-person narration. The screenwriters and director Herbert Biberman couldn’t rely on this literary device, so they decided to make Wolfe cranky one moment and jovial the next. Edward Arnold was a good enough actor to get away with this, but the fat guy we’re seeing is obviously an impostor.

Archie doesn’t fare much better. He’s played by Lionel Stander, the character actor who is perhaps best known for playing Max in “Hart to Hart.” He’s likable, but he’s no Archie.

Also likable is the actress who plays Wolfe’s client, a young woman named Rita Cansino, who in a few short years metamorphosed into an even more likable actress named Rita Hayworth.

Not likable at all is Dennie Moore, who plays Archie’s whiny girlfriend. If you want to get good and plastered, gulp down a strong drink every time she says “When’re we going to get married?” (In the books, Archie’s girlfriend is the infinitely more charming and sophisticated Lily Rowan.)

I probably won’t be giving much away by telling you that the plot involves a golf club that has been made into a murder weapon – a type of gun that fires a needle that contains a fast-acting poison. At first glance it seems diabolically clever, until you begin to wonder why the killer went to so much trouble when he could have bought a real gun and ambushed the victim – or paid to have someone else do just that.

The movie also omits one of the book’s key scenes, in which Wolfe kills a deadly snake (the fer-de-lance of the title) in his home. As I recall, he smashes it with beer bottles. Try staging that in one take.

On its own terms, “Meet Nero Wolfe” is engaging enough if you forget that it’s supposed to be about Nero Wolfe.

A better idea: Get the DVD set of A&E’s Nero Wolfe series, where Wolfe is capably played by the late Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton is the perfect Archie Goodwin.

The series was filmed in Canada, and in a quaint (sometimes perhaps too quaint) touch, it features a sort of repertory company of actors who keep reappearing in various episodes as various characters, including George Plimpton and Kari Matchett, whom you might know better as Joan in the USA Network’s “Covert Affairs.”

On the whole, the series is – as Wolfe himself might put it – “satisfactory.”

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