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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Nero Wolfe - The Complete Classic Whodunit Series
Nero Wolfe - The Complete Classic Whodunit Series
A&E Video // Unrated // April 25, 2006
List Price: $99.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 27, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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After introducing the world to the corpulent, irascible, indescribably brilliant private detective Nero Wolfe in 1934, author Rex Stout would pen at least one Wolfe story a year until his death in 1975, amassing over seventy tales of murder and mystery. Several attempts were made to bring the detective to the screen, including a pair of tepidly received film adaptations in the mid-'30s, a TV movie starring the late Thayer David, and a short-lived prime-time series on NBC. It would be nearly two full decades until the next attempt would be made to translate Nero Wolfe to television with A&E's feature-length adaptation of "The Golden Spiders". A weekly television series quickly followed, reteaming its cast and deservedly garnering immense critical praise in the process. A Nero Wolfe Mystery attracted a fiercely loyal following, though one that apparently wasn't large enough to keep A&E from cancelling the series after its second season. The past couple of years have seen DVD collections of each of those seasons, and now A&E has compiled the entire run of Nero Wolfe into this eight-disc boxed set. For a list of episodes and synopses of each of the twenty adaptations in this collection, TV.com has a reasonably comprehensive episode guide online.

Nero Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) doesn't fit the traditional detective mold. He acts a detective purely because it gives him the means to support his lifestyle, and this creature of habit would just as soon devote all of his time tending to his orchids and feasting on the gourmet meals exactingly prepared by his Swiss chef Fritz (Colin Fox). Wolfe rarely relocates his seventh-of-a-ton bulk outside of his New York brownstone, preferring to spend much of his time mulling over cases in a leather chair in his office and pouring bottles of beer into a monogrammed glass. Still, someone has to do the legwork, and for Wolfe, that someone is Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton). Archie is as headstrong as Wolfe but has a vastly different temperment. Witty, smooth, tough, and libidinous, Archie drives most of the action in these mysteries, having a nasty tendency to stumble upon lifeless corpses and handles most of the investigation that inevitably follows. Toss in a gorgeous dame or two, an unlit-cigar-chomping police inspector (Bill Smitrovich) who intensely dislikes Wolfe but can't deny his talents, and a climactic meeting of all of the suspects in Wolfe's office shortly before he discloses the identity of the murder, and you're left with a structure that may sound formulaic but is never repetitive.

I didn't feel at all as if I'd been watching a television show. For one, a number of the adaptations are feature-length, and the eye-catching cinematography, set design, and period costuming lean more towards a feature film than a basic cable television series. Also distinguishing Nero Wolfe from the rest of the lot is that the pacing isn't a slave to act breaks. Many drama series tend to build to a crescendo before fading to black and cutting to commercial, but the material in Nero Wolfe hasn't been gutted and rearranged to fit that mold; the cuts fall where they may. There were several instances where I'd read one of the original novels and watch the corresponding episode immediately afterwards. Although they were often heavily compressed, I was astonished by how faithful the adaptations were, down to the sparklingly witty and eminently quotable dialogue.

The pacing is nimble but doesn't ever seem rushed; when I was introduced to the first season of the series on DVD several years ago, I found myself so completely engaged by the material that I'd glance down at the counter on my DVD player and would be surprised to see that an episode was almost over when it felt as if it had just barely begun. The quality is remarkably consistent throughout as well, especially in a first season that seems to be devoid of a single weak episode or misstep. The second season struck me as being somewhat more uneven, and whoever helmed the plodding "Motherhunt" may agree that it's not one of the series' stronger moments, judging by its Alan Smithee directorial credit. Still, even the lesser of Nero Wolfe's episodes outclass virtually everything else on television.

Another rarity is that Nero Wolfe continually reuses its stable of supporting actors and actresses for different roles, including several cases where one actor will play a couple of parts in the same episode. With most television series, if an actor is cast in a one-off part, that's it: he moves onto another role on another series, and the casting director is left to scour new talent for whatever the next episode demands. There are a couple of reasons Nero Wolfe is able to get away with this. As its episodes are largely self-contained, recurring roles outside of the police or Wolfe's employ being all but non-existent. Second, the actors are excellent -- why waste them on a single role and lose them for the rest of the series? Their repeat appearances add a welcomed sense of familiarity, and the roles and performances are varied enough that it doesn't seem as if any one actor is providing a warmed-over rehash of a previous appearance. Kari Matchett is a particular stand-out, seamlessly bouncing from such varied parts as the cadavre du jour to sly love interests to a Croatian immigrant to a hep '60s dancer. As a result, Nero Wolfe feels more like repertory theater and less like a basic cable television series filmed on a Canadian sound stage.

Boxed sets of TV series take up quite a bit of space on my DVD shelves, but the majority of them -- even series I deeply enjoy -- have been watched once and only once. Nero Wolfe is certainly an exception. Not only did I feel compelled to rewatch these episodes, I started to feel that urge as soon as the end credits would flash on the screen. There were several cases where I'd read the original Rex Stout novel and then immediately rewatch the episode while the story was still fresh in my mind. I didn't watch Nero Wolfe so much as devour it, and that this is such a rewatchable series makes it especially worth owning on DVD.

It's rare for any form of entertainment -- be it a television series, a film, or a novel -- to so immediately and unrelentingly seize my attention, and I'm left fumbling for the right adjectives to fully describe how much I've enjoyed Nero Wolfe. The asking price for this eight disc set is rather modest, so much so that at many online stores, the complete run of Nero Wolfe is considerably less expensive than the second season set released last summer. Nero Wolfe is worth that and quite a bit more, and even though it didn't get the extended run on television that it deserved, at least now viewers can appreciate this marvelous series at their leisure.

One quick note before I delve into the more technically-oriented end of this review: A&E's initial DVD release of the first season of Nero Wolfe contained trimmed-down versions of several episodes. A quickly reissued set addressed these problems, and I'm pleased to note that those flaws haven't carried over to this collection. It's worth mentioning that these DVDs present the episodes as they appeared on A&E, and although longer versions aired overseas (several were literally twice as long), none of that additional footage is offered here.

Video: As I understand it, the first season of Nero Wolfe was originally aired full-frame, and the initial broadcasts of the second season were letterboxed. These twenty adaptations are all presented at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, though, and the second season episodes are center-cropped from the original widescreen. A letterboxed version of The Silent Speaker is presented as an extra, and sample screenshots comparing the two presentations are offered elsewhere in this review. The second season appears to have been shot with both aspect ratios in mind, so the full-frame version isn't a bad way to watch these episodes but doesn't seem to be ideal either.

Nero Wolfe is a beautifully shot series, and its release on DVD is frequently stunning. The image is crisp and detailed, with subtle textures and the individual pores on the actors' faces clearly discernable, and its varied palette boasts a set of often vibrant hues and healthy dynamic range. Nero Wolfe makes frequent and effective use of shadows, and black levels remain appropriately deep and substantial throughout. There is slight shimmering around some objects in several first season episodes, and mosquito noise can be a sporadic distraction, depending on your viewing distance and the size of your display. The photography contains some film grain and video noise at times, and the compression in those moments doesn't always hold up well to very close inspection, although again, it's not likely to be much of a nuisance aside from those with unusually large TVs or watching at an especially slight distance. Those are fairly minor concerns overall and detract little from what is otherwise an extremely attractive presentation of a gorgeous television series.

Audio: The Dolby Digital stereo track (224Kbps) is also presented well on DVD. The dialogue is a large part of what makes Nero Wolfe what it is, and as expected, it's prominent in the mix. Every line comes through cleanly, clearly, and intelligibly. The era-appropriate score is also rich and full, and bass response is reasonably impressive, particularly with some of the more booming voices and the swing beats in the score. There are no alternate soundtracks or subtitles, but Nero Wolfe is closed captioned for the hearing impaired.

Supplements: The extras are provided on the eighth and final disc of this collection, all of which ought to ring familiar to fans of the series that picked up the season two boxed set. Most notable among them is the original TV movie, a feature-length adaptation of The Golden Spiders directed by Bill Duke. Although The Golden Spiders wasn't produced with the intention of serving as a pilot, it does feel that way. The actors don't have quite the foothold on their characters that they do in the series, the keyboard-heavy score isn't a strong fit, and, although this is understandable given the story, the tone is darker than the adaptations that would follow. I'm sure I would've been impressed more if I'd watched The Golden Spiders when it originally aired, but it seems a little underwhelming when saved for last.

The feature-length The Silent Speaker is offered a second time, and this letterboxed presentation reveals a great deal more information on each side of the 1.78:1 frame.
Disappointingly, although the episode is letterboxed, The Silent Speaker is not enhanced for widescreen displays, meaning that without using some sort of 'zoom' feature built into their televisions or DVD players, HDTV owners will see black bars on all four sides of their screens. Still, the widescreen framing suits Nero Wolfe exceptionally well, and I wish more episodes could've been presented this way. Perhaps a proper widescreen release will follow once the HD-DVD or Blu-ray formats get a foothold, or maybe it'll rear its head on the high definition channel A&E is preparing to launch in the next couple of months.

"The Making of Nero Wolfe" is a 22 minute promotional piece, concentrating more on trying to get viewers to tune into the second season of the series than actually delving into production. There are brief interviews with stars Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin, production designer Lindsey Hermer-Bell, assistant producer Chuck Cooper, costume designer Christopher Hargadon, and executive producer Delia Fine. There is some meat to it -- Hutton talking about the challenge of directing, producing, and acting, some of the stumbling blocks in choosing a predominately early '50s setting, the rhythm of Rex Stout's dialogue -- but the overwhelming majority of the runtime consists of clips from the show. It's worth wading through for glimpses of the brownstone set while it was still under construction and the like, but keep your thumb resting on the fast forward button.

Rounding out the extras are brief biographies and filmographies for the series' two stars, Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton. While all of this is appreciated, so much potential goes untapped: audio commentaries, deleted scenes, extended episodes, retrospective interviews, background information on Rex Stout, a look at the dedicated fan base this series has attracted... I really would have liked to have seen more, but I'll consider the presence of any extras a win.

These eight discs are packaged in slimline transparent cases, and although the content of each DVD is the same as in the previous releases, the cover art has been rescreened to include "The Complete Classic Whodunit Series" tagline and the updated volume number. Each episode is divided into individual chapters, and a list of each stop is provided in a submenu after selecting an episode. The titles for each chapter may contain light spoilers, and uninitiated viewers may want to try to ignore them the first time through.

Conclusion: Although it's been several years since any new episodes of Nero Wolfe were produced, reruns of this criminally overlooked series continue to air on The Biography Channel every weekend; make it a point to watch an episode or two, and I hope you'll be as instantly entranced as I was. Expertly crafted, masterfully acted, and unlike much of anything else on television, this collection of the entire two season run of Nero Wolfe is very highly recommended.
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