After introducing the world to the corpulent, irascible, 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 different tales of murder and mystery. Several attempts were made to bring the detective to the screen -- a successful 1936 film whose followup failed to build a cinematic franchise, a series of Italian television movies, a stateside TV movie in the late '70s starring the late Thayer David, and a short-lived prime-time series on NBC. Nearly two full decades passed until the next attempt to translate Nero Wolfe to television with the feature-length adaptation of "The Golden Spiders". A weekly television series quickly followed, reteaming its cast and garnering immense critical praise in the process. Unfortunately, A&E cancelled A Nero Wolfe Mystery after its second season, its modest performance apparently insufficient to continue production. Although filming has wrapped on Nero Wolfe and its current episodes are, at least for the moment, no longer airing in the U.S., fans of the series -- as well as viewers who missed it the first time around -- can take solace in the fact that A&E Home Video has compiled Nero Wolfe's first season on this three-disc DVD box set.
For the unfamiliar, Nero Wolfe (Maury Chaykin; Dances with Wolves) isn't a traditional hero. He's quick to burst into tirades, not the least bit hesitant about expressing in detail his distaste for any person or situation that rubs him the wrong way. Wolfe is a creature of habit, tending to his orchids for several hours a day, refusing to accept visitors or discuss business during that time. Business is also not an acceptable topic of conversation during dinner, when Wolfe feasts on gourmet meals created by his Swiss chef Fritz (Colin Fox), whose recipes must adhere to the detective's exacting specifications. 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, pouring bottles of beer into a monogrammed glass. The legwork is done primarily by Wolfe's legman, Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton). Archie is as headstrong as Wolfe, but with a vastly different temperment. Witty, smooth, tough, and libidinous, Archie often carries much of the action in these mysteries, doing the majority of the investigating and frequently stumbling upon lifeless corpses. These episodes have a structure that's familiar, though not repetitive. Inspector Cramer (Bill Smitrovich), who intensely dislikes Wolfe but can't deny his talents, is brought into the investigation, which inevitably concludes with a climactic meeting of all of the suspects in Wolfe's office shortly before he discloses the identity of the murderer.
This box set collects all thirteen episodes of Nero Wolfe's first season. A number of the cases are spread across two episodes, and even the standalone episodes are better viewed as pairs, carrying over imagery and similar premises from one to the other.
Nero Wolfe is incredible. Every facet of the series -- its writing, the acting, the music, the cinematography, the set design -- is flawless, to the point where I had a tough time pinning down a starting point for this review. The relationship between its two main characters would seem to be as good a place as any to begin. Despite his prominent place in the series' title, the screentime is divided somewhat evenly between the reclusive Wolfe and the streetwise Archie, leaning somewhat more heavily towards the latter. They're two very different characters with very different solutions to the problems that come their way, and though they would be loathe to admit it, their success relies heavily on one another. Maury Chaykin is excellent in the title role, taking an indescribably eccentric, tantrum-throwing shut-in and managing to make him endearing, all without betraying the essence of the character. Timothy Hutton wore a number of hats on the series, serving not only as a lead actor but an executive producer and occasional director. He successfully sells Archie Goodwin, the legman who isn't able to quickly come to the same conclusions as Wolfe but knows what information to ferret out for his employer...tossing out a volley of quips but still more than capable of taking care of himself when the situation calls for it...attracting the attention of every woman in a quarter-mile radius but still knowing what his priorities are, staying cool and level-headed when things get heated. The dialogue is sharp and witty, and of the close to ten hours collected on this DVD set, there isn't a single weak episode, dull moment, or misstep.
- The Doorbell Rang: In the feature-length series premiere, Nero Wolfe is offered the largest retainer of his career by Rachel Bruner. The eccentric, hopelessly wealthy woman attracted some unwanted attention from the FBI by distributing thousands upon thousands of copies of a book critical of the organization. Not only does Wolfe find himself fending off the feds, but he and Archie become embroiled in the investigation of a murder.
- Champagne for One (parts 1 and 2): Archie is enlisted to take the place of an ill pal at an annual event for unwed mothers. A particularly depressed young woman is poisoned there, and though the popular opinion is that she took her own life, Archie is convinced that she was murdered.
- Prisoner's Base (parts 1 and 2): A woman insisting on anonymity offers Wolfe a princely sum to spend a week in hiding at his brownstone. Wolfe turns her away, with Archie's fingerprints incriminatingly all over her luggage. She turns up dead, less than a week before she was to come into a multi-million dollar fortune. The board of directors of a towel corporation are quickly put under suspicion, and Archie's ploy to squeeze information out of them leaves him arrested for impersonating a police officer.
- Eeny Miney Murder Moe: A woman is murdered in Wolfe's office with his sauce-stained necktie. Despite not having a paying client, Wolfe's damaged self-esteem demands that he discover who killed her. His search brings him to a divorce squabble involving an actress and a prestigious law firm.
- Disguise for Murder: Wolfe opens up his plant room for a meeting of the Manhattan Flower Club. Most of the ladies are there to catch a glimpse of Wolfe's orchids, with the exception on one con woman who seizes the opportunity to keep a close eye on a mark. Archie chats with her briefly, moments before she turns up dead. With a houseful of suspects and his office sealed off, Wolfe devises a possible solution that puts Archie in great danger.
- Door to Death: Nero Wolfe's beloved orchids are in dire need of an expert to attend to them, a situation dire enough to compel Wolfe to leave the comfort of his brownstone. A conversation in a greenhouse uncovers a corpse, and if Wolfe wants to have his orchids properly taken care of, he'll have to solve the murder and clear the horticulturist's good name.
- Christmas Party: Archie seems to forever be on the prowl, and the female-fearing Wolfe is taken aback when Archie boasts that he's finally settling down. He tells Wolfe that their nuptials are to be announced at an office Christmas party. Instead of a proclamation of impending marital bliss, one of the guests is murdered and a runaway Santa Claus appears to hold the key to solving the mystery.
- Over My Dead Body (parts 1 and 2): Archie is astonished to learn not only that Nero Wolfe has an adopted daughter that he hasn't seen since she was three years old, but that she lives just miles away. She stands accused of swiping a pillbox of diamonds from a client at a fencing studio, and when Archie goes to investigate the alleged crime, he finds something much worse.
I didn't feel at all as if I was watching a television show. For one, the pacing isn't a slave to act breaks. Many drama series like to build to a crescendo before fading to black and cutting to commercials. The material in Nero Wolfe has not been gutted and rearranged to best fit that mold, and the pacing moves at a steady enough clip that such an approach would have been unnecessary. I found myself completely engaged by the material; there were several instances when I'd glance down at the counter on my DVD player, surprised to see that an episode was almost over when it felt as if it had just begun.
Another rarity is that Nero Wolfe reuses its stable of supporting actors and actresses for different roles. With most television series, if an actor plays a one-off character, that's it. He moves onto another role on another series, and the casting director eyes out different talent for whatever the next episode offers. There are a couple of reasons Nero Wolfe is able to get away with this. Its episodes are largely self-contained, with 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 added a welcomed layer 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 the cadavre du jour to sly love interests to a Croatian immigrant. Nero Wolfe feels more like repertory theater and less like a TV show filmed on a sound stage as as result.
As many box sets of TV series as I have resting on my DVD shelves, the majority of them have been watched once and only once, with no further viewings on the horizon. I'm not sure how most viewers' habits compare with mine, but when a single set has between ten and fifteen hours of material, with a stack of new releases being added to my collection every week, it's tough to squeeze in time to rewatch these longer packages. Nero Wolfe will, I'd imagine, be an exception. As the end credits started to roll with every episode, I found myself wanting to revisit it immediately, delving into each episode a second time while the details were still fresh in my mind. I've spend much of my free time over the past three days watching these thirteen episodes, and despite the fact that new additions like 28 Days Later and the Indiana Jones box have snuck into my collection in the interim, I have every expectation that I'm going to come home this evening and rewatch "The Doorbell Rang".
I'm reaching in vain for adjectives to fully describe how immeasurably I enjoyed this first season of Nero Wolfe. It's rare for any form of entertainment, be it a television series, a film, or a book, to so immediately and unrelentingly seize my attention. I'm planning on picking up as many of Rex Stout's novels as I can find, and I'm very much looking forward to giving this box a second spin in my DVD player, not to mention the hopefully impending second season, the TV movie The Golden Spiders (available on VHS, but not currently on DVD), and the 'making of...' special. This 3-disc set offers little beyond the series' first season, but a solid presentation and such excellent material make Nero Wolfe more than worth the modest asking price.
Video: The first season of Nero Wolfe is presented full-frame, just as it originally aired on A&E. (The initial airings of the second season were letterboxed, and hopefully A&E Home Video will present these remaining episode in anamorphic widescreen if/when the time should come.) Nero Wolfe is a beautifully shot series, and its release on DVD is stunning. The image is crisp and detailed, with subtle textures and the individual pores on the actors' faces clearly discernable. The palette, with both its vibrant hues and healthy dynamic range, is at times almost jaw-dropping. Nero Wolfe makes frequent and effective use of shadows, and black levels remain appropriately deep throughout. Some exceptionally slight film grain is present but largely unintrusive. There were only a handful of shots -- a close-up of Kari Matchett in "Eenie Meeney Murder Moe", and some moments in the plant room -- that struck me as particularly grainy, and this is presumably representative of the initial airings. The only time I found it to be a remote distraction was in the beginning of "Champagne for One", where a pan in one slightly grainy sequence creates a sort of haze over the screen. The material is compressed such that the grain looks like film grain, rather than devolving into a blocky, digital mess. I also spotted some slight shimmering around some objects, such as Cramer's necktie in "Disguise for Murder", a wall light in "Christmas Party", typewriter keys, and the edges of books. Such concerns are exceedingly minor 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. The dialogue is among the most important aspects of the series, and as expected, it's prominent in the mix. Every line comes through cleanly and clearly, with no concerns whatsoever about intelligibility. The era-appropriate score is also rich and full, seeming a little louder later in the season than in in the earlier episodes. Bass response is reasonably impressive, particularly with some of the more booming voices and the swing beats in the score.
There are no dubs or subtitles, but Nero Wolfe is closed captioned for the hearing impaired.
Supplements: Despite what the "Collector's Edition" label on the front of the packaging would suggest, extras are sparse, limited to brief biographies for Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin.
As is generally the case with A&E's television releases, each disc in the Nero Wolfe set is packaged in a keepcase, though the hub varied from disc to disc. The three keepcases are collected in a thin slipcase. 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 spoilers, and I'd suggest that uninitiated viewers ignore them the first time through.
Also Of Note: The first batch of Nero Wolfe DVDs contained some slight edits. Corrected versions were made available relatively quickly, and it's this proper version of the set that is reviewed here. The full releases have a gold sticker labeled "Collector's Edition" affixed to the front. Online retailers should only be stocking the corrected release, but intrigued readers seeking out copies through brick-and-mortar stores or eBay are encouraged to keep a close eye out to ensure that they receive the full, unedited versions of each episode.
Conclusion: Criminally overlooked during its original run on cable, perhaps Nero Wolfe will have a chance to expand its fanbase with its release on DVD. Expertly crafted, masterfully acted, and unlike much of anything else on television, the first season of Nero Wolfe is very highly recommended.