Thursday, March 28, 2024

The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

(This post is part of the Mismatched Couples Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Reelweedgiemidget Review)

Detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin first appeared in the novel Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout in 1934. Ultimately Rex Stout would write 32 more novels and 41 novellas and short stories featuring the pair. The popularity of the Nero Wolfe novels would lead to adaptations to other media, including two movies produced by Columbia in the Thirties, four different radio shows, a 1959 television pilot featuring no less than William Shatner as Archie Goodwin, a 1977 TV movie with Thayer David as Nero Wolfe and Tom Mason as Archie Goodwin, and a short-lived 1981 TV series with William Conrad as Wolfe and Lee Horsley as Archie. What may have been the best received adaptation of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to another medium may have been the 2001-2002 A&E series Nero Wolfe, which began with the TV movie The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery starring Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin.

For those unfamiliar with the Nero Wolfe novels, Nero Wolfe is a brilliant, but eccentric and overweight private detective. He refuses to leave his lavish brownstone on West 35th Street in New York City to do business and not for very many other reasons either. He keeps a very rigid routine, whereby breakfast is served at 8:15 AM, lunch at 1:15 PM, and dinner at 7:15 PM or 7:30 PM. In between Wolfe tends to his orchids and does business. Nero Wolfe loves both food and beer (in Fer-de-Lance he tells Archie he is going to cut down to five quarts a day). He is also a voracious reader and he owns an extensive library. Wolfe has a profound dislike of women, to the point that it is nearly pathological. There are some hints, especially in the early novels, that Wolfe may have had an unfortunate encounter with a woman years ago. Wolfe also dislikes being touched by anyone, to the point that he won't even shake hands. He also is very precise in his words, and fastidious when it comes to proper grammar. Wolfe dislikes exercise, but he can be surprisingly athletic when he has to be.

Nero Wolfe could easily have become an eccentric recluse if not for his employee Archie Goodwin, who is a sharp contrast to the brilliant detective. Archie could accurately be described as Nero Wolfe's secretary, although his duties go well beyond that. Like Wolfe, Archie is a licensed private detective. Since Wolfe refuses to leave his brownstone to do business, Archie Goodwin is the one who actually gathers clues and information, and interviews individuals who either can't or won't visit Wolfe's brownstone. Archie is perfectly suited to this task, as he possesses a great memory (he can recall entire conversations) and he is a keen observer when it comes to small details. He also has a very respectable typing speed, so that he can churn out reports in no time. It should come as no surprise that it is Archie who conducts most of Nero Wolfe's day to day business, including keeping Nero Wolfe's books, handling Wolfe's banking, paying the bills, and typing any correspondence Wolfe might have. It is also Archie who insures that Wolfe continues working, often badgering his employer into taking cases. In contrast to Wolfe's lavish tastes in food and drink, Archie's tastes are more middle class. He likes corned beef sandwiches and will leave the brownstone to get it (Wolfe won't allow it on the premises), fried chicken, and milk. While Wolfe seems to dislike women, Archie definitely has an eye for the ladies.

What set Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels apart from other mystery novels of his day is that they are essentially a fusion of the refined detectives of classic mysteries (such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot) and detectives of the hard-boiled school (such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe). Quite simply, Nero Wolfe is a classic mystery detective, while Archie Goodwin is a hard-boiled detective. While the two are quite different and seemingly mismatched, they compliment each other perfectly. While Nero Wolfe is a genius at deductive reasoning, but at a loss in dealing with the world beyond the brownstone, Archie Goodwin has a talent for gathering information and dealing with a wide range of people. Of course, here it must be pointed out that Archie could have easily run his own detective agency. In the novel In the Best of Families, when Wolfe disappears for a time, he did exactly that.

As mentioned above, Nero Wolfe has been adapted to media beyond literature several times. For much of the Twentieth Century, the rights to the novels and stories were a hot commodity. Among those who sought the rights to the Nero Wolfe novels and stories was Michael Jafffe, son of actress Jean Muir and lawyer turned producer Henry Jaffe. It was in the mid-Seventies when the rights to the Nero Wolfe novels and short stories became available that Warner Bros. asked Henry Jaffe to enter into negotiations with the Rex Stout estate so that they could adapt the three novels featuring archvillain Arnold Zeck (And Be a Villain, The Second Confession, and In the Best Families) as a feature film. As it turned out, Warner Bros. lost out to Paramount Pictures, who produced the 1977 TV movie  and the 1981 TV series.

At long last Michael Jaffe was able to obtain the rights to the Nero Wolfe novels and stories. Michael Jaffe had known Allen Sabinson, the head of programming at A&E for years, and he was able to interest the cable channel in Nero Wolfe. Initially it was planned that The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery would be the first in a series of two-hour movies. As it turned out, The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery proved so successful that A&E decided to go ahead with a regularly-scheduled, one-hour series.

The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery
was based on the 1953 novel The Golden Spiders by Rex Stout. The Golden Spiders is not necessarily considered among the very best Nero Wolfe mysteries, but it was decided to adapt it first for a number of reasons. In an interview from 2002 with the magazine Scarlet Street, Michael Jaffe said, "We wanted to pick a story that had activity in it so that we could slowly bring people into the static milieu of Nero Wolfe's house. The Golden Spiders took you outside. There's a gunfight and a tough interrogation scene." As a long-time reader of the Nero Wolfe books, I also have to suspect The Golden Spiders was chosen because it features most of the major characters in the Nero Wolfe mythos:  Wolfe's personal chef Fritz Brenner; Manhattan Homicide detective Inspector Cramer; Sergeant Purley Stebbins of Manhattan Homicide; crime reporter Lon Cohen of The New York Gazette; Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather, freelance detectives who often work for Nero Wolfe; and Deputy Commissioner Neary.

The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery followed the novel fairly closely, with dialogue even lifted from the book. In both the novel and the TV movie, after Nero Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) throws a tantrum over how Fritz (Collin Fox) prepared his food, as a prank Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton) allows a neighbourhood boy into the brownstone to talk to Wolfe. The boy tells Wolfe that he was washing the windshield of a car when the woman driving the car, wearing golden spider earrings, told him to alert the police. Wolfe simply has Archie pass the boy's information onto the police, but then the following day the boy is the victim of vehicular homicide. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin then find themselves on a case.

The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery was directed by acclaimed actor and director Bill Duke, who had earlier directed The Killing Floor (1984) and A Rage in Harlem (1991). The teleplay was written by Paul Monash, who had written for such classic shows as Studio One and Playhouse 90, and wrote the 1979 mini-series Salem's Lot. The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery is to be noted for its production design, which perfectly captures post-war New York City. Lindsey Hermer-Bell would do the production design for the regular Nero Wolfe series and would later do production design for such shows as Murdoch Mysteries and Suits.

The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery was watched by 3.2 million households, an exceptionally large number of viewers for a TV movie aired on a cable channel at the time. It also received a good deal of critical acclaim, with particular praise for Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin.  As mentioned earlier, the success of The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery led A&E to order the regular TV series Nero Wolfe.

There is much to commend The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery. There is the aforementioned production design. Bill Duke's direction makes The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery look more like a feature film than a TV movie. The teleplay is faithful to the novel, and much of the dialogue is taken directly from the book. What really sets The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery apart from other TV movies (or feature films, for that matter) are the performances of Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton as Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin respectively. The two men captured their characters perfectly, from Wolfe's petulance to Archie's wit. Through their performances they also show the stark contrasts between the characters,  Nero Wolfe's aristocratic demeanour and Archie Goodwin's more down-to-earth personality, while at the same time making it clear how their talents compliment each other.

Sadly, A&E cancelled the TV series that emerged from The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery, after only two seasons. A&E decided to abandon quality television shows such as Nero Wolfe for the cesspool that is reality television (yes, I am still sore about that). Regardless, the TV series Nero Wolfe maintains a cult following to this day, and it all started with The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Late Great M. Emmet Walsh

Legendary character actor M. Emmet Walsh, he appeared in movies from Blade Runner (1982) to Blood Simple (1984) to Knives Out (2019), died on March 19 2024 at the age of 88. The cause was cardiac arrest.

M. Emmet Walsh was born on Mach 22 1935 in Ogdensburg, New York. He grew up in Swanton, Vermont. He earned a degree in business administration from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. At the college he appeared in various stage productions there. He decided to pursue acting as a career after being encouraged by a faculty advisor. Mr. Walsh then moved to New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Art. He began his professional acting career in regional theatre.

M. Emmet Walsh made his television debut in 1968 in a guest appearance on the daytime soap opera The Doctors. He made his film debut the following year in an uncredited role in Midnight Cowboy (1969). He made his debut on Broadway in Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?. In the late Sixties he guest starred on television on N.Y.P.D. and Arnie. He appeared in the films Stiletto (1969), Alice's Restaurant (1969), End of the Road (1970), The Traveling Executioner (1970), and Little Big Man (1970).

In the Seventies M. Emmet Walsh had a recurring role on the Western TV series Nichols and a regular role on The Sandy Duncan Role. He appeared in the mini-series The French Atlantic Affair. He guest starred on the shows Julia; All in the Family; The Jimmy Stewart Show; Ironside, Bonanza; The Don Rickles Show; The Bob Newhart Show; McMillan & Wife; Amy Prentiss; The Rockford Files; The Waltons; Kate McShane, Baretta; Gibbsville; Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; Starsky and Hutch; James at 15; Dear Detective; and Skag. He appeared in the movies Cold Turkey (1971), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), They Might Be Giants (1971), What's Up, Doc? (1972), Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), Kid Blue (1973), Serpico (1973), The Gambler (1974), At Long Last Love (1975), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Nickelodeon (1976), Mikey and Nicky (1976), Slap Shot (1977), Airport '77 (1977), Straight Time (1978), The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979); The Jerk (1979); Brubaker (1980); Raise the Titanic (1980), and Ordinary People (1980). He appeared on Broadway in The Championship Season.

In the Eighties M. Emmet Walsh appeared in the movies Back Roads (1981), Reds (1981), Cannery Row (1982), The Escape Artist (1982), Fast-Walking (1982), Blade Runner (1982), Silkwood (1983), Scandalous (1984), Blood Simple (1984), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), Grandview, U.S.A. (1984), Missing in Action (1984), Courage (1984), Fletch (1985), The Best of Times (1986), Wildcats (1986), Critters (1986), Back to School (1986), Raising Arizona (1987), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), No Man's Land (1987), The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), Sunset (1988), Clean and Sober (1988), War Party (1988), Red Scorpion (1988), The Mighty Quinn (1989), Thunderground (1989), Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989), Catch Me if You Can (1989), Chattahoochee (1989), and Narrow Margin (1990). On television he appeared in the mini-series East of Eden, The Deliberate Stranger, and Brotherhood of the Rose. He guest starred on the shows Little House on the Prairie, ABC Afterschool Specials, After MASH, You Are the Jury, ABC Weekend Specials, The Twilight Zone, The Hitchhiker, The Wonderful World of Disney, Amazing Stories, Tales from the Crypt, and The Flash. He was a regular on the short-lived show Unsub.

In the Nineties Mr. Walsh appeared in the movies Killer Image (1992), White Sands (1992), Equinox (1992), The Naked Truth (1992), The Music of Chance (1993), Wilder Napalm (1993), Bitter Harvest (1993), Cops and Robbersons (1994), Camp Nowhere (1994), The Glass Shield (1994), Relative Fear (1994), Dead Badge (1995), Panther (1995), Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995), A Time to Kill (1996), Albino Alligator (1996), Romeo + Juliet (1996),  Retroactive (1997), The Killing Jar (1997), My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), Chairman of the Board (1997), Twilight (1998), Erasable You (1998), Wild Wild West (1999), Random Hearts (1999), Me and Will (1999), Jack of Hearts (1999), and Poor White Trash (1999). He was the voice of Earl Stutz in the animated classic The Iron Giant (1999). He guest starred on the TV shows The Jackie Thomas Show, Home Improvement, The Outer Limits, Early Edition, Tracey Takes On..., The X-Files, NYPD Blue, Gideon's Crossing, and Ed. He was a guest voice on the animated series The Wild Thornberrys. He was a regular voice on the animated show Big Guy and Rusty the Robot.

In the Naughts M. Emmet Walsh had a regular role on the short-lived television series The Mind of a Married Man. He guest starred on the shows Night Visions, Frasier, Charlie Lawrence, The Guardian, and 'Til Death. He was a guest voice on What's New, Scooby doo?. He appeared in the movies Snow Dogs (2002), Baggage (2003), Christmas with the Kranks (2004), Racing Stripes (2005), Greener Mountains (2005), Man in the Chair (2007), Big Stan (2007), Sherman's Way (2008), Your Name Here (2008), Don McKay (2009), Youth in Revolt (2009), Sam Steele and the Junior Detective Agency (2009), Chasing 3000 (2009), and The Assignment (2010).

In the Teens Mr. Walsh had recurring roles on the TV shows Damages and Sneaky Pete.. He was a regular voice on the animated shows Pound Puppies and Adventure Time. He guest starred on the shows Army Wives, 5-Second Films, Empire, Tim and Eric's Bedtime Stories, and The Righteous Gemstones. He appeared in the movies The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012), Arthur Green (2012), Love Sick Love (2012), Calvary (2014), Boiling Pot (2015), Shifting Gears (2018), Change in the Air (2018), Faith, Hope & Love (2019), Raising Buchanan (2019), Knives Out (2019), and The Mimic (2020).

In the 2020s he appeared in the movies The Immaculate Room (2022), Dotty & Soul (2022), A Little White Lie (2023), and Outlaw Posse (2024). He is set to appear in God Loves the Green Bay Packers. He guest starred on the television shows The Righteous Gemstones and American Gigolo.

M. Emmet Walsh was extremely prolific. What is more, he never retired. The reason that he was able to work so much and work so long is quite simply that he was enormously talented, so talented that he was never typecast. Throughout the years he played a wide variety of roles, from authority figures to lovable eccentrics to outright criminals. In Slap Shot he was the modest sportswriter Dickie Dunn, who in writing about sports always "tried to capture the spirit of the thing." One of his most famous roles, if not his most famous, was that of corrupt and absolutely amoral private detective Loren Visser. In The Iron Giant he voiced a character about as far from Loren Viser as one could get, local fisherman and town eccentric Earl Stutz. He was an Army sergeant in Alice's Restaurant (1969), Deckard's boss Bryant in Blade Runner, and the local sheriff in the movie Critters. He played a wide variety of characters on television as well, everything from Sandy's neighbour, motorcycle cop Alex Lembeck, on The Sandy Duncan Show to an insurance agent who hires Jim Rockford in the Rockford Files episode "Counter Gambit" to a former police officer who had an encounter with aliens in 1947 in the X-Files episode "The Unnatural." Even with his somewhat imposing size, M. Everet Walsh could play a wide variety of roles, many unlike any other he had played. He was not simply a great character actor. He was a great actor, period.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Thank You for a Successful 10th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon

I want to thank everyone who took part in this year's 10th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon and for making it a success. We had several entries this year. The posts covered shows from the Fifties to Nineties. They also covered a wide array of genres, from anthology shows to sci-fi shows to sitcoms. God willing, the Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon will return next year for its 11th iteration.