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Happy Christmas, Santa Wolfe

By MARTIN SIEFF, Senior News Analyst   |   Dec. 25, 2001 at 12:15 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Dec. 25 (UPI) -- Load your trusty .38 revolver. Strap on your sexy shoulder holster. Snap down your stylish fedora. And roar off in your tail-finned Cadillac. You're having a merry little Christmas with Nero Wolfe.

The Arts and Entertainment Network is celebrating the day of good cheer with a bizarre disregard for original intent that typifies American popular entertainment in all its crass, sublime contempt for taste or even common sense. They are rerunning their delightful detective series of earlier this year. And yet the timing is curiously, touchingly comforting.

This series was produced a lifetime, an eon, an age ago -- in other words, before the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, or 9-11. And even then, it was deliberately meant to be a period piece, set with loving precision in the dream New York City of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a perfect Golden Age of the Big Apple. Today that world appears as impossibly secure and confident, and as far off and unattainable as Dorothy's Land of Oz, the Mountain of the Grinch, or Santa's Little Helpers at the North Pole.

Aficionados of the show, originally aired and now rerun on Sunday nights, know that it does the 350 pound, orchid-cultivating, beer-guzzling, gourmet dinner-tasting, blustering, selfish, insufferably, know-it-all, utterly irresistible Montenegrin-American detective genius created by author Rex Stout full justice. The great veteran actor Mauray Chaykin was born to play Nero. And Timothy Hutton is equally perfect as his leg-man and always squabbling employee/amanuensis/Dr. Watson/ Captain Hastings sidekick, Archie Goodwin.

Archie is no mere fall guy in the Dr. Watson-Hastings tradition. The stories are all told through his eyes. He is a man of action, irresistible to women -- though usually the wrong ones. In the early novels, a distressing number of the stylish Manhattan blondes he connects with end up either murdered or commit the grisly deed themselves. Archie squabbles endlessly with Wolfe, usually over money. He is as articulate and witty as Chandler's Marlowe without the angst. It is no wonder that Hutton clearly loves playing him.

Hutton, in fact, was the driving force behind the whole project. He was listed as an executive producer for the series and directed the pilot and the first showcase two-part episode that set the tone for the series, and very well too.

The original classic stories and novels -- there are 73 of them -- span more than three decades from the 1930s on. Hutton and his collaborators very wisely set them all in the late 1940s or early 1950s, an almost ignored era in retro movies and TV shows. But the clothes were as stylish as the 30s, Art Deco still dazzled, unbelievably swish Cadillacs still gleamed and the jazz musicians whom Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had not succeeded in ruining could still knock out a mean beat. Hutton commissioned a percussion jazz incidental theme that Chic Webb himself at the Apollo Theater would have died for. And to top it all, there is even the hauntingly beautiful Kari Marchett as Lily Rowan, who in the later novels was to Archie what Nora was to Nick in the "Thin Man" tales.

There is even a Christmas episode. Nero, in a rare moment of good grace, agrees to appear at a party as Santa Claus. There is, of course, a murder, and the police hunt the Santa as their chief suspect. How can Nero get himself off the hook and, even more challenging, turn a healthy profit at the same time? One takes it for granted that justice will be done as an afterthought.

There are darker notes too, just as there are in an exuberant jazz riff. A 10-year-old boy who makes money for his impoverished tenement family cleaning car windows suddenly realizes the car he has flagged down is accelerating not breaking. Hutton as director zooms to close up of his terrified young face as he realizes he is facing the instrument of his own execution.

A beautiful woman -- not Lily, but also played in another episode by the versatile Marchett -- chats merrily on the phone with Archie about her lost keys. He realizes that a killer already is in the apartment with her and tells her to walk to the front door and then slam it. We wait with him to hear that slam over the telephone line. It never comes, and we, like he, know that she is dead, slaughtered before she could reach her own front door.

In a holiday season when the vast gaping maw of popular television entertainment always feeds on the nostalgic and the coziness of mythical dream worlds, "Nero Wolfe" delivers. The show captures the magic allure of Golden Age New York of the early post World War II era -- all the style and swing of the 30s minus the Depression -- with exceptional pizzazz. The producers of Poirot, Miss Marple and all the rest could not do better.

Hutton, an Oscar winner, and Chaykin are at the heart of it all. They have done many prestigious things in their careers and no doubt will do many more. But it is clear they know they will never have more fun than doing this. One should also note the as usual excellent Bill Smitrovich, chewing up cigars as if they were Coney Island ice-cream cones as the bullying, nasty and eternally outwitted and humiliated Inspector Kramer.

"Nero Wolfe" also succeeds because it pulls off wish fulfillment among its audience at different levels simultaneously. Archie and Nero are both dream models, especially for aging family men seeking a few minutes relief from the relentless bombardment of childish and teenage energy that always peaks at this season.

Where is the husband or father with the inexorably growing paunch and the lifelong failure to deliver stinging repartee in real time who would not dream of being Archie Goodwin? As played by the dapper, witty, always-aware Hutton, he is everyone's good fellow well-met, stylish white suit draped over that cool shoulder holster and a tall, elegant society beauty draped over his arm.

And for those of us too old to even indulge ourselves in such gently alluring dreams, there is Nero himself. He is the master of the devastating put down, turning lawyers, bullying, obnoxious senior police officers, millionaires and insufferable society matrons an apoplectic purple as he puts them in their well-deserved place.

On one memorable occasion also celebrated in the Christmas telethon, he even left J. Edgar Hoover himself out in the cold, vainly ringing the doorbell above that fabled seven-step stoop. (And Hutton, bless him, took pains to make sure that the stoop, meticulously recreated in a freezing Ontario warehouse soundstage really did have seven steps.)

Stout was almost as witty as Raymond Chandler. His detective had splendid putdown lines almost as good as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And his mysteries were constructed a lot more smoothly than Agatha Christie's. But you do not expect Chandlerian wit from Conan Doyle, or Conan Doyle's superbly breathless sense of atmosphere and melodrama from Christie, or Christie's scathingly clear, unblinking vision of the monstrous crimes that average human nature is capable of all from the same pen.

Stout gives you all of it. He is the Willie Mays or Derek Jeter of the mystery genre: a brilliant all-rounder more talented in each area than any single writer should ever dream of being. And A&E, bless it, has repackaged its minor gem of a series as a genial counterpoint to -- and relief from -- the relentless sentimentality of Christmas Day programming across the rest of the vast Continent of Cable. Tune in between 8 am and 8 pm Eastern Time and see the extra treat Santa gave you.

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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