"A Nero Wolfe Mystery" The Doorbell Rang (TV Episode 2001) Poster

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The Best Version of Wolfe So Far
harper_blue30 June 2001
Fans of mysteries (book or film) break into several political camps, prominent among which are the Chain of Reasoning group vs. the Hard-Boiled party. While the puzzle aspect is present in both, it takes on possibly more importance in the Chain of Reasoning, where clues are examined through deductive reasoning, as opposed to the knock-on-doors, grind-it-out Hard-Boiled method. (You can probably guess which camp I prefer.) Typical of CoR would be Poirot and Miss Marple; Hard-Boiled is exemplified by Spenser and any standard cop show.

A pleasant cross-pollination is Nero Wolfe, with its eccentric, heavyset genius and his wise-cracking assistant, Archie Goodwin, both created by author Rex Stout. Wolfe, according to Goodwin (the voice in the Wolfe books and this TV-movie), weighs a seventh of a ton (English, not metric), refuses to shake hands, feels himself capable of ordering the New York Police around at his whim, charges exorbitant fees, and is an absolute genius. He refuses to leave his brownstone house except on the most urgent of business; he has the suspects brought to him, believe it or not, usually by Archie, assisted (grumpily) by Homicide Detective Inspector Cramer. And it works!

Six recreations of Wolfe and Archie are on record in IMDb. The most recent, Maury Chaykin is excellent as Wolfe, if perhaps a little more human than Wolfe was written in the books by Rex Stout. However, a character who is nominally the hero of a story has to be made sympathetic if the viewer will accept them. Chaykin not only has the requisite skill, he also has the needed girth, bluster and general facial appearance of a Wolfe. Opposite him, Timothy Hutton plays Archie; he gives a most satisfactory portrayal of the wisecracking, completely competent Goodwin.

The story is straight from what is probably Rex Stout's most famous novel, and for justifiable reasons. In "The Doorbell Rang," Wolfe is engaged by a client for $50,000 -- retainer! -- to get the FBI off her back, where they have been unjustifiably hanging. The only way to do that, understandably, is to somehow hang J. Edgar Hoover's FBI up by the heels in a dry wind.... The book was set in the 1960s; Hutton (the executive producer and director as well as Goodwin) chooses to set it in the Fifties, for the more colorful styles. The supporting cast is excellent in their various characters, and the script is quite faithful to Stout's book. But does Wolfe pull it off? Well, that's for you to discover (heh, heh....) The show was the first in a series on A&E, so watch the others, and watch for this one (or buy the tape, of course). As Wolfe would say, it is most satisfactory.
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The First of The Best Series of Nero Wolfe Stories
theowinthrop7 December 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Rex Stout, the master mystery novelist who created "Nero Wolfe" (and his assistant "Archie Goodwin") was a firm believer in the Bill of Rights. That is an admirable quality. But in the 1950s it was a dangerous one, as the forces of reaction took over the Federal Government for awhile and the era of Joseph McCarthy came into existence. McCarthy fell from power in 1954, but several of his closest allies remained in high office until the end of the decade (though with declining effect). One who did not go into that good night (at least at that time) was the head of the F.B.I., J. Edgar Hoover. Stout never cared for the head G-Man, whom he saw as a power-hungry bureaucrat who publicized the successes of his organization as though only he was responsible, and used (or misused) his power to ruin his foes.

The novel, THE DOORBELL RANG, is not the best of the mysteries Stout wrote about his pair of investigators. Probably THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN or FER-DE-LANCE are better stories. But it is a superb example of slapping a man in the face figuratively and publicly without committing a crime - so it is justifiably among the best recalled mystery novels of Stout, or for that matter among American mystery novelists.

If you looked at the summary for this thread you have the basics of the story: A wealthy woman requests Wolfe's assistance in stopping Hoover's vicious hounding when she dares to send copies of an anti-Hoover book to her friends. Wolfe finds a covered-up murder by an FBI agent. Wolfe finds that once he starts the investigation, he is...well, he's no longer alone. He can see his phone has been tapped, and he notes very quickly the all too obtrusive presence across the street of FBI men.

What follows is an interesting example of what was true across the country. Normally FBI involvement in any state or local investigation was not well received, because the local police quickly found themselves pushed aside as subservient foot soldiers at best (at worst as uniformed gophers). In a typical Wolfe story the NYPD is not happy about him showing them up (his Inspector Lestrade - Inspector Cramer - is constantly threatening to get him arrested for interfering with police investigations, and constantly getting egg on his face). Here for the first and (as far as I know) the only time Cramer learns what is going on, and offers his department's help: he loathes the FBI and their arrogant local head Wragg.

I will not go into the details of this but Wolfe basically sets up the FBI to commit a crime that he can use against them. It's very clever dealing with convincing the FBI that he and Archie have left their brownstone home. When the FBI agents come into the house...well they find it most embarrassing when they have to leave the house.

Maury Chaykin is a fairly well known Canadian character actor, and his two year stint as Nero Wolfe was his best role. It was not a perfect match of his physical appearance (actually Chaykin is not as fat as Stout made Wolfe) but it gave him a role with real teeth in it. Wolfe is brilliant, but he is spoiled and even more arrogant than Wragg is. But he has a sense of justice (like all good detectives in fiction) and he pushes for it constantly. Timothy Hutton (who also directed this episode well) played Archie as he should be - a man who adores his boss, but loves to tease him every now and then.

And the title: Well I regret this but I will explain it.


Having embarrassed his organization Hoover decides to show what a "big" man he is, by visiting Nero and Archie. It is quite a shocker to Archie when he sees Hoover in the street walking up the steps to the doorway to ring the bell. Archie rushes to the door when the bell rings, only to hear Nero say "Don't open it!" The novel ends with Hoover ringing the bell again and again and again, and being met with total silence. As I said, it was the perfect conclusion.
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