Style wins a happy victory over substance in the A&E Original Nero Wolfe mystery “The Golden Spiders.” Superb acting, stylish design and perfect pacing from director Bill Duke more than compensate for the convoluted storyline. Timothy Hutton, Maury Chaykin and a stellar ensemble deliver one juicy moment after another.
The clever invention of novelist Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe (Chaykin), the greatest detective in the world, has an essential idiosyncrasy: He never leaves his Manhattan brownstone. Relying on foot soldiers — and especially the assistance of right-hand man Archie Goodwin (Hutton) — Wolfe “weighs a seventh of a ton,” loves his orchids above all and can be childish and brilliant in equal measure.
Yarn launches with the arrival of a young boy named Pete, who, while engaging in the windshield-wiping “racket,” has encountered a woman who begs for him to call the police, while driving a mysterious man in the back seat of her car. The boy figures the woman has been abducted, and leaps to the assumption that there’s reward money involved, which he’s willing to share with super sleuth Wolfe.
Wolfe agrees to make some initial inquiries to the police, and finds himself tied to the case when Pete is killed, especially when it turns out the kid’s dying request was for his mother to bring Wolfe his life savings — $ 4.30 — to hire the master detective to find the murderer.
The mystery takes on multiple levels so quickly that it’s sometimes hard to follow the main suspects, and the plot probably makes no sense at all if one were to bother unraveling the threads. No matter: Few mysteries of this complexity do, and it’s perhaps more important to allow our mastermind detective to remain a step ahead of the audience than to wrap things up tidily at the end. The audience is thus kept on its toes, and can relish Wolfe’s insightful observations without getting too picky about the details, which include, with a nod to the title, a gaudy pair of golden spider earrings.
Besides, the real pleasure here is not in the plot, but in the playing. Chaykin is wonderfully petulant as Wolfe, and Hutton shows a surprising comedic charm that reveals an as-yet-undiscovered range. Even better, the performances are more than the sum of their parts: The testy chemistry between the two leads multiplies the amusement.
Bill Smitrovich as Inspector Cramer is an ideal foil for Chaykin as well, always smart and often exasperated. If the audience has half as much fun as the actors seem to be having, we should be seeing more of Nero Wolfe in the future.
The fact that most scenes take place in Wolfe’s home allows for an unusual attention to detail. Lindsey Hermer-Bell’s meticulous design gives the film a rich feel. Georgina Yarhi’s period costumes — story takes place in 1953 — reveal lots about the characters without giving away too much. Cinematography from Michael Fash adds subtle shadings.
Teleplay by Paul Monash gets the mystery-speak just right, and balances character nuance with storyline. Director Bill Duke deserves kudos for bringing the right light touch and ensuring that everybody’s on the same page.