Champagne for One (TV)

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by Timothy Hutton (2001)
Slapdash Review: The Art of Repartee

_Champagne for One_ is, I believe, one of the weakest novels in the classic Nero Wolfe murder-mystery series. It would, therefore, seem like an odd choice for the film-makers to select as one of the first Wolfe movies to include in the much-loved A&E TV series. However, the result does not disappoint; there is always the opportunity, when the literary source is of only mediocre quality, to exceed the book source in the way it is transposed to the screen; and that is exactly what happens here in the TV version of _Champagne for One_. Whereas the book is *not* enjoyable throughout, and is in fact in some places tiresome and the novel seems overlong -- that is decidedly not the case here in the TV version; it is brisk and fast-paced and enjoyable throughout the short run-time of not even 90 minutes.

Of course, Rex Stout's greatest weakness as a writer of murder mysteries is highlighted here in _Champagne for One_ as well: and that is his (murder-themed) plotting and dénouement; a true master of that skill, like Dame Agatha Christie, would slap their forehead at the far-fetched and anything but convincing dénouement that is presented to us here in _Champagne for One_; it's as if Rex Stout tried hard to make Nero Wolfe like Hercule Poirot, yet fails miserably in that endeavour.

Yet this does not matter at all in the Wolfean universe; that is because Rex Stout's focus is quite elsewhere: it's on that Wolfean universe, the great cast of leading characters and the interplay among them. There is great chemistry between Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as his assistant Archie Goodwin; the two men are purposefully depicted by Stout as each other's antithesis, even while being the closest confederates, and this antagonism combined with association and mutual dependence is excellently highlighted and portrayed in _Champagne for One_.

The dialogue in this TV version is very witty -- no wonder, since due to the movie's very short run-time, the screen-writers could pick and choose only the wittiest, juiciest bits of dialogue from the original book, while (it seems to me) also adding quite a few chunks of funny dialogue of their own making, fully in tune with the characters.

Hutton is pitch-perfect as Archie Goodwin. Chaykin is not the ideal portrayal of Nero Wolfe -- he seems much too mobile (both in terms of his body and facial mimicry) compared to the more stolid Wolfe of the books, and he also shouts and bawls too much, and seems to get too excited and infuriated over every trifle every five minutes of the movie; yet Chaykin's delivery of some of the classic Nero Wolfe lines and moments is masterful, so the other inaccuracies can easily be forgiven and forgotten.

The direction by Timothy Hutton this time around is adequate, unlike in the foregoing, disappointing _The Doorbell Rang_ where the characters' mannerisms got the upper hand and resulted in a dissatisfactory viewing experience that seemed too artificial, contrived to produce comical effects at all costs.

As always, in _Champagne for One_ as well, I regretted the film-makers' decision to turn Fritz the master chef into a one-dimensional "funny character" intended to provide comic relief; in the Rex Stout books, Fritz definitely does not fulfil that role; Fritz may be flustered and old-fashioned, but there is rarely anything comical about him in the books (he is rather drab and indistinctive in the books, in fact), whereas in the TV series, Colin Fox is playing Fritz's role straight (too straight!) for the laughs, which I find distracting in every instalment. It is a sign of lack of confidence on the film-makers' part if they need to resort to the character of Fritz to inject humour into the narration; that's because in the original books, all the wit and humour that the reader may need, is provided within the brilliant first-person narration by Archie Goodwin. Of course, first-person narration is extremely difficult to transfer from a book to the screen without any loss, and that is probably why -- to compensate for the loss of Archie's witty first-person narration -- the film-makers chose to turn Fritz into a clown; I for one am not too happy about this choice.

On the other hand, some of the other repertory actors shine in _Champagne for One_, particularly Kari Matchett as a depraved, seductive suspect, and the deliciously ever-growling Bill Smitrovich as Inspector Cramer; his role here is small and short, but incisive and memorable indeed. The movie also features great costumes, great 1950s period detail, and a very nice jazzy sound-track.

Rating: C--.gif (= C on a scale of A+ to F-)
--Faterson 15:08, 4 February 2012 (CET)
[original writing time between 13:54:12 & 14:32:49]

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