Prisoner's Base (TV)

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by Neill Fearnley (2001)
Slapdash Review: A Scintillating Wolfean Masterpiece -- Better Than the Book!

For the second straight episode, but even more so here, the A&E series creators have made the most of the limited runtime of 90 minutes to produce magic out of a book that I would not rank among the best in the Nero Wolfe series. There is an international version of _Prisoner's Base_ running over 96 minutes, but the scenes cut for the US TV version -- no matter how barbaric and "insupportable" the practice may be -- are immaterial. 90 minutes are not really conducive to transferring a master novel to the screen (big or small) -- given such short runtime, you can only butcher an original that is a masterpiece.

_Prisoner's Base_ the book is not a masterpiece; but I wouldn't hesitate to call the TV version one. It's first-rate both as a murder mystery and as a comedy -- which was exactly Rex Stout's forte: blending the two genres of mystery fiction and comedy into one coherent whole. The primary credit for the success of _Prisoner's Base_ must go to the screenwriters Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin. They were allowed to "pick and choose" in the book, so what we get to see here in 90 minutes, is pretty much a "Best Of" from among all the scenes and moments contained in the book; pretty much only the juiciest tidbits -- no wonder, then, that watching this episode is undiluted joy, unlike reading the book that can sometimes strike you as being too long! The pace of the TV episode is furious, if anything can be furious that involves the sedentary character of Nero Wolfe as the leading protagonist.

However, just as it happens with some of Rex Stout's finest books, so may be the case here with this TV episode, that the main star is actually Archie Goodwin, not Nero Wolfe. The tension and one might even say, the love-hate relationship between the two, is palpable from the very first minute to the last. The episode comes full circle and ends where it began, and there is nothing more satisfactory than that, for a Nero Wolfe fan: to behold the eternal, unchanging, ageless nature of Wolfean universe. How many things in life are as constant as this -- all the arrangements pertaining to the Brownstone household? Nero Wolfe is like the sun around which everything else must revolve and submit to its power -- no matter if insolent clients or employees, outside visitors, or police and city officers.

One of Rex Stout's chief triumphs is the emancipation of the Dr. Watson type of character. Can you imagine Dr. Watson flaunting Sherlock Holmes's instructions, or Captain Hastings rebelling against Hercule Poirot? No, sir. But that's pretty much all that Archie Goodwin does throughout _Prisoner's Base_. Goodwin is no lame puppet in Wolfe's hands; yes, Wolfe is all-powerful within his confines, but Goodwin, equally powerfully, asserts his independence, and convincingly shows Wolfe that he is capable of freeing himself from the limits imposed by Wolfe -- and that he really means it. Timothy Hutton gives a fabulous, nuanced performance here, and every sentence he says in this episode is delivered in just the right tone, with just the right facial expression. When he submits his resignation to the boss, you can see that this is no joke; he is genuinely hurt. Hutton displays the whole spectrum of Goodwin's character in _Prisoner's Base_: from being saucy and cocky as usual, to being human and compassionate and struck with remorse, to being just plain dead-tired and hungry (the memorable porcupine line). His interaction with the pitiful character expertly portrayed by Kari Matchett is among the highlights of _Prisoner's Base_, because it shows Goodwin constantly vacillating between the two poles of his personality (cocky versus compassionate) while dealing with Sarah Jaffee. This episode also shows Goodwin as a full-blooded action character: see his emergency invasion of Sarah Jaffee's apartment house, or his rescue effort in the episode's final scene. Wolfe, meanwhile, sparkles with his usual verbal acrobatics from start to finish, and each of the grimaces pulled by Maury Chaykin is spot-on.

The acting by the regular ensemble is uniformly perfect. Although I have some reservations as to the casting of several characters (R. D. Reid seems too old and thickset to me to play Sgt. Stebbins, and Conrad Dunn seems too polished to me to play Saul Panzer, not to mention the missing big nose) -- all actors are just phenomenal here, which notably includes the 6 suspects (James Tolkan frequently stealing the show simply by taking a nap at an inopportune moment). The attention given to even the seemingly most insignificant supporting cast members is admirable. A Nero Wolfe fan will rejoice at seeing some of the minor characters from the Wolfean universe come alive here. Bill MacDonald is a scream as Lietutenant Rowcliff, especially in the opening scene with him barging onto the stage. Hrant Alianak is great as the neighbourhood lawyer Nathaniel Parker: polished, refined and dignified as every lawyer should be, but he still manages to be funny to look at all at the same time. Robert Bockstael and Aron Tager, as the D. A. Bowen and Commissioner Skinner, only get a few minutes of on-screen time, but each of them manages to impress. Bill Smitrovich as Inspector Cramer is outstanding as usual. In fact, the police crew is very much another (collective) hero of _Prisoner's Base_: here, they are not really shown as the typical dullards prevalent in private-eye fiction; the investigation of these particular murders is shown as a joint effort with Wolfe and Archie, in a spirit of cooperation, never mind Rowcliff's snarling and stuttering. As Archie remarks of Cramer at the beginning, "He started calling me Archie for a change."

A curiosity: for anyone watching the episode as originally aired in 2 installments, and paying attention to the closing credits of Part I, these credits actually give away the solution of the whodunnit. Perhaps the TV makers relied (justifiably or not) on not many viewers noticing the disclosure.

You can't go any higher than this in murder mystery fiction made-for-TV, and _Prisoner's Base_ must definitely be counted among the candidates for the best episode within A&E's TV series that was, sadly, cancelled after only 2 seasons.

Rating: A-p.gif (= A+ on a scale of A+ to F-)
--Faterson 15:25, 9 April 2012 (CEST)
[original writing time between 13:57:20 & 15:10:11]

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