Following right on the heels of the masterful TV adaptation of Prisoner’s Base, which even managed to be better than Rex Stout’s original novel, this episode, no. 6 in Season 1, is a let-down. You cannot say it is “bad”, but compared to such foregoing jewels as Prisoner’s Base or The Golden Spiders, it is likely to disappoint. Then again, it’s not the first glitch in A&E’s Nero Wolfe TV series: I thought that The Doorbell Rang, which opened Season 1, was a real misfire, whereas Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo is simply mediocre. It has quite a few good moments, but also quite a few bad ones.
Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo was the very first Nero Wolfe novelette to be shown as part of A&E’s series, and indeed, the short length of it (at least as eventually broadcast by A&E, its runtime is only 46 minutes) is the best thing about the episode. There are no delays here, and we get to the point instantly. We get to see a swift exposition of the murder mystery, and its equally prompt resolution by Wolfe & Archie; no time to get bored – everything moves at break-neck speed, yet not too fast.
What seems lacking compared to the successes that were Prisoner’s Base and The Golden Spiders, is direction. Under Bill Duke’s and Neill Fearnley’s assured hands, I thought the actors were performing in the roles in the best possible ways. Yet I disliked Tim Hutton’s direction (or lack of it) in The Doorbell Rang, and the same apparent flaw – a less assured direction – seems evident in Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo. Just too many scenes and the manner of the delivery of dialogues, seem off. Many lines may have been taken directly from Stout, but they are not always delivered in the optimal manner. One feels as if this director, John L’Ecuyer, was decidedly less familiar with the characters and their true distinguishing traits.
The worst thing about Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo, and where the direction most painfully went overboard, is Fritz’s character. Fritz is a mere buffoon in the TV version of Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo, solely there to provide comic relief, which he fails to do – at least to the eyes of this seasoned Wolfe fan. To the best of my recollection, Fritz is never a buffoon in any of the 47 original Nero Wolfe volumes; he may frequently be flustered in the books, but always manages to preserve a quiet dignity; and he most certainly is not in the books to provide “comic relief”. Rex Stout does not need any extra comic relief in his writing because, being an accomplished master of comedy, Archie Goodwin’s narration is supremely witty at most any time, no matter what events or characters Archie may be depicting. In resorting to the crutch of turning Fritz into a buffoon on TV, the TV makers betray a lack of confidence: they probably did not feel their narration of Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo would be entertaining enough without such artificial additions. Also to the best of my recollection, Fritz never got drunk at any time in the course of the decades of the Nero Wolfe saga unfolding; yet in this TV episode, we see him totter about drunkenly a number of times. His dialogues with Wolfe are way off, and border on the ridiculous. Fritz and Wolfe may argue in Rex Stout’s books, too, which may be comical, but it never feels ridiculous. I’m afraid many Nero Wolfe fans might wince repeatedly while observing the interactions between Wolfe and Archie in this TV episode. Unlike in Rex Stout’s books, this is just forced, unnatural, meaning: failed comedy we get to watch in this particular episode.
On a number of occasions in this episode, I also disliked Maury Chaykin’s portrayal of Wolfe. Chaykin as Wolfe is simply too mobile here. He is not only physically “not quite fat enough”, but in Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo, he moves his body (including, prominently, his head) too fast, he speaks too fast, bays too much, and even eats too fast – lacking the dignity one might associate with a gourmet like Nero Wolfe. Watching Chaykin eat reminds you of watching a common person stuffing their face in a fast-food restaurant. It is as if the break-neck speed of the TV episode – only 46 minutes of runtime – “infected” also Maury Chaykin, so that he feels the need to eat faster than would become a gourmet of Nero Wolfe’s calibre. I have always imagined Wolfe to be eating slowly, deliberately, so that he could appreciate the full taste of all the delicacies on his plates. For the emblematic failed Nero Wolfe scene in Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo, watch Chaykin when Nero Wolfe is watching his carpets being taken away by the police. There is no dialogue in this scene, but while the proceedings strike one as realistic and believable in the book, the rendition of the same scene on TV, Wolfe’s “fury” with a clenched fist, seems just too in-your-face, theatrical, stagey, histrionic.
Yet Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo is not all a failure, but rather an amalgam of excellently played scenes with bungled ones. Maury Chaykin, Timothy Hutton and the rest of the cast are too excellent actors not to extract many delightful moments from their mutual interactions here. Some scenes and lines of dialogue are marvellously spot-on; in details, Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo manages to be perfect here and there. Watch, for example, Chaykin’s great delivery of lines such as “the most severe humiliation I have suffered in recent years”; watch Hutton’s seemingly off-the-cuff remark to Wolfe about “taking your necktie off…”; or watch Smitrovich as Inspector Cramer (the most consistently superb performer throughout the A&E series) saying to Wolfe, “you’re a goddamn screwball is all I know”, towards the end.