30 December 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Ciannelli has one brilliant scene.
Nero Wolfe is supposedly one of the great sleuths of detective fiction, but his appeal eludes me. Wolfe is an extremely unsympathetic character: arrogant, lazy, self-indulgent, corpulent. He avoids detective work (or any other work) unless he absolutely needs the money, preferring to spend his time eating enormous gourmet meals and tending his expensive orchids in his swank penthouse. Even more off-putting is the fact that Wolfe refuses to set foot outside, insisting that all the clues be brought to him by his 'leg man' Archie Goodwin. (It would be interesting if Wolfe were an agoraphobe, trapped in his house due to psychological terror rather than laziness.) Goodwin is a much more interesting character than Wolfe, and should have made a go of it as a detective without Wolfe's patronage.
In 1936, Columbia attempted to make a low-budget series of Nero Wolfe features. The casting for 'Meet Nero Wolfe' was impressive. Edward Arnold captured Wolfe's personality perfectly. I savour one scene in which Arnold, as Wolfe, supped a beer and then immediately spat it out again ... expertly depicting the basic vulgarity and self-indulgence of this character. Even more brilliantly, Lionel Stander was absolute perfection as Archie Goodwin, the role Stander was born to play. With this team, the series could have clicked.
For some reason, Edward Arnold did not come back for seconds. The next (and last) instalment in Columbia's short-lived series was 'The League of Frightened Men'. Stander returns as Goodwin, but Nero Wolfe is now played by Walter Connolly, an utterly unimpressive performer. Connolly's high-pitched voice and indecisive manner have ruined every role I've seen him play. There are quite a few good things in this movie (including its title), and I should like to have seen Charlie Chan or Philo Vance handle this material, with these production values (and with Lionel Stander along for the ride). But with Connolly in the central role, this film is a lot duller than it had to be.
The frightened men are ten Harvard alumni, from the same graduating class. They all came from wealthy backgrounds, and formed a fraternity. While at Harvard, they hazed Paul Chapin, a scholarship student from a lower-class background. The hazing went wrong (we never learn the details) and Chapin was crippled for life. All of this was years ago, and the ten men are now middle-aged. But three of them have died under mysterious circumstances, and a fourth has vanished. The other six have received threatening letters. In terror, they come to Wolfe (why not the police?), seeking his help. The obvious suspect is Chapin ... but in the interim he has become a successful author of murder mysteries, despite being crippled. Would he jeopardise his financial success for mere revenge? And, if Chapin is guilty, why has he waited so long for vengeance?
Eduardo Ciannelli was a character actor whom I've always disliked yet whom I consistently admire. His cold manner, coarse features and accent keep him resolutely unlikeable on screen, but his talent as an actor is manifest. (Unlike that of Walter Connolly.) There's one very powerful scene in this film. The Harvard alumni -- a bunch of overstuffed fiftyish men -- stand trembling in Wolfe's study, pleading with him to protect them from Chapin. Suddenly the door opens and Eduardo Ciannelli totters into the room, supporting his twisted body on two walking sticks. With Lon Chaney-like effort, he crutches his way round the room, confronting the men who maimed him, snarling with rage while they quiver and shake. Then he lurches out of the room again. A great scene by a great actor; too bad it isn't in a better film.
A major flaw in 'The League of Frightened Men' is that our sympathies are meant to be with Wolfe's six clients, and against Chapin. But I felt just the other way. These men pulled a stupid stunt that crippled a man for life, yet they don't seem the least bit disposed to compensating him. They haven't even the grace to apologise. (A correspondent who has read Rex Stout's novel informs me that they did give Chapin some compensation in the book; the subject isn't even mentioned in this film.) Ciannelli typically played unsympathetic characters, but here for once I was in his corner.
Also on hand here is character actress Rafaela Ottiano, whom I usually find quite sexy even while I'm repulsed by most of the characters she plays on screen. She and Lionel Stander are quite good here. Edward McNamara, the living embodiment of the Irish cop, plays here (for once) a cop who isn't Irish. One of the potential murder victims in this movie is played by Victor Kilian, ironically a murder victim in real life. 'The League of Frightened Men' has a lot of those wonderful elements that make many low-budget second features of the 1930s so enjoyable ... but the pieces never quite come together, and the hole at the centre of this movie is Walter Connolly's weak and boring performance. I don't believe that there has ever been a first-rate Nero Wolfe movie, but 'Meet Nero Wolfe' with Edward Arnold is much more enjoyable than this limp sequel. Mostly for the performances of Stander, Ciannelli and Ottiano, I'll rate this movie 6 out of 10.