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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

The Dueling Detectives

In a Sunday night matchup, A&E's 'Nero Wolfe' easily defeats CBS' 'Murder on the Orient Express' on style points alone.

April 20, 2001|HOWARD ROSENBERG

A dark and mysterious thing has happened. Agatha Christie's masterful Belgian detective of an earlier time, Hercule Poirot, has disappeared.

The wax-sculpted mustache with tips saluting the heavens like tiny cathedral spires? Gone. The "twinkle" in the eye? Gone. The "mincing gait with . . . feet tightly enclosed in . . . patent leather shoes"? Gone. The vain, prissy, fussy, dust-free, dandified, sexually ambivalent, immodest little man who sees "with the eyes of the mind"? Gone.

In his place, a hulking impostor, plying his trade in 2001 with a libido showier than his intellect.

As Poirot himself would say, The head spins, does it not? It is madness.

Whodunit? CBS dunit, in its adaptation of arguably Christie's best novel, "Murder on the Orient Express." At the center of Sunday's leaden two hours is that good actor, Alfred Molina ("Chocolat"), a 6-footer about as miscast as anyone could be as Poirot. Even as a hip-looking, present-day Poirot, one whose fabled "little gray cells" require help from a Palm Pilot and laptop in a Stephen Harrigan script spewing references to Microsoft, Disney World, Ron Popeil's Pocket Fisherman and O.J. Simpson.

H.P. sharing oxygen with O.J. and Bill Gates? Madness, indeed. No wonder Poirot seems a trespasser in his own investigation, which is drab enough to be titled "Murder on Amtrak."

Much cheerier news arrives from cable's A&E network, where another famously eccentric private eye, created by Rex Stout, resumes TV life Sunday in a witty, beguiling, colorful, pulse-pounding hoot of a weekly series set in the '50s. With Maury Chaykin as the sedentary head sleuth and Timothy Hutton as his dogged assistant, Archie Goodwin, "Nero Wolfe" is as vibrant as "Murder on the Orient Express" is pastel. As a bonus, Archie is the only man on TV who wears a snap-brim hat like he means it.

If art is rewarded when these two overlap Sunday, Nero will fiddle while Hercule burns.

Based on a novel first published in 1934, "Murder on the Orient Express" has Poirot boarding the famed international train on which a mysterious American (Peter Strauss) will soon be found dead of multiple stab wounds. The suspects are a spate of travelers (two played by Meredith Baxter and Leslie Caron), each with a secret.

This new Poirot is not entirely divorced from the original. He still speaks reverently of himself in the third person: "The mind of Hercule Poirot turns to dinner." And as always, he methodically peels back layers of deception, and signals when the case is pretty much in the bag: "Be so kind to ask all the passengers to gather in the bar car."

Yet there's no fire in Carl Schenkel's direction, and this is not the Poirot whose wheels inside his head turn as fast as those on the train. He seems diverted, as when kissing a snapshot of the woman he loves: "We are just opposites, Vera and me."

As are he--the DNA not matching--and his predecessors. They include Albert Finney's memorable turn in an appealing 1974 movie of "Murder on the Orient Express," Peter Ustinov as the character in a strip of subsequent films, and best of all, David Suchet's definitively Art Deco Poirot throughout six years of a British series that has run on PBS and A&E.

Although moral ambiguity confronts Poirot in this story, he is neither complex nor inviolate as a fictional sleuth. Just as there have been multiples of Christie's Miss Marple, from Margaret Rutherford's goofy take on her to Joan Hickson's steely transfixion, why not the same for Poirot? If Shakespeare can be regularly rethought, moreover, why not also this amusing detective with an ego dwarfing the Globe Theatre?

Sever him from his period, though, and he's just another detective. Remove his style, as CBS does here, and he has no soul.

Style, on the other hand, is exactly what drives "Nero Wolfe." That and deft acting by Chaykin and executive producer Hutton--who also grandly directs the first two episodes--make it the greatest of fun Sunday from the moment a woman visits the leathery office Wolfe keeps in his posh Manhattan brownstone, writes him a $100,000 retainer and begs him to stop the FBI from spying on her. Lurking on the story's shadowy fringes is J. Edgar Hoover himself, and of course, there's a murder in this story adapted by Michael Jaffe.

From straw hat to natty black-and-white wingtips, Archie is the swaggering, milk-drinking, street-savvy legman of this unequal union, Wolfe the cultured closer who rakes in big fees while rarely venturing outdoors on business. The "oversized genius," as Archie irreverently titles him, is 275 pounds of authoritarian harrumph packed into a custom-made three-piece suit. A derrick couldn't budge him from that ornately furnished brownstone, where he is an antique among antiques, hovering over his personal chef while cultivating his gourmandise ("I must see about those cutlets") as assiduously as he does his beloved orchids in a glassed-in plant room.

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