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Monsieur Spade Gets Lost In Its Own Murk

AMC's gritty crime drama takes Dashiell Hammett’s private detective to France.
  • Clive Owen IS Monsieur Spade (Photo: AMC)
    Clive Owen IS Monsieur Spade (Photo: AMC)

    Few can pull off the fedora/trenchcoat look these days, regardless of how diligently the items are tailored to fit. It's probably on purpose, then, that Clive Owen, who steps into the Sam Spade role made famous by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, doesn't wear the private investigator's outfit very often in Monsieur Spade; it looks too goofy on him. That's about as apt a metaphor needs to be for AMC's six-part television event from Scott Frank and Tom Fontana: All the salacious bells and whistles that come with Monsieur Spade — international conspiracies, murder, a faint whiff of the supernatural, folks who aren't what they seem — should be a snug fit given that it’s riffing off of the works of Dashiell Hammett. Instead, these affected noir elements hang off Spade like that ill-fitting number.

    Maybe that's down to Frank and Fontana's premise being so screwy, and familiar. Work it into a crummy elevator pitch, and you'll come up with something like True Detective: World Police, with a bit of Logan tossed in the mix. Frank, who directs the series and once shared an Oscar nomination for co-writing Logan, likes extra seasoning on his heroes, and the Sam in Monsieur Spade is a bit longer in the tooth. This direction is in keeping with a not-so-recent trend where genre fare depicts the paragons of yesteryear as past their prime to see how — or if — they adapt to changing times. The most mileage the series gets out of this, however, is Sam attempting to quit smoking (he's developing emphysema) and scoffing at the prospect of a man landing on the moon. "What's the point?" he asks. Indeed.

    Unlike Logan, Monsieur Spade isn't concerned with deconstruction so much as reinvention. Its first moments follow Sam to France as he ties up loose ends from The Maltese Falcon and winds up staying because, naturally, he falls in love with a wealthy vintner named Gabrielle (Chiara Mastroianni). Gabrielle is beautiful, harbors a novel's worth of secrets, and is, as befits the material, doomed. So, they get hitched, and soon after, Sam winds up inheriting her vineyard estate outside Bozouls, France. (Even the show seems surprised by this turn of events, with its opening crawl stating, "France? Spade? Not a chance!" Oui — and yet!)

    In keeping with Logan, our hero is also saddled with a kid. (There are two kids, but let's start with the one that mostly works.) Sam is inevitably pulled out of retirement to protect Teresa (Cara Bossom), a mercurial teenager of indeterminate age (for plot reasons) who lives at a nearby monastery where she witnesses the execution of four nuns. (This confluence of brutality and religion recalls the first season of HBO's Perry Mason, another period-set mystery of varying quality.)

    Hammett only faintly sketched out Spade's life and history, so consequently, his world is small: Teresa is the daughter of Brigid O'Shaughnessy (played wonderfully by Mary Astor in Falcon), who paid Sam to fly the child out to France so she could be reunited with her sketchy soldier-of-fortune father, Philippe Saint-Andre (Jonathan Zaccaï). Luckily, or maybe not for Sam, Teresa takes more after her mother. ("Does [Teresa] tell the truth?" Sam is asked. His response: "Not on purpose.”)

    As for Philippe, his character works better on paper than in practice. He's a cracked reflection of Spade, a similarly cold customer who lives by the gun and trysts with dangerous women, drastically unappealing yet somehow appealing enough to have also vied for Brigid's heart in between her off-screen rolls in the hay with Sam. (The most fan-fiction part of Monsieur Spade is its assertion that Sam helped Brigid get out of prison following the Falcon affair because they loved each other so much — but then there's Philippe!) As a foil, Philippe counters Spade's private dick lingo with the kind of moody Nic Pizzolatto-styled dross that gives malformed shape to the series's themes and choice of locale. Bouzols, after all, is a small town built around a gigantic canyon; for Philippe it is a Hell by many definitions, all of them silly.

    One of the better aspects of Hammett's yarns was that they were tight; you could keep track of his small cast of shady characters. Monsieur Spade sprawls with miserable types. There are Sam's neighbors, George and Cynthia Fitzsimmons (Matthew Beard and Rebecca Root), a British son-and-mother act so cartoonishly out of place amidst this pastoral sophistication — George, an aspiring painter, makes a botch of capturing Sam’s vineyard — that they can't possibly be who they say they are. And try not to forget about the troubled married couple Marguerite (Louise Bourgoin) and Jean-Pierre (Stanley Weber), who both suffer Jean-Pierre's jealousy whenever Sam comes around — JP believes he's owed part of Gabrielle's vineyard, and also Marguerite might be in love with Sam — as well as his PTSD from his time as a soldier.

    Jean-Pierre's violent history in Algiers (De Gaulle's historic withdrawal is yet another layer of glaze on this sweaty ham) is what connects him to Zayd (Ismaël Berqouch). The boy is the key to Monsieur Spade's nun-slaughtering mystery and functions as the series’ MacGuffin, à la the coveted statue in The Maltese Falcon. A character serving as a story device isn't anything new, but for a highfalutin period piece, using a child to propel its murderous story about boundaries — tied, even tangentially, to France’s former occupation of a Muslim country — feels cheap, especially when Berqouch's character is written as mute to avoid whatever protestations he may have as the French people around him dictate his destiny. (Also: he only responds to whistling.) As a flesh-and-blood character, he should change the story's approach to the concept, but he doesn't. The devastation left in the pursuit of the falcon underscores the original story's themes of desire, but Zayd’s existence is just a means to an end.

    All this is not to say Monsieur Spade isn't at least a handsome series to look at — it is, plus AMC's clear devotion to France makes its 1963 period setting easier to swallow — nor does it suggest that Frank and Fontana aren't sincere in their tribute to Hammett's potboilers. (Though Agatha Christie deserves a big shout.) And it turns out that Clive Owen makes a pretty damn good Sam Spade; regardless of the language he uses (his French is not entirely awful), his growly American drawl resembles the one he gnawed on in 2005's Sin City, and, at 59 years old, he shares Bogart's world-weary brow. Owen's even cinched that "Oh? Really?" look Bogart once gave Mary Astor, and he shoots it at Chiara Mastroianni — film royalty, by the way — with a casual smoothness that makes Monsieur Spade feel cooler than it is.

    The least of Monsieur Spade's problems, though equally distracting, is that Spade could be named Jones, even with all the references that get worked in. There are too few moments where Old Man Spade grapples with his belligerent gumshoe roots (not for nothing, there is a scene in which he, um, "questions" a soldier using only his feet), and so the conflict never provokes him to truly discover the new limits this series has put on him. As the finale approaches and the audience — say nothing of the hero — is walked through its intricate twists and turns, one grapples with the cynical reasons why a detective as notoriously heavy as Sam Spade was ever taken off the shelf. Here he is, floating in the murk of mystery as helplessly as the rest of us.

    Monsieur Spade premieres January 14 at 3:01AM ET on AMC+ and Acorn TV, followed by its linear airing at 9:00 PM ET on AMC. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.

    TOPICS: Monsieur Spade, AMC, AMC+, Chiara Mastroianni, Clive Owen, Dashiell Hammett