With Further Ado #283: Calling a Spade a Spade…, or Bonjour, Monsieur Spade

The Maltese Falcon (1941) is one of my favorite movies and, in some ways, it led the way for an entire genre. Or two. Film noir and hard-boiled detective novels owe a lot to this picture’s enduring charm.

It is, if I were to oversimply, private eye Sam Spade’s greatest adventure. So much so that the public has been enthralled with similar characters and mystery stories for 80 plus years. Hollywood had tried to make this movie, based on the 1930 pulp novel, twice before, but the third time was a charm. John Houston was the director and Humphrey Bogart, as Spade, was surrounded by top-notch actors.

(The villain was played by Sidney Greenstreet – in his very first film role at age 61!)

Spade was one of those early wisecracking detectives who were clever, relentless and followed his own moral compass.

Here’s how creator/author Dashiell Hammett described the enduring character:

Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not — or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague — want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

The public has also been eager for more stories about the character Sam Spade, but author/creator Dashiell Hammett only wrote a few stories about him.

I’ve found a Sam Spade adventure here and there over the years. One of my favorite crime/detective authors, Joe Gores, took a crack at telling an early adventure of Sam Spade. This prequel-to-the-Maltese Falcon was called Spade and Archer (2009), and it was crackling good.

Spade hasn’t appeared in comics much, although there was a Maltese Falcon adaptation in Feature Books #48 (1946) with art by Rodlow Willard.

Interestingly, there were a series of comic book style ads featuring Sam Spade that appeared in the popular comics of the day (Captain Marvel, Superman, All-Star Comics, etc.) and in the newspaper comic sections. In these ads, Spade was used to promote Wildroot Hair Tonic, the sponsor of a long-running radio show starring (for most of the run) Howard Duff and Lurene Tuttle.

This series, The Adventures of Sam Spade provided gave the public a weekly dose of the character’s exploits. Duff is fantastic in this show – a sarcastic, confident actor who was busy punching bad guys, romancing femme fatales and solving mysteries while winking at the audience the whole time. You can almost see his conspiratorial grin, even though these are audio dramas.

Unlike today, radio series then would have one sponsor and all the commercials would be focused on that brand. So those one-page comic-style ads made perfect sense.

And now, the cable channel AMC is again building out the Sam Spade mythology with Monsieur Spade. You may have seen those (very excellent) promo ads on AMC. The first episode is brilliant. And it sure is different.

Variety’s Alison Herman had this take on it all:

All works of IP exploitation are, on some level, legitimized fanfiction. Once divorced from the original author, the line that separates a franchise’s sequel, prequel or reboot from the average post on Wattpad is a great deal of money and the blessing of an estate and/or corporation. But even with this baseline, the AMC limited series Monsieur Spade, is an especially unabashed act of wish fulfillment through and for a beloved protagonist. The namesake of “Monsieur Spade” is none other than Sam Spade (Clive Owen), the private investigator who headlined the Dashiell Hammett novel turned John Huston film noir “The Maltese Falcon,” plus a handful of Hammett short stories published in the 1930s. For their spin on Spade, series creators Tom Fontana (“Oz”) and Scott Frank (“The Queen’s Gambit”) send the sleuth to the south of France, where he spends a few weeks of his not-so-peaceful retirement looking into a massacre at a local convent.

Most of “Monsieur Spade” is set in 1963, two years after the death of Spade’s real-life creator. In stepping out of Hammett’s shadow, Fontana, Frank and Owen — also an executive producer — allow themselves to embrace the fantasy of sending an acerbic American to an idyllic vacation spot. (“Monsieur Spade” filmed on location, so the trio were effectively sending themselves, too.) Sure enough, there are ample scenes of Owen luxuriating in a pool or enjoying an omelet al fresco. But while “Monsieur Spade” indulges in escapism, it’s also a compact crime yarn that does right by both its setting and its predecessors.

Spade arrives in the small commune of Bozouls in 1955, though he and his new neighbors still speak in the dry, quippy rat-a-tat of films from decades prior. (When a colleague tells Sam he’s watching his weight, Sam instantly volleys back: “Watching it do what?”) He’s been tasked with delivering a child named Teresa (Cara Bossom) to safety, leaving her with some local nuns when her grandmother refuses to help. What starts as a quick pit stop turns more permanent when Spade falls in love with a local woman named Gabrielle (Chiara Mastroianni), which means he’s still around — albeit widowed — eight years later when six of those nuns are brutally murdered for no apparent reason.

This series is gorgeous to look at – with stylish photography and elegant period cars, fashions and props. It’s lovely to view, and instead of the classic noir tropes, like the seedy offices with Venetian blinds, viewers are treated to vineyards in a small French town.

I like this curveball that Fontana and Frank threw us. Who would have ever expected that Sam Spade would leave San Francisco? It’s like Batman leaving Gotham City. But somehow it all works. And I’m eager to watch more episodes.

Thoughts?