‘Monsieur Spade’ review: Clive Owen stars as the now-retired gumshoe Sam Spade

‘Monsieur Spade’ review: Clive Owen stars as the now-retired gumshoe Sam Spade

Nina Metz | Chicago Tribune

Introduced in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel “The Maltese Falcon,” the character of Sam Spade became an indelible template for the hard-boiled gumshoe. Humphrey Bogart would bring him to life with a dryly unflappable performance in the 1941 film noir based on the book, and now Clive Owen ably dons the fedora in AMC’s “Monsieur Spade,” which catches up with the character decades later in the early 1960s, when he’s more or less retired to the small village of Bozouls in southern France.

What an unexpected turn of events.

It’s a case that first brings him to town. In 1955, he is hired to deliver a little girl named Teresa to her father after her mother’s death — only the guy was nowhere to be found. This is annoying rather than worrying for the private eye (no one is more emotionally detached than Spade) so he sticks Teresa in an orphanage run by nuns. As this unfolds, he catches the eye of a wealthy local widow who he subsequently falls for and marries. (Wait, I thought he was detached!) She dies of an illness a few years later, leaving him to mourn luxuriously on the estate she left to him.

All of this is prologue to a mass murder of the nuns, which throws into disarray Spade’s placid existence of quiet days skinny dipping and trading good-natured barbs with his live-in housekeeper.

Who killed the nuns — and why? Spade is begrudgingly drawn into the drama and Teresa, now a teenager, comes to stay with him until he can sort things out. When the girl comes of age, she’ll be the beneficiary of a vast inheritance and he’s worried about her safety. Could the money be the reason behind the nuns’ deaths?

No one in the village seems particularly appalled by this crime or its effect on the orphaned children. No one seems concerned about the emotional welfare of any child in the story, for that matter. Perhaps their sympathies are spent, having lived through the horrors of World War II and then, later, the revolution that would win Algeria its independence from France in 1962. The ghosts of both wars hang over the place like a dark cloud, despite the sunny skies, pastoral vineyards and quaint villages.

Clive Owen stars in “Monsieur Spade.” (Black Bear/AMC/TNS) 

That’s the setting. Gorgeous, but full of secrets. Classic noir motifs of moral ambiguity and inner conflicts are threaded throughout. No one is content, but forever glancing over their shoulder. David Ungaro’s cinematography is dazzling, capturing Spade’s life in the country and the cozy Old World look of the town. Bozouls has a unique topography, built around an enormous gorge — The Hole, as everyone refers to it — with buildings seemingly teetering on the edges. Talk about your metaphor. This is the one time I wish a production had used drone shots to really make clear how vivid the village’s gorge appears from overhead.

The show comes from seasoned talents. Created by Scott Frank (of “The Queen’s Gambit,” and whose other screenwriting credits include everything from “Get Shorty” to “Minority Report”) and Tom Fontana (known for “Oz” and “Homicide: Life on the Street”), the six-episode limited series is so classy and made with such style, you don’t notice its flaws at first. Most of that comes down to Owen’s performance as the gimlet-eyed Spade. He doesn’t have the right gait — he moves through the world with too much spring in his step — but his face is wonderfully inscrutable. Spade’s inner monologue is meant to be elusive, but he’s a calculating figure and Owen conveys his watchful cynicism with the kind of low-key zest that holds your interest, even when the narrative doesn’t.

A number of red herrings and people with compromised motives enter the picture. Is the precocious Teresa (Cara Bossom) the real target? Perhaps not. There are various soldiers around, both ex and current, who can’t seem to move on from whatever violence they were primed for. There’s the woman who co-owns the local nightclub with Spade; she’s unhappily married to an Algerian who is suffering PTSD from the war. The Algerians in town were never made to feel welcome, and that subtext runs through everything. There’s also a young British painter who moves next door with his mother; they’re too chipper and too friendly to not be up to something. These are surface-level characters, which is also true of everyone populating the show’s original source material. But that can wear thin when stretched out over a multi-episode season.

Round and round they go, and the show’s plotting becomes Byzantine and strained. But the dialogue makes up for it. There’s a terrific monologue in the first episode when Spade explains his reluctance to get involved. He is a man who has seen it all, and had his fill: “People come to you with their problems and you end up inheriting those problems,” he says with studied dispassion. “But you’re good at fixing them, so the problems keep coming. Along with the money. In a very short while, the problems go from small to deadly — turns out, you’re good at those too. Maybe too good. One day you wake up, you look in the mirror and you see someone you don’t much like. No big deal. Just don’t look in the mirror anymore.” It’s the moment that solidifies him as Spade.

There’s also the occasional wry and deadpan line. “Cigarettes are bad for you,” Spade’s doctor says as he lights a pipe.

Here’s what Hammett once said about his invention: Spade is a “dream man,” the kind “most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and in their cockier moments thought they approached.”

How do you translate that fantasy on screen without devolving into a cliche of masculinity that leaves no room for vulnerability or any visible emotion other than anger? Somehow, Owen finds a way to play him as exceedingly human.



3 stars (out of 4)

How to watch: 9 p.m. ET Sundays on AMC (streaming on AMC+)


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