The Sam Spade character, introduced in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 crime novel “The Maltese Falcon,” became an indelible template for hard-boiled gum. Humphrey Bogart would bring him to life with a cool, unflappable performance in the 1941 film noir based on the book, and now Clive Owen expertly dons the fedora in AMC’s “Monsieur Spade,” which catches up with the character decades later in the early 1960s. roughly when he retired to the small village of Bozouls in southern France.
What an unexpected event.
It was a case that first brought him to the city. In 1955, he was hired to deliver a little girl named Teresa to her father after the death of her mother; but the man was nowhere to be found. This is more annoying than worrying for the private investigator (no one is as emotionally detached as Spade), so he sticks Teresa in an orphanage run by nuns. As events progress, he attracts the attention of a local wealthy widow and later falls in love with her and marries her. (Wait, I thought she was independent!) He dies of an illness a few years later, leaving her to mourn luxuriously at the estate he left her.
All of this is preface to a mass murder of the nuns that throws into turmoil Spade’s tranquil existence in the halcyon days when he was skinny dipping and trading good-natured barbs with his live-in maid.
Who killed the nuns and why? Spade is reluctantly drawn into the drama, and Teresa, now a teenager, comes to stay with him until he can sort things out. The girl will benefit from a large inheritance when she comes of age, and the man is worried for her safety. Could money be the reason for the nuns’ deaths?
No one in the village seems particularly horrified by this crime or its impact on the orphaned children. No one seems to care about their emotional well-being any The child in the story is about this. Perhaps they have run out of sympathy because they have experienced the horrors of World War II and the subsequent revolution that would give Algeria independence from France in 1962. The ghosts of both wars hang around like a dark cloud despite the sunny weather. skies, idyllic vineyards and quaint villages.
This is the setting. Magnificent but full of secrets. Classic noir motifs of moral ambiguity and internal conflict are woven throughout. Nobody is happy but they are constantly looking over their shoulders. David Ungaro’s cinematography is dazzling; It captures Spade’s country life and the town’s laid-back Old World look. Bozouls has a unique topography; Built around a huge valley (The Hole, as everyone calls it), the buildings appear to be teetering on the edges. Talk about your metaphor. This is a moment where I wish a production would use drone shots to really make clear how vivid the village gorge looks from above.
The show comes from seasoned talent. Created by Scott Frank ( “The Queen’s Gambit” The 6-episode limited series, whose other screenwriting credits include everything from “Get Shorty” to “Minority Report” and Tom Fontana (“Oz” and “Homicide on the Street”), is so stylishly and expertly crafted that such a style, You don’t notice its flaws at first. Much of this comes down to Owen’s performance as the sharp-eyed Spade. He doesn’t have the right gait – he moves around the world with too much spring in his step – but his face is extraordinarily inscrutable. Spade’s inner monologue is supposed to be elusive, but he’s a calculating figure, and Owen delivers his careful sarcasm with the kind of understated gusto that keeps you interested even if the narrative isn’t.
A series of misunderstandings and people whose goals have been compromised come into this picture. Is precocious Teresa (Cara Bossom) the real target? Maybe not. There are various soldiers around, both former and current, who cannot give up on the violence for which they are prepared. There’s the woman who co-owns the local nightclub with Spade; She is in an unhappy marriage with an Algerian who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the war. Algerians in the city have never been welcomed, and this subtext runs through everything. There is also a young British painter who moves in next door with his mother; They’re too cheerful and friendly to be up to no good. These are superficial characters, and that’s also true of everyone who populated the show’s original source material. But this can wear thin when spread over a multi-episode season.
They go around and around, and the plot of the show becomes Byzantine and tense. But the dialogue makes up for it. There’s a terrific monologue in the first episode where Spade explains his reluctance to get involved. He’s a man who’s seen it all and is fulfilled: “People come to you with their problems, and you inherit them,” he says with studious detachment. “But you’re good at fixing them, so the problems keep coming. With money. In a very short time, problems turn from minor to fatal; Looks like you’re good at these things too. Maybe very good. One day you wake up, look in the mirror and see someone you don’t really like. It’s not important. Don’t look in the mirror anymore.” This is the moment that solidifies him as Spade.
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There’s also the occasional sarcastic and deadpan streak. “Smoking is harmful,” says Spade’s doctor, lighting his pipe.
Hammett once said of his invention: Spade is the kind of “dream man” that “most of the private investigators I’ve worked with aspire to be and, in their more cocky moments, think they’ve approached.”
How do you translate this fantasy to the big screen without turning into a stereotype of masculinity that leaves no room for vulnerability or any visible emotion other than anger? Somehow Owen finds a way to make her seem very human.
“Monsieur Spade” — 3 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: 8pm AMC (airing on AMC+)
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic