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A smart new series imagines the iconic detective Sam Spade in retirement (sort of)


This is FRESH AIR. Author Dashiell Hammett introduced the character of San Francisco detective Sam Spade in his 1930 novel "The Maltese Falcon." Hammett subsequently featured Sam Spade in a few short stories, and Humphrey Bogart immortalized the detective in John Ford's movie version of "The Maltese Falcon" in 1941. All of these stories featured Sam Spade in his prime, but a new six-part series premiering Sunday on AMC imagines him a little bit later in life - retired in a small village in the south of France until danger and death manages to find him again. The series is called "Monsieur Spade," with Clive Owen playing this newer yet older Sam Spade. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The idea of reviving and updating the character of Sam Spade, one of the most iconic detectives in the mystery genre, is exciting, but it's also unsettling. It's exciting because Sam Spade was the model for generations of tough guy private eyes, and it's really intriguing to imagine how and where he ends up a decade or two later. But it's unsettling because if it isn't approached properly, the results could be dreadful.

Well, don't worry. "Monsieur Spade," the new six-part AMC drama produced in association with French television, is the opposite of dreadful. The plot stays true to the spirit of the film noir genre without overdoing it. Clive Owen, in the title role, portrays the weary but even wiser retired detective like he's been playing Sam Spade all his life. And the tastefulness and intelligence of this new series is less surprising only when you learn of the two impressive TV talents who have teamed up to make it. Scott Frank, the writer-director of Netflix's "The Queen's Gambit" and the Western miniseries "Godless," directed all six episodes of "Monsieur Spade." He also co-wrote them with production partner Tom Fontana, whose many classic TV series include "St. Elsewhere," "Homicide: Life On The Street" and "Oz."

The events of "Monsieur Spade" take place in the same remote location but in two different time periods. The location is a small village in the south of France called Bozel, a medieval town with a giant wall, a steep cliff and its own very imposing atmosphere. The time periods are 1955, when Sam Spade first arrives in town on a mission to escort a young girl to her father there, and 1963, many years after the San Francisco detective opted to retire there, marry and start a small vineyard.

Here's Clive Owen as Sam Spade in 1955 in the office of the local police chief, Patrice, played by Denis Menochet. Spade is being questioned because when he tried to deliver the girl, the father, Philippe, was not at the address Sam had been given, but a woman with a shotgun was. This is the first meeting between the American private eye and the French chief of police. But over time, they will become close friends. Their banter, with smart echoes of classic Dashiell Hammett dialogue, strongly suggests as much.


CLIVE OWEN: (As Sam Spade) All I know is I was sent a plane ticket for first class, Pan Am, to Istanbul to pick up the kid and two more tickets, coach this time, to Marseilles.

DENIS MENOCHET: (As Chief of Police Patrice Michaud) And then so instructed, you come all the way to our little village just to knock on a door and hand over the girl to whoever answered.

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) I was told her father would answer.

MENOCHET: (As Chief of Police Patrice Michaud) You did not wonder if the child would even be welcome.

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) I was paid too much to wonder.

MENOCHET: (As Chief of Police Patrice Michaud) This was strictly a business matter between you and Ms. O’Shaughnessy?

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) She didn't pick my name out of a hat, if that's what you're asking. We knew each other.

MENOCHET: (As Chief of Police Patrice Michaud) I see. When you say knew each other, you mean you knew each other well?

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) Well enough so she trusted me.

MENOCHET: (As Chief of Police Patrice Michaud) You were lovers, perhaps?

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) Oh, Jesus. You French?

MENOCHET: (As Chief of Police Patrice Michaud) So yes.

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) Briefly. Didn't end well.

MENOCHET: (As Chief of Police Patrice Michaud) They never do. Hearts break, one moves on, the other one becomes lonely and bitter.

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) We didn't get that far.

MENOCHET: (As Chief of Police Patrice Michaud) Why not?

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) I put her in jail.

BIANCULLI: From there, still in 1955, Sam Spade hits the road on foot with the young girl in tow. Before long, they're picked up by a wealthy woman driving a Rolls-Royce who invites them into her back seat. The front passenger seat already is occupied by her very large dog. The woman, Gabrielle, is played by Chiara Mastroianni, and she and Sam Spade two have an immediately obvious chemistry, which the two eventually will act upon.


CHIARA MASTROIANNI: (As Gabrielle) First time in a Rolls-Royce?

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) First time in one that smells like roses.

MASTROIANNI: (As Gabrielle) I've been working in the garden.

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) I never had the feel.

MASTROIANNI: (As Gabrielle) I find water to be the key.

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) Now you tell me. You speak perfect English.

MASTROIANNI: (As Gabrielle) I had a good teacher.

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) Another talent I lack.

MASTROIANNI: (As Gabrielle) Teaching?

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) Learning.

MASTROIANNI: (As Gabrielle) You just have to be taught by someone you want to listen to.

OWEN: (As Sam Spade) I'm all ears.

BIANCULLI: Once the story shifts to 1963, the emphasis shifts from establishing characters to injecting a new mystery. Teresa, the young girl Sam Spade escorted to this small fringe village, has lived in the care of nuns in a convent. She is now 15 and is now played by Cara Bossam, who gives a very sensual and very impressive performance. Before long, Teresa's life is in danger, and Sam Spade reconnects with her to protect her.

There's a grisly murder scene as horrific as the one that opened Scott Frank's "Godless" Western. And there's so much international intrigue, it attracts the interest of French intelligence, the Saudi secret police, the Vatican, even the CIA. And the American connection allows Dean Winters, who co-starred on Tom Fontana's HBO prison series "Oz," to guest star in a small English-speaking role. Otherwise, most of the parts go to European actors. And the series features a fair amount of subtitles.

But Clive Owen, whether speaking English or French, holds everything together and holds our interest throughout. Last seen in Hulu's "A Murder At The End Of The World," Clive Owen captures the full essence of Sam Spade maybe not as indelibly as Humphrey Bogart, but close enough for a respectful tip of the hat. And that hat is a fedora.

MOSLEY: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the new series "Monsieur Spade," premiering Sunday on AMC and streaming on AMC+ and Acorn TV. After a break, critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a live album featuring the late pianist Chick Corea. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMASO / RAVA QUARTET'S "MONDO CANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.