In an early scene in “Monsieur Spade,” a new six-part series from AMC, the American detective Sam Spade, played by Clive Owen, is lying on his side, grimacing as a doctor examines his nether regions. “Best prostate of the morning,” the doctor says cheerfully, snapping off his rubber gloves. Then he motions Spade his office to tell him he has emphysema and must stop smoking.
Spade, the behatted and inscrutable hero of Dashiell Hammett’s novel “The Maltese Falcon,” getting a prostate check, and quitting smoking?
Yes indeed. The new series, written by Scott Frank (“The Queen’s Gambit”) and Tom Fontana (“Homicide”), is set in 1963, some 20 years after the events of John Huston’s 1941 film, in which Humphrey Bogart played Spade. This time, the detective retired and living in the village of Bozouls in the South of France.
When viewers meet Spade, he is living quietly in the South of France, mourning his wife.Credit…Jean-Claude Lother/AMC
In a flashback at the start of the first episode, we learn that Spade was hired to bring a girl, Teresa, to her father in Bozouls. Mission unsuccessful: Her father is missing. But Spade does meet a wealthy, glamorous widow, Gabrielle (Chiara Mastroianni), who asks him to stay and take on another job.
The pair fall in love and marry, and when we meet Spade, he is a widower who has inherited Gabrielle’s beautiful house, swimming pool, vineyards and wealth. He is living quietly, still mourning Gabrielle (who we see in frequent flashbacks), speaking bad French and rather liked by the insular locals, until — naturally! — the past comes back to make trouble.
“This genre has always been catnip for me,” said Frank, who also directed the show, in a recent joint interview with Fontana. But when he was approached about creating a show based on Spade, Frank said, he initially turned it down, because he had another Hammett project in mind.
Then he had a thought: “What happens to these Bogart-esque guys when they get old.” He contacted Fontana, who suggested setting the series in the aftermath of the Algerian War, a conflict between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front that ended in 1962 with Algeria, a French colony, winning independence.
At that time, “there was tension and a dark cloud” over France, Frank said. “It raises the question: Who is French and who isn’t? And then we have Sam Spade wrestling with his identity, his old life, his new life.”
Owen, dapper in a dark suit and crisp white shirt during a recent interview at a London hotel, said that the role of Spade felt like a gift. “I am a huge lover of noir, a huge Bogart fan,” he said. “I have an original ‘Maltese Falcon’ poster on my wall.”
Owen talked to Frank, he added, “about the older Sam Spade, how he would play with the idea of the macho guy, the smoker. But in essence we are embracing the source material.” He paused. “I didn’t get to wear the hat much, though.”
Frank and Fontana certainly created a convoluted plot worthy of Hammett. Six nuns are murdered at the local convent, which houses an orphanage that is home to the now-teenage Teresa (Cara Bossom), the girl who Spade brought to Bouzols. The murders seem to concern a mysterious little boy from Algeria who everyone is trying to find, and the plot is threaded with church and state conspiracies, Algerian and World War II subplots, and is populated by a memorable cast of characters: a sardonic police chief (Denis Ménochet); Teresa’s devilishly villainous father, Philippe (Jonathan Zaccaï); and the obligatory femme fatale, Marguerite (Louise Bourgoin), a chanteuse who co-owns a bar with Spade.
Owen’s dryly imperturbable performance is also a homage to Bogart, whose performances he adores, he said. In preparing for the role, as well as “reading and rereading” Hammett’s short stories and novels, Owen “drowned in Bogart,” he said. He recalled telling the director, “Don’t freak out, I am not going to do a bad imitation, but I am going to do it based on Bogart’s intonations.”
What is interesting, Owen added is that “you think Bogart is laconic, but he is superfast and nimble, and the key thing was to fly through these beautiful rhythmic speeches, flick them out like it’s the easiest thing.”
Though he speaks French in the show, Owen said he had not previously spoken the language, and learned it phonetically (with an American accent) for the show. “I found it hard,” he said. “I have so much respect for actors who perform in another language.”
Bourgoin, who plays Marguerite, said in a telephone interview that “like every French person who discovers an American writing about France, I was afraid there would be anachronisms, clichés. But not at all: It’s so credible.”
In an obligatory nod to a love interest, Marguerite and Spade’s platonic relationship is infused with a little sexual spice. But the relationship between Spade and the adolescent Teresa, who has grown up at the convent, is the emotional heart of the tale.
“She has lived a life of relative solitude, never had a familial environment and grew up in a frosty religious setting without anyone she loved,” said Bossom, who plays the character. “It has hardened her into a person who doesn’t show honest emotion, or not without great difficulty.” (Remind you of anyone?) As the show progresses, Bossom added, Teresa begins to emulate Spade’s speech patterns.
“I think the more time he spends with her, the more he sees she is a bit of a chip off the old block,” Owen said with a laugh.
Frank said he had been keen not “to do pretty Provence” nor to emulate “the off angles and dark shadows you have in typical film noir”; he was more influenced by the strong compositions and color palettes of 1960s and ’70s French films like “La Piscine” and “Le Cercle Rouge.” The whole idea, he said, “is that Sam is living a tranquil life.”
Will there be more of Monsieur Spade in retirement? “If the show does well, I definitely have other ideas, “Frank said. Maybe Owen will get another opportunity to wear the hat.