AMC’s limited series Monsieur Spade continues a recent tradition of welcoming mystery fans back to a bygone era. Many viewers may not be fully aware of Sam Spade — whom Dashiell Hammett created in 1930 — but most know the name, thanks to Humphrey Bogart’s classic performance in 1941’s film version of The Maltese Falcon. Decades later, Spade still remains the quintessential hard-boiled private detective. Monsieur Spade walks a high-wire act of updating the character, while keeping him firmly ensconced in a nostalgic past.
That fits right in with Hollywood’s current trend of revivals and reboots, but this project never feels like one. It doesn’t drag with unnecessary exposition or feel the need to make too many callbacks. Instead, Monsieur Spade focuses on telling a strong story that simply happens to be about an established hero. The fact that it’s also a co-production with French TV channel Canal+ also gives audiences a chance to step out of their comfort zone. While it may not be for everyone, those who love the detective genre will find much to admire.
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Monsieur Spade is reminiscent of HBO’s resurrection of Perry Mason and the AMC+ thriller Spy City. All three series tell mysteries firmly grounded in their respective place and time, and all of them rest primarily on the shoulders of their lead actors. Clive Owen is an inspired choice to pick up Sam Spade’s fedora, because the two-time Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee originally made his name in the crime genre. His breakout part was the title role in the British crime drama Chancer, and he also toplined the BBC One detective series Second Sight. This and A Murder at the End of the World are welcome returns for Owen, who fits seamlessly into the space. He has the brooding presence that’s required of a reluctant hero, and plays a world-weary attitude without coming off as insufferable.
That’s important because the general beats of Spade’s return are very familiar: the hero disappears, attempting to live a quiet life until they’re pulled out of it by one more mystery, and then all their baggage comes tumbling out. Owen could easily fall into an archetype, emphasizing the detachment and the cynicism — but then the audience would wonder why they’re supposed to care if Spade doesn’t. Instead, the actor crafts a guy who’s still rough around the edges, but Owen’s own appreciation for Bogart gives Spade a certain amount of joy underneath. He’s clearly enjoying himself on screen and so the viewers enjoy watching him work, even when Spade is at his most abrupt.
Yet he isn’t the only one doing great work. Denis Ménochet (Inglourious Basterds, Beau Is Afraid) chews plenty of scenery as Patrice Michaud, the local Chief of Police who’s both an ally and an obstacle to Spade, depending on the moment. And it’s a delight to see Matthew Beard, who was remarkable leading the British-Austrian crime drama Vienna Blood, in a supporting role as the endearing Matthew Fitzsimmons. Owen’s Spade is so strong that he’s the center of most scenes, but the other actors give him enough to play off of, keeping the program from feeling like a one-man show.
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Stylistically, everything that viewers expect from noir is in Monsieur Spade. There’s the old-school opening titles to set the scene, the sometimes slightly louder than necessary jazz and string score, the lingering camera shots, and an obligatory dark and stormy night. Co-creators Scott Frank and Tom Fontana have checked every box to make Spade’s world exactly as it should be. But more importantly, both men know how to craft a good mystery that exceeds those genre trappings. Before The Queen’s Gambit was a surprising success, Frank adapted two Elmore Leonard novels for the screen — earning an Academy Award nomination for Out of Sight. Fontana executive produced the seminal Homicide: Life on the Street and then co-created the prison drama Oz. So while the duo include everything that they should, they also don’t let the noir approach stifle their modern storytelling sensibilities. Some secondary characters fill familiar types, but they still feel like people, and the only aspect of the plot to invite real skepticism is the mention of the supernatural.
The central dilemma is established within minutes after the audience learns how Spade got to France and why he ended up staying there instead of heading back to San Francisco. It centers on a young woman named Teresa (played capably by Cara Bossom) and the large amount of funds she stands to inherit — just as her alleged father Philippe returns to the picture. Spade has a complicated history with the whole family, summed up in one line: “I sent her mother to rot in prison and her father to die in Algeria.” Needless to say, he has a personal stake in figuring out how Philippe is still alive and what he’s planning to do with all that money. Multiple murders then up the ante and the sense of urgency considerably.
Since how and why Spade settled in France is told through flashbacks, the battle between Spade and Philippe (Jonathan ZaccaÏ) doesn’t reach the cat-and-mouse heights of other TV detective and villain rivalries. That’s nothing to do with Owen or Zaccaï, whom period drama fans will recognize as the Marquis de Montmirail from film sequel Downton Abbey: A New Era. It’s simply because the bad blood has already happened, rather than the audience getting to despise Philippe as much as Spade does. Speaking of blood, the series is not particularly graphic. Monsieur Spade continues the trend of TV shows being filmed very darkly — presumably some of that is to keep with the noir aesthetic, but some scenes are far too dark — so that winds up helping obscure some of the violence.
Frank and Fontana co-wrote all the scripts, with Frank directing every episode, so Monsieur Spade benefits from a behind-the-scenes consistency, both visually and narratively. Unlike the aforementioned Perry Mason and Spy City, it’s not playing to an endpoint, because what the audience knows about Sam Spade is in the past. The TV show doesn’t have to make him into the character that Bogart made famous or to any historical tentpole. It has more freedom to develop his character. That being said, there will be the inevitable question about whether or not Monsieur Spade Season 2 is on the cards, given television’s willingness to turn successful miniseries like Big Little Lies into ongoing shows. But Frank and Fontana have a very clear mission in mind and where they leave Spade is enough. Like Bogart, Owen only needs to play the role once to put his own stamp on it.
The biggest challenge that Monsieur Spade faces is that its pacing is often like a classic detective novel: languid, wanting the audience to soak in every line of dialogue and change of scenery. That might not work for audiences who are used to more fast-paced drama and expect a constant stream of plot twists. It’s a talk-heavy show, with characters constantly circling each other, and a slow burn as Spade — and viewers — slot the pieces into place. Audiences looking for a mystery that isn’t the typical neatly wrapped procedural, or a story that immerses them into a totally separate world, will enjoy it. And with only six episodes, Monsieur Spade ensures it doesn’t overstay its welcome. In that sense, the series is much like its title character: it shows up, does a fine job and makes a fitting exit.
Monsieur Spade premieres Jan. 14 on AMC, AMC+ and Acorn TV.
Clive Owen stars as famous detective Sam Spade, now semi-retired and living in the South of France during the 1960s.
- Release Date
- January 14, 2024
- Scott Frank, Tom Fontana
- Clive Owen , Rebecca Root , Cara Bossom
- Main Genre
- 1 Season
- Scott Frank, Tom Fontana, Clive Owen, Barry Levinson, Teddy Schwarzman
- Production Company
- Black Bear, Haut Et Court Tv
- Number of Episodes
- 6 Episodes
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