‘Monsieur Spade’: Shouldn’t a Detective Show Starring Clive Owen Be Cooler?

Despite great casting, AMC’s aged take on the Dashiell Hammett sleuth doesn’t quite get the pulse racing.Published Jan. 11, 2024 4:45PM EST Jean-Claude Lother/AMCThere’s something permanently, intriguingly dissatisfied about the men Clive Owen plays. They rarely get what they want, and even less frequently seem pleased with their lot in life. Drug-addicted surgeons, reluctant revolutionaries, wary lovers, struggling

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Despite great casting, AMC’s aged take on the Dashiell Hammett sleuth doesn’t quite get the pulse racing.

Tim Grierson

A photo including Clive Owen as Sam Spade in Monsieur Spade on AMC

Jean-Claude Lother/AMC

There’s something permanently, intriguingly dissatisfied about the men Clive Owen plays. They rarely get what they want, and even less frequently seem pleased with their lot in life. Drug-addicted surgeons, reluctant revolutionaries, wary lovers, struggling writers: A Clive Owen character makes the best of a bad situation, often equipped with a dour voiceover or a dry quip. Not too often does he get the happy ending—in the underrated Inside Man, his master thief manages to elude Denzel Washington’s savvy detective—and the weary predictability of his fate is etched all over his weathered face. He plays loners who have seen it all, bracing for the next bad thing that’s coming.

So, of course, Owen’s a natural fit for the role of an ailing Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett’s iconic gumshoe, who in the new AMC limited series Monsieur Spade is older and residing in the small French village of Bozouls in the early 1960s. Famously played by Humphrey Bogart in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, Spade was a cynic even as a young man. Now retired and haunted by the death of his beloved, he simply wants to spend the rest of his days far away from the life he once knew. But that former life is barreling toward him.

Running six episodes, and created by ace storytellers Scott Frank (The Queen’s Gambit) and Tom Fontana (Oz), Monsieur Spade is the sort of smart, stylish production that ought to be better than it is. Frank, who directed the entire series, and cinematographer David Ungaro make good use of the French locales, creating a deceptively idyllic setting for the melancholy Spade to solve his latest (and perhaps last) mystery. Owen portrays him as a man with little left to look forward to but still loaded with withering one-liners he rattles off in between the cigarettes that are killing him. The one-time Oscar nominee so perfectly embodies Spade’s spiritual exhaustion and profound pessimism that you wonder why you’re not loving every single second. The culprit is the execution—and, perhaps, in the show’s most cutting twist, Owen himself.

As the series begins, Spade is in mourning for Gabrielle (Chiara Mastroianni), the wealthy French beauty whom he married a few years prior, only to lose her to an early grave. He visited Bozouls in 1955 as part of a job—he was transporting a young girl named Teresa to her estranged father—and ended up staying after meeting Gabrielle. Now living in her palatial estate, he’s been diagnosed with emphysema, not entirely sure he cares to stop smoking. Still hard-boiled but nursing a broken heart, Spade sees little point in extending his expiration date.

A photo including Clive Owen as Sam Spade in Monsieur Spade on AMC

Clive Owen in Monsieur Spade

Jean-Claude Lother/AMC

But after the brutal murder of six local nuns, Spade will return to his great passion, delving into a whodunit that involves a psychopathic old rival, Philippe Saint-Andre (Jonathan Zaccaï), and a missing Algerian boy with a strange habit of obsessively writing down a voluminous series of numbers. Add to that a panoply of colorful side characters—including the now-teenage Teresa (Cara Bossom) and Denis Ménochet as a surly police chief—and you’ve got a potentially rich milieu worthy of Hammett himself, despite the fish-out-of-water scenario.

Recent shows like HBO’s Perry Mason and Epix’s Pennyworth found flashy ways to revitalize old I.P. by presenting indelible characters’ origin stories. Monsieur Spade goes the opposite direction, imagining San Francisco’s most famous fictional private eye far away from home later in life, looking back bleakly on a career where he often witnessed people’s worst tendencies. Frank and Fontana, who co-wrote all six episodes, are faithful to Hammett’s spirit, giving Spade amusingly spiky dialogue as he’s surrounded by desperate men and enigmatic femme fatales. Intricate flashbacks and multiple subplots litter the series—familiarity with the Algerian War will certainly be a benefit—as Monsieur Spade reflects on the enduring power of Sam Spade as both a character and as an ethos for a certain flavor of doomed, romantic antihero.

A photo including Clive Owen as Sam Spade in Monsieur Spade on AMC

Clive Owen in Monsieur Spade

Jean-Claude Lother/AMC

But as much as the series pays tribute to Spade, both the writers and Owen seem hamstrung by a reverence they can’t shake. With his dark voice and cold eyes, Owen channels Bogart’s pitiless stare as he eloquently recalls his earlier work in noir-ish films as different as Croupier and Children of Men. Recently turned 59, he can now more forcefully embody the essence of a grizzled gumshoe trying not to succumb to sorrow, grieving Gabrielle while reconnecting with Teresa, an impetuous young woman in need of a father figure.

Unfortunately, the performance ultimately feels like an echo of past glories—both Owen’s and Bogie’s—and likewise Monsieur Spade does an impressive job of dress-up without ever feeling especially vital or insightful. Too often, Spade is merely part of a fussy, ornate narrative mosaic, and despite a strong supporting cast, few of the suspects, love interests, damaged souls, and very clearly secret agents who cross Spade’s path are as interesting as the venerable private eye. Monsieur Spade is a triumph of mood over emotional connection, vibes over actually having something to say. How frustratingly fitting that, once again, Owen has found himself in a project where the prevailing sentiment is that of nagging disappointment.

Tim Grierson

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