Monsieur Spade doesn’t solve the case

Monsieur Spade doesn’t solve the case April 5, 2024

Image: AMC

While it has been a second since I’ve read The Maltese Falcon or seen the movie, I suspect that in either version of the story Sam Spade didn’t spend all of his time studiously avoiding detective work in favor of swimming naked in his pool and failing to solve any part of the mystery he encounters along the way. Yet–spoiler alert from here on out–that is very much what happens in Monsieur Spade, the fan-fiction-esque reboot of the noir classic detective.

Long review short: Monsieur Spade is a good series, bad detective fiction, and not even remotely noir.

As for being a good series, the storyline is compelling enough. Bad and less-bad forces are searching for a child who is basically a living computer. Maybe he’s some kind of messiah; maybe he’s the perfect codebreaker for the Cold War; maybe he’s the way France can restore some of its lost glory left behind on the battlefields of Algeria. Wait, France? What does that have to do with Sam Spade?

Well, apparently Spade went on an assignment to France, where he fell in love with a local aristocrat and married her, only to have her die years later leaving everything to Spade. Spade now spends his time enjoying the peace, quiet, and camaraderie of the French countryside. Until, that is, a series of murders rocks the small town and the search for the brilliant child begins, with Spade and a teenage girl from the local convent/orphanage at the center.

Again, the plot is a solid and interesting one. [and again: spoilers abound] Even better, aside from Clive Owen the acting is excellent. Unfortunately Owen is definitely the weak link, and it’s not at all his fault. Really, there are two problems that work against him and against the show as a whole.

The first is that Monsieur Spade isn’t really detective fiction. Or at least, Sam Spade isn’t a detective in this show. Despite repeated references to his past in San Francisco, he continually and loudly emphasizes that he wants nothing to do with what’s going on and that all he wants is to be left alone to swim in his pool, drink his wine, and enjoy his golden years. And while he’s willing to open his house to an orphan from the local convent after the nuns there were murdered, he is very clear that he has no interest in any goings-on beyond that. This private eye does not do one second of detective work in the series. In fact, the wrap-up at the end is done by a deus ex machina from Canada/the US/the UN, who comes in an explains everything that had gone on and takes the child away.

Between the beginning of the show and the UN’s appearance, not only does Spade not solve any mysteries but we as the audience don’t really have any either. Every time a mystery is introduced it is almost immediately solved for us. Who killed all the nuns? We’re told in almost the next scene. What happened to the murderer of the nuns? We’re very quickly told that as well. Where is the child everyone’s looking for? Oh, there he is. Will he be found in time? Yep. Ultimately the tension in this show comes from the stakes of a child’s safety, rather than from any looming mystery. Which is a good thing for us, because again: Sam Spade has no interest in mystery at all. It’s a bad thing for the series, however, because the architecture of the show is all that of detective fiction. The plot ends up working against the setting, and that leaves us with a weaker show than it should have been.

The second issue is with Spade himself, and the fact that this show is not really noir. Noir involves oneiric darkness, with morally ambiguous characters and uncertainty on the part of everyone from the characters to the viewers in the theater. While there is plenty of immorality in Monsieur Spade and certainly things happen at night and in the dark, the dreamlike ambiguity of the genre is completely missing. To make it even more challenging–and I think this is the reason Owen didn’t deliver up to his usual high standards–the hard boiled nature of the Sam Spade character so carefully built in the books and movies just doesn’t work in a small town where he’s friends with everyone. You can’t be tough as nails with your delightful cleaning lady–even if she can give as good as she takes. Nor can you swagger around rural France indifferent to your neighbors the same way you can in early 20th century San Francisco, which leaves Owen with a character that absolutely everyone from the other characters in the series to the viewers at home expects to be beating up perps and kicking down doors, and utterly unable to do so with no actual dramatic room for that kind of behavior. And anyway, he’s both older and retired and doesn’t care about the mystery in question. The fact that he does care about the people he lives with just adds to the disconnect between what we expect with Sam Spade and what we get on the screen.

I’m still thinking about whether this was a good job on the part of the writers. Again, it was a well-made and (mostly) well-acted show. I had thought the set-up would be that Spade had settled into his quiet life, but when that life was threatened he drew on the hard-boiled nature of who he used to be and put those skills to work in defense of the people of the town, protecting his own peace and quiet by protecting the town. Instead, he maintains his indifference all the way through–even the symbolism of taking out his hat and then putting it back into storage falls flat, since he never really wears it.

Certainly we lose something here from the Christian perspective, given that noir as a genre should intrinsically appeal to Christians. We live in a world that is at times both dark and dreamlike. We live in a world full of tough people doing morally questionable things, and even the good guys are tinged with sin (except for that One, thank God). Monsieur Spade certainly gets the darkness and sin, but it misses out on the atmosphere that makes for good noir and pulls us into reflection on good and evil. As far as that goes you should see the show, but watch it for what it is and not what hard-boiled detective fiction should be.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast an Amazon Associate (which is linked in this blog), and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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