All works of IP exploitation are, on some level, legitimized fanfiction. Once divorced from the original author, the line that separates a franchise’s sequel, prequel or reboot from the average post on Wattpad is a great deal of money and the blessing of an estate and/or corporation. But even with this baseline, the AMC limited series “Monsieur Spade” is an especially unabashed act of wish fulfillment through and for a beloved protagonist. The namesake of “Monsieur Spade” is none other than Sam Spade (Clive Owen), the private investigator who headlined the Dashiell Hammett novel turned John Huston film noir “The Maltese Falcon,” plus a handful of Hammett short stories published in the 1930s. For their spin on Spade, series creators Tom Fontana (“Oz”) and Scott Frank (“The Queen’s Gambit”) send the sleuth to the south of France, where he spends a few weeks of his not-so-peaceful retirement looking into a massacre at a local convent.
Most of “Monsieur Spade” is set in 1963, two years after the death of Spade’s real-life creator. In stepping out of Hammett’s shadow, Fontana, Frank and Owen — also an executive producer — allow themselves to embrace the fantasy of sending an acerbic American to an idyllic vacation spot. (“Monsieur Spade” filmed on location, so the trio were effectively sending themselves, too.) Sure enough, there are ample scenes of Owen luxuriating in a pool or enjoying an omelet al fresco. But while “Monsieur Spade” indulges in escapism, it’s also a compact crime yarn that does right by both its setting and its predecessors.
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Spade arrives in the small commune of Bozouls in 1955, though he and his new neighbors still speak in the dry, quippy rat-a-tat of films from decades prior. (When a colleague tells Sam he’s watching his weight, Sam instantly volleys back: “Watching it do what?”) He’s been tasked with delivering a child named Teresa (Cara Bossom) to safety, leaving her with some local nuns when her grandmother refuses to help. What starts as a quick pit stop turns more permanent when Spade falls in love with a local woman named Gabrielle (Chiara Mastroianni), which means he’s still around — albeit widowed — eight years later when six of those nuns are brutally murdered for no apparent reason.
The immediate suspect is Teresa’s father, Philippe Saint-Andre (Jonathan Zaccai), a career thief who’s suddenly reappeared in Bozouls after a prolonged absence. From there, “Monsieur Spade” builds out a largely Francophone ensemble that makes Bozouls more than a scenic backdrop. Local police chief Patrice (Denis Ménochet) enlists Spade to help with the investigation, so the expat takes a break from his day job: co-owning a jazz club with the beautiful singer Marguerite (Louise Bourgoin). (What did I say about wish fulfillment?) Marguerite’s husband, Jean-Pierre (Stanley Weber), is a veteran of the Algerian War of Independence, a conflict and ensuing colonial hangover that starts to loom increasingly large over the mystery as Spade starts to unravel it.
Spade’s bumbling British neighbors, mother and son Cynthia (Rebecca Root) and George Fitzsimmons (Matthew Beard) provide some comic relief as “Monsieur Spade” drifts between lighthearted lark and life-or-death stakes. Anchoring it all is Owen, whose hangdog look and weathered handsomeness are both well-suited to playing an aging legend half a world from home. All of “Monsieur Spade” is a repurposing of the familiar with a slight twist; the sight of the once suit-and-fedora clad Spade in a turquoise polo is a sight gag in itself. So it’s unsurprising the show leans into tropes elsewhere, like the begrudging rapport between Sam and his quasi-ward Teresa. You can find the same dynamic on “The Last of Us,” and in countless stories before it.
Sometimes, you wish “Monsieur Spade” leaned a little harder into the subversion: as the mystery unfolds, the Arab community of Bozouls starts to play a larger role, but they’re still peripheral to a story that ultimately hinges on France’s ugly, still-unresolved past. But that’s not what the show is here to do. “Monsieur Spade” builds out Bozouls just enough to be as convincing a canvas for Sam’s skill set as a fog-swathed San Francisco. It exists to give Spade his own form of happily-ever-after — to reassure us that, even if Hammett never showed it, one of his leading men lived on, and still does.
The first episode of “Monsieur Spade” premieres on AMC, AMC+ and Acorn TV at 9pm on Jan. 14, with subsequent episodes airing weekly on Sundays.