Scott Frank Plops Sam Spade in ’60s France in TV’s ‘Monsieur Spade’

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What happens when you take a San Francisco detective and retire him to the South of France? When the rights to the Dashiell Hammett character made famous by Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) became available, writer-director Scott Frank, perhaps emboldened by his Emmy-winning successes with his western series “Godless” and chess sensation “The Queen’s Gambit,” convinced his friend Tom Fontana (“Oz”) to co-create a limited series, “Monsieur Spade” (January 14, AMC, AMC+, Acorn TV) about an older Sam Spade in France.

These two writers had a blast making Spade (Clive Owen) middle-aged and grumpy — his doctor wants him to give up smoking. He’s grieving his lost wife, a Frenchwoman (Chiara Mastroianni) who left him a lovely estate. He reluctantly acts as a father figure for a teenage girl (Cara Bossom) whose mother Brigid O’Shaughnessy sent him eight years ago to Bozouls to deliver her child to her father (Jonathan Zaccaï). The plot is complicated, jumps back and forth in time, and is carried effortlessly by Owen, who is delightful, even if his careful mid-Atlantic accent veers off-course every now and then.

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Fresh off a laudatory New Yorker profile, Frank met with me on Zoom to dig into just what he was thinking.

Anne Thompson: Sam Spade comes from ’40s film noir. Where did you get the idea of building something around him? What did you think you could do with him?

Scott Frank: There’s so much out there in the ether these days about middle-aged white guys: the bad role models and possible role models. And I was thinking about someone like Humphrey Bogart or Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe: what happens if they get old? And I’m now middle-aged, and it’s an impossible standard to be something like that. And I thought, ‘What happens if you told a story where you located them in a context that was more real?’ And I thought the way to do it was to take Spade out of his comfort zone, out of San Francisco. And what if he had an entirely surprising late life? He was retired, he was living in the South of France, all the last places you would expect: drinking wine, which he probably never drank.

Speaking French.

Frank: Poorly, but speaking it. He married an age-appropriate woman who wasn’t some femme fatale, who he genuinely loved and cared about. When the story starts, he’s getting a prostate exam, which immediately emasculates him. He’s being told he’s got the early stages of emphysema, and he’s asked to quit smoking. And he’s not wearing the fedora, he’s not wearing the coat, he’s not carrying a gun even. He’s just living this very quiet life.

Until…

Frank: Yeah! And I thought, ‘OK, here’s a guy who’s getting older and dealing with his own identity and who he is.’ I thought it would be great to do something that asks all the questions I’m asking myself right now.

How did you wind up working with Tom Fontana and casting Clive Owen?

Frank: He was geographically desirable, because we live a block away from each other in the West Village. But he was perfect for it. Because he writes about similar characters. And I had just been getting to know him. And I thought we should do this together. And I pitched him. We were having lunch one day, and I said, ‘OK, I want to do a show about Sam Spade in the south of France in the 60s.’ ‘I’m in.’ It’s all I had to hear, I didn’t even get to give him my whole masculinity pitch on the deconstruction of those male icons, just the idea of Sam Spade in the south of France, living out his golden years. And then, as we started talking about it, Clive was the only person we could think of to play the part. He was the only person; we had no one else in mind. And so thank God he was, unbeknownst to us, obsessed with Spade and Marlowe and all of those characters, he has been dying to do something like that.

THE MALTESE FALCON, Humphrey Bogart, 1941
“The Maltese Falcon”Everett Collection / Everett Collection

You’re weaving together different story strands: one goes back to World War II in this village, another to the impact of the Algerian War on the people in the town. Spade is grieving the loss of his wife. You go back and forth in time.

Frank: I wanted it to be a mature and classic aesthetic. And I watched a lot of French films from the ’60s, like “La Piscine,” before I directed it. Melville has always been one of my favorite directors. If you think about France, they have had their own identity crisis. It became a national question after Algeria: Who is French, and who would they accept as French? Whereas World War II, the good guys, the bad guys, the reason for fighting, all of that was clear to everyone in the world. The Algerian War was a different thing. It was like Vietnam, for us. Only the French don’t really talk about the Algerian War the way we talk about Vietnam. There’s a lot of art that is sourced to the Vietnam War, and fiction and movies and music for that matter, but there hasn’t been a lot of it in France. There’s a Maltese Falcon in this, which is this little boy, everybody wants this little boy, and they’ve all imbued him with whatever they think he is. He’s a political football, he’s a religious football, it just depends on who wants him. It’s also a spy story. It was fun to combine all these issues.

Spade is a great character, and it’s fun to watch him take his skills and use them. He’s still a threat. Why does he like to walk around naked?

Frank: It has to do with his late wife, when he goes in that pool, he’s communing with his late wife. There’s a lot of balls in the air because I’m greedy. Tom and I just were hoping that you would be happy to be there while we were indulging our own worst instincts.

How tricky was it to direct French actors?

Frank: Not as difficult as you might think. First of all, they’re all really good. And acting is acting. I speak French a little bit. I don’t speak it great. But I can communicate. My rule of thumb was if people in this specific scene would speak French in this situation in this small town, they’re going to speak French. The baker probably doesn’t know how to speak English. There are people there that don’t speak English. So they will speak French. There are others who do speak English, and they like to make fun of Sam’s French, which I thought would be fun. Sometimes he’ll listen in French and answer in English. Again, displacing him from San Francisco to Bazouls. Language becomes a huge part of that displacement as well. Hearing Sam Spade speaking French is not what you expect.

Half the crew spoke English and half the crew didn’t. I didn’t work with anyone I’d ever worked with before. And I did that on purpose. Because I wanted to reinvent myself as well. And just see if I took myself out of my own comfort zone. What would that do? Could I do it?

You’re applying a film noir style to this that would be appropriate for Sam Spade. The question is whether the audience will know what you’re doing.

Frank: Some have and some haven’t. And that’s OK. Tom and I feel like we made the show we wanted to make. This is thing I wanted to do. I didn’t want to ape film noir. In other words, I didn’t want to just shoot a version of Sam Spade, where you’re just doing what they did in “The Maltese Falcon.” I was interested in showing where this story has the essence of the film noir, but the way it’s shot I thought should be should be beautiful, should be sunnier, it should look good, you should have a real sense of place instead of a sense of foreboding. And because you wanted to see why he was there, you wanted to feel what he’s feeling. You’re not used to seeing Sam Spade in the swimming pool. That for me was the fun of it.

Was this an easy sell?

Frank: No, actually. AMC liked it right away. They really did. I’d made “The Queen’s Gambit” and “Godless.” And, it was betwixt and between for Netflix, it wasn’t right for their French division, and it wasn’t right for their American division. And I understood because it was a feathered fish.

I can’t think of another limited series or movie that does this exactly. How many Hollywood movies were made with Sam Spade?

Frank: One. “The Maltese Falcon.” There were different versions of it. But there was really only one. He’s in a couple of short stories that Dashiell Hammett wrote. But for the most part, you know Sam Spade from “The Maltese Falcon” as opposed to Philip Marlowe, the Chandler character.

Why does Sam Spade endure?

Frank: He says and does what we wish we could do. Particularly a lot of men. And Humphrey Bogart is interesting to a lot of women. And I think Clive is as well. He’s direct, he’s calm under fire, he gets to smoke and drink and get the pretty girl, and he’s that wish-fulfillment character that people respond to the same way the cowboy is one of those characters.

Laconic masculinity.

Frank: He says only what he needs to say. He’s perpetually bemused by people who don’t realize they’re making an idiot out of themselves. And, that’s attractive. The most attractive characteristic is that competence and confidence. And in every situation, he knows what to do. Although in “Mr. Spade,” he frequently makes his own mistakes. What’s upsetting him is different than what would upset Sam Spade. At the end of “The Maltese Falcon,” he behaves in a way he believes to be honorable by sending the woman (Mary Astor) he supposedly loves to prison. And this show has a tenuous thread to that character Bridget O’Shaughnessy, and Sam Spade is not behaving out of honor here. He’s behaving because he finally loves his life and he wants to protect his life. His initial involvement in this was: what has happened to this town where I was so safe for so long? And the truth is, this town isn’t as innocent as he thought it was.

Next up: Frank has finally nailed down the rights to Hammett’s “Red Harvest” for A24. He and Megan Abbott are almost done with their adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark,” produced by Bill Horberg and Jason Blum. “I got sidetracked,” Frank said. “I’m in Scotland right now doing this procedural series “Department Q,” by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen. But I want to finish the script. We were having a ball doing it. I’d love to do that as a limited series. So we could really go deeper with all of it.”

He’s also developing an opera with the band The Killers and Tommy Kail (“Hamilton”). “We’re doing it as a film, it’s an opera,” he said. “It’s like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.'” He and Elvis Costello are working on a musical version of “A Face in the Crowd” with Rian Johnson through his production company [T-Street]. “We’re trying to do it like a “The Singing Detective” miniseries.”

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