Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Spade and Ripley

While watching the series Monsieur Spade, I had a funny thought. Besides whatever connections the show has to Spade's history, the six episodes also play like a kind of weird inversion of the life of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley. Monsieur Spade puts Hammett's character in France in 1955. He has come there to bring a girl who is Bridget O'Shaughnessy's daughter to her French father and leave her there. He has no intention of staying in France. But then things happen and he winds up staying at the estate of a French widow, who he marries. She dies soon enough (not violently), and the main part of the story picks up eight years later, with Spade having inherited his wife's estate and living out his days peacefully, in the French countryside, until a series of sinister events draws him back into his old ways of investigation and danger.

So we have Spade in rural France, the American expat living comfortably, man with a tangled past, master of a lovely domestic domain. Doesn't this sound a bit like Tom Ripley, post Dickie Greenleaf, once he has set himself up in France? Spade marries a French heiress and settles into a life of leisure; Ripley marries a French heiress, Heloise Plisson, and settles into a life of domestic ease. Spade's estate -- big pool, huge house, elegantly furnished, a vineyard -- is a place to die for; Ripley has his spacious place called Belle Ombre. 

Of course, Spade and Ripley, as human beings, are quite different, and how their lives play out in France reflects this. Spade wants nothing more than to be left alone and live his life in peace, but he gets drawn into a case that puts him at great risk. The case involves political actors tied to what is going on between France and Algeria at the time, and throughout the series, we see Spade's unerring moral compass at work. Hard-bitten as he is, he cannot but try to do what he sees as the "right" thing, though "right" is almost always impure and compromised. But the point is that he does get caught up in a situation with implications that extend well beyond himself. Such involvement in political affairs is something Tom Ripley would never allow himself, though in the four books after The Talented Mr. Ripley, from his French home base, he likewise commits himself to all sorts of hazardous activity. He's an anti-Spade, in a sense, devoted to himself only and to what suits him. In a certain odd way, the adventures of Spade in Monsieur Spade and of Ripley in his books after the first one play like mirror images of each other.

Monsieur Spade was co-created by Scott Frank and Tom Fontana. Each has a long list of crime show and crime movie credits to his name. The many-stranded plot of the series includes one centered around a mysterious Arab boy who has, we are told, an uncanny code-breaking ability. He never speaks so he seems like some sort of savant. This is, then, at least the third time that Frank has shown a fascination with preternaturally talented children, starting with the screenplay he wrote years ago for the Jodie Foster-directed film Little Man Tate. That was about a prodigal child, and years later Frank adapted the Walter Tevis novel, Queen's Gambit. The main character there shows a genius for chess at a young age. So this part of Monsieur Spade -- the young boy with a remarkable ability -- derives from what evidently is a Scott Frank interest, not so much anything from Hammett. And it has nothing to do with the Monsieur Spade/Ripley contrasts either (I just thought I'd mention it because I find it interesting), though the pre-pubescent girl that Spade brings to France at the series' outset and then winds up caring for after she has to leave the convent where he stashed her, brought to my mind Frank Pierson, the character in The Boy Who Followed Ripley

Again, we have an inversion. Spade brings Teresa, the girl, to France; Pierson is a runaway. Teresa, over the six installments, studies Spade and takes on some of his attributes; Pierson is a young murderer with some of the same character qualities as Ripley. In any event, if Highsmith's novel is called The Boy Who Followed RipleyMonsieur Spade could be sub-titled "The Girl Who Followed Spade". Except that there is no way Ripley's relationship with a disturbed boy is going to end well, while Spade only grows closer to Teresa as the series progresses, and the final scene actually ends with her copying a specific action he does, a scene both cute and appropriate. I don't envision Sam Spade being a cuddly sort of dad, but I'd much rather have him as my caretaker than Ripley.

Is there any significance to the apparent Monsieur Spade and Ripley connections? I'm sure not. And I'm certainly not stating that Scott Frank and Tom Fontana had any of this in mind when writing their show. But regardless, it is something that struck me as Monsieur Spade unfolded, a possible correspondence between crime fiction worlds with entirely different moral perspectives. Fun speculation.

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