The Adventures of Sam Spade (audio)

Here’s an interesting one for you. I had to do a little research to figure out exactly what I have here, and I’m still unclear on a few issues. Please pardon my rather lengthy introductory remarks.

Sam Spade is a character created by Dashiell Hammett in The Maltese Falcon, which I have not read but very much want to. Dashiell Hammett shares some early pulp-classic mystery genre credit with Raymond Chandler, who I have read (just a little) and enjoyed; also, Hammett was partner to Lillian Hellman for some 30 years. “The Adventures of Sam Spade” was a radio series in the 1940’s through 1951, based on Hammett’s character, but I think that Hammett was uninvolved (or marginally involved) in the radio version. His name (says Wikipedia) was removed from the show when his association with the Communist Party became known.

This three-cd set presents six episodes of the radio show, “digitally remastered” and “including never-before-released episodes” – I take it to mean these are original recordings, then, although I haven’t been able to confirm that in my (casual) online research. They do include advertisements for Wildroot Creme Oil, a hair product that was the show’s sponsor. These advertisements are initially somewhat charming in being period pieces, but they are many, and like any advertisement, they get old. Again, this speaks to the authentic feel of the production.

So what about the stories? The six episodes are… “The Insomnia Caper” (1948), “Sam and the Psyche” (1946), “Love Letter” (1949), “The Overjord Caper” (1949), “The Bow Window Caper” (1947), and “The Charogagogmanchogagogchabuna-mungamog Caper” (1949). Howard Duff plays Sam Spade and Lurene Tuttle plays his secretary Effie. These are radio shows rather than your average audiobook, so they include sound effects – gunshots, breaking glass, revving engines, traffic noise – and not just reading of the stories; rather than a single narrator doing voices for different characters, various actors play each character. This is classic pulp stuff, and it’s great fun. There is a definite element of tongue-in-cheek (at least that’s my reading, I can’t speak to the original intent, and the 1940’s are pretty remote to me, but surely…?) in Sam’s character: he is the exemplar of the wise-cracking, hard-boiled, tough-guy detective.

Each story tends to involve a person hiring Sam as a PI, often against Sam’s own wishes: in “Love Letter”, he gets a love letter from a woman he doesn’t know and heads to the assigned meeting point to find himself immediately involved in a situation he’d rather have avoided. His clients are as dodgy as any other character in the story; and there is often a woman who tries to seduce (or seduces) Sam, as a means of distracting him from a plot. Howard Duff’s gruff playing of the role is a large part of the effective mood of these stories.

While the plot of each is formulaic and somewhat forgettable, and the characters are rather stock, that needn’t detract from the fun of these stories. Formulas are often successful and that’s why they’re repeated (think about Agatha Christie). As a regular listener to audiobooks, this radio format that came with multiple actors and sound effects was a refreshing change. The Adventures of Sam Spade is a little simplistic, and definitely easy listening, but great fun, and different from the usual fare.

Rating: 6 double crosses.

3 Responses

  1. First of all, if you want to hear a 1940s detective radio show done straight (and well), seek out The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, starring Gerald Mohr, from around the same time period.

    Oh, and yes, do read The Maltese Falcon. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s a very close adapation. They basically fimed the book, only making a few cuts for length (and to accommodate the rules about what could and could not be mentioned in the movies in those days). But the book is worth reading, as all of Hammett’s books are.

    The Sam Spade radio show started out as a non-joking copy of the Maltese Falcon, but it quickly developed that deadpan humor that you noted. It sometimes got pretty goofy (as in “The Overjord Caper”), and sometimes they even referred to the fact that they were on the radio (though that was generally more common on radio than it was on television).

    Howard Duff is the key to the show, and he was an expert at that wry, deadpan humor (he was in Robert Altman’s movie A Wedding in the late 1970s and he has some wonderfully wry asides there also). I have wondered if they took the radio show in that direction simply because they were playing to his strengths (or because they ran out of variations they could run on The Maltese Falcon).

    But Lurene Tuttle was excellent also, and they had wonderful chemistry (there are moments when Duff and Tutttle crack each other up, and it seems that some of their byplay was improvised). I’ve read that Tuttle played a lot of the other female chracters as well (doubling up was quite common in radio, to save money, and the Spade show, unlike some other shows from that period, had no actor credits).

    Most of the available episodes (of both shows) are available for free download. I believe here are links from the Wikipedia pages.

    • Hats off to you, sir, for this excellent contribution to my review! I am clearly in your territory here. 🙂 Definitely have Maltese Falcon on the list; and would probably follow with the movie if it came up. The radio shows are an entirely new genre for me. What an interesting world.

  2. […] on some level. A fellow traveler, you might say. I have read very little Dashiell Hammett (just a few short pieces), but I respect his contribution to a genre I love, and I hope to get around to more […]

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