Jul 12, 2021
“I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” (Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon)
Dashiell Hammett wasn’t just a writer of detective fiction; he was a real-life detective who also happened to pen some of the greatest mystery novels of the 20th century. His mind and pen brought readers the rough and tumble Continental Op; the urbane and refined Nick and Nora Charles; and arguably the most famous private eye of them all, Sam Spade. Hammett’s tenure with the Pinkertons (including work on the infamous Fatty Arbuckle case) provided the DNA for Spade, a cynical shamus with his own moral code. He made his debut in 1929’s The Maltese Falcon and while he would appear in another three short stories penned by Hammett, the Falcon and its hunt for a legendary statuette are why Spade is best remembered. Of course, the classic film adaptation by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart as Spade didn’t hurt his reputation.
The success of Bogart’s Maltese Falcon generated new interest in Hammett’s work in the 1940s. As stories were reprinted in hardcover and paperback, Hammett’s agent believed Spade’s exploits would be perfect for radio. By 1946, the wheels were in motion to bring the detective to the airwaves.
The Adventures of Sam Spade was produced and directed by radio veteran William Spier, who also ran the show on CBS’ “outstanding theater of thrills,” Suspense. In fact, the audition program for Spade was a reworked Suspense script from two years earlier that originally starred Keenan Wynn. The scripts for that first season (including the audition) were written by an uncredited Jo Eisinger and Robert Tallman. The scriptwriters received no credit, as producers wanted to maintain the illusion that Hammett himself scripted the series. Hammett’s name was all over the program, but he had no direct involvement in the series. As he said, “My sole duty in regard to these programs is to look in the mail for a check once a week. I don’t even listen to them. If I did, I’d complain about how they were handled, and then I’d fall into the trap of being asked to come down and help.”
ABC picked up The Adventures of Sam Spade for a thirteen-week summer run beginning on July 12, 1946. Actor Lloyd Nolan was set to star as Sam Spade, but a schedule conflict forced him to withdraw from the role at the last minute. (Nolan had just ended a run of B-movies for Fox as hard-boiled private eye Michael Shayne, and he would have made a fine Spade.) Former Armed Forces Radio Service announcer Howard Duff won the role of Spade with his audition, beating out radio veterans like Elliott Lewis. Spier was initially unimpressed with the actor, who was about as far from Bogart’s iconic portrayal as one could get, but Duff had a champion in Spier’s wife, Kay Thompson and she persuaded her husband to give Duff the role.
Duff was ably supported each week by Lurene Tuttle in the role of Spade’s scatterbrained (but always loyal) secretary Effie Perrine, along with some of the best actors working on radio on the West Coast, including William Conrad, Joseph Kearns, Wally Maher, Jeanette Nolan, and John McIntire. Each week, Spade would dictate his case report to Effie for his client’s review. The fourth wall was often broken, with frequent references to the program itself. “Sam” and “Effie” often weighed in on the performances Duff and Tuttle gave in the dramatizations of “their” adventures.
The series received rave notices in its first year, including an Edgar Award for best radio detective series. By September 1946, the show had moved to CBS, where it would remain until 1950. Robert Tallman continued as a writer, and Gil Doud stepped in to replace Jo Eisinger in 1947. With their scripts and Duff’s performance, Sam Spade was one of radio’s most popular shows. The sleuth even held his own against the powerhouse of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy across the airwaves on NBC.
The show was revived for a twenty four-week run on NBC on November 17, 1950 with Steven Dunne stepping in as Spade. Lurene Tuttle and William Spier returned from the original run, but there was conspicuously no mention of Dashiell Hammett to be found. Dunne was a fine Spade, but Howard Duff had made the role his own. As radio historian John Dunning noted, not even Humphrey Bogart could have succeeded Duff as Spade by 1950.The show kept a loyal following, but CBS grew wary of Hammett’s Communist affiliations (he had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s at the height of the New Deal). After the names of Hammett and Duff turned up in a pamphlet identifying Communists and their sympathizers, the show lost its sponsor (Wildroot Cream Oil) and September 1950 saw Howard Duff’s last performance as Spade.
But before the Red Scare and timid sponsors did the show in, The Adventures of Sam Spade consistently delivered some of the best that radio had to offer. With Duff’s wry performance and the colorful characters invented by Tallman, Eisinger, and Doud, the show still holds up today as exciting mystery drama.