Audio ClassicsÒ Archive

by Martin Grams, Jr.
When Dashiell Hammett’s The Adventures of Sam Spade made its debut over ABC in August of 1946, personable Howard Duff, a comparative unknown in Hollywood circles, was assigned the title role.  The selection of young Duff for the hard-hitting detective was perfect casting, his success was immediate, and Hollywood began predicting important things to come for this new personality.
Just one year after his “Sam Spade” debut, Howard Duff found himself under personal contract to Mark Hellinger, movie producer.  His first screen role as “Soldier” in Hellinger’s production of Brute Force, had rated him star material from critics throughout the country.  He received on-screen credit as “radio’s Sam Spade.”  Even when Duff was given offers for movie roles, he never gave up the radio gig, often making long trips to multiple studios so he could juggle both acting mediums.
The enormous success of the Sam Spade radio program, spawned a comic strip series, magazine articles and radio cross-overs, and at one time Universal Studios even considered the possibility of making a Sam Spade movie with Duff in the lead.
All this and much more because of a single radio program, based on a fictional detective glamorized in one novel, three short stories, and the impressive 1941 motion-picture, The Maltese Falcon.  Dashiell Hammett, the creator of the fictional private eye, received royalty checks for the use of his character, but had no direct involvement with the series except the lending of his name in the opening and closing credits.
Prior to The Adventures of Sam Spade, the famed Hammett detective appeared in character on three prior occasions, all of them were adaptations of motion-picture version of The Maltese Falcon (not an adaptation of the novel).  The first was The Lux Radio Theatre, broadcast February 8, 1943.  The hour-long radio broadcast featured a cast completely different from the film.  Edward G. Robinson, best known for playing “tough guys” in Warner Bros. gangster pictures, played the role of Sam Spade.  Laird Cregar played the role of Casper Gutman.
The second adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was on the September 20, 1943 broadcast of The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater.  Broadcast in a thirty-minute time slot, this dramatization featured four actors reprising their film roles for this abridged version:  Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman, and Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
The third adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was on the July 3, 1946 broadcast of Academy Award Theatre.  Broadcast in a thirty-minute time slot, this version featured Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor reprising their film roles.  Coincidentally, this dramatization was broadcast over the CBS radio network, just nine days before the ABC network premiered The Adventures of Sam Spade.
Also coincidentally, just days after the premiere of The Adventures of Sam Spade, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key was dramatized on The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater (July 22, 1946).  The radio broadcast featured Alan Ladd and Marjorie Reynolds in the cast.
Howard’s Duff big break came in the spring of 1946.  William Spier, producer/director of the CBS radio program, Suspense, was involved in bringing Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade character to the airwaves.  Spier was looking for that perfect voice - the persona who could best represent the character he had in mind. 
“The most memorable moment of my life came when I was at my lowest spirit,” Duff recalled in a column for the National Enquirer in 1957.  “It was right after World War II, and, like a million other guys, I was back home with an honorable discharge and no job.  I wanted to be an actor.  Day after day, I made the rounds of radio studios and always received the standard brush-off.  Eating regularly became a problem for me.”
“Then one day, when I was discouraged, disgusted and hungry, I dropped into a producer’s office to try out for a role on a forth-coming radio program about the adventures of a tough private detective,” Duff continued.  “There must have been at least 100 other guys jammed in that office waiting to read for the Sam Spade role.  I even recognized a few famous faces in the crowd, and it threw me into even a greater melancholy.  By the time my turn came I was feeling real mean, and about as low as a patrolman’s instep.  When they handed me the script and told me to go ahead, I delivered the lines in a half-snarling, half-bored manner like a guy reading a grocery list.  I put no punch into my delivery because I just didn’t care any more about getting a job as an actor.”
Spier was not initially impressed with Duff’s performance, but his wife, Kay Thompson, became so enthralled with Duff’s interpretation of the Sam Spade character that she continued to rally for Duff to her husband, until he relented.  “Two days later, the producer of the Sam Spade show phoned me,” Duff recalled.  “‘You’ve got the job,’ he told me, ‘You sound just the way we want Sam Spade to sound.  You’re a natural for him.’  Becoming Sam Spade, private eye, for radio fame, was the greatest moment in my life.  It just goes to prove that luck can happen to a guy when he least expects it.”
The audition episode was entitled “Sam Spade and the Walls of Jericho,” and the origin dates back as early as June 29, 1944, when Jo Eisinger’s story “The Walls Came Tumbling Down” was dramatized on radio’s Suspense, also directed by William Spier.  Keenan Wynn plays a newspaper columnist investigating the murder of a priest, which concludes with the discovery of an elusive painting worth a small fortune.  Ala The Maltese Falcon, Eisinger’s story was adapted for Suspense by Robert Tallman.
Almost two years later, an audition record was made for The Adventures of Sam Spade (dated May 1, 1946) and Howard Duff played the title role.  Bob Tallman and Jo Eisinger co-wrote the script for the Sam Spade audition, and changed the lead from a newspaper reporter to a private detective.  Later that same year, a feature-length movie of the same name was released in theaters with Lee Bowman as the investigating reporter.
The audition record cinched a sponsor, Wildroot Hair Tonic, and a network, the American Broadcasting Company.  The recording was never broadcast on the air, leaving the radio audience and fans to this day wondering just what the plot was, and the opportunity to hear Howard Duff make his dramatic appearance as Sam Spade.  Both the audition record and the first few broadcasts of the series gave no air credit for the writers.  Spier intended to convince the network, ABC, that Dashiell Hammett was personally involved with the episodes, since the contract between Spier and Hammett stated the author’s name would be employed in the epigraphs each week.
Of the 13 episodes broadcast on ABC, seven were Bob Tallman - Jo Eisinger originals; the remaining six were adaptations of Hammett’s short stories.  Tallman and Eisinger never received writing credit for any of the ABC broadcasts.
The 13 episodes broadcast over the ABC network were perhaps some of the best of the series.  The plots were clever and intricate.  Spade’s clients had little ethics and when the situation called for desperate means, Spade threw his good intentions out the window. 
The premiere broadcast, “Sam and the Guiana Sovereign,” was an original script by Tallman and Eisinger, and played much like The Maltese Falcon with a cast of shady characters, stooping to betrayal and murder to gain possession of a valuable artifact.
Shortly after newspapers report the murder and robbery of Bernard F. Gilmore, Sam finds himself hired by Gilmore’s business partner, Emil Tonescu, to find the Guiana Sovereign that was stolen from the dead man.  The Sovereign has sentimental value, according to Tonescu, who wishes to have it returned.  Naturally, Sam meets enough suspects to fill a tabloid, only to discover that Gilmore is alive and well, in hiding.  He survived the murder attempt, with a gunshot wound, and preferred to remain in hiding when he learns that his assailant was Cara Kenbrook, a former business partner in Trinidad.  Before Sam learns of Cara Kenbrook’s involvement, Tonescu is murdered by Gilmore, and Sam discovers all the motives - including blackmail. 
Sam’s methods are unorthodox, as revealed when he pushes the corpse of Tonescu into a closet, cleaning the scene of the crime to baffle the police, and drinking rum and Coke and a shot while on duty. 
There were a few lines scratched out of the script, including one where Sam takes Lina’s money to exchange for helping return the coin to her, even though he was hired by Tonescu to do the same.  There is a similar scene in which Sam took Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s money in The Maltese Falcon.  Another deleted scene was when Effie asks about the thousand dollars he earned on the case, and Sam explains that he lost it all on a horse race.
The second broadcast of the series, “Sam and the Farewell Murders,” broadcast July 19, 1946, was the first of many episodes adapted from a Dashiell Hammett story.  Though Hammett had no participation in the radio productions, many of his short stories were adapted (or in some cases the plots were lifted) from short stories already published in magazines and periodicals.
This episode, adapted from “The Farewell Murder” (originally published in the February 1930 issue of Black Mask), concerns Miriam Farewell, who hires Sam to visit her father-in-law, the great, wealthy Carter P. Farewell, whose life has been threatened in a poison pen letter.  After one failed murder attempt, she fears the culprit will try again.  The lead suspect is Farewell’s English neighbor, Captain Sherry, who was drummed out of the Army years ago because Mr. Farewell’s shady business ventures financially hurt Sherry.  When the old man is found murdered, the police are unable to pin the crime on Captain Sherry.
Spade and Miriam visit the hotel where Sherry is staying, only to find him dead from a bullet to the head, and Dolph, Miriam’s husband, with a gun in his hand.  While Spade phones Lt. Dundy, Dolph jumps out the window, taking his own life.  Dundy arrives at the scene and Spade explains how Dolph didn’t jump out the window - he was pushed by Miriam when Spade was on the phone in the other room.  She planned the death of her father-in-law so she could collect her inheritance, and attempted to cover her tracks with a second murder.  In this broadcast, Spade romantically kisses Miriam, a married woman, who was still married to Dolph.
Throughout the broadcasts, actor Howard Duff fit the description of Sam Spade to a tee.  The radio audience apparently liked his character, as did the trade papers that began publishing photos of the actor in costume, including the hat.  Duff didn’t just sound like Spade - he looked like the private detective.  The actor stood six feet and a half inch tall, weighed 183 pounds, and had brown hair and blue eyes.  A conservative dresser, quiet in speech and manner, Duff took his away-from-work relaxation in the company of old friends.  He was lazy and he admitted it to his friends, even dating women and trying to dodge the photographers . . . the way Spade led much of his life.
The third broadcast of the series, “Sam and the Unhappy Poet,” offered a brief glimpse of Spade’s one-liners that would become the jovial trademark of the series.  Spade receives a visit from Eli Haven, a dramatic poet, who feels the shadow of death tailing his every move.  Asking for Spade to hold an envelope for him, and open it only when the papers report his death, Sam cannot figure out the paying client’s motives - at first.
HAVEN:              There is one thing you can do for me, Mr. Spade.  Take
                        this envelope.  Hold it for me.
SPADE:              Sure.
HAVEN:              Thank you, sir.  Life is but a Ferris wheel.
SPADE:              Feels like there’s nothing in it.
HAVEN:              It contains nothing but a whisper, so long as it remains
SPADE:              And if it doesn’t remain sealed?
HAVEN:              Like an evil Genii, it will escape and grow, first into a
                        shout, then into many shouts, and then into a mighty roar.
SPADE:              When will you be back for it?
HAVEN:              It wants a quarter to twelve.  And tomorrow’s doomsday.
HAVEN:              Thank you, Mr. Spade.  Miss Perrine – it’s no longer dark. 
                        When I walk out this door, I shall be walking into the sun. 
                        Goodbye.  Goodbye.
SPADE:              That’s what comes of not learning a trade.
In “Sam and the Psyche,” the fourth episode broadcast, Dr. Gregory Denolph hires Sam to help retrieve some letters that might incriminate one of his patients, the famous actress, Constance Brent.  Sam agrees to work for the doctor, but when he visit’s the doctor’s office, he learns that Homicide is labeling Dr. Denolph’s death a suicide.  Denolph’s widow insists it was murder, and suspects Constance to be guilty.  Sam questions all of the suspects, including Jonathan Walters, a rival psychiatrist.
WALTERS:              Now what do you want with my wife?
SPADE:              I’ve come to tell her that Dr. Denolph is dead.
WALTERS:              Are you sure?
SPADE:              You try falling from a 12-floor window sometime.
On August 6, 1946, Dashiell Hammett’s short story, “Two Sharp Knives,” was adapted for the Sam Spade program.  William Spier, having produced and directed two previous adaptations of the short story for the December 22, 1942 and June 7, 1945 broadcasts of Suspense, offered a different take on the mystery classic.
Rather than play the story straight from beginning to the end, Tallman and Eisinger presented a “flashback” episode concerning a chapter of Spade’s life, before getting into the private detective business.  When an old friend named Wally, dies in Spade’s office, Spade recounts to Effie his past as a detective lieutenant in a mid-west state, where Wally was the mastermind behind a murder and a large payoff.  The flashback story was the adaptation of the “Two Sharp Knives” tale, suggesting Sam solved crimes before going into private practice.
In “Zig Zags of Treachery,” broadcast August 23, 1946, Spade recounts his caper to Effie from a hospital bed.  This was the only episode of the thirteen ABC broadcasts to feature Spade dictating his caper from a clinic, while recovering from his wounds.  Spade, however, would dictate his adventures from a hospital bed more than once throughout the series.
Two references to The Maltese Falcon is featured in “Sam and the Scythian Tiara,” broadcast August 30, 1946.  Sam is hired by Mr. Main to deliver a package of “extreme value.”  When Sam asks why Main chose him, the client replies, “I’ve had you thoroughly investigated, Mr. Spade.  I know of your part in the affair of the Guiana Sovereign, the Maltese Falcon, the Aelfric Bibles.  I think I can trust you.”  Another reference to the Maltese Falcon is revealed when Sam initially describes Maria: “. . . she was talking to the sultriest looking dame I had seen since Brigid O’Shaughnessy.”
At the end of the caper, Maria Gungen deliberately shoots a man in cold blood.  Having witnessed her as a victim of heartbreak, Sam lies to protect her, claiming he saw her shoot the villain in self-defense.  “He was reaching for his gun when you shot him,” he confesses.  Maria tries to argue with Spade but he reminds her, “Remember that, sweetheart.  He was reaching for his gun.” 
In “The Corporation Murders,” broadcast September 6, 1946, the City Commissioner revokes Spade’s license (he threatened the same action in the Falcon novel), and the detective seeks out the murderer of Mr. and Mrs. Desmond , so he can get his license back.  This episode marks the first of many mentions of Sid Weiss, Sam’s lawyer.  Weiss is mentioned in The Maltese Falcon, but never appears in character, only as a voice on the phone. 
On September 13 and 20, 1946, the two-part “The Dot Marlow Caper” offered Sam’s first glance of “Tinsel Town” when he visits Hollywood to help solve a murder.  Along the way, he meets celebrities that were written in as a tip of the hat to real-life actors.   Sigrid Lindstrom was a play on Ingrid Bergman, and Gino Lupa was a play on Ida Lupino.  Years after this episode was broadcast, Howard Duff would marry Ida Lupino.  The mention of Gino Lupa, however, was only a coincidence - not an inside joke.
The final broadcast of the ABC series was “The Gutting of Couffignal,” broadcast October 4, 1946.  In the original story, a White Russian general leads a military-style operation to rob the cream of California society, who were gathered on an isolated island for a wedding.  Though this story features more action than mystery, Spade’s character is put to the test when he confronts a princess, who tempts him with a percentage of the profits.  Spade turns her down, preaching the honesty of his profession.
“Let me straighten this out for you, Princess,” he explains.  “I’m a detective because I happen to like the work.  I could find other work that pays better.  Even a hundred dollars more a month would be $1,200 a year.  Say 25 or 30 grand between now and my 60th birthday.  I’m passing that honest 30 grand up because I like my work and want to do it as well as I can.  Otherwise, there’s no sense to it.  You can’t weigh that against any sum of money.  I can’t imagine a pleasanter future than twenty-some years more of the work I’m doing.  I’m not going to blow it up.”
When the Princess laughs at the wounded detective, she teases him about his honest virtues.  “One crutch is broken.  You can’t even hobble.  You pretend you’ll shoot me.  But you won’t.  If I attacked you - yes.  But not if I just go.  You know you won’t shoot me.  You’ll wish you could.  But you won’t.  You’ll see.” When she attempts to leave the room, Spade shoots her in the back (she only suffers a flesh wound).  He reminded her that earlier in the day, when he had a wounded leg, he stole the crutches from a crippled boy because he felt he needed them more than the seven-year-old.  Apparently she misjudged his ethics.
GENERAL:              You have no Russian sentiment, my dear.  Sir, this is
                        Princess Pleshkov.  My dear, may I present an American
                        detective - Sam Spade.
SPADE:              License number 137596!
PRINCESS:              How interesting!  In this country I thought only our
                        convicts had numbers . . .
Faithful listeners of the Sam Spade program were treated to a double dose of Sam Spade adventures that week.  Wildroot wanted to continue sponsoring the program, but the ABC network did not wish to air further adventures.  When the initial contract of thirteen weeks ran out, so would Sam Spade.  Wildroot and Spier proposed continuing the series on CBS, and the network accepted the program with open arms.  This is no surprise since Spier was involved in the popular Suspense program, also broadcast on CBS.  Under the new contract, CBS requested the series begin its broadcast on September 29, five days before the final ABC broadcast.  While listeners could hear the presentations over ABC on Friday evenings, they could listen to additional capers over CBS on Sunday evenings.  And Sam Spade would become situated for in a permanent time slot of 8 to 8:30 p.m., (Eastern Standard Time) on Sunday evenings until 1950 when CBS would drop the series.
Beginning with the CBS broadcasts, the Sam Spade scripts changed their course of action.  The initial thirteen scripts were numbered 1 through 13 on the title page.  Beginning with the CBS broadcasts, rather than continue with number 14, the script writers went back to number 1.  The new numbering system, and early switch to a new network, caused confusion for two periodicals in the 1970s, which questioned the validity of the broadcast dates for episode guides compiled by the editors.
Another noticeable change began with the first CBS broadcast.  Tallman and Eisinger were given on-air credit as writers of the scripts, while Dashiell Hammett was still credited as the creator of the fictional detective.  Eisinger, however, was under contract to Columbia Pictures and was forced to employ a pseudonym, Jason James, so the studios would not know of his involvement.  Ann Lorraine began co-writing scripts with Bob Tallman for the earliest CBS broadcasts.  She left after assisting Tallman with a few episodes.
The first episode of the CBS series, “The Blood Money Caper,” was loosely adapted from the short story, “$106,000 Blood Money” by Dashiell Hammett, originally published in the May 1927 issue of Black Mask.
In the original short story, a super-crook attacks not just a single bank, but the entire financial district of San Francisco, with the help of hundreds of other criminals gathered from all over the United States.  The super-crook then turned around and wiped out most of his helpers in order to keep the loot for himself - hence the term “Blood Money.”
In the radio production, Taylor Newhall, President of the Golden Gate Trust, hires Spade to check on the movements of his daughter, Ann.  He suspects she is spending time with Red O’Leary, a “disreputable character.”  Spade tails the two to the Blue Bottle Bar and Grille, and with acute observation, discovers that Red is the ringleader to what becomes the largest coordinated bank robbery in San Francisco history.  The crooks profit ten million, and as the hours and days pass, a rash of murders across the city reveals Red’s motives: the fewer gangsters involved, the larger chunk of blood money for the survivors.  Sam avoids profiting from a piece of the action, saving his own hide, and lives to tell the tale.
This episode would be an important caper in the history of the radio program.  References to “The Blood Money Caper” would be cited among other episodes, and two sequels would be written, featuring the characters that survived this caper.  One humorous scene involves Sam’s initial attempt to weasel into the Blue Bottle Bar and Grill, reprinted below.
FLORA:             Just get in town dearie?  Or are you local talent?
SPADE:              I’m from K,C,  That makes you happy?
FLORA:              K.C. eh, Pobey?
SPADE:              Pobey Pushkin?  He’s still eatin’ jute.
FLORA:              Know him, eh?  What’s your name?
SPADE:              I got a dozen.  You like Little Morphy?
FLORA:              (hard)  Little Morphy’s dead!
SPADE:              (softly)  I know.  I was with him in the busted caper that
                            croaked him.  He give me his name before he died.
Martin Grams Jr. is the author of The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade, documenting the history of the radio program, including a detailed episode guide with plot summaries, trivia and more.  Martin is also the author of Suspense: Twenty Years of Thrills and Chills, The I Love A Mystery Companion and Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Behind the Creaking Door.
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Copyright © 2008 by Martin Grams, Jr.  All rights reserved.  Printed in the United States Of America.  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.


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