Conrad Veidt’s character in Casablanca said that in Casablanca, human life is cheap. In the hard-boiled detective novels that were so often put to film in the 1940s, human life isn’t cheap but it certainly is a commodity. The scheme to get the falcon in the John Huston adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon involves many people paying high monetary prices in exchange for the lives of others. Wealth is valued higher than human life.
When Detective Sam Spade holds the falcon and sarcastically calls it “the stuff dreams are made of” in the scene pictured above, he’s bemoaning the value placed on the falcon that was thought to be worth millions and led to several murders including his own partner’s. But that doesn’t mean he valued people any more than the story’s villains. This is the second time he gets his hands on the statue. The first time, he’s convinced that it’s going to make him a millionaire too. He staggers around like he’s drunk because he’s so overcome by the possibility of seeing this fortune. Human lives don’t matter for him anymore than for the villains when he thinks there’s a chance of getting the falcon.
Like Humphrey Bogart’s character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a few years later, Bogart’s Sam Spade gets so drunk with greed that all the moral convictions and integrity he used to value, whether or not he acted according to them, are completely clouded over by his pursuit of the “stuff dreams are made of,” the object that he thinks is going to make him rich.
Just the year before Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon joined actors Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre (M), and Sydney Greenstreet for the first time. The Lorre and Greenstreet characters in The Maltese Falcon are just a few of the seedy characters that think they can take advantage of Sam Spade and use him as a pawn in the plot to get the falcon. When motivated by greed, Sam loses a lot of what seemed to make him a decent human being in the past, but he doesn’t lose his smart detective capabilities. He knows he can’t believe a word coming from the corrupt gang of people acting like allies to get them to do what they want. But he stays a detective even when joining them in pursuit of the falcon.
Sam Spade’s willingness to join the crew in all their unscrupulous behavior is exactly what it takes to crack the case. Like most of the great detectives of 1940s movies, Sam is not a likable character. Humphrey Bogart’s acting is so brilliant because of the way he can keep the audience invested in a hero that they’re not supposed to like, who’s only a hero because he cracks the case, not for doing anything truly heroic.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Maltese Falcon is its willingness to let its hero be caught up so deeply in the dirty deeds of the villains that we can’t always tell that he’s the hero even though we know he must be because his name is Sam Spade, and Sam Spade was always the hero in Dashiell Hammett’s novels. All the complexity and moral confusion that the characters experience make it clear that they all know right from wrong but just don’t care when they’re motivated by money. The Maltese Falcon shows vividly from beginning to end that the love of money really is the root of all evil.