Directed By: Alfred E. Green
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Evalyn Knapp
Line from the film: "Well, you're a cute little package"
Trivia: While appearing in this movie, James Cagney was simultaneously filming The Public Enemy
Smart Money was Edward G. Robinson’s follow-up to Little Caesar, the 1931 crime film that made him a household name, but more than this, it marks the only time Warner’s two biggest gangsters, Robinson and James Cagney, shared the big screen.
The proprietor of a barber shop in a small backwater town, Nick "The Barber" Venizelos (Robinson) is also one hell of a gambler. He’s so good, in fact, that his friends, including co-worker Jack (Cagney), stake him $10,000 so that he can travel to the big city, where the real action is. Once there, Nick meets Marie (Noel Francis), an employee of the hotel where he’s staying, and from her learns that a big-time gambler named Hickory Short is hosting a poker game later that night. Hoping to strike it rich, Nick sits in for a few hands, only to lose the entire $10,000 to Hickory and his pals. The next day, Nick makes a startling discovery: the man claiming to be Hickory Short is, in reality, Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde), a con man and notorious cheater. While he does eventually get even with Sleepy, Nick has bigger fish to fry, and within a few months, he’s set up his own illegal gambling parlor. A careful man, Nick ensures there’s no paper trail linking him to the establishment, but that doesn’t stop District Attorney Black (Morgan Wallace), who is bound and determined to find something he can use to run Nick out of town.
Despite what the posters may lead you to believe, Smart Money is, start to finish, Edward G. Robinson’s movie (at the same time he was making this film, Cagney was smack-dab in the middle of shooting his breakout picture The Public Enemy, meaning he wasn’t yet the big star that Robinson was). With the character of Nick the Barber, Eddie G. got a chance to play a more sympathetic gangster than Rico in Little Caesar (Nick is quick to hand over money to those who need it, and makes sure his friends are always taken care of). And while Nick does prove on occasion he’s not someone to be trifled with (he’s ruthless as hell when taking his revenge on Sleepy Sam and his cronies), he remains a decent enough guy through most of the movie, and we can’t help but root for him. As an added bonus, keep an eye out for a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff, who plays a degenerate gambler in an early scene.
With a strong story and an ending that’s far from upbeat, Smart Money proved the perfect vehicle for Robinson, who, in the span of less than a year, showed the world he could play nice guys and vicious hoods, and do both equally as well.