In many ways, the first half of Alfred E. Green’s Smart Money can be seen as a stage-setter for John Dahl’s game-changing Rounders—that’s game-changing from a poker perspective, not a cinematic one, mind you, though I do love me some Rounders! Like Dahl’s 1998 film, Smart Money focuses on a small-time gambler with a hunger for more: Nick “The Barber” Venizelos (the always superb Edward G. Robinson), a barber with a knack for cards, dice, and other “games of chance.” The small-town Nick the Barber, a big winner and minor legend in tiny Irontown, is drawn to the biggest games in the big city, and initially finds himself hustled and overmatched across the board, both by poker shark Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde) and your average dame selling cigars at the hotel, who suckers him out of $100. Mental domination, it appears, isn’t quite as simple under the bright lights, where hustlers seem to fill every corner. But like Rounders’ Mike McDermott, Nick bounces back with a vengeance, eventually cleaning Sam out of $50,000 in a heads-up match (here, 5-card stud; in Rounders, no-limit holdem before the boom), before taking charge of the city’s gambling scene, much to the chagrin of the District Attorney, who’s up for re-election and intends to snuff out the illicit affairs by any means necessary.
As in so many American underworld pictures of the early 30′s, Smart Money has a dramatic rise-and-fall arc, but it’s silkily executed: Robinson’s tremendous performance, aided by strong supporting work from the omnipresent James Cagney as Nick’s right-hand man, bolsters his evolution from the small stage to the grandest. The pacing is far better than in Little Caesar, another Robinson vehicle released the same year. Nick learns from his mistakes (or most of them; his weakness for blondes eventually bites him in the end), and channels these lessons into his progression. It also helps that Nick is one of the more interesting protagonists I’ve seen from the ‘gangster era.’ While he’s plenty tough enough to reach the top, getting revenge on the men who conned him and the pretty lady who duped him, he’s also a generous spirit, often to his detriment. At its core, his heart is always good: there’s a bit of Robin Hood in him. And yet, like the anti-heroes in Badlands and Natural Born Killers, Nick also has an obsession with playing it up for the media: his final straightening of the tie and pose for a photos is just perfect. Smart Money’s substantive depth sets it apart from many of the good-but-not-great genre entries of the period, and I have a serious quibble with those who rank this as a middling effort hamstrung by mediocre direction.