Smart Money (1931): Alfred Green’s Pre-Code Crime Drama, Starring Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney

Alfred E. Green’s pre-Code movie Smart Money represents the only time Robinson and Cagney made a movie together despite the fact that they were Warner’s two leading actors in the 1930s.

Robinson plays Nick Venizelos, a small-town barber, who provides customers with gambling in his back room. He’s encouraged to go to the big city to take on the famous gambler, Hickory Short.  Nick puts up half of the $10,000 stake himself, while others raise the rest. He leaves the shop under the supervision of his assistant, Jack (Cagney).

Marie, the pretty blonde working at the hotel cigar stand, who’s charmed by Nick, reveals crucial information about the high-stakes poker game.

After Nick loses his money, he reads in a newspaper that Hickory Short has just been released from prison in Florida. The man mistaken for Hickory is actually conman Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde), and Marie is his girlfriend and accomplice. When Nick tries to get his money back, Sleepy Sam and the other fake poker players beat him up, and he vows to get revenge.

Months later, he tracks down Sleepy Sam and his gang in another city. He proposes a one-on-one game, each man putting up $50,000. Sam accepts. Nick gets a fresh decks of cards, just to be safe. When Nick wins and tries to leave, the con artists reach for their guns. Nick then boasts that he cheated better than Sam by using shaved cards.

He finally gets to play the real Hickory Short, and Walter Winchell reports that Nick beat Hickory to the tune of $300,000. Nick becomes the city’s king of illegal gambling, with Jack as his right-hand man.

As they are driving, they are asked to take a woman named Irene (Evalyn Knapp), fished half drowned out of the river, to the hospital. Irene revives during the ride, but Nick insists to take care of her until she’s fully recovered. Touched by Nick’s kindness, she confesses about fleeing from a charge of blackmail.

Public outrage puts pressure on District Attorney Black (Morgan Wallace), who is up for reelection. Black threatens to prosecute Irene unless she incriminating Nick, but initially, she refuses.  Under growing threats, she agrees to put a racing form in Nick’s coat, which will help imprison Nick. Jack finds out, but when he tries to warn him, Nick gets furious and knocks him down.

The police raid the illegal casino, and Black arrests Nick.  Irene begs for forgiveness, and Nick promises to be out of prison in five years and rejoins her.