*. James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson together for the first and only time. And the only reason it happened is because Warners were hoping for a quick turnaround on Robinson’s success in Little Caesar and Cagney hadn’t had his breakthrough yet (The Public Enemy was shooting at the same time as this film).
*. It sure didn’t take long for Robinson to tire of the gangster role. Or perhaps he was (justifiably) concerned about being typecast in the part of crime boss. In either event, he wanted to play a lighter character than Little Caesar‘s Rico. For their part, the studio just wanted more Rico. This conflict led to a movie with a split personality.
*. Is it a gangster film? It certainly has that structure, with Nick the Barber rising to power through his luck at gambling, and eventually running an illegal casino complete with guards armed with machine guns. Cagney’s Jack is also very much the conventional Number Two seen in most such films. Can we imagine him as a barber?
*. The characters talk like gangsters, with their snappy patter and use of gambling argot, and they look like gangsters, done out in their swell clothes and pockets stuffed with thick wads of cash.
*. And of course Nick and Jack are criminals, under investigation by the District Attorney. They aren’t running booze, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to prison if they get caught.
*. In other words this is very much another kick at the Al Capone story, but contorted at Robinson’s insistence into a strange sort of hybrid.
*. You see, Nick is a decent guy. He’s gallant to the ladies (to a fault), and loyal to his friends. Hell, he’s even a member of the Irontown Volunteer Fire Department.
*. Pistols and machine guns are brandished, but never fired, and the one death (Cagney’s) comes about as an accident. The violence is really dialed back.
*. Then there are the forces arrayed against Nick. How can we not cheer for him when he’s taking on a mere “burglar” like Sleepy Sam? Nick represents the mostly honest, hard-working little people of his small town who pool their resources to send him off to the big game in the big city. Sam, however, is a slimy fraud running a crooked game, and he even uses a woman to hoodwink Nick.
*. That lesson is learned by the District Attorney, who may be one of the sleaziest representations of authority in any such film of the time. He’s willing to enlist both Sleepy Sam and his methods (bullying to tears poor Evelyn Knapp) in order to nail the “little greaseball” Nick. Not because Nick is much of a threat to the public order but so he can get the public and press off his back (the position of district attorney is an elected one in the U.S.).
*. “The end justifies the means,” for the D.A., and he openly admits to the disgrace of using “roundabout methods” to get Nick, including planting evidence on him! How can you not be rooting for Nick to beat such a bum rap?
*. To be sure, gangsters have always made attractive villains, no matter how dangerous. They have a kind of charismatic psychopathy, usually only kill rival gangsters, are mostly involved in “victimless” crimes (booze, gambling), and dress well. But we know that Rico Bandetto and Tom Powers and Tony Camonte are bad guys and deserve their extra-judicial executions. Nick is something different: a better man than the representatives of law and order opposing him, more sinned against than sinning.
*. This is the conflict that gives Smart Money such an uneven tone. To take the most dramatic point, what are we to make of Nick killing his best buddy Jack by accident? What has Jack done that makes him deserving of such punishment? Up until that point we seemed to be in a kind of crime comedy, not too far removed from the spirit of The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse and A Slight Case of Murder (both 1938). But Jack’s death injects a jarring note of seriousness, which is then just as jarringly dropped as Nick goes laughing off to the Big House.
*. Usually I step aside from talk of the “homoerotic” overtones in same-sex relationships in movies. In some cases, however, gang buddies invite it. We’d seen it in Rico’s attachment to Joe in Little Caesar, and it would still be popping up fifty years later in Tony Montana’s attachment to Manny in De Palma’s Scarface. Here there’s no mistaking the flirtation between Nick and Jack: the way Jack puts on a girlish pantomime for Nick, or their affectionate pet names for each other (like “dearie”). And quite obviously Jack is jealous of Ms. Graham, leading to the usual falling out.
*. I wonder why this is. What about the gangster lifestyle invites this? The male bonding? The fact that gangsters are such snappy dressers?
*. What’s with the scene where Nick rubs the short man’s back in the aisle of the train carriage? Is there something homoerotic in that as well? Or is it like rubbing the black man’s head for luck? At least the short man gives Nick a dirty look.
*. The DVD commentary points out some of the nice camerawork, including several smooth dolly shots that were uncommon at the time. What I was impressed most by though were several well-executed transitions, like when Marie (Noel Francis) says she can’t go out for dinner with Nick and then cutting to seeing them sitting together at the restaurant, or cutting from the suggestion that Nick send flowers and diamonds to Marie to a shot of her opening these gifts. Things like that really keep the story moving.
*. This is not, however, a great movie. The unsettled tone isn’t interesting or transgressive so much as just awkward. It’s remembered today chiefly for the pairing of its stars, but Cagney’s role is limited. No doubt Robinson had his reasons for not wanting to rehash his Rico role again so soon, but the studio’s instincts were right. If this one had been more generic, and tougher, it would be better known today.