June 15, 2008

DVD Review: Smart Money

Over the past few years no other studio has treated their catalog of older films with more respect than Warner Brothers. To that end, they have turned a number of these decades old films into highly desirable box sets. Among those sets are ones based on the stars such as the Gary Cooper Signature Collection and the Errol Flynn Signature Collection; in addition to those, they also released themed sets such as Film Noir. This film is a part of the Gangsters Collection, Vol. 3. It follows the Tough Guys Collection, which has since been renamed to Gangsters Collection, Vol. 2 (why the need for the name change? Your guess is as good as mine).

Smart Money was made in the early sound era and came hot on the heels of Little Ceasar. As soon as the latter was seen to be a hit, the studio wanted to get another related film with star Edward G. Robinson in the can. Smart Money was the resulting film. Besides that, it is also notable for being the only film to feature both Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. To take that one step further, there is also a bit part played by Boris Karloff. Imagine that, Robinson, Cagney, and Karloff in the same frame together. I tell you, it is quite a sight.

Robinson is Nicky "The Barber" Venizelos, and Cagney is his friend, Jack. Nicky is a low level gambler who is a big fish in a small pond in Irontown. He has dreams of going to the big city and getting involved in some of the bigger action, the only problem is that he doesn't have the money required to get into a game at that level. All of his friends, including Jack, pitch in to get him the buy-in money needed. So, off Nicky goes with dreams of big money floating in his head, as well as those of everyone in the town.

Once he arrives in the city, Nicky goes about looking for Hickory Slim, the big cheese who runs the high stakes poker games. Nicky enters the game all cocky and confident, but he is ill prepared for what he faces across the table. Things do not end well for Nicky.

From the moment of this poker playing embarrassment, Nicky is determined to have his revenge. He takes his time, learning the big city's system, slowly building up his bankroll while keeping an eye on Slim, determined to have his payback.

It is a pretty good film; although being an early entry in the sound era, it has some technical drawbacks. Fortunately, the performances of Robinson and Cagney are more than enough to carry it through. Also, it should be noted that it is more than a story of a small gambler making it big; it has some interesting characters.

Edward G. Robinson's central character is most interesting in how he is a sympathetic criminal. He is a bad guy, after all, participating in illegal gambling. However, he is a nice guy, with a sympathetic attitude towards women, and a crippling attraction to blondes. It is these elements that contribute to his ultimate fate. As we all know, crime doesn't pay, although it often takes corruption to take it down.

I liked the movie, I cannot say I love it or that it is the greatest example of this period of film, but that does not detract from the strong performance from, Robinson and the solid directing from, Alfred E. Green.

Audio/Video. The film is definitely showing its age, but Warner Brothers has done a fine job of restoring it to as pristine a copy as they could. It looks fantastic, sure there are a few scratches, and the audio is a little spotty, but there really is no room for complaints here.


  • Commentary. There is an interesting track given by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. They go over much of the historical significance of the film, and is well worth listening to. These two historians are easy to listen to and offer up plenty of facts.
  • Warner Night at the Movies. This is a great feature that is meant to replicate the experience of going to the theater during the year of the film's release, in this case 1931. So, in addition to the film you get a host of shorts totalling 37.5 minutes:
    • Vintage Newsreel. Al Capone sentenced to prison and is seen entering the courthouse.
    • Musical Short: George Jessel and His Russian Art Choir. Mr. Jessel speaks of spending time in Russia and the time he encountered the choir. I actually found this to be rather humorous.
    • The Smart Set-Up. This follows the set-up to a musical number, beginning backstage and leading to the stage.
    • Classic Cartoon: Big Man From the North. This old black and white cartoon features an early Looney Tunes character sentout into the cold to catch a wanted criminal, to comical effect.
    • Trailer: Other Men's Women (1931). This certainly doesn't look like an A-list title, and it has not been restored. Still, it is cool to see what the old trailers looked like. The film features James Cagney, Mary Astor and a bunch of names I don't recognize.

Bottomline. Good movie, great presentation, and a fun performance from Robinson all add up to making this a worthy addition to your collection.



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