Nick Venizelos (Edward G. Robinson) runs a barbershop by day, but has a reputation for being a very shrewd gambler by night. Known as Nick the Barber, he runs games out of the back room of his barbershop along with his friend Jack (James Cagney) and a lot of his friends believe he could win big if he went into the city and got into a game with some other big name gamblers. They’re even willing to chip in money for Nick to go to the city to gamble with.
Armed with $10,000, Nick takes a train to the city and gets to work at finding out where the action is. If there’s one thing Nick can’t resist, it’s a pretty blonde and when he sees hotel employee Marie (Noel Francis), he’s drawn to her like a magnet. She tips him off about a big card game and when he arrives, Nick thinks he’s playing with notorious gambler Hickory Smart. The only problem is that Hickory Smart is serving a prison sentence in Florida and Nick ends up losing big time to conman Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde). When Nick finds out what’s going on, he tries to win his money back, but gets beaten up and he vows to get even with them someday.
Nick goes back to being a barber, but within a few months, he’s ready to get his revenge. Not only does he successfully con the con men, his reputation as a gambler quickly grows. He even gets to finally play cards with Hickory Smart — and wins! He becomes infamous for being one of the biggest gamblers around, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the District Attorney. But Nick soon realizes his new position is being jeopardized by a woman he’s been trying to help.
Smart Money isn’t one of the all-time great gangster movies, but it’s enjoyable enough. The most interesting thing it has going for it is that it showcases two of Warner Brothers’s biggest stars right as their careers were starting to really take off. Edward G. Robinson had just recently had his career breakthrough with Little Caesar and Cagney was working on Smart Money at the same time he was working on The Public Enemy. The Public Enemy ended up being released first, so although Cagney is a supporting actor in Smart Money, he became an A-lister by the time it was released (which explains why Cagney gets equal billing with Robinson.) Smart Money was also, surprisingly, the only movie the two actors made together. It’s really too bad Cagney and Robinson didn’t do another movie together where they both really got to be on equal footing.
Not only does Smart Money have Cagney and Robinson as they were on their way up, it also features a very brief appearance from another rising star, Boris Karloff. Smart Money was released shortly before the public saw his iconic performance in Frankenstein. Keep an eye out for him in the beginning of the movie as one of the gamblers in the backroom of Nick’s barber shop.