By coincidence yesterday afternoon I reread Lucky At Cards, one of Hard Case Crime's Lawrence Block reprints from the early sixties. I like books about poker, especially poker "mechanics," guys who cheat at the game and generally get away with it. Bloch creates a believable mechanic and the story has a number of nicely placed twists in the last act.
I mention coincidence because this morning Turner Classic Movies ran the 1931 Smart Money, a movie about a smart Greek barber named Nick Venezelos, as sketched enthusiastically by Edward G. Robinson. Nick is so lucky his customers stake him to a big game in the big city. Nick's problem is that he plays an honest hand; the poker mechanics he meets there clean him out. Nick goes back to his small town, ashamed and still crazy for Irene, the blonde he met on his trip to the city. His buddy Jack, one of James Cagney's first roles, joins Nick's other friends in helping their barber to thrive once again, this time by ridding the town of gambling cheats and setting up his own honest gambling club. But no matter how honest he is the D.A. wants to bring him down--this is after Nick makes a quick return trip to the city city and wins his money back; Jack (Cagney) and two other gunsels make sure the crooks let him have the money--and so the story turns to Nick's betrayl by Irene. The D.A. will send her to prison if she doesn't set Nick up. Jack tries to tell Nick this but Nick won't believe it and the two men get into a fight, Nick accidentally killing Jack and going to prison for it. But Nick bets reporters he won't be in there long. Not with his kind of luck (though he seems to overlook the fact that his luck wasn't so good when he killed his best friend by mistake and then got sent up).
It's an entertaining film and has several especially fine scenes. Robinson and Cagney are always fun to watch and the cardsharps are really well cast. They're nasty enough that you want to see them messed up pretty good but not nasty enough to lose their humanity. You could imagine yourself being taken in by these mechanics. They're like an improv group that plays well together.
If the picture lacks an essential it's edge. There's a fair share of tough stuff but I wanted both Robinson and Cagney play it harder.