Money is always smart, in no relation to whoever may be holding it at any given time. In spite of this the title is used idiomatically, sort-of like saying "smart steed" in relation to a valliant knight. It's not really anything to do with the horse, but people like to talk.
Up until yesterday night I thought that's about pretty much all one'd ever have to say or know about that expression. Turns out I was wrong. The chief point to make is that Smart Moneyi is the title of a film, and that film is certainly one of the greatest films ever made. Yes, way up there with Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Last Tango in Paris or Some Came Running.ii
The thing is, it spends eighty minutes building up for the last five, which perhaps is why you have to hear from me about how great it is. To explain this : Robinsoniii is a barber who likes to gamble, and is quite good at it. He's a very affable sortiv, as it begets a barber and also a very popular personality in his little town.v He manages the little affairs of the place just fine, the girl hussling him for a hundred which she passes to some deficiente she's involved with only for our guy to get it back from him over a shot of dice.
It's all nice and stable and round and perfect and boring, until one day someone comes up with the temptation of the fall : how about the Big City ?vi So everyone in the little town stakes him, including the black janitor for a fiver, and Robinson goes to the big city, all full of his usual banter and happiness only to be raped. "I am a gambler, it's my job to judge people" he says to the prostitute playing ingenue for his benefit. He sits with swindlers in a crooked game and loses his stake. The end ?
Not really. He rebuilds himself in the big city, working a barber shop, making new friends, getting them to stake him and... well... goes back. Back to the swindlers and their crooked game, only this time with doctored decks and ready heaters. And so this time he wins, and he becomes top dog, and all through it he sticks to his candor and banter. He's happy, you could say, in the big city, but then again he was happy in the small one, too.
At this point the Holy Church of the Sand Vaginas obviously has to intervene. In the words of the film,
A perfect announcement, it should be immortalized. It's "because Nick the Barber has become so open as to almost defy the authorities to stop him" that the citizenettesvii got sand in their vagina. It's not the case that the sand was always there, just waiting for someone to come along that wouldn't be as boring as miserable as they. O, no, nothing of the sort. Nick the Barber made them do it!
So the DA sends him a woman, by way of Trojan Horse (which is not far off, by the way). Robinson treats her very kindly and kicks her out of his office. Literally, shoe to the butt, it's perhaps the first time you see a woman being expelled from a room thusly in cinema.
So the DA sends him another woman, this one more the drowned stray cat type. She plants some evidence in his suit, which is caught by Robinson's shadow, a very young but very competent Cagney. A melee ensues, first by Cagney assaulting the stray cat, then Robinson battering Cagney, then the police pop in. It turns out he was wrong to trust her, and the realisation fails to embitter him. He "always was a sucker for dames". But then it turns out Cagney's not just socked out. He's dead. Bad fall on a door pin. Dead.
This, my friends, is tragedy. Tragedy, pure and simple, of Greek quality. The lightly banter leading all the way to it was not waste - because of the tragic end it finds itself ennobled into perfection. So, off he goes to jail, for ten years. Two to one he gets out in five ?
I have no problem yanking this production out of the early and then still promising Hollywood and placing it among the clouds and the frogs.———
- 1932, by Alfred E. Green, with Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. [↩]
- Casablanca isn't on that list. The reason is jointly the inept presence of Bergman and the despicably nauseating part of Ilsa. They knew this, too, all of them : Hawks, Bogart, everyone down at the studio, the script writers, the script writers' girlfriends... everyone all the way down to the fourteen year old newspaper boys and the bare bottomed cigarette girls knew it : being Ilsa simply sucks and Bergman is reducible to a sandy vagina. This is how To Have And Have Not came about, "let's remake this otherwise decent idea into a film without the Ilsa idiocy". It's a pretty decent film the way it came out but it doesn't get to go on the list because the idiocy still mars it from beyond the grave. So, to all young hussies trying to figure out their way in life back home, a piece of advice : don't be Ilsa. Anything's better. [↩]
- Who, incidentally, is one of those Romanians you never knew existed.
More's the point, he plays "old style", as it was called in the 50s : a succession of clear emotional masks held in their form for seconds at the time for the public to easily follow. None of this movement or fluence, the actor is simply the wall upon which you draw the mask. A succesion of photographs, if you will, sort of like our soundbytes today except back then.
Alongside, the controlling gestures, conditioning the public into specific decryption patterns to consume the intelligible content presented before it, such as for instance his fingernail shining gesture to evoke and suggest sexual matter.
All this may pass for "bad acting" or simply be confusing to the cinematographically illiterate viewer of today, but the truth is anachronism has no place in cinema as it has no place anywhere. When judging an actor's performance you have to proceed within the context of his profession, or more correctly said, in the context of the structures of meaning of his time. Consequently Robinson is a very good actor in the sense a Ford T is a very good car : for its time. [↩]
- Ah, che bel vivere, che bel piacere per un barbiere di qualità! di qualità! [↩]
- Tutti mi chiedono, tutti mi vogliono, [↩]
- Which, notably, is never named. Just "A Big City". I lolled. [↩]
- A term used to describe inferior, second rate, pretend-citizens. Not the genuine article but pale and unconvincing imitations thereof. [↩]