Despite being two of the greatest gangster icons of the 1930s at Warner Bros, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney only made one film together, in 1931. Released six months after Robinson’s classic Little Caesar and three months after Cagney’s classic The Public Enemy, this movie focuses on Robinson as a small town barber with a gift for gambling whose best buddy, Cagney, wants to help reach the big time. Robinson goes to the city, gets ripped off by a few hoods posing as big time gamblers, and then devises a plan to get revenge. He does with the help of his friends but keeps going, becoming a rich and famous gambler himself until finally the District Attorney uses a woman and Robinson’s weakness for blonds to bring him down.
It’s a shame this was Robinson and Cagney’s only chance to work together, as it just isn’t that interesting of a film. It loses its way after Robinson’s revenge is complete and devolves into just another early-1930s crime movie despite the quality of the stars and their wonderful performances. Really, the second half is just build up to a “crime is bad” kind of pathetic ending that Hollywood was slowly being forced to adopt despite having already turned the DA into a villain. Heck, the DA basically extorts a woman accused of blackmail to do it and then twists the letter of the law to bring Robinson in. It’s a dirty trick that plays out but is exactly the kind of thing the Motion Picture Production Code ends up put in place to stop. Thankfully enough of this movie keeps the pre-code goodness alive despite paying it lip service in the end.
Still, it is fun to see just how much banter guys like Robinson and Cagney could get away with at the time. There is a scene where the two men discuss an attractive woman in silence using only gestures and facial expressions. I think at some point in his life, every guy has had that exact conversation.
It’s also worth noting that Boris Karloff has a minor role in this movie. Frankenstein would be released only five months after this, turning him into a horror icon.