Take the Money and Run
(Woody Allen, 1969, USA)
After the disappointing experience he had on What’s New Pussycat (1965), a film he wrote the much-altered screenplay for, and the gimmicky What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), a pastiche-induced redubbing of Japanese film Key of Keys (1965), Allen made his directorial debut with Take the Money and Run, a farcical mockumentary about an inept bank robber. Deriving much of the comedic styles of the Marx Brothers, Allen’s first film tells the story of Virgil Starkwell, a bungling, amateur crook notorious for fumbled hold-ups and flawed robberies. Inspired at a young age for revolting against the laws of society, stealing gumball machines and school fountain pens, Take the Money and Run charts Virgil’s journey from petty thievery to prison sentences and eventual incarceration, all the while attempting to start a family, told with the slapdash nuances of Allen’s earlier filmography.
Allen’s first venture into the “mockumentary” format of telling a fictional story, perhaps for the first time in cinematic history and later highly simulated in the films of Christopher Guest, Take the Money and Run starts by depicting Virgil’s childhood in a series of comical skits, where each of his mishaps and coincidental misfortunes are met with a ritual removal and stamping on of his glasses, a gag repeated throughout the film, from bullies to policemen to a judge. Using a grumbling voice-over throughout, a usual trope of the documentary genre, allows Allen to fill in the narrative blanks and explore the backgrounds of its characters, most notably Virgil’s understanding, long-suffering wife Loise, played by Janet Margolin, as well as shifting the story on to its next comical set up or slapstick exploration of the director’s impeccable physical comedy. Having said that, as this debut is effectively a canvas for Allen to paint his numerous styles of comedy upon, a few of the jokes, whilst attempting to cater to as many tastes as possible, do at times feel forced and slightly juvenile, though they mostly hit more than they miss. A scene where Virgil agrees to undergo a medical experimentation only for it to temporarily turn him into a preaching rabbi is hilarious in comparison to him being chased out of a pet shop by a man in a gorilla suit, though you can’t fault the man for throwing as much of his own material on screen as possible, hoping it sticks.
And it did; Take the Money and Run is widely considered to be a successful cinematic entry for a comedian who uses the medium as a template for his subsequent body of work. It is by no means an example of his finest work; far removed from the aesthetic mastery of Manhattan (1979), the timelessness of Annie Hall (1977) and the melancholic sheen of Radio Days (1987), three examples from a long list of very fine films, yet it is perhaps the pinnacle of his celebrated ‘early, funny’ period, a period he struggled to publicly break free from (fictionalised in his later film Stardust Memories (1980)). To say the film follows a traditionally cohesive narrative strand would be a slight overstatement; it is perhaps more a collection of skits, slapstick scenarios and visual gags loosely wrapped around the basis of a story, much like the succeeding comedies Bananas (1971) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972). It also expresses Allen’s interest in mixing fiction filmmaking with documentary modes of storytelling, an extension of his numerous filmmaking styles emulated to greater success in Zelig (1983) and, to some extent, Husbands and Wives (1992), made on the cusp of his controversial divorce with partner and long-time collaborator Mia Farrow.
Though not without its faults, Take the Money and Run fully pads out its customarily slim 85 minute running time with a melange of comedy, causing it to never outstay its welcome. Not a classic in the memorable sense of the word, the film nevertheless never tries to be anything other than an all-out comedy as it tells the story of a man whose goofily likable neurosis is explored in almost every film in Allen’s impressively extensive career.
Director: Woody Allen.
Screenplay: Woody Allen, Mickey Rose
Cast: Woody Allen, Janet Margolin, Marcel Hillaire
Producer: Charles H. Joffe, Jack Rollins, Sidney Glazier, Jack Grossberg
Cinematography: Lester Shorr
Original Score: Marvin Hamlisch
Editing: Paul Jordan, Ron Kalish