Take the Money and Run (1969)

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I had forgotten how funny this film is. Right from the beginning any lingering disappointment from the unfocussed What’s films are washed away with a string of brilliant sight gags and one-liners. This is where Woody the comedian shines and where Woody the filmmaker takes his first real steps.

Take the Money and Run unfolds in a faux-documentary style, the first of its kind, with a sonorous voice-over relating the pathetic life of crime of Virgil Starkwell (Woody Allen) and his hapless partner, Louise (Janet Margolin). The film charts Virgil’s boyhood, his robberies, his prison time and his love life – all marked by incompetence and failure.

What the documentary conceit gives Allen is a chance to create several memorable visual set-pieces (such as Virgil trying to play cello in a marching band) and to deliver comic observations through deadly earnest interview subjects. “He had no concept of the cello,” remembers Virgil’s music teacher. “He was blowing into it.”

celloFor those who only know Woody Allen comedies as being extremely talky and character driven, Take the Money and Run is a constant surprise. There is hardly any dialogue in the first act, the last act is an extended Cool Hand Luke/Defiant Ones parody, and everything in between is in the service of rapid fire jokes.

In fact at times the rate of throwaway jokes and outright silliness makes this film resemble a Mel Brooks or Marx Brothers movie. Yet it is still unquestionably a Woody Allen film. When romance is introduced, his voice-over tells us, “I get nervous around girls. I tend to dribble.”

Despite a confidence delivering jokes, Take the Money and Run is still clearly the beginning of the filmmaker’s career. The cinematography is very flat, with quick cuts, zooms and unusual visual compositions we normally don’t associate with Woody. With such a freewheeling approach to structure, genre and style, I get the feeling he was feeling his way and trying out a number of things.

One thing that is already in place is Woody’s comedy skills. His performance is streets ahead of What’s New Pussycat, whether in deadpan dialogue delivery (such as in the bank holdup undone by poor penmanship; “I have a gub”) or in this purely physical scene:

A great deal of credit for this scene, and the success of the film in general, goes to Ralph Rosenblum, the editor. It was Rosenblum who suggested adding music, and who cut the film to have a sense of rhythm. Speaking of music, Take the Money and Run has a score by Marvin Hamlisch, predating Woody’s signature use of old jazz recordings for his movie’s soundtracks.

I remember first seeing clips of this film at university, and not connecting its flat-out funny style with the semi-serious 80s and 90s Woody Allen I knew. I’ve seen it a few times since, and it was a delight to watch again this week. It’s a bit hit and miss, as any joke heavy film will be. But there is a clear talent at work here – and one which will get better.

Next week: Bananas

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One thought on “Take the Money and Run (1969)

  1. Reading this I realise I have never seen this! I thought I had but… now very much looking forward to it. That clip is gold! Having to look through glasses to get glasses into pocket. Ah, Woody. I don’t care what they tweet about you.

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