Take the Money and Run
Woody Allen’s first movie proper as director – What’s Up, Tiger Lily? only sort-of counts – is a minor league crime mockumentary, stacked with hit-and-miss gags and slapstick and a far cry from his later work. Although, it does feature a romance (with Janet Margolin), and he’d later return to the genre with the more polished Zelig.
On the basis of Allen’s marriage and alleged activities, many would rather simply give his oeuvre a wide berth, and that’s entirely understandable. At least with a Polanski picture, you don’t generally have to see the perpetrator (or alleged perpetrator). When a “star” falls publicly out of favour, one generally has to wonder who they’ve pissed off, as the greater throng – who doubtless have the goods held on them as part of their Faustian “contract” – escape unscathed or shielded from the harsh glare. Sometimes, a sacrificial lamb, if you can call him that, is necessary (Weinstein). At others, and this may well be Allen, straightforward recklessness is to blame (be it documenting his predilections in Manhattan and Husbands and Wives, or simply incurring Mia Farrow’s unstaunchable fury). Maybe Allen was just never seen as that important, a critics’ darling but insufficiently influential and frustratingly passive-aggressive (shunning the spotlight as he did).
Allen’s Virgil Starkwell (named after Charles Starkweather?) is recognisably of-a-piece with your typical Allen type, complete with (more) diminutive stand-ins for his younger version. His parents appear too, ashamed of their son and sporting Groucho Marx disguises. Allen gags and lines cover familiar territory including God (Virgil is a no-good atheist). At one point, he volunteers to have a new vaccine tested on him in order to get parole – “It’s never been tried on humans before, so we don’t know what the side effects will be. To be honest, you’ll be taking a chance”; now, how does that sound familiar? It results in “One temporary side effect. For several hours, he is turned into a rabbi”. Along similarly humorous lines, there’s Virgil’s prison punishment: “For several days, he is locked in a sweat box with an insurance salesman”.
Sex and psychology are nascently present too, of course: “That looks to me like two elephants making love with a men’s glee club” responds Virgil to an inkblot. “I was either in love, or I had small pox” suggests his burgeoning hypochondria. And the Cool Hand Luke chain gang finds him responding to “Any questions?” With “Do you think a boy should pet on a first date?”
Much here wouldn’t look out of place in a Zucker Brothers comedy. Most notably, the torturing of a prisoner is revealed as a guard whipping his shadow on the wall. When Virgil steals a handbag from a lady in the park, he opens it to reveal party poppers and a lengthy, oversized chain. Robbing the local pet shop, he flees pursed by a (man in a) gorilla (suit). Breaking into a jewellery store, he makes off with only the pane of glass from the window. Blackmailed by a co-worker (Jacquelyn Hyde), Virgil attempts to stab her with a turkey drumstick, before putting a bomb in the bird. There are lines about the cruel prison conditions (“The men get one hot meal a day: a bowl of steam”) and some superbly timed visual gags (the chained escapees shuffling round Louise’s house as one when the police call)
Best are a couple of firearm jokes; Virgil fashions a handgun from soap and shoe polish and mounts an escape bid; unfortunately, it’s raining outside. Robbing a bank, he becomes side-tracked by lengthy debate over his handwriting: “That looks like gub. It doesn’t look like gun”. Allen intended to end the movie with Virgil gunned down, Bonnie & Clyde style, but editor Ralph Rosenblum (he would work with Allen up to Interiors) persuaded him otherwise. Instead, Virgil is caught and sentenced to 800 years in a federal penitentiary, but with good behaviour, the sentence may be cut in half; we last see him sculpting soap, asking after the weather.
Allen had initially wanted to film in black-and-white (he’d get to do that with Zelig). Marvin Hamlisch provided the score, including a take on Quincy Jones’ Soul Bossa Nova (now most associated with Austin Powers). Take the Money and Run initially posted a loss, but Allen’s next four early, funny pictures were all hits. Pauline Kael failed to give it a full review, dismissing it as “a limply good-natured little nothing of a comedy, soft as sneakers” and “an emaciated little picture”. Her first quote is actually fair enough; this doesn’t even rub shoulders with his best comedies, which would come on in leaps and bounds, but its good-natured quality probably explains its presence in readers’ polls more recently. One is forced to defend Manhattan now (albeit, the movie isn’t exactly defending itself), but Take the Money and Run gets off scot free.