|Take the Money and Run|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 15 June 1999|
In the 1960s, Woody Allen's ambitions grew; no longer content to be a gag writer for other comics, or even a stand-up comedian himself (though he was very successful at both), he wanted to cross over into writing movies. His play Don't Drink the Water had been successful, after all. He appeared in and wrote What's New Pussycat (1965), revised a Japanese movie into What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), directing the additional scenes himself, and acted in the awesomely troubled Casino Royale. It was on the latter film that he became determined not to allow troublesome producers or meddlesome stars to ruin his scripts, so he turned director himself.
It took a while to get Take the Money and Run off the ground, but eventually it was shot relatively quickly on a modest budget. Allen wanted to spoof the "true crime" approach of movies like Al Capone, and the similar documentaries then popular on television. He hired actor Jackson Beck, who'd narrated newsreels, cartoons (he was the voice of Bluto in the "Popeye" cartoons) and TV shows, to do the voice-over for his movie. He went so far as to have his lead character, Virgil Starkwell (played by Allen himself), die in a Bonnie and Clyde-inspired bloody hail of bullets at the climax. The result was a movie that few found funny.
Allen's producers, Rollins & Joffe, convinced him to discuss the movie with top-notch editor Ralph Rosenblum; perhaps something could be salvaged. Allen was willing. First Rosenblum cut the gory ending, then set about restructuring the film, adding some new narration by Allen himself, removing dialog in favor of music, replacing other music, and in general tightening up Allen's very loose narrative. Now the film was worth seeing -- and in fact, became a critical favorite, and launched Allen's career as a writer-director and sometimes star.
The movie is very much like Allen's comedy routines and articles of the period; Rosenblum may have tightened the structure but it's still basically a connection of sequences, not a real movie. Some of the gags fall flat; others can be appreciated as interesting ideas, but which don't really pay off -- but much of the rest is funny. As shallow comedies go, it's well worth seeing.
The narrator tells us the sorry tale of Virgil Starkweather (Allen, of course), who rose from a boring childhood to a life of failed crime. Various figures in Starkweather's life are interviewed on screen, including his own parents, who wear Groucho glasses to disguise themselves. (His mother says he was a good boy; father responds, "If he was a good boy, why are we wearing these?")
Virgil tries to play the cello -- in a marching band -- but this doesn't work out. He tries to fit into a street gang, but the blade falls off his knife. When he tries to become a pool hustler, he knocks the balls all over the poolroom. Finally, he turns to petty crime, but gets his fingers stuck in the gumball machine he tries to rob. Later, as an adult, he almost gets away with a robbery, but when he tries to hold off the cops, he finds his gun is really a cigarette lighter.
He and musician Louise (Janet Margolin) fall in love, and she sticks by him through his many prison sentences. Following the lead of John Dillinger, he carves a gun out of soap, but has the misfortune to try to bluff his way out during a rainstorm, and ends up with an unthreatening-looking handful of suds. Even when he tries to do good, it goes wrong: he volunteers to test a new vaccine, but it temporarily turns him into a rabbi.
There's not much more to the story than that, and even what there is tends to be somewhat confusing. Louise has a baby, but at times, the movie forgets about the child altogether. A subplot about a blackmailer bubbles to the top, then fades away without any resolution. It wabbles and wobbles its way to a shaky conclusion, although it stays funny right up to the flat ending.
Allen references many other movies; a chain-gang sequence begins as a spoof of Cool Hand Luke and kind of drifts over to a six-man version of The Defiant Ones. Influences of other filmmakers and actors are occasionally easy to spot; a pearly-gray fog scene with Louise seems inspired by Elvira Madigan, while Virgil's occasional line, "Keep in touch," comes from an Allen favorite, Bob Hope.
Woody Allen realized his ambitions more than almost any other filmmaker of his generation. He began with from rather crudely-made movies like Take the Money and Run and Bananas, but he learned mastery of the movie format very quickly. Sleeper is a sleek, well-made film, and it's only a few years later than Take the Money. He climaxed his career with two of the best movies of the second half of the twentieth century, Manhattan and Annie Hall; nothing from Allen since those two has been as good, but he continues to direct about one movie a year; occasionally they're excellent, sometimes they're failures. But his unique perspective and personal approach have resulted in one of the most distinctive careers in movie history. And it really all began with this wacky, funny, sloppy little movie.
There's nothing very distinctive about Anchor Bay's DVD package; it offers both letterboxed and panned-and-scanned versions of the film, but not even a trailer. But they're to be congratulated for bringing this rarely-shown Allen film to video again.