This film is presented as a documentary on the life of an incompetent, petty criminal called Virgil Starkwell. It describes the early childhood and youth of Virgil, his failure at a musical career, and his obsession with bank robberies. The film uses a voice over narrative and interviews with his family, friends and acquaintances.
Woody Allen ... Virgil Starkwell
Janet Margolin ... Louise
Marcel Hillaire ... Fritz
Jacquelyn Hyde ... Miss Blair
Lonny Chapman ... Jake
Jan Merlin ... Al
James Anderson ... Chain Gang Warden
Howard Storm ... Fred
Mark Gordon ... Vince
Micil Murphy ... Frank
Minnow Moskowitz ... Joe Agneta
Nate Jacobson ... The Judge
Grace Bauer ... Farm House Lady
Ethel Sokolow ... Mother Starkwell
TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN just may be Woody Allen's purest comedy. That is to say that it is probably the least pretentious film he has made and the one film of his that seems to reach for nothing more than to get laughs on the most basic level. Like the classic comedies of the silent era, the story is set up as a series of gags, stunts and jokes that are largely free of false sentimentality or obvious malice. And happily, it is also his most consistently funny film.
The irony is that it is not quite the film he originally started out to make. It is the first film Woody directed (assuming you don't count his comic re-mix of WHAT'S UP, TIGER LILY?), and lore has it that it was intended to be somewhat more ambitious and sophisticated -- and melodramatic. It was always intended to be a comedy, but according to editor Ralph Rosenblum, it also was meant to have a darker edge, including a degree of violence. But Woody, who sought to never let anyone else direct his screenplays after his disappointing experiences with his WHAT'S NEW, PUSSYCAT? script, turned in a first cut that was deemed unreleasable. Rosenblum was brought in to salvage the film in the editing room.
In a way, this is Woody's student film -- a beginner's on-the-job training for things that were to come. That is not to say that Woody doesn't deserve credit for the film's low-key brilliance or that the result isn't still ambitious or sophisticated in its final form. It is a pioneering example of the "mockumentary," a film genre that would reach its apex with Allen's own ZELIG some fourteen years later. Narrated with stern, deadpan perfection by Jackson Beck, the film is done in a straight-faced documentary format, chronicling the fictional career of low-life criminal Virgil Starkweather. Told via talking-head interviews, and supposed archive footage and re-enactments, the film has a wonderfully dour, amateurish quality that nicely captures the feel of low-budget newsreel journalism and lesser film noir. All of which stands in solid contrast to Allen's barrage of comic zingers, non sequiturs and gleeful slapstick. It reflects a genuine feel for documentary reporting but subverts the genre's built-in pretentiousness with a hodge-podge of comedy drawn from silent comedy, stand up, TV skit comedy and improv.
The film does include the seemingly obligatory rabbi joke, which is never as funny as Woody thinks it is, but otherwise most of the gags work perfectly. There are great one-liners ("After fifteen minutes I wanted to marry her, and after half an hour I completely gave up the idea of stealing her purse."), wonderful slapstick (six guys on the chain gang and only five bicycles for the getaway), absurdities (Woody playing a cello in a marching band) and clever situations (competing gangs show up to rob the same bank). The humor is sometimes broad and silly (his attempts to hit-and-run a blackmailer -- in her apartment) and cleverly droll ("What's a gub?"). Woody's experiences as a TV skit writer are obvious, but the documentary format neatly disguises any sloppiness the clash of styles might create as well as blending in any extraneous gags that are inserted just because they are funny. Though his reliance on the TV skit format would prove to be a clumsy, albeit reliable, approach for his next few films, here at least the eclectic parts hang together as a complete whole.
This is Woody's first "real" movie and it's pretty good. Surprisingly so, in fact, when you consider the he began as a stand-up comic dealing out yoks that were by necessity strictly verbal. Some of the yoks here work -- "He told me was a gynecologist but he didn't speak no foreign languages" -- and some don't -- "The prisoners were served one hot meal a day, a bowl of steam." But the visual gags and Allen's physical performance more than make up for the jokes that flop. In fact the first joke in the movie is visual, and imaginative: Allen plays a cello in a marching band. Still, it's a first feature, and it shows. The camera is shakey and the photography not always first rate. He was to improve with practice. Here he has a scene in which he is having a private argument with his wife in the bedroom, but he's shackled to half a dozen escaped prisoners, who laugh at his entreaties and make wisecracks during the conversation. A similar scene in "Love and Death," with a promiscuous Diane Keaton holding the hand of her husband on his deathbed. The husband says something like, "I know you're pure and you've been faithful to me." The attending priests and doctors begin puffing and humming while trying to stifle their laughter. It isn't that the later scene is necessarily funnier, it simply takes it for granted that the audience can get in on the joke without being prompted.
There are several discernible sources for the story. The most obvious is "I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang." Some of the scenes -- the breaking of ankle shackles with a heavy sledge hammer -- are repeated and played for laughs. I can't be sure that "Cool Hand Luke," which was released the year before, is an influence but it certainly seems so. There may be something of "Bonnie and Clyde" in it too.
Woody hasn't got the great all-star cast that he was to assemble for his post-"Annie Hall" efforts, but what he has is pretty neat. The snarling James Anderson stands out as the Chain Gang Warden, in the Strother Martin role. What a face! Howard Storm as the hold-up victim/arresting officer is a familiar face and a welcome voice. Marcel Hilaire may not actually BE Fritz Lang but he ought to be! But aside from Allen, the most important role is that of Janet Margolin as his wife, Louise. Her talent as an actress was modest, although she could sometimes outdo herself, as, for instance, the sympathetic closet Jew in "Morituri," a dramatic part. Here she's no more than adequate, but she is so attractive that it hardly matters, and the role hardly calls for thespian fireworks. She was 26 when this was released. She was always pleasant, a strange, wistful combination of vulnerability and sex appeal, and some suggestion emanated from her performances that suggested she was that way offscreen as well. Her career and her life ended with a bad death at a relatively early age. Marvin Hamlisch's score is apt and easy to listen to.
It's an amusing debut for Woody. You'll laugh out loud at it, unless you're a real sourpuss.
"Take the Money and Run" is an absolutely hilarious Woody Allen film, done in a quasi-documentary style, about a career criminal, Virgil Starkwell, who has a very unsuccessful career. His prison breaks don't go as planned, his robberies are a disaster and usually coincide with someone else's robbery of the same place, and his planning of a job would be fine if only he weren't talking to the police in the booth behind him. One nice perk of failure: while attempting to rob a young woman's purse, he falls in love with her (Janet Margolin). Virgil does admit at one point thinking of foregoing robbery and taking up a career in singing. He doesn't mention the cello, which gave him his start in music - and crime.
This is one of those laugh out loud even when you're alone movies of which there are all too few. But this is one. Over a tough, FBI-type narration, we watch Virgil's futile attempts at making money through crime, see his parents (disguised) interviewed, as well as his wife and the various police and investigators he meets along the way.
It's amazing to look at this film and then look at "Match Point" done 35 years later and see the evolution of this brilliant man. Woody Allen is capable of rock-solid comedy as well as provocative movie-making. Although he's had a few blips along the way, one wonders what he'll think of next.
* One hundred San Quentin prisoners were paid a small fee to work on the film during the prison sequences. The regular cast and crew were stamped each day with a special ink that glowed under ultra-violet light so the guards could tell who was allowed to leave the prison grounds at the end of the day.
* Woody Allen's decision to become his own director was partially spurred on by the chaotic and uncontrolled filming of Casino Royale (1967), in which he had appeared two years previously.
* Allen's first cut was deemed to be decidedly unfunny, including his death scene in a slow-mo hail of bullets, like Bonnie and Clyde. Producers Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe convinced him to sit with top editor Ralph Rosenblum to see what could be salvaged. The first thing Rosenblum did was cut out the gory ending, then he restructured the film completely, and generally tightened up Allen's loose narrative. This effort transformed the finished film into a comedy classic. Rosenblum subsequently became Allen's editor of choice on most of his next films, including Bananas (1971), Sleeper (1973), Love and Death (1975) and Annie Hall (1977).
* The first widely released "mockumentary".
* The first time Woody Allen performed the triple duties of writing, directing and acting in a film.
* Filmed for 10 weeks in the San Francisco area. Allen joked that it was a better place to spend the summer than Cleveland but, in reality, he knew that the city was compact enough to allow him and his crew to complete 87 moves in 50 days. His film crew knew that such a daunting schedule was more suited to the TV industry, where working till 10 or 11 at night was commonplace. But Allen completed the film without once working late, and several times he wrapped for the day at 4 o'clock.
* Micil Murphy returned to prison for a role in the film. He had become an actor after being paroled from San Quentin in 1966 after serving five and a half years for armed robbery.
* This was the first movie that Woody Allen directed. His initial lack of either confidence or track record prompted him to initially ask Jerry Lewis to direct the movie, but Lewis was busy with his own work.
* Allen initially filmed a downbeat ending in which he was shot to death, courtesy of special effects from A.D. Flowers. Allen's editor, Ralph Rosenblum (whose first work with Allen this was), convinced him to go for a lighter ending.
* The film Virgil shows his gang ("Trout Fishing in Quebec") is listed as being a Rollings and Joffe production, the real-life producers of Woody Allen.
* Virgil Starkwell's given birth date - December 1, 1935 - is, in fact, Allen's birth date.
* The psychiatrist's name is Dr. Julius Epstein. This is most likely an homage to screenwriter Julius J. Epstein, who is best known for winning an Oscar for his screenplay to Casablanca (1942).
* The "Spring Street Settlement House Marching Band," with which Woody Allen attempts to play cello in an early scene, was really the marching band of Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, California, just north of San Francisco. The berets the band members wear in the film were part of the band's usual uniforms. The band had received an invitation to perform at Disneyland in a festival of high-school bands and the fee they received from the film helped to pay for their trip.