Take the Money and Run (1969)
Take the Money and Run (1969)

Genre: Crime Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 25 min.

Release Date: August 18th, 1969 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Woody Allen Actors: Woody Allen, Janet Margolin, Marcel Hillaire, Jacquelyn Hyde, Lonny Chapman, Jan Merlin, Howard Storm, Louise Lasser

 


 

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he film begins like a true-crime documentary, in which a stern narrator (Jackson Beck) deeply bellows facts and statistics about the life of a criminal. The crook under scrutiny is Virgil Starkwell (Woody Allen), born on December 1st, 1935, who, by the age of 6, is already wanted in 6 states. Amidst bullying and a tough life on the streets (the violence and poverty of the slums), the boy resorts to petty crimes – primarily theft. By the age of 18, he has dropped out of school and aims to join a gang. When that fails, he attempts to become a poolhall hustler.

The hilarity of this faux documentary comes from the considerable ineptitude of the central scammer. He’s just not cut out for a life of crime. But that doesn’t stop him from pursuing, relentlessly, any sort of grift he can spontaneously devise – from robbing a pawn shop to swiping an armored truck’s bags of money. Ultimately, his inability to perfect his schemes lands him in jail – though the cold steel bars can’t contain him for long. In this insincere world of comical cops and robbers, nothing is taken seriously.

To bolster the documentary styling, the film is interspersed with archival footage, black-and-white stills, the continuing somber narration, and talking-head interviews – such as with a schoolteacher, a cello instructor, a probation officer, his parents (in disguise due to shame), and more. Their commentary is hilarious, the purposeful repetition is effective, and the music by Marvin Hamlisch is spot-on and rousing. There’s also something more profound at work against the lighthearted heists, particularly with the notes on the difficulties of reintegrating into society after a prison stint, and with Allen’s typical, neurotic take on a love story – with laundress Louise (Janet Margolin). It may be riotous on the outside, but just underneath is genuine bittersweetness.

Despite non-sequitur, nonsensical breaks in reality that designate this tale as something beyond a standard narrative picture, along with slapstick montages and moments of shocking goofiness, the storyline eventually normalizes. Virgil takes over as a secondary narrator (a gimmick that would work much better in “Annie Hall” years later) to guide the romance subplot, though he’s unable to abandon his proclivity for thieving. One of the silliest yet most amusing sequences arrives when Starkwell’s bank holdup note is written so illegibly that numerous employees are called over to confer on the contents of the message.

“Take the Money and Run” isn’t just a spoof of prison films or crime dramas (such as “Cool Hand Luke” and “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”); it’s also its own individual romantic comedy, examining the tragedies and tolls that a life of crime takes on friends, family, and relationships – normally dour situations that are tinged with humor instead. None of it is meant to be obviously unendurable, yet it’s difficult to dismiss the good-natured, heartwarming (or heartbreaking), and convincing aspects of the love story. And even those moments are again broken up by visual illogicalities, poking fun at prison breaks, repeat offenses, and the woes of fugitives. “I need a cake with a gun in it.”

Ultimately, the film uses the half-mockumentary, half-absurdist-comedy format to design a series of continuous one-liners and gags that never let up. Most of the jokes work, though they’re all relatively small. Few are of the belly-laugh variety, considering that they’re manufactured around transitory ideas, like job interviews, blackmail ploys, the responsibilities of family, and flights from the authorities. Little arguments highlight the ludicrousness with which the undertakings are approached – the best of which finds Virgil complaining about the availability of his heist shirt. “Nobody’s gonna be wearing beige to a bank robbery. It’s in poor taste.” By the end, though demonstrating the auteur’s promising qualities and tremendous potential, “Take the Money and Run” feels very much as if a stepping stone for Allen’s coming pictures, reusing and readapting concepts and techniques for “Bananas,” “Sleeper,” “Love and Death,” and more.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10