Woody Allen Spotlight: Take the Money and Run (1969)



Cast: Woody Allen, Janet Margolin, Marcel Hillaire
Director: Woody Allen
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy | Crime

Editor’s Note: The following review of Take the Money and Run is part of Cynthia’s Spotlight on Woody Allen

Woody Allen once said in an interview that when he first showed the executives of Palomar Films his first movie, Take the Money and Run, one of them leaned over about ten minutes in and asked, “Is the whole thing going to be like this?” And thus began one of the most illustrious, prolific, and celebrated film careers in history. Of course, Allen had been writing jokes professionally since he was a teenager, and had written and acted in three films previous to this – actually, he was by this point a household name in comedy; but this was the first film over which he’d been given complete creative control: he wrote it, directed it, and starred in it.

…already in evidence is the classic Allen bravado shining through the self-conscious character he casts himself as.

takemoney1Take the Money and Run follows the life of Virgil Stockwell (Allen), a bumbling, well-meaning guy, who just happens to be living a life of crime – and a rather unsuccessful one at that. That being said, as one might expect, already in evidence is the classic Allen bravado shining through the self-conscious character he casts himself as. In and out of jail, Virgil tries to make ends meet by snatching women’s purses and robbing pet stores, when one day he meets Louise (named after his then current wife, Louise Lasser, who has a cameo at the end of the film) played by a sweet faced Janet Margolin. Virgil narrates upon meeting her, “I was so touched by her. I don’t know, after 15 minutes I wanted to marry her. After a half an hour, I completely gave up the idea of snatching her purse.” In an effort to make money so that he can settle down with Louise, Virgil attempts to rob a bank but is so nervous that he misspells the hold-up note, leading to likely the most famous scene in the movie, where the cashiers send Virgil to get the note initialed by the Vice President, and Virgil ends up with 15 bank employees standing around him, arguing over the spelling of the hold-up note.

The premise and plot are basic: Virgil falls in love and is, in the meantime, continually arrested for his inept robbery attempts. Most of the nuanced information the viewer receives is via Virgil’s narration, or mock interviews with people who have known Virgil, including his parents. Take the Money and Run is often credited as being the first mockumentary film ever made. Though Allen wields the mockumentary format here with unseasoned sensibilities, using it to allow himself the freedom of developing character through the proverbial telling instead of showing – a sin in writing 101, as we all know – he soon brandishes these tropes with such a masterful hand that they become some of his trademarks.

Take the Money and Run is often credited as being the first mockumentary film ever made.

takemoney2A seed contains all the genetic qualities of the fully formed plant, and what we have here is an artistic seed. In Take the Money and Run, we see glimpses of most of Allen’s later tendencies. In evidence are, not only the model of the incompetent, unlucky-in-love lead character he will play many times in future films, but his love of directly or indirectly referencing other pieces of art, mentions of most of the themes he will build on for the rest of his career, and cinematic approaches that will become the hallmarks of his style.

Woody Allen is the James Joyce of cinema, delighting in making allusions to other films and pieces of art. For example, knowing Allen’s love of Russian literature (see Love and Death), some have posited that this film, with its confessional narration and theme of transgression, is a literalist spoof of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In addition, there is an almost sure reference to the critically acclaimed film Cool Hand Luke, released just two years prior to Take the Money and Run, in the chain gang scene, where the cold-hearted lead guard demonstrates to the men what will happen to them if they try to make a break for Florida. Not coincidentally, Cool Hand Luke features a frighteningly hardened guard who rules over a chain gang in Florida. Allen also directly references another film by naming the psychiatrist “Julius Epstein,” the name of the screenwriter of the legendary film Casablanca. This may seem incidental except for the fact that when Take the Money and Run came out, Allen’s play, Play it Again Sam, a piece comedically based on Casablanca, was showing on Broadway. Allen delivers many other references as well; including the unexplained Groucho Marx glasses Virgil’s parents are wearing as disguise in their interview.

As a freshman in college, already having been a Woody Allen buff for many years, I took a short winter term class called “The Films of Woody Allen.” It was there for the first time that I noticed the obvious: all of his films contain the same basic thematic inquiries, and the way he addresses them are subtly (or unsubtly) altered and refrained from film to film. Years later, sometime in the middle of getting my M.F.A. in writing, I realized that his films are like sestinas, poems in which certain key lines are repeated and rotated throughout the poem. The primary themes that continually surface in his films are: fear of death; the psyche and psychoanalysis; the nature of objectivity vs. subjectivity; what happens after death?; is there a god?; if so, what is god like?; what is love?; can there be extended relationship without infidelity?; what’s the role of sex in love?; is religion valid?; what’s the function of art?; what’s the function of the artist?; what makes art “good”?; how does one find fulfillment in a life they know is temporary?; and what is morality, especially outside of the notion of god?. Occasionally, he dabbles briefly in political notions as well as some other less prevalent topics, but these are his most fervent inquiries. In Take the Money and Run, we see Allen introduce many of these issues, albeit in the most rudimentary slapstick forms.

We also see in Allen’s first full creative endeavor the seeds of approaches and tropes that he will use throughout the next four decades. The first approach we see is the use of an outside narrator, which is a tactic Allen uses in later movies such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Broadway Danny Rose, and Mighty Aphrodite. In Take the Money and Run, sometimes Allen sometimes becomes his own narrator, a trend of his, which continues in movies such as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Love and Death, and Hannah and Her Sisters. Also introduced in this film is the use of interviews, a device, which is used in many other films including Annie Hall, Zelig, and Husbands and Wives
In the late 1960’s, not only were the use of these journalistic/documentary conventions unusual in narrative film, which made them avant-garde, but they served a crucial function to Allen as story-teller. Whether Allen utilizes an outside narrator, an interviewee, or his own narrating voice, these conceits allow him to effortlessly furnish the viewer with extra information that may have been more difficult to convey with action or dialogue. It was also natural for a writer who’s fundamental art form is comedy to turn to this trope of narration as a platform on which to offer more jokes. Many of the brilliant jokes of his early movies find their way on to the screen via narration. Recall, for example, the opening of Annie Hall. It’s just a close up of Allen’s face as he recites this joke: “There’s an old joke – um…two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place s really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – –– full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” It’s simply more difficult (though definitely not impossible for Allen) to get stand-up comedy style humor into a dialogue sequence. He enjoys the same economy of effort with the interviews as an easy way to tell rather than show character traits and background information and deliver a few jokes in the meantime.

Whether Allen utilizes an outside narrator, an interviewee, or his own narrating voice, these conceits allow him to effortlessly furnish the viewer with extra information that may have been more difficult to convey with action or dialogue.

takemoney3So there was Woody Allen, fledgling filmmaker, sitting with a movie that the executives hated. If he had given up, the world would be short some 40 films. Instead, he brought in editor Ralph Rosenblum, whom he credits as saving the film. Allen was smart enough to keep him on as editor for a string of subsequent movies, including Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death, and Annie Hall. As megalomaniacal as he’s been accused of being, he’s always known that to be the best, you must work with the best.

In the end, Take the Money and Run is a thoroughly original absurdist film that ended up being nominated for four awards as well as breaking some theaters’ ticket sales records. It happens to be the first Woody Allen film my father ever showed me, so I have a soft spot for it. But for any film lover, it’s exciting to watch this first endeavor, already knowing what comes later. If one were to watch each of his films, one after the next (trust me, I did it in that film class), it would look like a time-lapse image of the development of Woody Allen – one film building on the next in style, theme, and execution. As his first movie, Take the Money and Run’s ambition is to be a funny film, not a great film, and it most often hits that mark. In the making of the next several films, Woody Allen slowly raises the bar on himself, as he shifts from just referencing artists (though he never stops doing that) to becoming one.

78/100 ~ GOOD. Unfortunately, Allen also doesn’t extend that absurdist or satirical approach to the other, more mundane storylines. There, he’s more interested in repeating old observations about love and death (not necessarily in that order), regret and loss, and the neuroses that cause and/or follow romantic entanglements to dig deeper into subtexts or themes. All too often, Allen opts for the easy joke or physical gag rather than the more complex, more profound version of either (or both).

Cynthia Polutanovich

It all began when my father, a great movie lover, took my sister and I to see Star Wars when I was three. It continued as we sat beside him drinking sodas through Twizzlers as we took in the second release of Star Wars, the rest of the trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stripes, Fletch, Blade Runner, Grease, Ghost Busters, The Princess Bride and countless others. Eventually, I got my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, not film. But there's still nothing like a great movie – or sometimes a really bad one. Check out my blog http://corpsewander.blogspot.com/.
  • http://twitter.com/Bryan_C_Murray Bryan Murray

    I always wnjoyed the films of Woody Allen and this one is a typical reason why

  • cpolutanovich

    Woody Allen is one of a kind. BTW, this is the beginning of a series. I’ll be putting out a Woody Allen review about once every 7-10 days for the next several weeks.:) The next one is “Bananas.” Thanks for reading!