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

by Jaime Grijalba.

And with this, the official feature length film debut as a director for Woody Allen, we close the 60’s films with the direct involvement of the master himself, an era that we have described and dignified as one for experimentation as well as incredible amounts of weirdness, some kind of old sorts of comedies or new sorts of comedy that already felt old in many ways. It was an era that we can’t possibly call the best for the start of Allen, but it did get him to be known by everyone in the industry and by the public, and this came like the assurance, the final blow from the decade so people would finally achieve a transcient sense that Woody Allen was there to stay in almost a yearly basis.

The strange/weird element of the comedy this time, is that it almost single-handedly inaugurates and creates many of the elements that would be known later as part of a mockumentary, except that here every element is created and nothing is left to the random or to the unexpected audience, here the movie takes the presence and the language of a television documentary chronicling the life and crimes of our protagonist, as if it were the most serious subject, featuring interviews with experts and people who knew him, as well as himself giving his own spin and opinion on the things that happened, obviously being the most accesible source of laughter, when the protagonist right out lies about his presence, attitudes or the things he did, and that protagonist is Woody Allen.

In a sense, with this first movie, Woody is still learning how to make one all by himself, after dropping out of university where he was doing a film production course, co-writing the script, directing and then editing the movie, something that he has never stopped doing since for the majority of the over 40 years of career that he has in the filmed industry. But, for some reason, Woody wants to get his first splash in the waters of filmmaking by doing something no one has ever done before, and while that sure made its own controvery and impact in the audience and critics (who were mostly pleased with this official debut), it’s still wild to think that when this came out, there was nothing like it, it was a movie that played to be a documentary about a criminal, featuring an actor that wasn’t exactly the most famous around, but it finds its way to be funny and to create some kind of narrative that it’s loose in terms of cause and effect, but manages to get the laughs out, like some kind of sketch comedy, as the script was still vastly influenced by the “bits” and “jokes” and “skits” he wrote for television and himself in his stand up comedy acts.

‘Take the Money and Run’ (1969) is among the beloved films of that time that were treated in the select group of ‘early funny ones’ in the ouvre of Woody Allen, this broad comedy is quite sofisticate in terms of the kind of humour that takes for it to approach its subject, making it about the language (or the handwriting) instead of the crime, the looting and the feats of thievery in which the protagonist indulges himself into. And while most, if not all, of the moments are funny, the film doesn’t achieve some comedic masterpiece level, no matter how many laughs you have, because it lacks some sort of pace that would make it an easier sit, as some would say, specially since it manages to keep a faster pace in the start, and then as the movie progresses, it tends to linger on unnecesary sequences where the lamer jokes appear, specially when he meets his female companion, the whole sequence has some funny moments, but it drags and the movie doesn’t achieve the snappy dialogue/visual gag/narration modus operandis that the movie had until that point.

Woody Allen’s performance is mostly deadpan and as it progresses it turns more nervous and Allen-like, with the awkwardness that follows with his relation and interaction with other human beings. In opposition to the rest of his filmography, the movie falls right into what could be called a slapstick comedy, something that would be kindly repeated (and with better results) in his later film ‘Sleeper’ (1973), but there with a much more keen eye for the script and the jokes written. This movie, on the other hand, supports most of the humour on the abilities of Woody to bend and move his body in awkward ways to find himself a place in the world, mostly through thievery and other latrocinious acts, but at the same time giving those a second place in terms of the comedy when compared to the contrast given between the narration and what we see, as well as the fake interviews with the people who knew him, who give a new context to what we saw or what we’re about to see. One of the most incredible and funny scenes is a mixture of those elements, when Virgil (Allen’s character) tries to rob a bank through a note that no one can read correctly, being the mixture of the narration, the way that Woody tries to explain himself in a desperate way, as well as how the language, the writing and the way that we communicate turns into the most important subject.

It’s also quite silly, as it still has its grounds in the comedic tropes of that time, like the time Virgil tries to rob an animal shop, just to leave seconds after, chased by a man in a gorilla suit. It is part product of its time, you know, the silly time of Woody Allen and comedy in general, as well as the kind of movie that wants to impress from a first time filmmaker like Woody Allen was at the time. But all of the bits and buts that I put here in front of you are a matter of taste in the end, I love my silly Woody Allen, but it doesn’t work for me most of the time, but in the end there’s one element in the movie that makes it shy away from the greatest work of this director/actor, and that would be the performance of Janet Margolin, that barely works as an angel and more like someone who is just trying her best not to be bowled over by the film in which she is starring.

In the end, it’s still a funny movie, a great start for Woody’s career as a comedian in live action (as opposed to the recorded dialogue he did in his earlier unofficial directorial debut). The way that the parents of Virgil (pictured above) are willing to wear the most clichéd moustache and nose attire that they could find just to not be affiliated with him, and then find that the mother actually pities him, while his father makes him guilty of everything by himself, turns this into both a familiar and personal concept for Woody to have (it wouldn’t be a surprise that this was the way that Woody’s parents reacted when he became known as a performer and comedian), as well as telling/setting the tone that the movie has.

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