Take the Money and Run is not only funny and relentless, but it experiments with structure in a way not many first time directors would (I’m excluding What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? because Woody Allen didn’t originally film it).
The film is full of slapstick humor most often at Virgil’s (Woody Allen) expense. We follow Virgil from his childhood to adulthood with mishaps and broken glasses along the way. He eventually turns to bank robbery, falls in love and goes in and out of prison, escaping multiple times.
Outside of getting married, there is no big arc to Virgil’s story. Instead, this movie is a series of set pieces and comical errors, landing Virgil in prison. He then escapes only to end up back in prison once again. The film ends with him getting arrested for armed robbery once more.
Within the story, Woody Allen writes sketch-like sequences for us to laugh at Virgil. He often gets the short end of the stick, and yet he never seems down about it. Rather, Virgil just dusts himself off and moves onto the next thing.
Watching this film I noticed a lot of similarities to modern parody films such as the Scary Movie series. The story just continues to move forward in loosely connected scenes as an excuse to tell jokes. This movie, I presume, helped set the template for those kinds of movies.
In this and in What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? you can see Allen mocking the way movies are made while also dancing in the freedom they allow your narrative. He jumps from one thing that interests him to the next and uses voiceover narration and talking head interviews to fill in the gaps. His structure is loose and upon a re-watch it almost feels like the movie will go a completely different direction than it did the last time you saw it. In a way it feels like Allen is making up the story as he goes.
In one scene from Take the Money and Run, we see a young Virgil (though they don’t hide how old Woody Allen really is) struggling to play the cello in a marching band. He has to sit down as he plays, but he can only get a few strokes out before he has to pick up his chair and hurry forward to keep up with the band. In another scene, Virgil is in a chain gang and punished by being sent to a hot box with an insurance salesman.
There is no real conflict in Virgil’s eyes. He’s been to jail and he’s escaped. He married the woman he loves (Louise), and when she finds out he lied about being in the Philharmonic, she doesn’t mind. At one point she tries to make sure Virgil is prepared for an upcoming bank robbery. They are in it together, for some reason.
After admitting that he needs to go straight and stay out of a life of crime, Virgil lies his way into an office job. Then a woman discovers who he is and blackmails him. He decides he must murder her, but he fails in this as well. Once he tries to stab her only to grab a turkey leg rather than the knife. On another occasion he tries to run her over with his car, even inexplicably driving into the house, failing to run her down, and then somehow driving back onto the road and escaping.
The humor ranges from wordplay to the above, where through the edit anything can and does happen.
Woody Allen has stated that he had few restrictions when he made this film. He received financing and made the movie he wanted to make. So really, he took the money and ran with it, free to experiment in zany and absurd ways.
An early screening of the film yielded little to no laughter, so editor Ralph Rosenblum was brought in to help tighten the film. He decided to split up the talking head segments so they could be cut back to in order to fill in narrative gaps, and he replaced somber music (meant to emphasize Virgil’s sad life) with more cheery music, helping the audience to laugh at Virgil rather than to try and understand him. Virgil is a character meant to be observed and laughed at rather than hyper-analyzed like characters in later Woody Allen films.
Whereas Annie Hall might be Allen trying to understand his own neuroses and work through them, this is about a simple character who acts impulsively on day dreams and fantasies as opposed to pondering them.
Up Next: Deliverance (1972), Bananas (1971), The Black Dahlia (2006)