Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Take the Money and Run (1969)

Take the Money and Run is the directorial début of Woody Allen and is essential viewing for anyone wanting to trace the evolution of the man as an artist. More importantly, it is a very funny film in its own right, and one that has elements that pre-dates a range of comedies from Airplane to This is Spinal Tap.

Shot as a fake documentary, the film traces the life of Virgil Starkwell, the archetypal loser criminal. Virgil goes from bullied child, to falling in with a bad crowd, to a series of bungled crimes and prison time. Footage of him in action is intercut with interviews with the likes of his long suffering wife, a shrink, and his cleverly disguised parents

In one aspect, it is apparent that perhaps Allen is still learning his craft, as nearly all of the scenes feel like sketches, and loosely connected ones, rather than parts of a whole story. This is understandable given that this is what he would have been used to writing on TV, as well as in stand-up and his pieces for the New Yorker, which much of the dialogue sounds very similar to with its offbeat non-sequiturs. However, so many of the sketches are brilliantly funny, which surely should be one way of judging the success of a comedy film.

Take the Money and Run is one of the first examples of a “mockumentary”, and I think it is the first made as a feature film for cinema release. It is certainly sets the template for how the comedy works in this genre, with the serious nature of the documentary style constantly clashing with the stupidity of the characters, or the surreal silly circumstances on screen, such as Starkwell's complaining over his choice of wardrobe for a bank job (“I have happened to have ironed your beige shirt. Do you wanna wear that?” “Who wears beige to a bank robbery?”)

Aside from Allen’s own later film Zelig, the most obvious example to take up this style would be This Is Spinal Tap. However, while both of those films are ostensibly set in the real world (or a realistic depiction of it), Take the Money and Run frequently veers into the sort of surreal tangents later to be seen in Blazing Saddles, or Airplane, with jokes such as Starkwell in a car trying to chase and run down a blackmailer inside her own living room, or an experimental drug with the side effect of turning him into a Rabbi.

The use of voice-over (something that would crops up frequently in Allen films) allows us to quickly speed through any back-story and set up the scene for a gag without losing momentum. In addition, using Jackson Beck to perform the voice-over is a stroke of genius, as his deadpan deep baritone delivery adds gravitas, and works to play up the parody of the documentary style.

There are other touches that would crop up again later throughout his work, such his underrated skill for physical comedy (perfected a few years later in Sleeper), as well throwaway references to things such as psychoanalysis and Judaism. Also worth a mention is Marvin Hamlisch's score, which, with its recurring themes and motifs, helps go some way to creating a coherent feel amongst the chaos of the script.

The film also stops just in time, as even Allen's unpredictable non-sequiturs start to get predictable. This is less of a problem in later films where he has fleshed out characters and a meatier story, but here, where there is nothing but gags, a slight monotony sets in during the final few moments.

Take the Money and Run was originally supposed to end on a downer, with Virgil being gunned down in slow motion, a la Bonnie and Clyde, but was talked out of it by Ralph Rosenblum, the man hired as editorial consultant. Rosenblum also helped shape and tighten the remaining footage, and Allen was suitably impressed with his work to collaborate on a further five films, including Annie Hall