Take the Money and Run is one of the classic early Woody Allen comedies. It’s not my favorite of his early works, but I’m so fond of those films that even those that I’d rank a few spots down from the top are still terrific. His style of comedy in these films just works very well for me.
Parts of Take the Money and Run are presented in pseudo-documentary style, complete with exaggeratedly melodramatic narration, but it’s not a style that’s sustained throughout the film, so I wouldn’t categorize the film as a mockumentary. Mostly it’s a conventional narrative, or, to paraphrase how I’ve heard Woody Allen self-deprecatingly describe his early comedies, it’s a series of gags and sketches very loosely connected to form some semblance of a story.
Specifically it’s the story of Virgil Starkwell (Woody), a schlemiel of a career criminal. From the tidbits we learn of his childhood (his parents are interviewed for the film; out of embarrassment they are only willing to appear on camera disguised with identical Groucho glasses, nose, and moustache), it’s clear that Starkwell never had much of a chance in life.
Despite his occupation, there’s really no malice in Starkwell. He’s just doing the best he can with the crappy hand life has dealt him.
Perhaps his most admirable quality is his dogged refusal to give up. Despite the fact that virtually nothing ever goes right in his life, he always sees himself as being on the verge of success. Always he has another scheme ready to implement to turn things around, and as self-evidently and comically hopeless as these schemes are, he never loses hope.
I’ll mention some of the gags that I found most inventive and hilarious, but I won’t seek to explain them all in detail or recreate them, as that kind of humor just doesn’t translate well to the page.
There’s young Starkwell futilely attempting to play the cello in his high school marching band. There’s Starkwell somehow turning a job interview (wherein he identifies himself as “John Q. Public”) into a What’s My Line parody. There’s the special added torture he must endure in a tiny solitary confinement cell. (Well, OK, I’ll give this one away: He is confined with an insurance salesman eagerly plying his wares.) There are the pathetic attempts to escape from prison. There’s the convoluted scheme to rob a bank by posing as a film crew making a movie about a bank robbery. (An earlier, I think even more hysterical, scene depicts an attempted bank robbery of his going awry due to the poor penmanship of his stick-up note.) And so many more.
Take the Money and Run was Allen’s second directorial effort. The first was the peculiar and wonderful What’s Up Tiger Lily?, which was not a conventional movie at all but a comic dubbing and reediting of an existing Japanese spy spoof movie, so for all intents and purposes Take the Money and Run was his first film. And as such it’s an impressive effort. Like I say, I wouldn’t put it quite at the top of his early comedies, but it’s not like he started slow and over time hit his stride. Even if it’s a notch below his very best work, I’d put this movie above ninety-something percent of comedy films I’ve seen in my life.