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Take the Money and Run (1969)

Filmed in a mockumentary style, Woody Allen’s directorial debut chronicles the life and times of inept bank-robber and petty criminal Virgil Starkwell (Allen) and uses fake cinéma vérité interviews, old newsreels, and a non-stop assortment of verbal and visual jokes.

We see Virgil drifting into a life of crime at a young age and follow him through marriage, attempts to go straight, prison and even working on a chain-gang.

The story is narrated by Jackson Beck in the style of a real documentary and the grave Beck is given some very obtuse comic dialogue by Allen who clearly relished making him say some very silly but amusing things.

At the beginning of the film, Virgil attempts to escape from prison only to find out that his gun is a cigarette lighter at a crucial moment. It’s a fun introduction to Virgil who is so incompetent you root for him despite the fact he is supposed to be a criminal.

The notion that the small, nerdy, bespectacled Virgil is a wanted fugitive and convict is rather like a private joke between Allen and the audience throughout the film and the sight of the diminutive Woody breaking rocks with hulking prisoners is immediately funny.

Virgil’s parents are shown interviewed in Groucho Marx disguises to hide their family shame and a friend of Virgil – played by Louise Lasser – bemoans the fact he was never on the ten most-wanted list because he never had the connections (“It’s who you know”).

There is also some terrific physical comedy from the young Woody – at one point we see Virgil trying to play in a marching band despite the fact that he requires a chair in order to perform on his cello.

Virgil finally finds the motivation to consider a life without crime when love enters his orbit in the form of the innocent Louise (Janet Margolin). Their first meeting occurs in the park when Virgil attempts to steal her handbag and then bluffs about being a cellist for a symphonic orchestra.

“After fifteen minutes I wanted to marry her,” says Virgil, “and after half an hour I’d completely given up the idea of stealing her purse.”

Virgil is then blackmailed into an affair by Miss Blair (Jaqueline Hyde) – a colleague at the office where he takes a straight job – in exchange for her silence about his criminal past.

He resolves to do away with her and his predictably incompetent attempts make for a funny segment as he picks up a chicken leg instead of a knife and accidentally sets fire to the chicken. We then see Virgil attempting to run her over in a Mini – inside the house!

Without a job again, Virgil soon tires of life on the breadline. During an abortive attempt to rob a bank, he finds himself embroiled in a debate over whether or not his hold-up note says “gun” or “gub”, which lands him back in prison once more.

Back in jail, Virgil struggles with the laundry machine in Chaplinesque fashion and takes part in an aborted escape plan (everyone forgets to tell him the break-out has been called off and he escapes only to find himself alone and wanting to get back in).

Some sequences were shot on location in a real prison and, although the film is very raw and somewhat homemade, it does have a grainy and authentic look that frequently works in its favour and ties in with the notion that we are supposed to be watching a documentary.

Shot on a tight budget, Take the Money and Run is a terrific introduction to Woody Allen’s early screen persona.

Virgil Starkwell
Woody Allen
Janet Margolin
Fritz (Director)
Marcel Hillaire
Miss Blair
Jacquelyn Hyde
Jake (Convict)
Lonny Chapman
Al (Bank Robber)
Jan Merlin
Chain Gang Warden
James Anderson
Howard Storm
Mark Gordon
Micil Murphy
Joe Agneta
Minnow Moskowitz
The Judge
Nate Jacobson
Farm House Lady
Grace Bauer
Mother Starkwell
Ethel Sokolow
Father Starkwell
Henry Leff
Julius Epstein (Psychiatrist)
Dan Frazer
Kay Lewis
Louise Lasser
Michael Sullivan
Mike O’Dowd
Jackson Beck

Woody Allen