| Dir: Woody Allen
“Food on a chain gang is scarce and not very nourishing. The men get one hot meal a day – a bowl of steam.”
They often say write what you know. Woody Allen has taken that advice and ran. He has made a career of exaggerating his life and playing out his fantasies vicariously through his characters. This is palpable right from the bonkers Take the Money and Run; the very first film that he wrote, directed and starred in (although he originally wanted Jerry Lewis to direct). He feels up girls in the classroom, he chronically circumvents the truth, he satirises Jewish culture, his parents embarrass him, his grandfather takes him to baseball games and the movies, his character shares the same birthday, he undergoes psychoanalysis, he utilises a clarinet soundtrack, and he clearly pulls from the Marx Brothers comically and Berman cinematographically. Even his love interest is named after his wife at the time (but not actually played by Louise Lasser, who has a cameo towards the end). For someone as thematically sheltered as Allen has been, his reliance on timely tropes has delivered mixed results, particularly in his latter career. However, for someone with such a vast output that arguably explores a narrow scope, the depth of this exploration and its resonance has been undeniably profound to cinema and comedy.
This was Allen’s first venture where he has full creative control of the end product – a framework that he would remarkably be granted for the rest of his career. Such was Allen’s reputation in show business at the time as a comedy writer; Palomar Pictures International and Cinerama backed him with complete faith to deliver not only a profitable and acclaimed picture, but to do it on a small budget of under $1 million and on an incredibly tight schedule usually reserved for TV show shootings. But that didn’t stop him trying to recruit cinematographers on the level of work from Antonioni and Kurosawa. His first offering with this free reign, co-written with Mickey Rose, was a mockumentary about a bumbling criminal named Virgil who keeps winding up in jail and plotting escapes.
Although he would take another six films to reach the level of artistic quality that Annie Hall ushered in, this debut interestingly has a lot more foreshadowing of this capacity than the films that would shortly follow. While Take the Money and Run is essentially a series of loosely connected extended sketches (as much of his early work would be formed), the methods in which Allen plays out gags here present themselves more fleshed out and integrated in the likes of Annie Hall and Zelig – breaking the fourth wall, narration, interviews. Because of this, some of the humour and its application can unfortunately feel dated. The whole thing loses steam within the second half as gags fail to fully land, peaking when Virgil attempts to stab a woman blackmailing him in the back with a turkey drumstick. It’s a fine but thin slapstick comedy which doesn’t come close to achieving Allen’s aim of making every inch of the movie “to be a laugh”. He would do many times later, though. Here? Maybe every metre.
Part of Woody Wednesday. Second viewing.