The following is my entry in the “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 17-19, 2017 by Debbie at the blog Moon in Gemini. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies’ portrayal of thieves!
In Take the Money and Run, his first movie as writer-director-star, Woody Allen plays Virgil Starkwell, a supremely inept thief and bank robber. The story is told in mock-documentary style (narrated by Jackson Beck, voice of Bluto in the later-era Popeye cartoons), but it’s not so much a story as a meshing of styles. It hops from man-on-the-street interviews to silent-film-style comedy to set pieces in order to disguise what little form it really has.
That said, if you’re a hardcore Woody Allen fan, it’s surprising how it sets the template for many of his future movies. Allen returned to the mock-doc style for his more highbrow comedies Zelig (1983) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999), and he later mined the bank-robbery theme for further laughs in Small Time Crooks (2000).
The most startling theme here is one that Allen mined more starkly in his first drama, Interiors (1978). In a contemporary interview, Allen said that one of the ideas he was exploring in Interiors was that of the artist who badly wants to create but finds that he really has nothing substantial to say. That theme has echoes here in Starkwell’s incompetent bank robber; after watching him bungle caper after caper, you’d think he’d realize he was no good at it and move on to a more lucrative occupation.
(This theme is summed up perfectly in an interview with one of Starkwell’s old acquaintances [played by Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser]. She states incredulously, “Everyone just thought he was a schlemiel, and it turns out he’s a criminal. I can’t believe it — there was a mind working in there, that could rob banks. It’s phenomenal!”)
Probably the movie’s funniest scene is when Starkwell hands a sloppily written stick-up note to a bank teller, and before long, every worker in the bank is nonchalantly re-reading the note and second-guessing Starkwell’s terrible penmanship. But the funniest moments come completely out of left field, as when Starkwell and five other convicts are chained together at the ankles, and they all have to quietly slink in unison to avoid the suspicions of an inquisitive lawman. Or when the convicts are working on a rockpile, and a black man starts singing a spiritual, and Starkwell finds himself doing the song Tony Bennett-style.
As a comedy-film debut, Take the Money and Run occupies a spot in Allen’s canon similar to Monty Python’s first movie, And Now for Something Completely Different. It’s not his greatest or funniest film, but it’s a nice harbinger of things to come.
(FUN TRIVIA: The movie’s very first line of dialogue gives Virgil Starkwell’s birth date as Dec. 1, 1935 — the same as Woody Allen’s. Also, Virgil’s future wife is played lovingly by Janet Margolin, who was later to play Alvy Singer’s far less sympathetic spouse in Allen’s Annie Hall .)