Through a few decades, and with one movie, Woody Allen continues to break my heart. But not with the picture one would expect. Not Interiors, not Annie Hall, not Husbands & Wives, not The Purple Rose of Cairo. No, it’s his hilarious and innovative mockumentary Take the Money and Run that resonates with a powerful, mysterious sadness and poignant absurdity that comes as closest to one of Allen’s heroes -- Dostoevsky.
Take the Money and Run was also the very first Woody Allen movie I ever saw (it would frequently pop up on network TV), and I think all those pre-cable, lonely childhood TV viewings add an emotional hue (brown-tinted) to my memories. But apart from my own recollections, the picture’s low-budget grittiness, a working class Woody, mixed with Allen’s singular observations and Marx Brothers-inspired humor, gives the comedy an, at times, surrealistic look at desperation. Any viewer who remember the picture’s memorable bank hold-up gag -- during which the unruffled teller can’t read Allen’s stick-up note, insisting the crook spelled the word “gun” as “gub” -- knows what I mean. Or when he attempts a Dillinger by busting out of the joint with a gun made of soap and then ... it rains. Even those, or perhaps especially those attempting to threaten and rob the world can’t get by without suffering life’s day-to-day indignities.
And Allen’s Virgil Starkwell has suffered his share of indignities. With formal voice-of-God narration by Jackson Beck, we learn about Starkwell’s background. From nerdy kid who so irritated his parents with cello lessons that they threw the instrument out the window, to petty thief, to terrible pool hall hustler, to spectacularly unsuccessful bank robber, to husband (married to pretty Janet Margolin), to poor man nearing starvation (when they share that slice of wallet bologna, I nearly weep) -- Starkwell’s unlucky life is a true-crime fiasco. He’s such a loser, in fact, that when his parents are interviewed for the film, they famously don Groucho Marx noses and glasses to hide their identities.
That’s just one of many jokes that range from amusing, to hilarious, to wonderfully absurdist in this little movie that packs a much bigger wallop today than was probably originally intended. Far ahead of its time, and not appreciated enough within both Allen’s legendary canon of work and the genre of mockumentary, Take the Money and Run is something of a slap-dash masterpiece. And again, strangely heartbreaking. You’re right there with Virgil -- hungry, cold, alone and unloved -- and as a kid, it made me wonder what would happen if my parents never came home that night. If my older brother, who was usually watching me (and terrorizing me), took off for, say, Florida. How would I survive?
I can’t imagine how I would have felt had Allen used his original ending wherein Virgil, who seems on a suicide mission anyway, is shot to death (Allen’s editor, Ralph Rosenblum, talked him out of that perfectly crushing final moment). Later in life, I thought of the movie much like Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. Like the little girl in that story -- how could I come to Virgil? Well, for one, I’d make sure he had scrawled possession of a gun and not a … gub.