The first Woody Allen film the man himself actually directed, Take the Money and Run is at moments funny and inventive, but more often than not just a taste of things to come. As a fake documentary about the life of inept criminal Virgil Starkwell (played by guess who?), it displays Allen’s cinematic insight into the possibilities of the medium — this being one of the first widely successful mockumentaries and, along with What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Bananas, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, a showy parody of style, genre, and format — at the same time as it reveals his weaknesses as a comic director, which he would very quickly overcome. It’s said that Take the Money was saved in the editing room, and a large part of the film’s skin-of-the-teeth triumph is in its never-look-back rush that makes up for sometimes awkward direction and fall-short jokes (the mispelled hold-up note, however, is a classic).
Allen’s first comedies were missing something else, and Sleeper and Love and Death clearly reveal what that was — Diane Keaton. Series of episodes and thinly connected gags, Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex work in a variety format not entirely friendly to the charge Allen generates out of comic partnership, from the Abbot and Costello-esque routines of Sleeper and Love and Death to the more “mature” riffing in the relationship comedies of Annie Hall and Manhattan. Keaton’s arrival in the Allen oeuvre and the jump in quality (and humor) of his films is no accident — half-goofy, half-straight man, she’s the perfect foil for the Allen shtick who with a sly upward turn of her lips reveals she’s in on the joke and able to hold her own. Take the Money and Run‘s Janet Margolin is pretty but bland as Allen’s on-screen girlfriend and wife, and scenes involving the two are barely salvaged by Allen’s stand-up inflected voice-over commentaries (“I know I was in love. First of all, I was very nauseous.”) Comparing the performances of Margolin and Allen and then Keaton and Allen makes one further appreciate the inimitable energy the latter produced together, and the films — even better than the very fine Take the Money — they gave us. Plays January 7 at Film Forum.