That shock of red hair, the puppy-dog eyes, those black-rimmed glasses there’s no question that Woody Allen has obsessed himself thoroughly into our lives. The frenetic nebbish flew straight out of a noisily Jewish Brooklyn, writing comedy in high school, performing stand-up, and beginning an acting and screenwriting career in 1964 with flicks heavy on spoofing and the broadest farce imaginable: What’s New Pussycat?, Casino Royale, and What’s Up, Tiger Lily? But it wasn’t until 1969’s Take the Money and Run, a pseudodocumentary about a wildly inept robber who receives an 800-year prison sentence, that Allen’s enduring persona became firmly locked in place: anxious, neurotic, funny, and — as writer, director, and actor for the first time — in complete creative control.
The film that Time magazine has described as ”the first pure Woody” opened Aug. 19, appropriately enough in Manhattan — a city that Allen, like his Manhattan alter ego, Isaac Davis, seems to idolize ”all out of proportion.” It was an immediate hit; critics and audiences alike were seduced by its ”Everymanic-depressive” hero (as one critic diagnosed him). Virgil Starkwell, ”a man who would get flustered crossing the street” (in another critic’s words), was the first incarnation of a character type that remains closely identified with, if not actually embodied by, Woody Allen. Money also introduced another Allen trademark: a wry but passionate view of relationships. Marriage is ”a deeply moving blood test”; sex, happily, can be dirty — ”if you do it right.”
Working on a roughly $1.7 million budget, the first-time director infused the project with his esoteric and unusual filming methods: screening a variety of movies (Blow-Up, Elvira Madigan) to show his crew what he was after, using amateurs as well as professional actors (the bank tellers were played by schoolteachers). He even raced from location in San Francisco to Las Vegas one Saturday night to stand by in case an ailing Milton Berle couldn’t go on. The result, a comedy with chutzpah, has been described by Allen as a ”forerunner of…Airplane.”
The success of Money earned Allen a three-movie contract, a rare degree of artistic control that he’s retained ever since, and a respect for his filmmaking talent that’s lasted 25 years. True, Allen the man created a furor by dating his girlfriend’s daughter, but Allen the director can still charm simply by finding the meaning of life in a Marx Brothers movie.
Aug. 19, 1969
Audiences were looking ahead — 2001: A Space Odyssey packed theaters, and Zager & Evans’ ”In the Year 2525” topped the pop chart. While Julia broke TV color barriers, Jacqueline Susann’s The Love Machine broke the bank.