[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
“Hey look, it floats!” cries Duddy Kravitz, from the bathtub. Duddy’s fellow Jew and fellow admirer of the bathtub buoyancy phenomenon, the diffident Leopold Bloom, luxuriated in a fantasy of himself lying, at the end of the day, “laved in a womb of warmth,” gazing at his limp member—a “languid floating flower.” Duddy, antihero of the Canadian Film Development Corporation’s almost-$1-million gamble, the poor urban Jew as 19-year-old Pischer, simply grins at his girl and points at his Putz. Yet float he does, Canada’s crass Duddy, no less than classic Bloom; and although he’d probably be the last one in the world to appreciate it, arch-individualist that he is, what gets this screen incarnation of Mordecai Richler’s supercharged, driven young Montreal “comer” aloft immediately and keeps it there is … teamwork. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a movie full of brilliant things—sharp dialogue, “star” and ”cameo” performances, fluent camerawork, period accuracy—that don’t call attention to themselves. Credit for this, surely, goes to director Ted Kotcheff. With his editor, he establishes from the start exactly that brisk, behavioral rhythm best suited to Duddy’s galvanic personality and to the story of the Kravitz apprenticeship in ruthlessness. The crux of Richard Dreyfuss’s great title performance is the quick take. Kotcheff makes the camera very fast on the uptake, too; it’s as simple as that. The result: we get caught up, willynilly, in Duddy’s own metabolism. The instant Duddy picks up on something—a facial expression, a gesture, some remark that cuts both ways—we get a quick look at Dreyfuss’s face; we catch his hair-trigger response; and Kotcheff cuts away. More often than not, that ends the scene. Goddam! I caught him, he cheats at gin rummy, my dad—the shyster! Cut away. Oh, I get it: he’s pimping! A burst of delighted laughter; cut away. Ha! what he’s doing over there, he’s masturbating, the phony, that Irwin! These quick takes and cutaways express Duddy’s quicksilver native intelligence, and more: his appetite for life, and his capacity to be surprised—to learn.
Sometimes they serve as an outlet for the bittersweet, private pleasure accruing to this sharp kid who socks it to a world full of slower (yet more powerful) squares and marks infuriatingly born to “all the advantages” he lacks. Duddy goes to a rich man’s palatial home to fix up an illegal abortion mess his “sensitive” brother has gotten into. He thrusts through the fog of gentility with his rough, aggressive straight talk, and he ends up first-naming and playing snooker with the girl’s father. The old plutocrat beats Duddy and, rather taken with the boy’s energy, invites him to visit again, maybe play some more snooker. Well, I dunno, you’re out of my league, says Duddy in an unaccustomedly facetious tone. Closeup of Kravitz doubletake, unseen by the other character, and cut to a new scene, Later, when Duddy does revisit, there’s a confrontation, and as he vents his loathing of the moneyed classes we watch Duddy smack the balls into the pockets: bing, bing, bing. And the earlier scene is remembered: Duddy standing respectfully to one side, old Hugh proudly polishing off easy shots; very nice shot, sir, very nice. Sucking up—ironically, for potential advantage, yes—but sucking up nevertheless. And finally, there’s the Duddy-is-vulnerable-too take—just this side, at times, of sentimentality. Item: Duddy’s mother died when he was six. Did she love me, Dad? The supremely offhand answer: Sure, why not? Another director might have lingered on Dreyfuss’s features; Kotcheff, blessedly, doesn’t. Item: Duddy, broke and broken, shows up at the little house in the Laurentians where his estranged girlfriend (Micheline Lanctôt) is taking care of the wheelchair-confined epileptic (Randy Quaid) for whose paralysis Duddy is at least partly responsible. He brazens it out; but finally she observes that what he really wants to come out with, and can’t manage, is, can he stay the night? The ready-for-anything Kravitz face comes apart at the seams, in closeup. Tears! But again, Kotcheff cuts away pretty quick.
Most short scenes are stitched together by a quick sleight-of-hand turnover from one setting to the next, like a page being flipped in a book. Pacing is nicely varied, though. While Duddy’s early scenes with his wealthy Uncle Benjy (Joseph Wiseman) run swiftly and end abruptly with the quick take or the turnaround device, their last confrontation is given proper weight. Benjamin lies flat in bed, dying of cancer, a huge opulent headboard behind him. Emotion builds irresistibly behind Richler’s fine cut-and-thrust dialogue as Duddy releases the bitterness at being unrecognized and Benjamin slowly realizes he has favored the wrong nephew. Wiseman’s performance here is his most controlled since Bye Bye Braverman. And Denholm Elliott’s, in another key, is his, well, seediest since the memorable Krogstad of Patrick Garland’s A Doll’s House. Joe Silver as the gravel-voiced self-made junk merchant Faber; Henry Ramer as “Wonder Boy” Dingleman, the successful Jewish “operator” worshipped by Duddy’s father; Jack Warden as the father; Quaid; Lanctôt—and, preeminently, Dreyfuss himself—Kotcheff has given these good actors plenty of room without ever sacrificing narrative drive or Richler’s sinewy, witty screenplay. His one set-piece, the tarted-up bar mitzvah movie turned out by the Denholm Elliott character (a drunken filmmaker with heavy artistic pretensions) is, of course, hilarious, as it was in the book. Happy Bar Mitzvah, Bernie! Happy coming-of-age, Canadian feature films!
THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ
Direction: Ted Kotcheff. Screenplay: Mordecai Richler, after his novel; adaptation by Lionel Chetwynd. Cinematography: Brian West. Editing: Thomas Noble. Production: John Kemeny.
The Players: Richard Dreyfuss, Micheline Lanctôt, Randy Quaid, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Warden, Joe Silver, Henry Ramer, Denholm Elliott.
Copyright © 1974 Ken Eisler