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Ted Kotcheff

Review: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

[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.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Wake in Fright’ and Hitchcock’s original ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’

Wake in Fright” (Image), one of the seminal works of the New Australian cinema of the seventies, is a brutal, blackly funny thriller of an urban schoolteacher (Gary Bond) posted to the Australian Outback, which is a sun-blasted nightmare as far as he’s concerned. He can’t leave fast enough when his Christmas vacation arrives, but his veneer of culture crumbles when he gets stranded in the grimy mining town of Bundanyabba (or just “the Yabba,” as the locals call their little slice of hell), where he unravels in non-stop drink and nocturnal kangaroo hunts. The educated, well-spoken character looks like easy prey to the hard-drinking roughnecks and derelicts of the town but this isn’t an Aussie “Deliverance.” He’s a willing participant in his self-degradation in this lost weekend, and the darkly comic chain of events that keep him stuck the Yabba looks less like a cruel joke by a trickster god and more like a hard lesson in self-awareness. Under all that hubris and arrogance is just another animal acting on base instinct.

The raw, sweaty 1971 film is not a pretty portrayal of life in the outback, where men are crude, hard-drinking mates with no ambition beyond rough-house fun, and it was a flop Australia, but it was critically well received and brought more attention to the nascent Australian film culture. Director Ted Kotcheff is Canadian, its two featured stars (Gary Bond and Donald Pleasance) British, and its producers an international collection, but the self-aware sensibility is unique and impressive and even a little affectionate — the locals (including an impossibly young and beautiful Jack Thompson) are as generous and accepting as they are coarse and raw — and it became an influence on the work of Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and others.

The film all but disappeared and was thought lost for years until a print was discovered in a film depot in Pittsburgh, and the film was restored by the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia. Drafthouse Films picked it up for its American release, and they present the film Blu-ray and DVD with Image. Both formats feature commentary by director Ted Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley, a Q&A with Kotcheff from the film’s showing at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, the new retrospective featurette “To the Yabba and Back,” and archival clips about the film’s production and recovery, plus a booklet with notes on the film and its recovery and restoration. Also includes a bonus digital copy, which can be downloaded from the Drafthouse website.

The original The Man Who Knew Too Much (Criterion), Alfred Hitchcock’s first international thriller of innocents caught up in the intrigue of spies and killers, set the template for the romantic thrillers that made his reputation. It’s also the English language debut of Peter Lorre, whose childlike bursts of laughter immediately set him off from the British restraint and carefully wit of the rest of the cast. Leslie Banks and Edna Best are an ordinary couple whose sports vacation to Switzerland becomes a nightmare when a British agent dies in their presence and foreign assassins kidnap their daughter (Nova Pilbeam) to assure their silence. Hitchcock’s tone is odd, with clever set pieces and tightly-constructed and edited sequences interspersed with awkward scenes of emotional restraint (“Steady, old girl, steady”) and disconnected characters. It lacks the romance and the personality wrestling of his best films of the thirties, something he mastered in “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.” But his pace is snappy and you can see Hitch working out his signature style in key scenes, from the startling assassination of the first act exploding in the midst of a practical joke to the building rhythm of the Albert Hall sequence, and he invites the wife to participate in the rescue of her daughter as only a female sharpshooting champion could.

This public domain film has been widely available in substandard versions, some of them quite terrible. Criterion masters the film from the BFI’s restored fine-grain 35mm print (the original negative no longer exists) for a special edition on Blu-ray and DVD. The source material is not pristine, but it’s been cleaned up and digitally repaired (both picture and sound) as well as could be hoped for, and mastered with a sharpness I’ve never seen in a print of this film. Features commentary by film historian Philip Kemp, a new interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, a 50-minute TV interview with director Alfred Hitchcock conducted by journalist Pia Lindstrom and film historian William Everson in 1972, and excerpts from filmmaker François Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock (audio only).

More DVD, Blu-ray, and digital releases at Videodrone

Review: North Dallas Forty

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

You don’t have to care or even know much about football to enjoy North Dallas Forty. Ted Kotcheff doesn’t seem to know much about football either, but that didn’t stop him from making a film about it. Well, no, not really. North Dallas Forty is barely about football at all, in the sense that sports movies are ordinarily about their sporting subject. It begins on the morning after one game and ends not long after the next contest, the only one we see—and we see it for only the last two minutes of playing time. Based on an awfully good novel by ex–Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent (which I’m grateful to the filmmakers for leading me to read), the movie specifically homes in on the world of pro football as exemplified by the North Dallas Bulls (in the book, the real thing, the Dallas Cowboys). As computer-programmed by the North Dallas coaching and management arms, football becomes a kind of corporate warfare wherein the players are just so much materiel and the game is a business, the business a game.

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