dream brought to life

Flatmates' pact results in fine film

Published: Jan 27 2014, 01:01:am

Monday, May 6, 1974
THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ. Written by Mordecai Richler, based on his 1959 novel. Musical supervision by Stanley Meyers. Directed by Ted Kotcheff. Running time: 120 minutes.
THE SCENE IS A PRIVATE screening room somewhere in Montreal in the late 1940s. Would-be movie producer Duddy Kravitz (Richard Dreyfuss),  alias Dudley Kane, has just shown his first film to its sponsor, the junk dealer Farber (Joe Silver). With them in the room are Farber's family and a selection of his friends.
    Directed by eccentric Peter John Friar (Denholm Elliot), an expatriate English documentarist,
Happy Bar Mitzvah Bernie is a most unusual film. When it ends there is a long silence. Farber shifts uneasily in his seat. Kravitz waits, expectantly . . .
    The story behind the making of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a  publicist's dream. It begins in a London flat in 1958, two gentlemen sharing.
    One is Montreal-born writer Mordecai Richler. The other is a would-be film-maker from Toronto named Ted Kotcheff. Both are in their twenties.
   Richler is working on a book. Loosely autobiographical, it is based on his experience of growing up in Montreal's St. Urbain Street ghetto. Impressed with the work, Kotcheff promises that someday he will make a movie from that very book.
    Fourteen years later, Richler is one of Canada's best-known novelists. Kotcheff has an international reputation as a film director. And both still want to make a movie from Richler's story.
    The two men sit down with Michael Spencer, executive director of the Canadian Film Development Corporation, and John Kemeny, a
 Montreal film producer. They all agree that this project has the makings of a great Canadian movie.
    Daddy Kravitz goes before the cameras in 1973. The first weeks of shooting go so well that the film's budget is raised by more than 25 per cent, from $750,000 to approximately $930,000.
    A large figure by Canadian standards, it still falls short of the million dollars spent on 1973's The Pyx  and the $1.8 million that is said to have been spent on Alien Thunder (1974).
    It's a good  story, but the proof of the product is in the viewing. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravltz is now in release . . .

    The silence in the screening room lasts a very long time. Duddy Kravitz is sweating visibly. Finally Rabbi Goldstone (Jonathan Robinson), who has figured prominently in the tale of  Bernie's bar mitzvah, turns to Farber and announces:
    "A most edifying experience.  A  work of art.

    . . . and it is a triumph. From beginning to end, the fiIm is a finely-tuned dynamo purring along with Duddy's own energy: urgent, immediate and overwhelming.
    Richler's screenplay, based on his 1959 novel, chronicles an important year in the life of young Kravitz. A product of Montreal's St. Urbain Street, he's come of age in the late 1940s. Following his graduation from high school, the 19-year old sets out to make a "somebody" of himself in the world.
    Richler's creation is no hero, though. Kravitz neither loves nor is loved easily.
    "It's cretinous little money-grubbers like Kravitz who cause anti-Semitism," sneers McGill medical student Irwln Schubert (Allan Kolman), one of the youths with whom Duddy shares a dormitory during a summer of waitering in a Laurentian Mountains resort.
    "What will become of you?" laments his ailing, intellectual uncle Benjamin (Joseph Wiseman). "You're a born pusher, a lousy little Jew-boy on the make."
    At first glance, Duddy's story is in poor taste. And, indeed, it seems that Cannes Film Festival director Maurice Bessy took little more than a glance at it.
    Although the film was the unanimous choice of a federal pre-selection panel brought together to select an official Canadian entry, Bessy rejected it out of hand. He didn't like what he perceived to be its anti-Semitic attitude.
    Bessy's decision echoed the scandal that Richler's novel caused in Montreal when it was first published. It managed to weather the initial controversy, going on to become  one of Canada's all-time best-sellers. Today, it is required reading in many schools.
    It survived because, Uncle Benjy's cruel assessment notwithstanding, Duddy is not a caricatured "Jew-boy." His drives are no different from those of any other powerful, obsessive self-starter. Nor are his goals.
    In Duddy's case, Jewishness is a circumstance and Montreal his milieu. Richler drew from what he knew to tell a  story with universal resonance.
    In bringing it to the screen, Kotcheff illuminates and expands Duddy's human dimensions. With a sweep of his camera's eye, he takes in a flawless reconstruction of Duddy's world, and shows him to be part of an organic whole.
    As a director, Kotcheff takes advantage of the multiple points of view that are possible in a movie to show us Duddy's complex ambitions and emotions, that can combine ruthlessness and compassion in a single gesture.
    To catch the unique flavour of Richler's novel, Kotcheff adopted a 1940's style of film-making. As in a number of recent films, notably 1973's The Sting and The Great Gatsby (1974), Kotcheff evokes a past time and place.
    The effect is, of course, nostalgic, but of a sort that is superior to Jack Clayton's sparkle-dusted Gatsby or George Roy Hill's back-lot Sting. Both the Englishman and the American loose their nostalgic bolts for their own sake. They recall worlds that never were.
    Kotcheff's purpose is to show us a world that really was, to enhance a living drama. Not unlike the ultra-realist tradition in Canadian painting, he attempts to draw his audience into a world of heightened reality.
    Making it work is a large and talented cast, most of whom are Canadian. The title role, though, went to an American, 25-year-old Richard Dreyfuss.
    In many cases English-Canadian directors, fearful of using "unknown" Canadian actors, have used second, third and even fourth-rate American "names"  in their top roles. Duddy Kravitz is the exception that proves the rule.
    Richard Dreyfuss is Duddy Kravitz. An actor for more than nine years, Dreyfuss made his first major impact last year, playing the part of Curt, the college-bound teen in George Lucas's American Graffiti.
    This year, if there is any justice in Hollywood (and don't count on there being any), he'll be Oscar-bound. Radiating the non-stop energy of the eternal hustler, his Duddy is an unforgettable performance that captures the underlying sense of desperation in the dynamo.
    Duddy is a personality shaped by both social and family pressures. The youngest of two sons, he sees his more serious-minded brother Lennie (Allan Rosenthal) get the lion's share of their father's time and attention.
    Their Uncle Benjy, a well-heeled but childless factory owner, has taken Lennie under his wing, and is underwriting his medical-school tuition. Max Kravitz (Jack Warden), a St. Urbain cab-driver, fears his older boy is slipping away from him, and works extra hours to lavish luxuries on him.
    Duddy, the loud, show-offy younger son, is left pretty much to himself and to his grandfather (Zvee Scooler),  an orthodox elder who tends to his back alley garden, where he assures his grandson that "a man without land is a nobody."
    When,  during his summer working in the Laurentians, Duddy discovers an unspoiled lake, he is enchanted. He decides that he must have it. He will do anything to get it. Among his plans: to give his grandfather a farm.
    Instinctively, Duddy has learned the basic law of the urban jungle — loyalty to self comes first; and self includes immediate family. Outside of that tight circle, there are only two kinds of people: allies and enemies.
    It's not all cold-hearted calculation, though. Duddy feels genuine affection for Yvette Durelle (Micheline Lanctot), the practical-minded Quebecoise chambermaid who first shows him his dream lake. She later acts as his purchasing agent, a ploy to get around the habitant farmers and their reluctance to sell property to a Montreal Jew.
    He feels anguish at the pain he brings upon Virgil (Randy Quaid), the epileptic whose good nature he exploits, and from whom he ultimately embezzles money. Despite his qualms, it is always his need for power and property that wins out in the end.
    It is the dream that carries him into the movie business, and an uneasy alliance with Peter John Friar, a pretentious, drunken director. Together, they set out to produce professional-looking home movies for Montreal's nouveau riche.
    Among his clients is the junk merchant Farber, a man who once framed his own partner to save their business, and who sees a reflection of his younger self in the grasping Duddy.
    Among Duddy'e enemies is the sinister Jerry Dingleman (Henry Ramer). Called the "boy wonder" in the St. Urbain neighbourhood that bred him, Dingleman has become an important crime lord. Held up to Duddy as an ideal and source of potential opportunity, he soon becomes a dark threat.    
    From such a rich variety of threads, Richler wove a fascinating literary tapestry. Under Kotcheff's direction, a uniformly fine cast brings it to life. A fine film by any standard, The Apprenticeshlp of Duddy Kravitz fulfills the decades-old dream of a great Canadian film. It should go on to be a major international hit.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1974. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Despite my enthusiasm for his performance as Duddy, Richard Dreyfuss had to wait another four years for Oscar honours (a best actor win for 1978's The Goodbye Girl). The picture's single Academy Award nomination went to Richler (and his screenwriting partner Lionel Chetwynd) for best adapted screenplay. Its biggest win was the 1974 Film of the Year nod at the 1974 Canadian Film Awards. I later learned that during their London years Ted Kotcheff directed an hour-long version of The Apprenticeshlp of Duddy Kravitz. An episode of ABC Weekend Television's Armchair Theatre, it aired July 30, 1961, and starred Hugh Futcher in the title role. Richler would live to see Duddy come to life on screen one more time, played by Matt Birman in director Claude Jutra's 1979 TV movie The Wordsmith. Richler also adapted his fictionalized 1980 autobiography, Joshua Then and Now, for his old friend Kotcheff, who directed the 1985 TV mini-series and feature film. His 1975 children's book, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, inspired two-two feature adaptations, in 1978 and 1999. Following Richler's death in 2001, Duddy was seen one more time (played by Jesse Camacho) in the 2007 TV mini-series St. Urbain's Horsemen, based on the 1971 novel. Richler's work continues to inspire filmmakers, most recently director Richard J. Lewis, whose 2010 adaptation of 1997's Barney's Version netted 11 Genie Award nominations, including seven wins. Among Kotcheff's cinematic achievements, the one that I have to mention is his direction of 1982's First Blood, the original Rambo movie and the first box-office megahit made in B.C.