Richard Dreyfuss hustles his way through The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a 1974 period film based on the novel by Mordecai Richler. The young actor, a commodity at the time and a year away from going incandescent thanks to Spielberg and Jaws, is fine as the title character, a jewish kid from Montreal who has dreams of a better future than the one facing him, either supervising workers in his uncle’s garment factory, or driving a cab like his father, played by Jack Warden.
Dreyfuss’s talent is obvious from start to finish, and the role requires a fair amount of range. As the film opens, Duddy is still a good-for-nothing-student at a military school. We follow the events of his life over the course of the next year or so, as he leaves school and begins to make connections waiting tables and schlepping bags at a summer resort. Kravitz has lots of ideas but no direction, complaining early on that he missed out on a windfall when he learned that someone else had already though up Kleenex. He finds the goal he needs when his summer crush, Yvette (Micheline Lanctôt) takes him to a nearby lake and tells him it can be had for a song. Kravitz is entranced by the vistas, and sees the surrounding real estate as his way to make his mark on the world; he begins the arduous task of trying to raise the funds to buy the property, which encompasses the rest of the film.
Most of the reels are concerned with the wheeling and dealing Kravitz goes through to make a buck, from waiting tables and making films, to selling pinball machines and driving a cab. At one point he unwittingly becomes a mule, shuttling heroin across the border and into Manhattan on behalf of the local Jewish gangster. As the film progresses and Kravitz’s need becomes more desperate he responds in kind, making a quick progression from begging and borrowing to swindling and stealing, even from those he loves. Randy Quaid, of all people, finds his way into the film as a dim witted bumpkin Duddy befriends and then takes advantage of in half a dozen different ways. Quaid is an epileptic, and the movie takes a downward emotional turn when he crashes a truck hauling Duddy’s junk from one joint to the next.
The picture’s best sequence features Denholm Elliot, a down and out filmmaker Duddy befriends after a night-school lecture. Duddy dreams up a scheme where they’ll produce Bar Mitzvah and wedding movies — “in color!” — but Elliot’s character insists on maintaining his artistic integrity. Their first project is shown in its entirety as a movie-within-a-movie and makes the whole thing worth watching. It’s a scream — really, you’ll scream — and it’ll forever change the way you think of Bar Mitzvahs and bris.
By the end of the film, we’ve witnessed a fairly original version of an age-old movie story: that of the man who fulfills his ambition, but at a terrible price. There are a few problems, particularly over length, as numerous subplots grab screen time and drain vitality from the film. Mostly they paint a picture of Jewish life in the Montreal of the fifties, but the cost is too much: such films work best in the 90-100 minute range, the extra twenty here are nearly a deal-breaker. This has never been released on home video, but is currently available to watch instantly from Netflix.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Jack Warden, Randy Quaid, and Micheline Lanctôt
Released by Canadian Film Dev. Corp.
Running time: 121 minutes.
Availability: Netflix Streaming