Adapted for the screen by Lionel Chetwynd and directed by the nimble Ted Kotcheff, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz has a peculiar texture. The movie feels rushed, since the filmmakers obviously wanted to include as much of the novel’s plot as possible; many scene transitions are abrupt, with optical wipes and/or sudden bursts of music shifting the tone from droll to dour in jarring ways; and the filmmakers seem unclear about their perspective on the protagonist. The title character (played, obviously, by Dreyfuss) is a born hustler who uses lies and schemes and tricks to move up the economic ladder, leaving broken friendships (and worse) in his wake.
At times, the filmmakers seem highly judgmental of Duddy, presenting him as a callous prick who’ll do anything for money; at other times, the filmmakers seem amused by Duddy, as if he’s a playful scamp to be admired for his manic single-mindedness. Similarly, the filmmakers can’t decide whether they’re making a comedy with an undercurrent of pathos or a drama with an undercurrent of frivolity. Nearly every scene in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is interesting in some way, but the whole enterprise comes across like the highlight reel for a larger, more coherent endeavor. Set in World War II-era Montreal, the movie tracks Duddy’s slow rise from high-school graduate to self-made businessman.
The son of a humble cab driver (Jack Warden), Duddy begins his working life with a job as a waiter at a resort. Quickly discerning that strivers who grease the moneyed class with special treatment do well, Duddy out-maneuvers his peers, making fair-weather friends of various swells. Duddy then embarks on a long romantic relationship with a Catholic girl, Yvette (Michceline Lanctòt), and hatches the idea to buy a lake upon which he can build an empire of hotels and other businesses. Clever and relentless, Duddy commences his next outrageous business venture by hiring an alcoholic ex-Hollywood film director (Denholm Elliot) to make bar mitzvah and wedding movies for wealthy Canadian Jews. And so it goes until a series of reversals—including brushes with criminality and a horrific traffic accident—halt Duddy’s ascension.
That the preceding description includes only some of the movie’s plot should indicate how densely the film is packed. If not for the skill of the principal actors, in fact, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz simply wouldn’t work, since the hurried pace leaves so little time to linger on individual moments. Dreyfuss, whose acting style is fairly manic anyway, keeps pace with the movie’s frenetic momentum, adroitly charting Duddy’s progress from innocent to cynic to battle-tested survivor. (Dreyfuss’ innate amiability is also the only thing that keeps Duddy from coming across as a complete asshole.) Warden fills his own scenes with energy and warmth, while Randy Quaid provides folksy counterpoint in a supporting role as a young American who enters Duddy’s orbit. Joe Silver (as one of Duddy’s patrons) and the always-entertaining Elliot are similarly strong. Alas, while The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is filled with highly watchable elements, it’s ultimately a bit of a mess—as demonstrated by the picture’s final scene, which wobbles indecisively between tragedy and whimsy.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: FUNKY