by Daniel Golden
from Jump Cut, no. 5, 1975, pp. 12-13
Every ethnic community has its cultural tattletales, artists and writers who go around revealing the family’s dirty little secrets to the outside world, the “white men” as Duddy Kravitz learns to call them in THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ. Munch and Ibsen painfully expose the icy bankruptcy of spirit and human compassion in their native Norway. George Grosz, Gunter Grass, and Fritz Lang dwell on a German psyche obsessed with violence and perverse decadence. Pio Baroja and Luis Buñuel attack their Spanish orthodoxy in all its pious hypocrisy. But when it comes to cultural self-satire and self-hatred, Jews are, to borrow a line from the title character of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, “What Gary, Indiana, is to smoke—the world’s biggest operation.”
Ever since Abraham Cahan explored assimilation’s ethical price in The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Jewish-American writers have assiduously dissected their national character. In so doing, they have created a literature that often documents a movement from isolation to social accommodation. This process of Americanization has not been an entirely satisfactory one. Most Jewish authors have found themselves at odds not only with the dominant external culture, but with Jews themselves. Loss of faith, a strong sense of cultural disaffection, and what another of Bellow’s characters aptly calls the “nightmare isolation of the self”—these elements have become both mood and motif for such writers such as Mike Gold, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Clifford Odets, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Budd Schulberg, and many others.
Mordecai Richter is a Canadian Jew whose fiction consistently focuses on cultural assimilation’s pains and prices. His screenplay of THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ closely parallels his 1959 novel of the same title. It’s is an incisive and often unforgiving account of nineteen year-old Duddy Kravitz—hustler, con artist, betrayer. Richter has been accused of anti-Semitism in this film. At times he envisions Duddy and the Jewish subculture in Montreal as harshly venal, crass, and materialistic. But it is Duddy, played so dynamically by Richard Dreyfuss (AMERICAN GRAFFITI), who complicates and transcends cheap stereotype by revealing compassion, family loyalty, and a curious lonely vulnerability.
In his desperate pursuit to own a large lake and parcel of land in the Laurentian Mountains, Duddy Kravitz descends into duplicity, fraud, and betrayal. His trajectory leaves him owner of the land for his dream resort, “Kravitzvill,” but also completely isolated. He is repudiated by his loving grandfather, whose adage “a man without land is nobody” feeds his insatiable desire for success. Duddy is also rejected by his mistress and confidante Yvette (Micheline Lanctot) and a young U.S. epileptic, Virgil Roseboro (Randy Quaid of THE LAST DETAIL), who is paralyzed as a direct result of Duddy’s ruthless ambition.
Duddy Kravitz seems an anomaly, a Jewish boy without a Jewish mother. Indeed, he shares with some other recent Jewish screen protagonists an unstable and untraditional family background. Duddy’s mother is dead, and his father is a cab-driving tummler, who pimps on the side for extra cash. In one of the film’s most significant passages, Duddy questions his father, played with fitting bluster and bravado by Jack Warden. When Duddy wistfully asks about his dead mother, “Did she like me?” , Max the father gruffly replies “Sure, why not?” , failing to perceive his own son’s loneliness. Halfway into the film, this same exchange is repeated. This time it is Virgil, who is similarly isolated by his epilepsy, who asks Duddy, “Do you like me?” In his relentless pursuit of option monies and new angles, Duddy can only absentmindedly echo his own father’s disheartening response, “Sure, why not?”
In his disrupted and hollow family life, Duddy resembles Neil Klugman, hero in GOODBYE COLUMBUS, who lives with aunt and uncle in the Bronx after his parents light out for Arizona. He’s also like Lennie in THE HEARTBREAK KID, who seems without any ties or family connections. This resemblance points to a common theme carried over from Jewish-American fiction, the loss of “family sense,” as Bellow’s Tommy Wilhelm puts it. Family bonds seem to twist or break under the pressure of assimilating. For many characters, “making it” becomes an incomplete and unhealthy surrogate for a cohesive and reinforcing home life. In THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ, there is some redeeming affection and concern for Buddy, especially in the figure of his Talmudically sagacious grandfather, played by Zvee Schooler. But it’s not enough to neutralize the emptiness of Duddy’s own house and the St. Urbain Street atmosphere of shady deals, arson, and petty chicanery.
The ghetto setting is adeptly portrayed. Here one senses the moral ambivalence of the film, something that carries over from the novel. If these hustling Jews are obnoxious and crude, they are also warm and generous. Mr. Farber, the junk dealer, is played by Joe Silver, whose voice rumbles with the phlegm of a thousand cheese danish. A successful representative of the Street, he is simultaneously an important and compassionate father-surrogate for Duddy and an admitted crook, whose street savvy gets a partner imprisoned for his own criminally negligent homicide. He offers this confession in a steambath conversation with Duddy that clearly delineates the ground rules of the young hero’s own financial pursuits. And even though is advice is tinted with blatant immorality, and his nouveau riche extravagances so embarrassing (his son’s Bar Mitzvah, in chicken liver and carved ice, closely resembles the wedding sequence in GOODBYE, COLUMBUS), Mr. Farber is endearing, perhaps dangerously so. Ted Kotcheff’s straightforward-direction withholds editorial opinion on this and other questions of moral obligation. Outside the teeming Jewish milieu of catered affairs and convenient fraud, the audience is caught between two equally unattractive extremes—a stolid and vituperatively bigoted French-Canadian peasantry and the genteel bloodlessness of the WASP aristocracy, safely ensconced above the rabble in their Westmount mansions.
In many respects, Bernie Farber’s Bar Mitzvah is the structural and thematic center of the movie. In its burlesque of the Jewish ceremony of entrance into manhood, it parallels Buddy’s own movement from boyish apprenticeship to fully realized mastery of moral and financial wheeling and dealing. Buddy establishes a company to film documentaries of Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. He hires a drunken, blacklisted film director named John Friar (played as a sodden Etonian by Denholm Elliott, who almost walks away with the movie). In Friar’s hands, a simple film record of the Bar Mitzvah boy and all his smiling relatives is transformed into a bizarre and hilarious montage of synagogue scenes, diving German Stukas, dancing Zulu warriors, bloody circumcisions, and one especially grotesque scene of a Black sideshow performer chomping on razor blades. It is a marvelous parody of avant-garde technique and pretensions. (Do the razor blades echo UN CHIEN ANDALOU?) It is also a comment on popular tastes and proprieties, since the entire horrified audience at the initial screening is gratefully relieved when the Rabbi proclaims the film “a most edifying experience—it’s a work of art.” This film within a film is an indulgence on the part of both Richter and Kotcheff, but it does serve as another indicator of Buddy’s insistent and often insensitive pursuit of his dream. Despite the WASP front (the name of his organization is “Dudley Kane Enterprises” ), Buddy remains the archetypal Luftmensch. In the Yiddish sense, that’s a man who “lives on air,” constantly scheming and hustling, with his office in his pocket.
Kotcheff does a yeoman’s job of turning Richter’s novel into a screen vehicle. He captures a sense of post-WW2 filmmaking in his grainy, high-contrast color photography. This in turn lends a naturalistic flavor to many of the external shots of St. Urbain Street. This is especially so as the film opens with an over-long sequence of Duddy’s high school cadets on parade through narrow littered streets, past an appropriately ethnic mélange of urchins, pushcarts, and bagel bakeries. This social backdrop, which includes some obvious documentary-style shots (as when the camera tracks up the squalid inner courtyard and alley of Duddy’s apartment building), becomes a significant theme. For Buddy will venture beyond the Jewish confines of hustling a roulette game in the resorts or finessing his movie deals.
Dreyfuss portrays Buddy as a pudgy, hyperkinetic hustler, constantly sweating, scratching, and twitching. But despite his nervousness, Duddy (at times) has a charmingly boyish Teddy Bear appearance. This is quite a change from the novel’s Buddy, who is an acne-riddled, anorexically skinny, chain smoker. Similarly, the film’s Uncle Benjy, played with a slender ascetic reserve by Joseph Wiseman, is in direct contrast to the book’s blubbery and pathetic fat man. Uncle Benjy, who has practically adopted Buddy’s brother Lennie and financed his medical school career, says to Buddy from his death bed:
Accurate, perhaps. This kind of shame wears off on Lennie, who is duped into performing an illegal abortion by his Westmount gentile friends. Only Duddy, street-wise and canny, can rescue his brother from scandal, drag him home from exile in Toronto, and charm the Westmount father whose daughter received the illicit operation.
The film traces Duddy’s financial success and ethical destruction. He acquires the last parcel of land by forging a check on the crippled Virgil’s account. Duddy’s success is a hollow victory, paralleling the fraudulent myth of “The Boy Wonder,” a St. Urbain Street alumnus and former friend of Buddy’s father, Max. Jerry Dingleman is the boy wonder, a cheap hood who built his fortune on heroin and prostitution. He is fat and crippled in his middle age. Buddy thus also becomes a “somebody,” but at the cost of the family love and unity he has so desperately sought. He pays the price in isolation and degradation.
THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ is a troubling film that demonstrates the perversion of the American Dream, Canadian-style. If its cinematic technique is undistinguished, it is also unobtrusive. Heavy reliance on location shots and period props helps to establish a sense of place and time. These qualities are essential on-screen, and they help to vivify Richter’s often scenically sparse and thematically blatant novel. In the film, despite a generally fine level of performance down through the supporting cast, there are flat moments, or times when character becomes easy caricature, and here especially we sense Richter’s authorial presence. But THE APPRENTICESHIP OF BUDDY KRAVITZ is ultimately important, for in reflecting Richter’s own admitted cultural disaffection, Buddy becomes an ethnic Everyman. Like Sammy Glick, Tommy Wilhelm, and a host of other Jewish protagonists in our recent literature, Buddy is at least in part mythicized from a little Jewish pusherke into an eponymous isolate, frantically asserting the success of his self-defeating dream on a desolate and windswept Montreal street corner.