The bittersweet story of a Jewish boy from Montreal struggling up out of the ghetto, using any and every means he can lay his hands on. It is a riveting performance from Richard Dreyfuss in the title role (in his first leading role), complete with a nervous laugh and a habit of scratching when on edge.
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-manoeuvres his peers, making fair-weather friends of various swells.
All his nervous energy is channelled towards a single desire – to own and develop land – and to do it, Duddy uses people mercilessly.
First, he hustles his Catholic girlfriend, Yvette (Micheline Lanctôt) to act as the go-between in buying out farmers around an idyllic lake setting where he plans to build ‘Kravitzville’ – an empire of hotels and other businesses. He forms a company, Dudley Kane Enterprises, and hires an alcoholic ex-Hollywood film director (beautifully played by Denholm Elliott) to film bar mitzvah and wedding ceremonies for wealthy Canadian Jews,
Then there is the epileptic Virgil (Randy Quaid) whose trusting naivety is used to the limit – Virgil is crippled when he crashes the car he was driving for Duddy, and even then, Duddy still uses him by forging a cheque to get the final payment for the land.
Triumphant, Duddy takes his family to see his great achievement. But there is a bitter note in the success of becoming a “somebody” – the people he used to get there now reject him.