Search the Cinema Head Cheese Archives!

May 30, 2014

Movie Review: The Pawnbroker (1964)

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

“You people?” Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) says, schooling his youthful protégé, Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez) on the Jewish race’s relationship with money.  “Oh, let's see. Yeah. I see. I see, you... you want to learn the secret of our success, is that right? Alright I'll teach you. First of all you start off with a period of several thousand years, during which you have nothing to sustain you but a great bearded legend.

“Oh my friend you have no land to call your own, to grow food on or to hunt. You have nothing. You're never in one place long enough to have a geography or an army or a land myth. All you have is a little brain. A little brain and a great bearded legend to sustain you and convince you that you are special, even in poverty.

“But this little brain, that's the real key you see. With this little brain you go out and you buy a piece of cloth and you cut that cloth in two and you go and sell it for a penny more than you paid for it. Then you run right out and buy another piece of cloth, cut it into three pieces and sell it for three pennies profit. But, my friend, during that time you must never succumb to buying an extra piece of bread for the table or a toy for a child, no. You must immediately run out and get yourself a still larger piece cloth and so you repeat this process over and over and suddenly you discover something. You have no longer any desire, any temptation to dig into the Earth to grow food or to gaze at a limitless land and call it your own, no, no. You just go on and on and on repeating this process over the centuries over and over and suddenly you make a grand discovery. You have a mercantile heritage! You are a merchant. You are known as a usurer, a man with secret resources, a witch, a pawnbroker, a sheenie, a makie and a kike!”

Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) is a Nazi concentration camp survivor who has since relocated to New York City. Losing his wife and family to the Holocaust, he runs a pawnshop in Harlem. His faith in humanity forever lost, the people he deals with on a daily basis only confirms his belief. An endless parade of junkies, thieves, prostitutes come to him to unload their baubles. Treating everyone with contempt, his second wife calls him at the shop to say that her father has just recently passed away. “Bury him!” he shouts, before slamming down the phone. Staring at the ground with resigned indifference, his steely facade begins to crack when he learns that his landlord, a flamboyantly gay pimp (Brock Peters) is using Nazerman's shop to launder money from his brothel that his mind becomes flooded with memories of his past persecution and imprisonment. A robbery attempt at his pawnshop goes horribly wrong as one of the few people who cared for him dies tragically.

Phew! A classic American film that bravely addressed topics that were mostly ignored or forbidden, The Pawnbroker is at once innovative and now, sadly dated. Rod Steiger gives the performance of a lifetime as Nazerman, who learns too late that a steely front can scarcely hide a frightened and lonely face. The Pawnbroker is rich in texture, full of stark black-and-white photography that hammers home the main characters – and essentially, all of the characters we meet, alienation and feelings of disconnect.

While focusing on Steiger's internal struggle, all of The Pawnbroker's characters, to the most minor of roles, has a deep psychological richness. Geraldine Fitzgerald, who recognizes Waserman's loneliness and tries to befriend also shares something in common with him. In spite of her best efforts, the scene where she finally admits that “I can't help you,” is one of the most devastating in cinema. Jesus, the young Puerto Rican employee who tries to learn the ropes from Steiger is at once innocent and highly corruptible. In an inner-city neighborhood teeming with crime, he tries to facilitate a heist – and pays a very heavy price for doing so.

Many characters leave lasting impressions in the space of less than two minutes with only two lines. A pregnant hillbilly woman who tries to pawn her engagement ring – to which Steiger says, “It's glass!” – Immediately paints a revealing picture of what unmarried mothers of this period in American history was reduced to.

The Pawnbroker was especially daring for its day. It confronts lots of important issues that wasn't getting much play in the popular media of the time. The film touches on race, class, nationality and ethnicity. It also casts an unvarnished images involving homosexuality (Peters, a black pimp, has a simpering white houseboy at his uptown apartment), prostitution, transvestism (a Harlem nightclub act features a drag performer), gangs, urban decay and violent crime. An extended sequence involving female nudity probably escaped the censor's sheers as the intent is anything BUT erotic. The world would have to wait seven years later, when director John Schlesinger would adapt Midnight Cowboy in 1971 to see a comparably more rotten version of The Big Apple.

While it pushed outside of the envelope at the time of its release, The Pawnbroker today probably wouldn't get made today in an era of “heightened political consciousness.” Set in Harlem, the film is awash in African American pimps, hookers, deviates and criminals. Certain interest groups today would have shouted this down. The character of Nazerman could also be read as being a negative Jewish stereotype. Steiger gives eloquent speeches on why the Jewish people are the way they are – denied the right to own property, they had to turn to mercantilism to survive – but this wouldn't fly today. The film has a controversial moral that probably wouldn't wash to audiences used to entitlement – which is, no matter how much injustice one has suffered, at some point you have to once again begin acting like a decent human being.

The film's only major deficit is Quincy Jones' jazzy music score, which kicks into high gear towards the film's climax.

In either case, it was a major miscarriage of justice that Steiger was denied Best Actor by the Academy Awards. That coveted gold statuette that year went to Lee Marvin's portrayal of a comedic drunk cowboy for the inane western comedy Cat Ballou! It just supports this reviewer's stance that the Oscars are largely irrelevant.

It must be noted that while Olive Films have provided a sparkling transfer for this classic film, all the disc offers is eight, untitled chapter breaks. Dr. Strangelove … Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was released the same year as The Pawnbroker. The former film took a humorous look at the horrors of nuclear war. The Pawnbroker seems to say, in Nazerman's world-weary tone of voice, “Nuclear war? – Tch! Doomsday has already happened!” Viewers should be prepared for a fine film that is an extremely rough ride.

1 comment:

  1. I love this film, great review. It's uncomfortable, brutal and that look of intense anguish after Steiger realizes he'll never escape living in one ghetto to the next is nightmarish.