Olive Films // 1964 // 116 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Alice Nelson // April 23rd, 2014
"Everything I loved was taken away from me, and I didn't die." -- Sol Nazerman
Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night) is a concentration camp survivor whose entire family was killed during the Holocaust. Some twenty years later, he's the owner of an East Harlem pawn shop, emotionally shut down and struggling with horrific flashbacks. Sol has little faith in his fellow man, and treats them with thinly veiled contempt. Still, Sol has the respect of his employee Jesus (Jaime Sanchez, Carlito's Way), who hopes to be mentored by his boss. But even this young man is pushed too far by Sol's bitterness, which results in a terrible tragedy for them both.
Sol Nazerman is the epitome of what happens when bitterness and vengeance become your sole companions. Granted, he was a prisoner in a concentration camp -- and that experience can cause a guy to be gun shy when it comes to making friends -- but Sol treats the people in his life with a cold brutality. He is unable to empathize with their plight, because the only way he survives is by keeping the world at arm's length.
The Pawnbroker is based on Edward Lewis Wallant's 1961 novel, and chronicles the life of Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman. Sol thinks his horrible experiences gives him license to treat the people in his life as nothing more than annoying insects smashed on the bottom of his shoe; they are to be tolerated, never respected. In reality, Sol is nothing more than a prisoner of his past, just as his customers are prisoners of their present day circumstances. Sol has more in common with "those people," as he calls his clientele, than he ever realizes.
Rod Steiger is pitch perfect as the sad and angry pawn shop owner. On the surface, he seems to be a restrained and quiet, but underneath he's only a split second away from blowing a gasket. Sol can't see the neediness in the eyes of men and women who come into his shop to sell their most valuable possessions in order to eat, pay rent, or keep the heat on. They want to connect with him, talk to him, and share their sad stories, but Sol is too wrapped up in his own hell to allow another human being into his world.
Jose is Sol's loyal employee, a man on the wrong side of the law, but now hoping to learn from Sol and become a success in the business world as well. He takes his boss' gruff demeanor in stride, often smoothing things over with customers when Sol swats them away like flies. Even the affable Jose has his limits and, after Sol removes all hope that he will befriend and mentor this young man, Jose takes a drastic step to seek out his own kind of vengeance; a move both men will regret.
Directed by Sydney Lumet (Network), The Pawnbroker is a surprisingly dark and edgy movie, especially considering the time period in which it was made. It covers everything from drug abuse to racial tensions, and poverty to prostitution. There's even a brief moment of nudity that highlights the sad and hopeless state the people in this East Harlem neighborhood endure. Maybe it's my naiveté, but I didn't expect a film from the early '60s to be this gritty. I'm not complaining mind you, I was just surprised and pleasantly so by the film's depth and weight.
Olive Films' The Pawnbroker (Blu-ray) is presented in 1.85:1/1080p HD widescreen, a nice transfer that highlights Lumet's use of unique camera angles. I love the way in which he takes black and white film and contrasts the dark blacks and greys against the stark brightness of the whites, which only adds to the movie's seedy feel. Sol is plagued by horrific flashbacks that are flickered on and off the screen in a way that is jarring and unsettling. When these scenes are accompanied by Quincy Jones' wonderfully abrasive jazz score, it's a shock to the senses; which is fitting, considering the fractured life of Sol and the inhabitants of his world. Unfortunately, there isn't a single bonus feature included on this bare bones release. It would've been nice to have seen the history behind this wonderfully thought provoking film.
The Pawnbroker is not your typical 1960s Hollywood movie that gets tied up with a pretty bow by the end. This is a hard hitting and realistic look at how one man deals with unspeakable tragedy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Olive Films
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated