"A lot of people come in here collecting. Blind people with 20-20 vision. Deaf people who can hear the tumblers on my safe when I dial the combination. So with this experience I say, why not you?"—Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger)
A long time ago, Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) was a professor. He had a family. His children ran in fields and caught butterflies. Now Sol is a bitter old pawnbroker. His unprofitable store is a front for a local gangster (Brock Peters). His eager assistant (Jaime Sanchez) is looking for a quick way to get rich. A charity worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) constantly begs for his attention. After all, they all want something out of him. He is a Jew, so he must have plenty to give, right?
These days, movie audiences and critics tend to cringe when yet another heartfelt Holocaust drama hits the screen. Of course, most of them tend toward the sentimental. And some people just wonder, well, what is the deal with these Jews in Hollywood? Can't they just get over it already?
The truth is that Hollywood has spent decades avoiding any discussion of the Jewish experience in America or elsewhere. Particularly the Holocaust. While European artists produced masterworks like Resnais' Night and Fog and Wiesel's Night, we just did not want to talk about such things. And in spite of what people might think about the Jewish presence in popular culture, there has always been a sense of anxiety in Hollywood about calling attention to the issue of ethnicity. Thus, Hollywood took nearly two decades after the end of World War II to address one of the greatest tragedies of the human race.
Based on Edward Lewis Wallant's novel, The Pawnbroker is primarily a vehicle for a devastating performance by Rod Steiger, who unjustly lost the Oscar for Best Actor to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou. As Sol Nazerman, Steiger never elicits mere pity. Sol is a brooding, bullying man, always uncertain of his relationships. His marriage is strained with his second wife (it is hinted that they married out of desperation after losing both their families to the Nazis). Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez) looks to Sol as both a teacher and a father figure, only to find the old man constantly pushing him away. Eventually, this leads Ortiz into a series of bad decisions that cause everyone around to suffer in terrible ways. Both Sol and Ortiz become trapped by their own desires: Sol's desire to remain in the past that prevents his ability to forge new relationships, and Ortiz's desire to move ahead too quickly that causes him to act impulsively and shatter the relationships he already has.
Sol cannot even find sympathy for the desperate souls who come into his shop to sell their last possessions. He pretends to live in the moment, to worship materialism, as if it is all expected of him simply because he is a Jew. But like the sympathetic Jewish money-lender in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, Sol undermines the stereotype and garners our empathy because he is in thrall to another, genuinely greedy man: the imperious gangster Rodriguez (Brock Peters), whose brutality parallels the Nazis who haunt Sol's memories.
Thus, director Sidney Lumet manages to subvert two stereotypes at once: the greedy Jew and the submissive black man. Indeed, all through the film, Lumet seems intent on subverting as many Hollywood conventions as he can. What may seem cliché now to American audiences used to Holocaust films—Sol's tattooed serial number, flashbacks to camp atrocities, and so forth—were surprising and new to audiences in 1964. Relatively novel as well is Lumet's depiction of a Harlem in which the underclass is not portrayed in a patronizing fashion. The ethnic characters in the film (Latinos and Blacks, freely mixing as they rarely did in prior Hollywood films) come across as real, often emotionally wounded, individuals. In this community, nostalgia is a commodity. Sol purchases memories, objects people revere but must sell to survive. In the minds of the owners, these objects are worth a fortune.
To Sol, they are worth little, if only because his own memories overpower everything. We relive Sol's experiences through brief and often brutal flashbacks (the violence and nudity were quite intense for 1964, and still pack a bit of a punch) of Sol's concentration camp experiences. When a pregnant girl comes into his shop to sell her engagement ring, Sol can only focus on her hands—and the shaking fingers of prisoners as guards pull off rings. When a prostitute offers herself to Sol while complaining about her suspicious pimp, Sol sees Nazi guards sexually assaulting a woman years before.
Lumet keeps a clear head with the material, avoiding sentiment (apart from an oddly inappropriate bit of Christ imagery in the final moments, perhaps meant as a concession to the largely Gentile audience). And Steiger's performance makes every frame he is in a study in Method precision. All this makes The Pawnbroker quite engaging. Unfortunately, I am not sure I can recommend this lackluster Republic Pictures DVD (distributed by Artisan). The disc comes with no features, and the promised closed captioning is absent. The soundtrack is acceptable, when it is not marred by noticeable hiss.
But the worst part of this is that The Pawnbroker is featured on this disc in only a full-frame version. The packaging is unclear as to whether this is its original aspect ratio: it states both that the film was reformatted, but that it was shot in 1.33:1. But the visual compositions seem cramped, suggesting that the film has been cropped. My research has yet to turn up any confirmation about the original aspect ratio, but I strongly suspect that this film is not offered in its original aspect ratio. As such, and given the lack of any other features that might offset this indecency, I cannot recommend the film for more than a rental.
Which is a pity, because The Pawnbroker is undoubtedly the finest performance from one of America's most underrated actors, Rod Steiger. He was always tremendously proud of this film, and rightly so. Lumet introduced American audiences of 1964 to a subject they had avoided confronting for years with a cool head and a sharp sense that the real tragedy is that we create our own suffering.
Republic and Artisan are sentenced to hard labor for their unjust treatment of this fine film. Rod Steiger is awarded all the accolades he did not receive the first time around. Court is adjourned.
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