#616) The Pawnbroker (1964)

#616) The Pawnbroker (1964)

OR “Rod Forsaken”

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Morton Fine & David Friedkin. Based on the novel by Edward Lewis Wallant.

Class of 2008

The Plot: Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) is a middle-aged German-Jewish man living a quiet existence operating a pawnshop in East Harlem. Sol’s wife and children died during the Holocaust, and his memories of the concentration camps (as well as his survivor’s guilt) continue to haunt him 25 years later. Despite attempts by his optimistic young assistant Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez) and concerned social worker Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), Sol refuses to connect with anyone on a human level, shutting himself off from the world and declaring the rest of humanity “scum” and “rejects”. As the real world continues to break through to Sol, he starts to recognize the prison he has kept himself in all these years. And if you’re looking for a last-minute happy ending, keep looking.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “realistic, psychologically probing” grasp of the subject matter, as well as Rod Steiger’s “astounding” performance. An essay by film scholar Annette Insdorf is an almost scene-for-scene breakdown of the film’s metaphors and symbolism.

But Does It Really?: This is another one in the “minor classic”/”historical significance” camps. Although Sidney Lumet is one of my favorite directors, I had never seen “The Pawnbroker” until this viewing, and while it continues to be eclipsed by his other more famous films, it certainly delivers. Anchored by Rod Steiger’s performance, “The Pawnbroker” successfully translates the novel’s themes of isolation and grief into a visual medium, aided by a fine supporting cast and Quincy Jones’ creative score. “The Pawnbroker” earns its NFR standing thanks to its continued effectiveness, as well as its historical fight with the Production Code (more on that later).

Seriously, Oscars?: “The Pawnbroker” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1964, but due to its controversial subject matter did not receive a U.S. release until April 1965, making it eligible for the 1966 Oscars. The film’s sole Oscar nomination was Rod Steiger for Best Actor, which he lost to Lee Marvin’s comic performance in “Cat Ballou”. Steiger’s win two years later for “In the Heat of the Night” has been considered by many film buffs over the years (including yours truly) as consolation for his loss here.

Other notes 

  • Within a year of the novel “The Pawnbroker” being published, the film rights were purchased by producers Roger Lewis and Philip Langer. The two spent a year and a half being rejected by studio after studio before independent producer Ely Landau agreed to finance the film through his production company. After original director Arthur Hiller left the project (or was possibly fired), Sidney Lumet was hired based on his successful collaboration with Landau during “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. Although James Mason was sought after for the role of Sol, the producers’ first choice was Rod Steiger who, like Lumet, deferred his usual salary to help the film get made.
  • I’ve never been wowed by a Rod Steiger performance, but I gotta say his performance here finally wowed me. Steiger effortlessly conveys the complex emotions (or lack thereof) Sol struggles with, showing us the character’s tragedy without becoming too hysterical or saccharine. The sorrow without the pity, if you will. I’d be pissed too if I lost an Oscar for this. Also, kudos to Ed Callaghan and Bill Herman for convincingly transforming Rod Steiger into an old man through minimal hair and makeup.
  • This is Quincy Jones’ first film as a composer! Lumet knew he wanted a classical film score for the flashbacks and a modern sound for the present scenes, and Jones was recommended based on his success as a jazz orchestrator as well as his classical training. The two hit if off immediately, with Jones’ film inexperience being seen as a plus by Lumet (no danger of falling into any movie score clichés). Jones’ two styles interweave as Sol’s past invades his present, and the result is simply marvelous.
  • Ah yes, the editing. Shoutout to the legendary Ralph Rosenblum for his landmark editing feat on “The Pawnbroker”. Rosenblum and Lumet successfully illustrate how Sol’s memories of the war are triggered throughout his life by splicing in fragments of the flashbacks (some as short as eight frames – one third of a second) throughout the movie. Slowly these fragments lengthen, eventually taking over the entire scene. It’s certainly more effective than a dissolve, that’s for sure.
  • As with the entire Sidney Lumet filmography, there’s plenty of great stage and screen actors in supporting roles. I’m enjoying Brock Peters as Rodrigues, Sol’s threatening boss and a full 180 from Peters’ more iconic role as Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird“. There’s also a brief but important appearance by Baruch Lumet, Sidney’s dad and a successful actor and director of the Yiddish theatre. And apparently a young Morgan Freeman can be seen as an extra during the final scene? Has anyone asked him to confirm this?
  • The film’s supporting cast is wonderful, but the best part is how diverse they are. Never before had so many actors of color been given a chance to play nuanced, dimensional characters in a film. The results help “The Pawnbroker” age far better than its contemporaries, allowing me as a modern viewer to focus on the subject matter and not any tone-deaf casting.
  • The scene between Jesus and his girl in the bedroom is accompanied by Quincy Jones’ “Soul Bossa Nova“, immortalized 30 years later as the theme song to the “Austin Powers” films.
  • Steiger’s first “wow” moment for me was Sol’s monologue about the origins of the Jewish stereotype of thriftiness. It plays as an organic eruption of Sol’s pent-up frustration at how the world views and treats him and his people. Steiger successfully underplays without robbing the scene of its emotions. I was hypnotized watching it.
  • “The Pawnbroker” was noteworthy for being the first major film approved by the Production Code to feature bare female breasts (in this case, Thelma Oliver as Jesus’ prostitute girlfriend). Thankfully, the nudity is handled tastefully, demonstrating the commodification of women both during and after the war. Side note: Thelma Oliver was unaware that her nudity would appear uncensored, and had to be talked into exposing herself on film.
  • [Spoilers] As with any good film on this list, I didn’t take a lot of notes during the second half, mainly because I was just captivated by the film. My own takeaway from “The Pawnbroker”: Inhumanity breeds inhumanity. Sol’s trauma from the war manifests itself as him being as cold and dehumanizing to those around him as the Nazis were to him. Although Sol is given several opportunities to reach out and connect with the people in his life, he rejects every single one, leading to the self-fulfilling prophesy of his own isolation. Only after this rejection leads to Jesus’ death does he recognize the importance of empathy and connection. A death ironically brings him back to life. Man, what is it about this movie that brings out the film snob in me?

Legacy 

  • “The Pawnbroker” was one of the last films to help break down Hollywood’s long standing Production Code. The film was initially denied Code approval due to its nudity, but this decision was reversed on appeal with no further edits. Although the PCA considered this allowance of nudity a rare exception, it opened the doors for other films to challenge the Code, which ultimately dissolved three years later.
  • In addition to the film’s breakthrough in film nudity, “The Pawnbroker” was among the first American-produced films to focus on the Holocaust from a survivor’s perspective, as well as one of the first with a confirmed gay character (I guess that’s Rodrigues? It’s very subtle.)
  • On the one hand, “Pawnbroker” paved the way for Holocaust films like “Schindler’s List“. On the other hand, we’ve also gotten every other film about the Holocaust that dangled its Oscar-bait in front of an increasingly unwilling audience.
  • Following his debut in “The Pawnbroker”, Quincy Jones would go on to score countless films over the next 20 years including “In the Heat of the Night”, “In Cold Blood“, and “The Color Purple”.

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