#619) Return of the Jedi (1983)

#619) Return of the Jedi (1983)

OR “The Good, the Bad, and the Furry”

Directed by Richard Marquand

Written by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas. Story by Lucas.

Class of 2021

As with my write-ups of “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back“, this is based on my viewing of the original theatrical version of “Return of the Jedi”.

The Plot: An even less long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the evil Empire plans to destroy the Rebel alliance once and for all with a new, more powerful Death Star. Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) leads a rescue mission to save Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the slimy crime lord Jabba the Hutt. Following that success, our heroes lead a Rebel ground crew to the forest moon of Endor, with Leia (Carrie Fisher) befriending a race of teddybear-esque Ewoks. As the Rebels gear up for their final battle with the Empire, Luke must confront Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), who is determined to deliver Luke to Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and the Dark Side of the Force.

Why It Matters: While the NFR admits that “Jedi” is “not quite up to the lofty standards of its two predecessors”, they praise the film’s “intriguing new characters” and declare it “an unquestioned masterpiece of fantasy, adventure and wonder.” There’s also a link to a brief video clip of Mark Hamill discussing the film’s importance.

But Does It Really?:  Sure, “Return of the Jedi” doesn’t hold a candle to the previous installments, but while the first two were allowed to be fun adventures, “Jedi” has the unenviable task of being The Conclusion, and it takes a while for the movie to find its footing and start wrapping things up. There’s a bit of padding and a lack of the fun repartee between the main characters, but ultimately the film succeeds as the exciting final chapter in an adventure serial geared towards kids. Packed with its share of iconic characters and moments, “Return of the Jedi” more than earns its spot as the first “threequel” in the NFR.

Shout Outs: Among the films cinematic influences are NFR entries “The Adventures of Robin Hood“, “The Day the Earth Stood Still“, and “The Godfather“, plus be on the lookout for a “THX 1138” reference.

Everybody Gets One: Welsh director Richard Marquand was hired to helm “Jedi” after impressing George Lucas with his WWII drama “Eye of the Needle” (it helped that Marquand was not a member of the DGA, whom Lucas recently had a falling out with). Accounts of Marquand’s on-set behavior differ depending on who you ask, with rumors that Lucas took over most of the film’s directing himself. Marquand’s side of the story wasn’t well-documented before his unexpected death in 1987, apart from his oft-repeated quote comparing filming while George Lucas is hanging around to “trying to direct King Lear with Shakespeare in the next room.”

Wow, That’s Dated: I don’t care how much “Lapti Nek” sticks out for its pure ’80s-ness, I still like it better than “Jedi Rocks“.

Title Track: Famously, “Return of the Jedi” was original titled “Revenge of the Jedi”, but was changed to “Return” five months before the film’s release, causing the already-printed “Revenge” posters to increase significantly in value. 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” takes its title from this.

Seriously, Oscars?: The biggest hit of 1983, “Return of the Jedi” received four Oscar nominations in various tech categories. While the film lost these awards to “The Right Stuff” and “Fanny and Alexander”, it did win a Special Achievement award for its Visual Effects.

Other notes 

  • Following the success of “Empire Strikes Back”, George Lucas was able to pay off his bank loans and achieve total financial freedom for “Return of the Jedi”. Lucas wrote the first draft himself, alternating subsequent drafts with “Empire” and “Raiders” writer Lawrence Kasdan, who had recently found success directing his screenplay “Body Heat” and had started work on his sophomore effort “The Big Chill”. While Lucas came up with the original story beats, many of the details were fleshed out during two weeks of story conferences with Lucas, Kasdan, Marquand, and producer Howard Kazanjian. Allegedly, Lucas forbid any of the main heroes from being killed off or denied a happy ending in order to help boost merchandise sales.
  • I never realized how slow the first chunk of this movie is. I’m loving the aesthetic of Jabba’s palace (and his puppet work is genuinely impressive), but you have to wait a while for Luke et al to show up, leading to an unusually long amount of screentime for C-3PO, R2-D2, and a bunch of puppet aliens we’ve just met.
  • Shoutout to Femi Taylor as Jabba’s ill-fated dancing girl; the only woman of color in this film, and the only actor from the original films to reprise their role for the Special Edition.
  • Oh god, I forgot about the metal bikini they make Leia wear in this. Like we need another reminder about how creepy Star Wars nerds can be. Move along, you pervs.
  • I’m glad they thawed out Han Solo, because Harrison Ford’s wryness is helping make up for the plodding first act. This is also a good time to remind readers of my fan theory that Han Solo hallucinated both “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Blade Runner” while in carbonite.
  • Both the Rancor and Sarlaac pit action scenes are fun, but ultimately seem like a bit of milling about while we wait for the actual story to begin. And yes, Boba Fett goes out like Wile E. Coyote, but if Disney Star Wars teaches us anything, no one in this galaxy actually dies when you think they do.
  • Wow, Yoda’s puppetry is amazing in this. I just watched a puppet walk across a room and get into bed in a single take. Frank Oz, you’ve done it again!
  • Ian McDiarmid is clearly having a blast playing the embodiment of all evil, even if it’s at the expense of Vader holding that title. The Emperor’s scenes begin the kind of retconning the prequels were famous for, and the catch-all excuse of (sing it with me) “It’s been Palpatine all along”.
  • Speaking of retcons, poor Sir Alec Guinness spends his only scene spouting dialogue that totally contradicts his character from the first film. And while we’re on this scene (mini-spoiler) how the hell did Luke deduce that Leia was his sister? Another point in the “This trilogy was not mapped out ahead of time” argument.
  • I always thought that the Endor scenes were filmed in Marin, but actually they were shot much further north in Smiths’ River and Crescent City, California, right near the Oregon border. It was during the Endor shoot that the film utilized its infamous working title “Blue Harvest”, posing as a low-budget horror film to detract unwanted attention from fans and price-gouging from local businesses.
  • Hot take: I actually like the Ewoks, or least I don’t mind them as much as others do. Yes, they are cuter (and more toyetic) than your average “Star Wars” characters, but it’s a fun bit of levity in an up-to-then slow, meandering film. And while some are critical of the Ewok vs. Stormtrooper battle at the end, I actually enjoyed watching these little guys pummel stormtroopers with their spears and rocks. Those furballs are out for blood!
  • Wow, Leia really gets nothing to do in this movie. I love Carrie Fisher, but this movie gives us none of her natural warmth and spunk. In fact, other than Mark Hamill, none of the major human leads get much to do. Harrison Ford just stands around smirking, and Billy Dee Williams is completely wasted in a thankless supporting role. At least Leia and Han got more character development in “Force Awakens”.
  • “Jedi” finally picks up when it arrives at the third act, now juggling three storylines and regaining some of the frenetic energy of the first two films. After 90 minutes of worrying that this movie doesn’t hold up as well as I remember, along comes the finale to get me excited again.
  • [Spoiler] I’ve seen it 1000 times, I knew it was coming, but Darth Vader’s redemption at the end is just fantastic. You genuinely don’t know until the last moment whether or not Darth/Anakin can go through with it, and I suspect many a theater broke into applause when he turns on Palpatine.
  • I’ll go into my thoughts on the Special Edition in a bit, but I have to say watching the original ending this time was a satisfying conclusion to the film. Yes, it’s a little cheesy with the Ewoks singing “Yub Nub” (Harrison Ford once called that ending “the teddy bear picnic”), but I actually got a little choked up watching the ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Hayden Christensen Sebastian Shaw appear together.

Legacy 

  • “Return of the Jedi” opened in theaters six years to the day of the original “Star Wars” premiere, and was an immediate hit, grossing over $300 million in its initial U.S. run. While some critics bemoaned this film’s emphasis on effects over characters, others praised the film’s entertainment value. Look no further than this clip of Siskel & Ebert teaming up to debate boorish misogynist/film critic John Simon. Seriously, fuck that guy.
  • A preview screening of “Jedi” in a theater with inadequate sound equipment encouraged George Lucas to create THX, now the gold standard for movie theater sound quality. The company has changed hands a few times (they separated from Lucasfilm in 2002), but almost 40 years later, the audience is still listening.
  • In the immediate aftermath of “Jedi” and its success, Lucasfilm doubled down on the Ewoks, producing an animated series and two made-for-TV movies centering around the creatures. Either I saw the Ewok movies when I was very young, or I had a series of fever dreams that were similar.
  • In addition to the Ewoks, other characters introduced in “Jedi” that have endured in our pop culture include Emperor Palpatine (the McDiarmid version), Jabba the Hutt, and Admiral Ackbar, whose line reading of “It’s a trap!” became one of the internet’s early viral memes.
  • Along with “Star Wars” and “Empire”, “Jedi” returned to theaters in 1997 as the Special Edition, with restored picture quality and new special effects. While most of the additions are justifiably criticized (especially the changes made to the ending), I admit that some of them don’t bother me as much. I actually think Oola’s additional scene and the new Sarlaac effects are a genuine improvement.
  • Despite rumors of another trilogy or two in the future, “Jedi” stood as the “Star Wars” saga’s definitive conclusion until 2015, when the Disney-produced sequel trilogy premiered. The films reunited many of the creative talents behind the original trilogy, and were well-received with zero complaints from their non-toxic fanbase. Moving on…
  • Chronologically, the direct follow-up to “Jedi” is “The Mandalorian”, set in the lawless galaxy following the Empire’s downfall. There’s also “The Book of Boba Fett”, which revives the series’ iconic bounty hunter, does virtually nothing with him, and then just becomes another season of “The Mandalorian”.
  • “Jedi” is also responsible for easily the greatest Yule log in all of holiday history.
  • And finally, because I had to sneak it in somewhere: the next big “Star Wars” endeavor post-“Jedi” was the Disneyland attraction “Star Tours”. God, I loved that ride.

Further Viewing: If you can’t get enough “Star Wars” trivia and/or anecdotes about creative problem solving, look no further than “Light & Magic”, Lawrence Kasdan’s six-part documentary about Industrial Light & Magic. Come for the “Star Wars” footage, stay for Phil Tippet making you feel all the feels.

For Your NFR Consideration: My Top 10 Actors

Hello there Readers!

This week, I thought I’d do something a little different. After five-plus years covering movies on the National Film Registry, there are still a handful of great actors/movie stars that I’m amazed don’t have a movie on the list. So I compiled my own list of the most egregiously overlooked, ranked from surprising to baffling. I know I should call this something arbitrary like “10 Actors You’ll Never Guess Are Missing from the National Film Registry, #8 Will Make Your Brain Explode!” but whatever, here’s my attempt at a niche internet listicle.

#10) Goldie Hawn Despite being easily the biggest star to come out of “Laugh-In”, Goldie Hawn has been surpassed for NFR consideration by her former co-stars Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson, and Jo Anne Worley, to name just a few. Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!

FYC: Cactus Flower (1969), Shampoo (1975), Private Benjamin (1980), Death Becomes Her (1992)

Bonus FYC: Hawn’s longtime partner Kurt Russell is technically in the NFR thanks to an uncredited cameo in “Forrest Gump“, but has plenty of movies that should also be considered. We’ll start with “The Thing” and “Big Trouble in Little China”.

#9) Michael Douglas Okay, this one is on a technicality: Douglas is represented on the NFR, but only as a co-producer of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” While Douglas the producer is obviously worthy of recognition, we want to see Douglas the movie star! Heck, if it weren’t for his long tenure as a romantic leading man, I would have to name my Hollywood age-gap scale after the 699 other viable candidates.

FYC: The China Syndrome (1979), Romancing the Stone (1984), Wall Street (1987), The American President (1995)

#8) Michael Keaton That’s right, the man who brought Batman back to the silver screen still hasn’t had any of his films anointed by the NFR. Shoutout to his ineligible-as-of-this-writing work in back-to-back Best Picture winners “Birdman” (2014) and “Spotlight” (2015).

FYC: Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Jackie Brown (1997)

#7) Sean Connery Okay, this one’s a bit tricky. Because Connery’s James Bond films were strictly British productions, his most iconic movies are not NFR eligible. Still, Connery had quite the career after his time as 007, and surely there’s room for him somewhere on the list.

FYC: The Man Who Would Be King (1975), The Untouchables (1987), The Hunt for Red October (1990)

#6) Sandra Bullock One of our last movie stars, Sandra Bullock goes from action-movies to rom-coms to Oscar bait with no hesitation, and has recently proved that she can still bring audiences to the theaters. Shout out to 2013’s “Gravity”, which won’t be NFR eligible until next year.

FYC: Speed (1994), While You Were Sleeping (1995), Miss Congeniality (2000)

#5) Will Smith Setting aside any obvious recent controversies, Will Smith is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, and his filmography is rich with blockbusters that have endured over the years. And that’s all I’m gonna say about him at this present moment in time.

FYC: Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997)

#4) Jim Carrey Now that he’s seriously considering retirement, isn’t it time we starting appreciating the filmography Jim Carrey has left us? While I’m not too sure about his early breakout hits making the NFR (“Ace Ventura” in particular has not aged well), Carrey has a lot of films that should be considered for the list.

FYC: The Mask (1994), Liar Liar (1997), The Truman Show (1998), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

#3) Julia Roberts Much like Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts is one of our rare bonafide movie stars, earning respect in a multitude of genres and maintaining her A-list status the whole time. Also like Bullock, she doesn’t have a movie on the NFR.

FYC: Steel Magnolias (1989), Pretty Woman (1990), Erin Brockovich (2000)

#2) Glenn Close Oh come on, hasn’t Glenn Close been through enough already? It’s bad enough the Oscars have passed her over eight different times, but no NFR recognition to boot? She’s not going to be ignored, Dan.

FYC: The Big Chill (1983), The Natural (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987)

#1) It’s a Tie: Jane Fonda & Robin Williams Longtime readers may recall my previous write-ups about both Ms. Fonda and Mr. Williams not being on the National Film Registry. Well, here we are a year later, and they’re still not on the list! While Robin Williams was recently inducted into the NRR (thank Marc Maron), his movies are still waiting to be recognized. And Jane Fonda’s absence is the most conspicuous; she’s Hollywood royalty for crying out loud! I will keep bringing this up until conditions improve.

FYC: Read the write-ups.

But it doesn’t always have to be like this. You, yes YOU, can submit all of these stars for NFR consideration. Check out this page on the NFR website and let your voice be heard! (If you’re reading this in 2022, the deadline for NFR submissions is August 15th, a bit earlier than usual).

Happy Viewing and Happy Nominating,

Tony

#618) The Cry of Jazz (1959)

#618) The Cry of Jazz

Directed by Edward O. Bland

Written by Bland, Nelam L. Hill, and Mark Kennedy

Class of 2010

The Plot: Following a jazz appreciation club meeting, a group of Black and White members debate whether jazz is solely a Black creation. Alex (George Waller) explains that jazz was created through “the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering”, comparing jazz’s form and improvisatory style to the restraints that Black Americans face every day. Through an extended and nuanced conversation (plus jazz interludes by Sun Ra and his band), it is theorized that African-Americans are this country’s conscience, and that like jazz itself there must be an evolution in America’s treatment of its Black citizens in order to survive.

Why It Matters: The NFR highlights the film as “an early and influential example of African-American independent filmmaking.” There is also an expanded essay by film expert Chuck Kleinhans.

But Does It Really?: Based on the title alone, I assumed “The Cry of Jazz” would be another one of the NFR’s concert films. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film is so much more: a documentary/educational hybrid dissecting the Black American experience through jazz. The points made are incredibly nuanced by 1959 standards, though it’s a bit concerning how many of them are still relevant over 60 years later. Filmed near the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, “The Cry of Jazz” is the powder keg waiting to explode as these inequalities are about to enter the national conversation, and Bland’s choice of music to illustrate his points is an inspired one, making this discussion far more palatable. “The Cry of Jazz” is an engaging, unique film experience, and I’m glad that the NFR found a spot for it.

Everybody Gets One: Shoutout to the aforementioned Chuck Kleinhans, whose detailed and very informative interview with Edward Bland served as an invaluable resource during my research. Edward Bland grew up on the South Side of Chicago, playing saxophone and clarinet at a young age, ultimately studying music on the G.I. Bill and finding work as a composer. One day while chatting with his friend the novelist Mark Kennedy, Kennedy off-handedly mentioned New York’s independent film community. Remembering a heated argument he had about jazz with White people at a club, Bland was inspired to make a film about the importance of jazz from a Black perspective and “put it in stone”. “The Cry of Jazz” was produced by the newly formed KHTB Productions, named for Kennedy, urban planner Nelam Hill, mathematician Eugene Titus, and Bland. The film was financed from the four men’s incomes (a budget of $3500), and the cast and crew agreed to work on the film for free.

Title Track: According to the film, the “cry of jazz” is the contradiction between freedom and restraint for Black Americans: the freedom representing what their life in this country should be, and the restraint representing their reality.

Seriously, Oscars?: To the best of my knowledge, “The Cry of Jazz” never played an Oscar-qualifying run. For the record: 1959’s Live Action Short Subject winner was “The Golden Fish“, produced by Jacques Cousteau.

Other notes 

  • Honestly, most of my note-taking was transcribing the film’s more potent theses. Alex discusses that the hazard of being Black in this country “starts before birth and extends beyond death.” The phrase “futureless future” also comes up quite a bit. There’s also mention of individualism leading to “nothing but death and destruction”, which can definitely be applied to this country’s response to COVID.
  • Bland later bemoaned the film’s more amateurish qualities, something the film’s more negative reviews also latched onto. Yes, it’s a group of first-time film actors spouting the writers’ viewpoints with minimal sound equipment, but ultimately you get past it and listen to the words. That being said, watching a low-budget film of actors arguing in someone’s living room definitely gave me some “Night of the Living Dead” flashbacks.
  • Unfortunately, when researching the film’s cast, it seems that only the White actors in this movie went on to any notoriety, most notably future Oscar nominee Melinda Dillon (in her film debut). In addition, Andrew Duncan had a steady career as an actor, while Gavin MacFadyen became an investigative journalist. All three of this film’s Black actors (George Waller, Laroy Inman and James Miller) – as well as White actor Dorothea Horton – make their sole film appearance in “The Cry of Jazz”.
  • The one part of this film I am truly qualified to discuss: jazz as performed by White artists. After explaining and demonstrating the Black origins of jazz, we hear what jazz sounds like when played by White performers. The result is a structured, harmonious sound; pleasant yet unexpressive. In short, the antithesis of true jazz. The footage shown during this is White families walking home in a snow covered suburbia, a counterpoint to the more dangerous inner city life of the film’s Black subjects.
  • Oh good, the White argument for jazz basically boils down to “All Lives Matter”. Why does this film have to remain so relevant?
  • The film’s jazz score was provided by Sun Ra and his Arkestra, right before they pivoted towards their more recognizable Afrofuturism aesthetic. Bland recognized that composing an original jazz score would take time and money, so he filmed Sun Ra and his band performing the variety of jazz featured in the film, and got permission to needle-drop Sun Ra’s records in the soundtrack.
  • Ultimately, the thing that made this movie stand out for me amongst other NFR films was its presentation. “The Cry for Jazz” isn’t about music, it’s about ideas. This is one of the rare movies that wants you to focuses on the words being said, not necessarily on how they are being presented. In that regard, “The Cry for Jazz” is a precursor to the modern video essay, with the visual elements illustrating and supporting the main talking points.

Legacy 

  • “The Cry of Jazz” quietly premiered in Chicago in 1959, gaining traction at that year’s Playboy Jazz Festival. Using Mark Kennedy’s New York connections, the film played at the Cinema 16 film society in 1960. “The Cry of Jazz” was divisive from the get-go, with the likes of Kenneth Tynan and Amiri Baraka praising the film, and Ralph Ellison (as well as most film critics of the time) dismissing it.
  • After its initial controversy, “The Cry of Jazz” lingered in obscurity, until being rediscovered in the 1990s by film scholars who cited it as an early example of Black independent filmmaking. The film was also recognized for its prediction of the Black pride movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Edward Bland lived long enough to see this revival (as well as its NFR induction), and while he came around to accept the film as representative of its time, he confessed in his later years, “I do wish we had made a better film.”
  • While Bland had intended to make more films following “The Cry of Jazz” (including a sequel titled “The American Hero”), he went back to composing, as it was easier for him to pay the bills. In addition to his original compositions, Bland worked on arrangements for the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Sun Ra. He also wrote orchestrations for film and television, most notably 1984’s “A Soldier’s Story”.
  • While Sun Ra died in 1993, the Sun Ra Arkestra is still performing to this day, currently led by the band’s original saxophonist Marshall Allen.

Listen to This: Jazz and all its permutations are well represented on the National Recording Registry. Five of these recordings come from 1959, the same year as “The Cry of Jazz”: John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps“, Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue“, Charles Mingus’ “Mingus Ah Um“, Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come“, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out“.

#617) The Lead Shoes (1949)

#617) The Lead Shoes (1949)

OR “El Sid”

Directed by Sidney Peterson

Class of 2009

The Plot: Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Red Shoes” is some of the finest ballet ever captured on film. Set in the theater world of London, a young- I’m sorry what was that? It’s the wrong movie? Okay, I thought it was weird to be covering a British film. What movie is this? “The Lead Shoes”? What’s it about? It’s an experimental film about a woman disposing of a scuba diver’s dead body? And it has an off-putting soundtrack and distorted lenses? Oh boy.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a dreamlike trance showing the unconscious acts of a disturbed man”. An essay from the Northwest Chicago Film Society’s Kyle Westphal is a detailed breakdown of Peterson and this film.

But Does It Really?: Well that was a weird one. Even with a 16 minute runtime, “The Lead Shoes” packs in a lot of unpleasantness (If you love dead bodies, rats, and a bone covered in blood, this is your movie). While this kind of filmmaking isn’t my cup of tea, I won’t deny Sidney Peterson his place in film history, unintentionally leading the charge for San Francisco’s experimental art scene of the 1950s. A pass for “The Lead Shoes”. 

Everybody Gets One: Sidney Peterson is one of those artists who lived more lives than a cat. Prior to becoming an experimental filmmaker, Peterson was a medical student at UC Berkeley, a reporter for the Monterey Herald, and a sculptor and painter in southern France. An “all-around autodidact”, Peterson picked up experimental filmmaking in his mid-30s, with his first film – 1946’s “The Potted Psalm” – earning him a job teaching filmmaking at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Using his students as resources (and their $10 materials fee to buy film stock), Peterson and his class created a new experimental film every semester. “The Lead Shoes” would be Peterson’s final film with his Workshop 20 class.

Seriously, Oscars?:  There’s no way in hell a film like “Lead Shoes” would have ever made it to the Oscars, even today. For the record: 1949’s Live-Action Short Subject winners were films about a state-of-the-art swimming pool (One-Reel) and Van Gogh (Two-Reel).

Other notes 

  • Most of “The Lead Shoes” is shot through distorted lenses, giving the film an elongated, surreal quality. Peterson started experimenting with anamorphic lenses in his 1947 film “The Cage”, and even he admitted that he didn’t know why he was drawn to them: “I don’t know exactly how this works. I only know that it does.”
  • The soundtrack is credited to “The Three Edwards and a Raven”, a reference to the poems being recited in the background: “The Three Ravens” and “Edward“. These recitations are seemingly random and, when mixed with a Dixieland band, quite disjointed. It helps to know that the soundtrack is an entirely separate undertaking from the film, with no attempt at synchronicity, except for – as Kyle Westphal calls it – moments of “occasional harmony”. Turns out “The Lead Shoes” was the “Dark Side of Oz” of its day.
  • The actor in the scuba diving gear is Harlan Jackson, then a student in Peterson’s class, later a famous abstract painter.
  • In my attempt to dissect the sights and sounds of “The Lead Shoes” to decipher its meaning, I came across this quote from Sidney Peterson in response to his film’s more literal reviews: “Do you suppose movie audiences will ever learn to take works as experiences instead of merely as expression, what does it mean? etc?” Point taken, Sidney. Perhaps my initial reaction of “What the hell was that?” is more in line with what Peterson intended his audiences to take away from his movies.

Legacy 

  • Among Sidney Peterson’s professional highlights following his departure from the California School of Fine Arts: directing MoMA’s educational television program, penning his novel “A Fly in the Pigment”, writing and directing for UPA (including two episodes of “The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show”), working for Disney on one of their many abandoned attempts at a “Fantasia” sequel, and returning to filmmaking one more time to make 1981’s “Man in a Bubble”. Sidney Peterson continued writing and lecturing up until his death in 2000 at age 94.
  • Man, that was a weird movie. I’m having a hard time shaking it off. Maybe I will watch “The Red Shoes” after all. Take me away, Powell & Pressburger!

#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”.