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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review: The Pawnbroker (1964)

* * * *

Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Rod Steiger

For a landmark film from one of the major American directors of the latter half of the 20th century, Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker seems to be woefully underseen and underappreciated. The first American film to deal with the Holocaust and a film credited with providing a chink in the armor that would lead to the dismantling of the Production Code, The Pawnbroker is a historically important film, but it's also an incredibly good one. A character driven film about the enduring trauma of the Holocaust told from the point-of-view of a survivor who has attempted to segregate himself from the rest of the world as a mode of protection against further pain, The Pawnbroker features one of star Rod Steiger's best performances (and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor). An enthralling and emotionally wrenching film, The Pawnbroker is a film worth seeking out.

Set in New York in the early 1960s, the film is about Sol Nazerman (Steiger), a Holocaust survivor who operates a pawnshop in Harlem. He has many regulars, destitute men and women who are selling him their possessions bit by bit as they struggle to make it from one day to another and who, dehumanized by the destitution of their lives, are also seeking the comfort of conversation so that they might feel like normal human beings, listened to and valued. They don't find that with Sol, however, as he coldly shoos them away one after another, limiting their interactions to the exchange of their meager belongings for a dollar or two. He behaves in much the same way to his employee, Jesus (Jaime Sanchez), who wishes for Sol to mentor him, and Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), a social worker in the neighborhood who seeks out his friendship, both of whom try and (mostly) fail to break through his self-protective wall. The person who finally does manage to break through is Rodriguez (Brock Peters), a low level gangster who uses the pawnshop to launder money and who treats Sol like an employee despite Sol's refusal to act like one, by re-opening the never fully closed wounds of the past in a way that is inadvertent but not lacking in malice.

Throughout the film, the story's present day scenes are intercut with Sol's memories of his experiences in Germany. Once a University professor, Sol, his wife, and their two children are seized by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp, the son dying en route in a cattle car, the daughter and wife dying at the camp, the wife after having been forced into sex slavery to the Nazi officers of the camp. It's for that reason, in particular, that Sol is so devastated when he learns that the money coming from Rodriguez are the proceeds from prostitution rather than some other crime; Sol can't look at the prostitute who reveals this information to him without seeing the degradation of his wife, and knowing that he has become a cog in that enterprise seems to eliminate whatever will to live he had left. When he refuses to allow Rodriguez to continue running his money through the shop, he does so not in spite of the fact that Rodriguez might kill him but because he believes that Rodriguez will kill for it. When he takes a stand against him, it's a suicide attempt as much as anything, but it's ultimately not Rodriguez who will bring the threat (or promise, depending on perspective) of death to Sol.

As told by Lumet, The Pawnbroker is a story in which the intense pain of past events is forever echoed in the events of the present. A woman tries to pawn her engagement ring and Sol recalls the detainees of the concentration camp being stripped of their wedding rings; a man desperately tries to climb a chain link fence to escape being swarmed and beaten and Sol recalls a man trying to climb the fence at the camp as the guards unleash dogs to maul him to death; a prostitute exposes her breasts to him as part of her efforts to make a deal and gain his help, and all he can see is his wife at the mercy of Nazi officers. In a way, Sol can be described as "detached," at least in terms of how he interacts with the people around him, as if their mere presence is a grievous burden on him. In another and far more visceral way, however, he is deeply attached and intensely present, it's just that he's stuck forever in the period of his psychological and spiritual death. While those around him have found ways to cope and move forward - his sister-in-law and her family are the picture of suburban, middle class happiness and as the film opens she speaks of the anniversary of her sister's murder and the possibility of returning to Europe for a vacation in the same breath; and his lover, Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell), the widow of a friend of Sol's who died in the camp, though she is also haunted by the past, at least recognizes that she herself is still alive - for Sol time has only sharpened the pain of the past.

Though Steiger was apparently not Lumet's first choice for the lead, it's difficult to imagine any other actor playing the role as Steiger embodies him so fully. His depiction of Sol during the film's first two thirds is one of cinema's great representations of emotional repression; he is so closed off to other people that he may as well be existing in a different dimension from them. Unlike many stories of this type, however, the gradual opening of the closed character does not lead to catharsis and then peace. When Sol lets his guard down a little bit, he merely descends to a new level of suffering, and Steiger's performance in the final third is absolutely wrenching. While Lumet incorporates a lot of stylistic touches into the film, it's ultimately a story carried by the characters and the performances. Steiger is the stand out of the film, but the supporting cast contributes a lot to the ultimate success of the film, bringing more openly emotive performances to the piece which, placed around Steiger's, bring the remoteness of his portrayal into even sharper relief.

The Pawnbroker was, understandably, a controversial film at the time of its release. The context in which it depicted nudity, using it as a means of expressing the immediacy of Sol's pain and making it as intimate for the viewer as for Sol, is undeniably artistic rather than exploitative, and managed to earn the film an "exception" from the Production Code which would, in part, start the Code down the slippery slope to its own destruction. The film was also criticized by some Jewish groups, fearing that the depiction of Sol as a pawnbroker played too heavily on stereotypes and would inspire anti-Semitism. It's true that the premise brushes against some of the hateful stereotypes that Hitler used to fuel his rise to power, but the film isn't blindly incorporating prejudice into the narrative; it is using those prejudices, acknowledging them in order to undermine them. When questioned by Jesus, Sol claims that money is all that matters and all that he believes in (statements that he seems to make only because he thinks it's the answer Jesus expects to hear), a notion which would be thoroughly disproved by the final third of the film were it not already contradicted by his answer to Jesus asking how "you people come to business so naturally." Sol's response is angry and passionate, confronting the stereotypes and dismantling their very foundation. Though The Pawnbroker is not a film which graphically depicts the physical violence of the Holocaust, it is very direct in its depiction of not only the psychological scars of its aftermath, but also the insidious ideas which helped set the stage for it. It's a terrific and a very powerful film, and it should be ranked among Lumet's best.

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