As I make my way through the 60’s, the next film on my Film7070 list is the 1964 Sidney Lumet film The Pawnbroker, starring legend of the screen Rod Steiger in an Oscar nominate role.
Sol Nazerman, (Rod Steiger) runs a Pawn shop in Harlem and is content with his rather quiet existence, annoyed by everything and angry at the world he is haunted by memories and flashbacks from his time as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. His attempts at keeping communication to a minimal never seem to work as he is visited by people off the street looking for conversation as well as his eager apprentice Jesus (Jaime Sánchez) who wants Sol to teach him the business. But as an important anniversary arrives Sol is reminded of the horrors of the past once more.
Seen as one of the first films to actually tackle a story about survivors of the holocaust The Pawnbroker depicts a heart-breaking tale of one man and his individual survivor’s guilt. It’s not often you can say Stanley Kubrick was wrong but I think this could be the exception, he turned down the chance to direct this film because he believed Steiger was not ‘All that exciting’. I have no issue with his passing on the project, but after seeing Steiger’s performance he is the complete opposite of not exciting. Playing a character who believes he should have died 20 years ago, and who after living through the horrifying experiences of concentration camps and seeing his family die has grown to detest all people and lose faith in the human condition. More complex and conflicted characters will be hard to find and Steiger nails it.
Sol’s cold persona and his need for isolation can be seen as arrogant by many, and is the case with the other characters in the film but it’s just his reaction to any sort of happiness. Believing he doesn’t have the right to a fulfilled life, therefore sabotaging any relationship that could end up leading to any sort joy. What’s interesting though is that we aren’t seeing a self-destructive character, Sol being self-destructive happened years ago and now what we’re left with is the rubble of a broken man, which makes the beginning of the film that much more sad. The idealistic happy family on a gorgeous summer day right before the Nazi’s take them away, obviously the last time Sol was happy. The juxtaposition from the Sol in the flashback to the Sol in the present without words displays the effect of the war.
There is a point around half way through where the film stops dead for about 20 minutes and seems to forget it has any characters other than Sol, but it’s in this period where most of the best character work from Steiger is done as we see more of Sol’s past flood into the present as he is troubled constantly with flashbacks. This breakdown is spurred on by Thelma Oliver who plays Jesus’ prostitute girlfriend in the film and in an attempt gain more money for an item of jewellery bares her breasts to Sol, which is a catalyst for Sol to remember his wife who was forced into prostitution in the concentration camps. Interestingly, this was the first piece of nudity on film to be given Production Code approval and an ‘exception’ from the MPAA which granted it’s release into theatres.
A gritty depiction of a man’s empty soul and his unwillingness to fill it, dark and soaked in realistic horrors that leave it impossible not to leave an impact. A stunning performance from Steiger is the films beating heart and one that the man himself sees as the standout of his career. Lumet controls the camera with confidence, allowing it drift into a documentary style at points letting the audience become part of Sol’s terrors. Structure problems aside, The Pawnbroker is definitely essential viewing.