September 3, 2015
The Pawnbroker – 1965, US
In Sidney Lumet’s moving film The Pawnbroker, a Jewish man named Sol Nazerman decides not to remove the days on the small wall calendar that hangs in the pawn shop he runs. Had he simply forgotten, this might not be that significant; however, the fact that the act is willful is noteworthy, for it represents an attempt to slow the hands of time and control the haunting images and horrific memories that he associates with a day that lies somewhere in the near future. I imagine we can all relate to this, to the feelings of dread that can accompany a date associated with a painful break-up or the death of a loved one. Most of us eventually get over some of these experiences, and the day that was once so painful loses its sting. Not so with Sol Nazerman.
Instead of being healed by the passage of time, Sol has begun to live a life of quiet solitude, one in which he looks at the world through embittered eyes and can only loathe the people with whom he comes in contact. It doesn’t help that his pawn shop is in a rough part of town or that he comes in contact with a steady stream of thieves, drug users, and prostitutes. In fact, one of the film’s running themes is that this area of New York has rather striking similarities with the ghettos that those deemed undesirable by the Nazis were forced to live in. In one particularly shocking scene, Sol walks past a crowd of young men beating another man senseless, and from the look of his face and the complete indifference of several passersby, this is an everyday occurrence.
For much of the first half of the film, Sol is an enigma. We watch as customer after customer tries to engage him in conversation only to be met with cold statements regarding the amount he is willing to give them for whatever objects it is that they are hawking. His standard price seems to be two dollars. This part of the film resembles a stage play, with characters entering and delivering monologues for the camera before exiting. It seems only natural then that Sol will eventually deliver one of these, yet when he does, it feels forced, as if it had been heavily rehearsed and simply regurgitated on cue.
It doesn’t help the film that Sol delivers the speech to a character that up until that point in the film has seemed as if he belongs on a theatrical stage instead of the silver screen. That character, Sol’s assistant in the pawn shop, Jesus Ortiz (Jamie Sanchez), speaks and moves in a way that seems choreographed rather than spontaneous. It comes across as unnatural on the screen. Also unfortunate is the fact that the film foreshadows this character’s arc in an early scene with his mother. In the scene, she implores him to stay out of trouble, and whenever a mother has to do that, it isn’t hard to guess that he’ll eventually disregard her pleas. I found myself less interested in this character, and as the film progresses, nothing that he does can truly be called surprising.
The film is much stronger when it focuses on Sol’s struggles to remain cut off from society and unemotional. Here is a man who has seen things that no one should ever have had to see and experienced more tragedy than most people will in their lifetime. He and real people like him deserved peace and a chance to emotionally recover as much as they could when the war ended; sadly, what greeted many people like Sol was far from Utopia.
There are glimmers of hope in the film. Geraldine Fitzgerald is wonderful as Marilyn Birchfield, a neighborhood social worker who sees that Sol is in pain and tries unsuccessfully to connect with him, and Marketa Kimbrell is equally exceptional as Tessie, the widow of a friend who never made it back from the camps. However, the film belongs to Steiger, and whenever he is on screen, it is impossible to look away. He stares blankly at the camera, giving off an aura of indifference, all the while conveying with his eyes that there is so much bubbling under the surface, and as it begins to rise, his face and body begin to convey the full horror of what he has experienced. It is quite a performance, and it is easy to see why he was nominated for Best Actor for his performance in the film.
As the film progressed, I found myself deeply moved by Sol’s story, yet I also found myself frustrated that Otese’s role in the story, as with those of several of the other supporting characters, seemed so conventional and predictable. It does not render the film unwatchable, yet it did lessen my appreciation for it. Helping the film greatly is Quincy Jones’s pulsating and chaotic score, which fully captures Sol’s conflicted feelings and emotional unraveling. The heart of the film is, of course, Sol, and when the film focuses on him, it is incredibly moving. In Sol, we see not only examples of the horror that many people experienced during the war, but also the aftermath of it, when what should have been much easier times turned out to be anything but. These truly were times that tried men’s souls, and for the most part, The Pawnbroker succeeds in presenting this. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars