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USA 1965 B&W 117 mins.
from the novel by
Edward Lewis Wallant
The real subject matter of this off-beat and unforgettable little movie is the inner life of its central character Sol Nazerman, a Jewish pawnbroker and concentration camp survivor who runs a small and depressing shop in Harlem, haunted by memories of the past, emotionally numb, isolated and unreachable; going through the motions of earning a living but unable to take pleasure in his possessions, his job, his personal relationships or anything else. For Rod Steiger, the challenge is to convey the bleak inner life of his character in such a way that it makes sense to us, and makes us care about Nazerman, without boring us and without resorting to crude voice-overs or descending into cliché. Few actors could have risen to such a challenge. Steiger turns it into an opportunity to dazzle.
Lumet's sensitive direction leaves his actors time and space to explore and develop their characters, and all the performances are strong. Sombrely photographed in black-and-white by Boris Kaufman, we view the action through the heavy shadows of the interior of Nazerman's shop and the chaotic seedy streets of Harlem, or through the highly effective flashbacks to the war era which are sometimes less than one second in duration.
Regarding the plot, Sol lives with his married sister and her husband, keeping them in modest prosperity on the income from the shop, seemingly untouched by the daily procession of human misery that passes through its doors. He allows his business to be used as a convenient money-laundering service by a small-time local racketeer, until he discovers the true source of this wealth, the exploitation of poor black women in brothels, and links it to the hell that his own wife suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Finally, something has touched a nerve. Sol can not go on with the life he is leading, but can find no way out. He starts to lend ridiculous sums of money on the valueless trinkets that desperate people bring to his shop, and refuses to provide the financial services that the local crime-boss demands. As a result of Sol's insubordination the young Puerto Rican man who works as his assistant and sees himself as Sol's pupil in the art of money-making becomes disillusioned with his guru and turns back to crime, losing his life in a botched attempt to rob his employer.
There is a terrible consistency in the landscape of Lumet's film, his characters are practically all emotionally self-contained islands, there are no real "relationships". From the man who is willing to pawn his possessions for just a few moments of intelligent conversation, to Nazerman's ambitious young assistant and his prostitute girlfriend, to the woman who tries to befriend him, to Nazerman's married sister and her husband, everyone seems to live inside his or her own emotional shell. It is a landscape of the desolation of the human spirit, which indeed Steiger himself was later to enter in real life, going through a long period of depression and artistic silence, relieved only by the unfailing devotion and companionship of his girlfriend.
The use of the upbeat Quincy Jones jazz score as background to much of the film might seem an odd choice but actually works extremely well: it seems to be telling us that somewhere inside these hurt individuals there is at least the capacity for joy and lightness, jazz has always been the music of the oppressed.
Rod Steiger must be one of the most consistently underrated of American actors. Having been Oscar-nominated for his debut performance as the corrupt lawyer in On the Waterfront (1954) it was 1967 before Steiger was actually given the award for his portrayal of the prejudiced backwoods Southern sheriff pitted against the intelligent, highly-educated black Northern lawyer in Heat of the Night. That he was overlooked for the award for his performance in The Pawnbroker is a disgrace to the Academy.
Look out for the moment in the apartment of Nazerman's socially concerned woman friend when he rebuffs her (literal) reaching-out to him by raising his shoulders about one centimetre. This is acting of a standard that we only find once or twice in a generation. It is, in my opinion, one of the finest performances currently available on film.
I defy you not to turn away from the screen during the closing two minutes of this film.
reviewed by David Gardiner
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