Monday, May 31, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Pawnbroker" (1965)

Sol Nazerman, the feckless proprietor of a Harlem pawn shop, offers two dollars for an old radio.

It's probably not worth even that, since the jittery junkie looking to pawn it for a quick fix can't get it to tune a single station. As Nazerman is filling out the receipt, the customer, veritably vibrating with the shakes of withdrawal, screams at him about the low offer, calling him a "bloodthirsty kike."

Nazerman, who bears a crooked tattoo of numbers on his left forearm courtesy of the Nazis, does not even look up. "Do you still live at the same address?" he asks neutrally.

The man nods, takes his two bucks and dashes out of the shop, no doubt headed straight for his dealer.

This is the world of "The Pawnbroker," an unheralded but seminal 1965 film that launched the career of Rod Steiger, helped put a nail in the coffin of the gasping Production Code, and opened a floodgate of movies about the Holocaust and its lingering effects on millions.

Nazerman, whom everyone in the colorful neighborhood calls "uncle," is a man who sees no profit in human connections. He lives with his sister and her family on Long Island, making the long commute each day to Manhattan's low-rent north side. He has a girlfriend, if you can call it that, where he eats his dinner and endures the constant berating of her father, a fellow survivor who recognizes that Nazerman has nothing left inside him.

The woman, Tessie, is the widow of a friend killed while trying to scale the concentration camp fence. She is there to provide meals and sex, which Nazerman consumes without appetite, simply fulfilling his basic human impulses.

His shop is a labyrinth of cages and bars, ostensibly to keep the customers out, but one senses Nazerman desires the security of this self-imposed prison. The only employee is Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez), a small-time crook trying to go straight, who's smart and exuberant and wants to soak up all the knowledge he can from Nazerman so he can open his own business one day.

Nazerman treats Ortiz with disdain, lumping him in with all the "rejects and scum" on the streets outside the shop. This sends the young man, angry at being dismissed by his idol, running into the arms of a local hood, who wants to knock over the pawnbroker for his fat safe.

The safe is full because of Nazerman's dealings with Rodriguez (a chilling Brock Peters), the local crime lord who uses the pawnbroker to launder money. This appears to be the only actual source of income for the shop; Nazerman's clientele is a never-ending string of down-on-their-luck neighborhood denizens, looking to pawn this or that bit of scrap for a few dollars. Nobody ever buys.

This motley cast of characters is sad and funny and diverse. There's an elderly man who likes to come in and ramble about the classics. A man trades in an oratory prize he won as a youth for a few bucks. The hoods bring an obviously hot lawn mower, and after delivering barely-veiled threats, are paid off with $30.

One day a woman about Nazerman's age, Marilyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald) wanders in representing a youth center, looking for a donation and, even more urgently, a human connection. Her overtures of friendship escalate, to the point that Nazerman rudely tells her to stay out of his life.

One of the great ironies director Sidney Lumet employs is to depict every location other than Harlem -- the Long Island suburbs, the high-rise apartments of Manhattan -- as cold, anti-septic and impersonal. It's only the ghetto, with the urban decay and human depravity, that seems vibrant and alive.

The film is also notable for its inclusion of nudity and fairly blatant (for its time) sex scenes. The Production Code prohibited such things, but the movie was granted a special exception because of the weight of its topic. (A prostitute bares her breasts to Nazerman to entice him into giving her more money for a gold locket, which causes him to flash back to seeing his wife used as a whore by the German soldiers.)

Steiger underplays for most of the film, but as Nazerman approaches a breakdown of his carefully built-up defense mechanisms, the man seems to literally implode before our eyes. Steiger had been around for years as a solid supporting player, but this role earned him an Oscar nomination and made him a reputable leading man.

Lumet, working from a screenplay by David Friedkin and Morton S. Fine based on Edward Lewis Wallant's novel, was the first major filmmaker to tackle the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of one of the Jewish survivors. He uses hyper-fast editing, sometimes just two or three frames at a time, to show how what Nazerman sees in everyday life evokes the horror he witnessed.

An idyllic opening shows a young Nazerman, his wife and young children enjoying a picnic in a field, only to see them taken away by the Nazis. "I lost everything I loved that day, but I didn't die," he says. His physical existence goes on, but his soul suffered a fatal blow.

"The Pawnbroker" is the story of a man who became a prisoner on the day of his liberation from a concentration camp.

3.5 stars out of four

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