Rod Steiger, Jaime Sánchez, Brock Peters, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Morton S. Fine and David Friedkin; adapted from the novel of the same name by Edward Lewis Wallant

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Some films unwittingly become the subject of controversy for the most trite of reasons; where a stink is made about the particulars of a film’s content when the disputed sequence is an extension of the auteur’s vision, an argument that can very rarely be compromised without compromising the film itself.

The Pawnbroker is a film of many firsts.  Taken at face value, it is the first of prolific director Sidney Lumet’s films depicting the gritty, unforgiving side of his favorite city (“New York is filled with reality, Hollywood is a fantasyland,” the director once said), and the movie that finally catapulted gifted actor Rod Steiger from solid supporting cast member to lead actor.

Plot-wise, it is the first American film to show the suffering of a Holocaust survivor, and the first to attempt to recreate some of the horrors of life in a concentration camp.  The film has since created a legacy for others following suit; and to date very few American films have created the same realistic and devastating account of the Twentieth Century’s greatest evil and its repercussions.

But a first that most film analysts will recall is how the The Pawnbroker defied and led to the implosion of the MPAA’s Production Code, becoming the first American film to feature nudity and be approved by the MPAA.  Initially rejected, producer Ely Landau managed to elicit company help to bypass the Code and appeal to the MPAA for approval with some cuts to the nudity.

The film passed, despite getting branded as “indecent” by several religious groups, with Lumet making minimal to no cuts to the scenes in question.  A major victory for production companies at the time, the decision heralded the doom for the Production Code, which has long outlived its usefulness.

What is strikingly annoying is that the scene in question is not just tantamount to the growing climax of the plot, but hauntingly evocative, even shattering to both the viewer and to Sol Nazerman, the Holocaust survivor and eponymous pawnbroker played by Rod Steiger in a career-defining role.

Nazerman’s tragic past is immediately shown at the film’s beginning, prefacing even the opening credits, as fantastical black and white photography by Boris Kaufman centers on a happy family – a man and woman, two children and a grandmother and grandfather, the latter dressed in traditional Jewish garb – picnicking on an unclear European lake.  Slow-motion, unfocused camera angles reminiscent of French New Wave cinema depict the family’s love and contentment.

Then suddenly, they look off-camera into the distance, and the smiles drain from their faces.

This introduction is just one of very few, very short flashbacks into the backstory of Nazerman, a former German professor who escaped from the Holocaust as his family’s sole survivor.  Embittered, spiteful and self-loathing, Nazerman buries himself into his profession, a pawnbroker whose store is a front for a prominent East Harlem gangster.  He spends time outside of work at his Bronx high-rise apartment, or in the bed of a the former wife of a friend who died in Europe’s fires.

Nazerman’s assistant, a young Puerto Rican named Ortiz with dreams of grandeur, idolizes Nazerman and his knowledge of money.  While it may be a learning relationship, Nazerman has no capacity to outwardly show fondness or love, something Ortiz learns when Nazerman equates him in the same vein as the rejects and scum that ooze in and out of the pawn shop selling away their prizes or thefts.

When finally agreeing to show Ortiz how to distinguish real gold from a fake, Ortiz comments on the numbers tattooed on Nazerman’s forearm, and wonders aloud if that’s a secret society and what he would have to do to join.

“What do you do to join?” Nazerman answers blandly.  “You learn to walk on water.”

Rebuffing the friendships of Ortiz, as well as the desperate attempts of an aging social worker named Marilyn Birchfield, Nazerman succumbs to mental degradation as he begins to increasingly hallucinate and envision memories of the Holocaust.

Kaufman’s cinematography, used here in the same great effect that he had when shooting 1953’s New York opus On The Waterfront and 1960’s brightly lit love story Splendor in the Grass, is most effective in these flashbacks, these horrific memories.  Their abruptness, their desolateness pain-drenched visuals are as heartbreaking as they are unsettling.  It is not a surprise that Kaufman, who emigrated to Canada in 1940 after serving in the French Army, is a Russian Jew, and saw firsthand the hatred that spewed at Jewry from Stalin’s Russia.

Nazerman is approached by Ortiz’s lover, a prostitute, and in a misguided approach to helping Ortiz  bares her breasts and offers herself.  The previously mentioned sequence – and source of the misaligned Production Code’s scrutiny – effectively breaks Nazerman, as her nudity hearkens back to a long-suppressed unspeakable memory of being made to watch as his wife was forced into prostitution for Nazi guards.

A short while later, Nazerman learns that the organization for which he works for, headed by a bullying, larger-than-life homosexual gangster named Rodriguez, gets most of its money from laundering goods and property from Harlem brothels.  Nazerman, having accepted generous contributions over the years and knowing full well that he was working for illegal peddlers, cannot take this new knowledge.  In a harrowing sequence, Nazerman pathetically grovels at Rodriguez that he cannot continue to do this, as he is assaulted by thoughts of his wife’s degradation in the camps, before finally agreeing to continue after Rodriguez threatens to kill him.

This begins a conclusion of unfortunate coincidence and ignorance, as Nazerman’s refusal for friendship and his want to be alone in his own desolate mental landscape alienates and offends Ortiz, leading the young man to attempt poorly conceived revenge.

The Pawnbroker is a surefire shock to the system; as realistic and unflinching a film as any that could be released in the present.  The nudity controversy that unfortunately surrounds it nevertheless dissipates as the film’s myriad strengths take hold.

Foremost of these strengths is Rod Steiger’s untouchable performance as Nazerman, embodying the anguish and regret on top of deep hidden anger that one would associate with the character.  Streiger’s periods of breakdown, his tearful bouts of unimaginable mental torture and suffering, are about as genuine and skillful as a professional actor can get.

Lumet initially campaigned for James Mason to take the part, agreeing with many other critics that Steiger was not capable of a leading role despite his obvious talent.  Lumet, helming just his seventh film out of a final fifty-plus, conceded following agreements with Steiger on plot direction.  The decision cemented Steiger’s place as one of America’s greatest actors, and conceivably couldn’t have gotten his Oscar-winning role in In the Heat of the Night three years later without his acclaimed performance as the pawnbroker.

There is a scene in which Nazerman, aimless and lost in his memories, visits the home of Mrs. Birchfield (an almost unrecognizable Geraldine Fitzgerald, whose film career peaked by the mid-40s), the social worker-cum-spinster that yearned for the company of another troubled soul.  Having rebuffed her already Nazerman comes prepared to apologize, and actually opens up to her about his agony at having survived when his loved ones did not.

She listens intently and, after a long period of discussion tapered with silence, wanly holds out her hand to him.  It lingers there, waiting, but Nazerman never takes it, never even looks at it.  He slowly gets up and leaves her apartment as Mrs. Birchfield, remains seated and finally puts her arm down.

Here is an encapsulation of the The Pawnbroker‘s incredible strengths of acting, of writing and of cinematography in an unforgettable ten-minute sequence.  Its realism – how can one truly open up about something no one can understand or relate to? – is echoed in the faces of the two actors who are attempting to create a friendship that is one of  obvious desperation, an escape out of loneliness.

But Nazerman, knowing that his own painful solitude is eternal, realizes the conversation’s futility and leaves abruptly.