One of Sidney Lumet’s least talked about films despite its respectable critical acclaim, The Pawnbroker is a special and pathbreaking film in so many ways. To begin with, it proved, for the first time, what a great actor Rod Steiger can be (the other two being In the Heat of the Night and A Fistful of Dynamite), and it made a significant amount of noise due to some of its objectionable (at the time) content: it was one of the first films from the ‘60s to feature nudity, and also it was one of the first films to deal with the Holocaust. It serves as another testament to Lumet’s highly admirable skill in handling his actors.
Steiger plays Sol Nazerman, a former University professor-turned-Holocaust survivor tormented by the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in the concentration camps, which include the cruel and merciless destruction of his family comprising of a wife and two small children. He now runs a pawn shop in one of the smaller and less flashy sections of New York (was any of NY ever flashy?), and who better than Lumet to show the city’s seedier and grittier side? As a result of these terrible experiences, Nazerman has turned into a machine – emotionless, unsympathetic and indifferent to the plight of those around him.
Every single person who comes into contact with him is going through some sort of misery; but to him, their pain and anguish is nothing compared to his own. When a lonely widow, who happens to be a social worker, tries to bring out that long lost compassionate soul that he buried deep inside him a long time ago, he tries to push her away. This is a man who seems determined to not love another human being again. He is much harsher to those desperate souls who come to his shop to borrow some dollars on whatever they can pawn. His assistant is an exuberant Latino man named Jesus (Jaime Sanchez) who looks up to Nazerman and grows concerned over his increasingly distressed mental state.
Nazerman’s harrowing Holocaust flashbacks are conveyed effectively with the help of some superb subliminal editing. These memories are sometimes triggered by objects and people he encounters in the present. In one particular instance, this quick editing is used in the present, to convey Nazerman’s powerless situation when an African-American man named Rodriguez – a racketeer who uses Nazerman’s pawn shop as a front – forces him to sign some papers, and tells him he is living inside a big “whorehouse” when he rejects the money coming from Rodriguez’s prostitution racket. This situation harks back to Nazerman’s subjugation in the concentration camps, and hence the quick cuts.
The film is a searing portrait of a heavily anguished man who, despite his occasional self-destructive urges, can’t bring himself to take his own life. A strong French New Wave influence can be felt in the way Lumet filmed some of the outdoor sequences (aided by the expert lensing of Boris Kaufman). It seemed to me that in some portions Lumet did not inform the crowds that they were filming, and told Steiger to simply act and walk through them and get their natural reactions, while Lumet filmed from a distance, and hoped this would contribute to the gritty look he was going for. Steiger’s raw and haunting performance earned him an Oscar nomination. Three years later, he would win one for In the Heat of the Night.