Thursday, July 28, 2016

. The Pawnbroker (1965)


Jesus Ortiz: Say, how come you people come to business so naturally?
Sol Nazerman: You people? Oh, let's see. Yeah. I see. I see, you... you want to learn the secret of our success, is that right? Alright I'll teach you. First of all you start off with a period of several thousand years, during which you have nothing to sustain you but a great bearded legend. Oh my friend you have no land to call your own, to grow food on or to hunt. You have nothing. You're never in one place long enough to have a geography or an army or a land myth. All you have is a little brain. A little brain and a great bearded legend to sustain you and convince you that you are special, even in poverty. But this little brain, that's the real key you see. With this little brain you go out and you buy a piece of cloth and you cut that cloth in two and you go and sell it for a penny more than you paid for it. Then you run right out and buy another piece of cloth, cut it into three pieces and sell it for three pennies profit. But, my friend, during that time you must never succumb to buying an extra piece of bread for the table or a toy for a child, no. You must immediately run out and get yourself a still larger piece cloth and so you repeat this process over and over and suddenly you discover something. You have no longer any desire, any temptation to dig into the Earth to grow food or to gaze at a limitless land and call it your own, no, no. You just go on and on and on repeating this process over the centuries over and over and suddenly you make a grand discovery. You have a mercantile heritage! You are a merchant. You are known as a usurer, a man with secret resources, a witch, a pawnbroker, a sheenie, a makie and a kike!

Sol Nazerman: I do not believe in God, or art, or science, or newspapers, or politics, or philosophy.
Jesus Ortiz: Then, Mr. Teacher, ain't there nothing you do believe in?
Sol Nazerman: Money.

Sol Nazerman: I do not believe in God, or art, or science, or newspapers, or politics, or philosophy.
Jesus Ortiz: Then, Mr. Teacher, ain't there nothing you do believe in?
Sol Nazerman: Money.

Marilyn Birchfield: What makes you so bitter?
Sol Nazerman: Bitter? [chuckles] No, no, Miss Birchfield, I am not bitter. No, that passed me by a million years ago. I'm a man of no anger. I have no desire for vengeance for what was done to me. I have escaped from the emotions. I am safe within myself. All I ask and want is peace and quiet.
Marilyn Birchfield: Why haven't you found them?
Sol Nazerman: Because people like you will not let me. Miss Birchfield, you have made the afternoon very tedious with your constant search for an answer. And one more thing: please, stay out of my life.

[Jesus Ortiz points to the tattooed numbers on Sol Nazerman's arm]
Jesus Ortiz: You want to tell me something, Mr. Nazerman? What is that? That... is that a secret society or something?
Sol Nazerman[hesitates] Yeah.
Jesus Ortiz: Well... what do I do to join?
Sol Nazerman: What do you do to join? You learn to walk on water.

Jesus Ortiz: That's all life is about?
Sol Nazerman: That's all life is about!
Jesus Ortiz: You mean... money is the whole thing?
Sol Nazerman: Money is the whole thing!


Rod Steiger: Memoirs of a Friendship by Tom Hutchinson). 

Published: April 21, 1965
Although the tragic character that Rod Steiger powerfully plays in the solemn new film, The Pawnbroker, is very much a person of today—a survivor of Nazi persecution who has become detached and remote in the modern world—he casts, as it were, the somber shadow of the legendary, ageless Wandering Jew. That is the mythical Judean who taunted Jesus on the way to Calvary and was condemned to roam the world a lonely outcast until Jesus should come again.
For this is a dark and haunting drama of a man who has reasonably eschewed a role of involvement and compassion in a brutal and bitter world and has found his life barren and rootless as a consequence. It is further a drama of discovery of the need of man to try to do something for his fellow human sufferers in the troubled world of today.
To view this remarkable picture, which opened yesterday at the Cinema Rendezvous, the Beekman, and the RKO 23d Street, as merely a mordant melodrama of a displaced European Jew who runs a pawnshop in New York's Harlem and is caught up in some evil doings there is to miss the profound dilemma and melancholy of its central character and the broader significance of his detachment and inability to adjust.This man, played by Mr. Steiger with a mounting intensity that carries from a state of listless ennui to a point of passion where it seems he's bound to burst, has good enough reason for detachment. He has been through the horror of the concentration camps, has lost his immediate family, has seen his best friend tortured and killed. This terrible traumatic experience has left him intellectually drained and emotionally numb. He has a fitful affair with his friend's widow but looks on people as "rejects, scum."A strange accumulation of events on an anniversary stirs him to painful recollections and causes old words to flash through his mind. An attempt by a woman welfare worker to strike up a friendship with him agitates his resentment with memories of a happier life. The wish of a Puerto Rican Negro assistant to get his help in learning the trade fires him to a violent outburst against the meaninglessness of everything—everything, that is, except money. And an effort by an anguished prostitute to offer her body to him causes him to recall the horrible experience of seeing his wife stripped and raped by prison guards.

It is a shattering excess of mental torment and deep self-pity this man must endure, and it shifts him to a level of awareness that lets him see his present life in previous terms. He sees the people on New York's crowded subways as lost souls headed for the concentration camps, the vicious gangsters who actually own his pawnshop as counterparts of Nazi racketeers.
But it is not until he sees his young assistant—Jesus Ortiz is significantly his name—shot dead by holdup hoodlums during a courageous attempt to protect him that he senses the shame of his detachment. Then he slams his hand down on a paper spike to inflict upon himself the stigmata and acknowledge his burden of grief and guilt.
It is not an ennobling picture that Roger H. Lewis and Philip Langner have produced and Sidney Lumet has directed. It is a picture of the shabbiness of man—of the misused, debilitated hero, as well as those among whom he lives. And the whole thing is staged and presented to convey and emphasize the meanness of those environments that would breed such shabbiness.

With the seasoned camera of Boris Kaufman, Mr. Lumet has ruthlessly searched some of the most hideous aspects of Harlem and middle-class life around New York. He has brilliantly intercut flashes of the horrors of the concentration camps with equally shocking visualizations of imprisonment in a free society. And he has clearly implied in terms of picture the irony of resemblances.In certain respects, the suppurant screenplay of David Friedkin and Morton Fine departs from the feverish novel of the late Edward Lewis Wallant on which it is based. The detail of medical experiments upon the hero by the Nazis has been removed, thus freeing Mr. Steiger from the onus of playing the character as a sort of golem, as in the book. Now he can make the sad survivor a solid man in command of his own fate, driven with acerbity and cynicism but compelling an eventual sympathy.
Others of the cast are likewise striking—Geraldine Fitzgerald as the woman who tries in a wistful and clumsy fashion to draw the poor man from his obvious loneliness; Jaime Sanchez as the spry Negro assistant who teeters lightly on the fringes of crime; Thelma Oliver as the latter's loyal sweetheart who makes her living as a tawny prostitute; Brock Peters as a brutal Harlem crime boss; and many more, including fine old Juano Hernandez in one of the several good small roles.

In his zeal to make sure the point is carried, Mr. Lumet lets his picture run too long. He might have cut out or held down some grim stretches that make for redundancy. But he and his sponsor, Ely Landau, are to be honored for even attempting this most uncommon film, which projects a disagreeable subject with power and cogency.
The Pawnbroker (1965)
In New York City's Spanish Harlem, Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) manages a pawnshop owned by Rodriguez (Brock Peters), the neighborhood pimp. A concentration camp survivor, Sol lives an emotionally detached existence, appearing callous and insensitive to his customers and co-worker Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez). What they don't know is that Sol witnessed the rape of his wife by Nazi officers and the deportment of his two children to death camps where they died. Yet when Ortiz repeatedly tries to break through Sol's icy veneer and bring him out of his shell, he is treated with disdain. In anger, the assistant plots a store robbery that backfires in tragedy for both men. 
The Pawnbroker (1964), directed by Sidney Lumet, was one of the first American films to address the Holocaust through the eyes of a survivor after the events. Highly influenced by the French New Wave of the early sixties, particularly its use of quick flashback cuts to reveal Sol's personal tragedy, the film explores the effect of memory and emotion on the human psyche while also recalling life-changing events from the objective present. In this, The Pawnbroker shares some stylistic and thematic similarities to the work of Alain Resnais, particularly Hiroshima mon Amour (1959) and his highly influential documentary, Night and Fog (1955). Aside from this, however, Lumet's film is uniquely American, with its harsh, unforgiving depiction of New York City, all of it brought to vivid life by Boris Kaufman's black and white cinematography and a dynamic cast highlighted by Rod Steiger's searing portrayal of the title role.
Although Steiger was already recognized as a highly gifted "Method" actor (he was Oscar® nominated for Best Supporting Actor in On the Waterfront, 1954), The Pawnbroker was the film which earned him international critical acclaim and launched his career as an A-list actor in major films. Yet, at the time, he agreed to do the movie for a reduced fee (he was paid $50,000 - a much lower figure than his normal rate) because he trusted the director (they had worked together previously on the TV series, You Are There). 
Steiger was barely forty when he played Sol Nazerman but immersed himself so deeply in the character that it's hard to believe he's not a sixty year old man. His tendency toward dramatic excess though was effectively curtailed by Lumet who later said, "Sure Rod has weaknesses of rhetoric, but you can talk them through with him. I explained that this solitary Jew could not rise to heights of emotion; he had been hammered by life and by people. The faith he had to find was in other people, because God had betrayed him" (from Rod Steiger: Memoirs of a Friendship by Tom Hutchinson). 
Steiger would later state, "I think my best work is in The Pawnbroker. The last scene, where I find the boy dead on the street. I think that's the highest moment, whatever it may be, with my talent." The actor's inspiration for this climactic moment, where his grief is expressed as a silent scream, was Picasso's famous painting of "Guernica" with its depiction of the war ravaged villagers. Even more difficult to film was Steiger's final scene when Sol's anguish finally erupts, causing him to drive his hand through the pointed metal spoke for shop receipts. 

Not surprisingly, The Pawnbroker had a difficult time finding a major U.S. distributor due to its grim and challenging subject matter. Producer Ely Landau shopped it around to every studio but was told it would never earn back its costs. He didn't have any better luck in England until he arranged for a booking of the film at a West End cinema in London where it had an enormously successful run. As a result, Landau was able to arrange a distribution deal with the Rank organization and open it theatrically in the U.S. where it was critically acclaimed by most major film critics. 
The Pawnbroker also generated considerable controversy in several communities. Some Jewish organizations urged a boycott of the film due to its uncompromising presentation of the Jewish pawnbroker which they felt encouraged anti-Semitism. Black groups also accused the film of encouraging racial stereotypes of the inner city where everyone seemed to be a pimp, prostitute or drug addict. Even the Legion of Decency objected to the film for a scene in which Ortiz's girlfriend (Thelma Oliver) bares her breasts in an effort to get more money for a pawn item. All of these charges, however, seem unjustified when one views the film. What emerges is a realistic and devastating portrait of urban alienation. 

Pauline Kael was one of the few critics to find fault with the movie, proclaiming the film "trite", but she also saw its merits, "You can see the big pushes for powerful effects, yet it isn't negligible. It wrenches audiences, making them fear that they, too, could become like this man. And when events strip off his armor, he doesn't discover a new, warm humanity, he discovers sharper suffering - just what his armor had protected him from. Most of the intensity comes from Steiger's performance."
Despite the many accolades The Pawnbroker received - the New York Film Critics award for Best Film and Director, the Golden Globe for Best Actor, the Silver Bear (Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival), among others - it only garnered one Oscar® nomination - for Best Actor. Steiger was practically certain he was going to win the Academy Award when he arrived at the Oscar ceremony. Right before the award was announced, the actor began to button his jacket in anticipation of leaving his seat and walking down the aisle. Instead he heard the name "Lee Marvin!" "I was absolutely shocked," said Steiger. "And Lee Marvin walked up and got a prize he probably and justly deserved, and I got a spanking from the forces of nature which said, 'Listen, jackass, never take happiness, never take your talent, for granted. Never, in any walk of life, take for granted your capabilities. Each minute a second of life is a challenge - so sit still, schmuck, and let this be a lesson to you. Happiness has to be earned and respected. Rewards must never be taken for granted.' I never forgot that moment" (from Rod Steiger: Memoirs of a Friendship by Tom Hutchinson). 

Producer: Ely A. Landau, Philip Langner, Roger Lewis, Herbert R. Steinmann, Joseph Manduke, Worthington Miner
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Morton S. Fine, David Friedkin, Edward Lewis Wallant (novel)
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Film Editing: Ralph Rosenblum
Art Direction: Richard Sylbert
Music: Quincy Jones
Cast: Rod Steiger (Sol Nazerman), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Marilyn Birchfield), Brock Peters (Rodriguez), Jaime Sanchez (Jesus Ortiz), Thelma Oliver (Ortiz's Girl), Marketa Kimbrell (Tessie). 
BW-116m. Letterboxed.

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