The Pawnbroker

| April 23, 2014

Chicago-based Olive Films has released a film that is considered one of the landmarks of American cinema, The Pawnbroker, on Blu-ray and DVD. The film is newly remastered and is available April 22.

Directed by Academy-Award®-winner (Honorary Award 2005) Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) and released in 1964, it was the first cinematic exploration of the darkest memories and feelings of a Holocaust survivor. Filmed in stark black and white, it was also the first film approved by the Production Code that contained nudity. The film has also been honored with a special screening as part of the 2014 TCM Film Festival.

Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night) earned a 1965 Best Actor Oscar® nomination for his stunning performance as Sol Nazerman, a survivor of a WWII Nazi death camp where his wife, parents and children were murdered. His soul robbed of hope, he takes refuge in misery and a bitter condemnation of humanity while managing a Harlem pawnshop subjected to an endless parade of prostitutes, pimps and thieves.

Jamie Sanchez (The Wild Bunch) plays Ortiz, Sol’s underprivileged and idealistic assistant who dreams of a better life. Other cast members include Geraldine Fitzgerald (Wuthering Heights), Brock Peters (To Kill a Mockingbird), Raymond St. Jacques (Cotton Comes to Harlem) as well as the debut of a very young Morgan Freeman.

Steiger received rave reviews for his performance as the cynical Nazerman, and the actor would cite this role as a stand out among his impressive body of work. The film went on to be selected in 2008 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Fifty years after its initial release, The Pawnbroker still stands as a truly historic piece of filmmaking whose influence and compassion is still felt today.

All that could be said about this film is true and more. I loved seeing this on Blu-ray, as everything was so sharp and vibrant. It was a sad story, indeed, to watch, as I remember seeing The Pawnbroker here and again on different cable stations, but to view it with new eyes was fantastic. Many of Nazerman’s scenes—when he goes into a deep funk or depression or seems a bit alienated—are accompanied by flashbacks when he and his family were held captive. The nudity, which had to be approved, is also stark, even after seeing much more in contemporary movies. I was surprised when I saw what little nudity they did present in this movie, but it does catch your eye because of the time period.

Nazerman never really breaks free from his nightmare, even though he is living in New York. The Harlem that they show is such a contrast, of course, to the Harlem that we all now know. As a history note, the East Harlem building where The Pawnbroker was filmed was the site of a recent gas explosion with fatal results. Peters as Rodriguez is a racketeering leech who uses the pawnshop as a front, while making his money through prostitution. Nazerman isn’t thrilled with this, knowing how his wife had been violated. He hopes to break away from this agreement, although he treats his customers with such disdain. One would think that it didn’t matter, because he certainly didn’t care about making deals that his customers would think were a bit more fair. In the midst of this is poor Ortiz who looks up to Nazerman and wants to learn the business. Of course, Nazerman obliges Ortiz, when the mood hits him. The ending scenes show that Nazerman does still feel for others, even though he is filled with pain for himself. There is so much more to this movie, and it is certainly one that is worthy of ownership.

The Pawnbroker features evocative black and white cinematography by the great Boris Kaufman On the Waterfront, a memorable jazz-influenced score by the legendary composer/producer Quincy Jones.

About the Author:

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago. She is the author of "Old School Adventures from Englewood--South Side of Chicago" and the proud parent of "the smart rapper"--chemist-turned-rapper, turned humanitarian...Psalm One!
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