Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Pawnbroker (1964) The Persistence of Memory




















Like two previous films reviewed in Noirsville, In The Heat Of The Night (1967), and Shaft (1971), which are renowned for either the social issues they raised, i.e., Civil Rights, or a sub genre they jump started, Blaxploitation, The Pawnbroker, is thought first and foremost as the archetypical film about the horrors of  the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a survivor.

It acquired international acclaim and catapulted Rod Steiger up into the list of "A" actors. Steiger received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor - Drama, and an Oscar Nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and received the British Film Academy award for best foreign actor in a leading role.

All this however tends to overshadow the fact that The Pawnbroker is also a very visually stylistic Neo Noir with an obsessed main character who has built a massive wall of defensive alienation from the world. It's also a film that neatly time capsules a smoggy New York City circa 1963 in the twilight of Black & White cinema. It's also a landmark film that featured nudity during the Production Code, this led to the eventual ultimate abandonment of the code.


The film was directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men (1957), The Fugitive Kind (1960)). The film was written by Edward Lewis Wallant (novel), Morton S. Fine and David Friedkin. The film stars Rod Steiger (On the Waterfront (1954), The Big Knife (1955), Cry Terror! (1958), In the Heat of the Night (1967), No Way to Treat a Lady (1968)), Geraldine Fitzgerald (The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945) The Naked City TV), Brock Peters (The L-Shaped Room (1962), The Incident (1967)), Jaime S├ínchez (The Wild Bunch (1969), Bad Lieutenant (1992)), Thelma Oliver, Marketa Kimbrell, Baruch Lumet, Juano Hernandez (The Breaking Point (1950), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), ), Linda Geiser, Raymond St. Jacques (Mister Buddwing (1966)), John McCurry (Atlantic City (1980)), Charles Dierkop, Nancy R. Pollock, Eusebia Cosme and East Harlem, New York City.

The exquisite cinematography was by Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront (1954), Baby Doll (1956), The Fugitive Kind (1960)), editing by Ralph Rosenblum (Terror in the City (1964)) and the score by Quincy Jones (In the Heat of the Night (1967)).




The film begins with an idyllic setting, in a land of blue skies, fields, trees, a pond, a family picnic. It's all a flashback. Reality is a monotonous backyard. Highway frontage. Levittown. Long Island. New York. America. Land of Opportunity. Planet Earth. The smoggy 60s.

Levittown

Sol (Steiger) and Bertha (Pollock)
The dreamer is Sol Nazerman (Steiger). Sol supports a sister in-law Bertha (Pollock), and her family, a mistress Tessie (Kimbrell), her ailing father (Lumet). Sol runs a Harlem pawnshop owned by Rodriguez (Peters), a racketeer and pimp who uses the business as a front.

Sol has an enthusiastic employee Jesus Ortiz (Sanchez). Sol is a Holocaust survivor. Sol survives by being emotionless. He has incurable mental wounds. He has become effectively immune from human suffering. He eradicates memories. He is rootless. He is barren. However the approach of the 25th anniversary of the death of his family and various triggers, i.e., transactions with pawnshop clientele and their desperate and heartbreaking situations, intensifies Sol's internal turmoil and brings these buried memories, strobing back. This all plays out against the drab, dreary, cityscapes of East Harlem.

East Harlem 




Sol's pawnshop is a claustrophobic warren of bars, cages and woven mesh. The cinematographer constantly frames through them, or lights shots that throw their shadows across the actors to emphasise both physical and psychological entrapment and to draw parallels between the shop and the Nazi concentration camps.











Jesus Ortiz is Sol's amiable enthusiastic assistant. He supports his mother (Cosme). He has made a break with his hoodies Tangee (St. Jacques), Buck (McCurry), and Robinson (Dierkop). He has a loving whore (Oliver) as his girlfriend. He's diligent and respectful. He constantly asks questions, constantly takes notes. He wants to learn the pawn business.  He wants to open up his own shop someday. He wants to know Sol's secret.

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!
Jesus Ortiz: [long pause] You really some teacher, Mr. Nazerman. You really, really 's the greatest.

Another lesson:

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.

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!

A day at the pawnshop consists of junkies, whores, winos, hoods, and other desperate losers. They mostly have junk, radios, lamps, awards, musical instruments, curios, and keepsakes to pawn. Sol coldly transacts business, rarely paying more than two or five dollars per item. Some clients are in so often that they attempt to befriend Sol, attempt to carry on friendly conversations or wax philosophically. Sol is indifferent. He calls Mr. Smith (Hernandez) a creature.

Sol Nazerman: Black, white, yellow, they are all equally…
Jesus Ortiz:  Equally what?
Sol Nazerman:  Scum!

Nazerman also rebuffs the friendship of an equally lonely social worker Marilyn Birchfield (Fitzgerald) who attempts to get through his shell. But it's his rebuff of Ortiz that sets events in motion that sends Sol's world spiraling into Noirsville, with tragedies in the past reflecting those in the present. It's all repeating itself.

At closing time Ortiz, overhears the deposit of an envelope containing $5,000 of Rodrigues' ill gotten gains into Sol's safe. He decides to break bad and plans a robbery with Tangee, Buck and Robinson. Ortiz's gal pal, trying to stop the heist, goes to Sol and tries to pawn some jewelry. He'll give her forty dollars. Not enough. She tells Sol that she works at Rodriguez's whore house. She decides to offer her body to Sol for money, displaying her breasts. These two actions trigger in Sol the flashback memory of the concentration camp and the incident of his being made to watch the prostitution of his wife with Nazi officers. He equates Rodriguez and his gangsters as Nazi racketeers. Shattered by the revelations and flashbacks, Sol staggers out of the shop and wanders about Manhattan in the night. While hurtling through a dark tunnel, he sees the people on a subway car as victims headed for the concentration camps. He ends up at Marilyn's apartment where he tries to explain.

Marilyn Birchfield: What happened?
Sol Nazerman: 'Happened'?
Marilyn Birchfield: Yes.
Sol Nazerman: I didn't die. Everything that I loved... was taken away from me, and... I did not die.
Marilyn Birchfield: Mr. Nazerman!
Sol Nazerman: There was... nothing I could do. Nothing. Strange, I could do nothing. No, there was nothing I could do.

Noirsville



















































Morgan Freeman his first film rt.
 

Sol's torment continues and it's not until he's saved by Ortiz who is trying to protect him that he feels some shame of his emotionless detachment from humanity, but even then the horror of man's inhumanity to man persists. It still exists but in a different guise.

Steiger is outstanding. All the major supporting performances are excellent. I especially love the small yet rich pawnshop clientele vignettes by Juano Hernandez, Reni Santoni, Hilda Haynes, and Ed Morehouse.

Screencaps are from the Republic Pictures 2003 DVD 10/10

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