The Pawnbroker

This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Elbee’s turn to do the damage. Here are Nick Spacek’s thoughts on 1964’s The Pawnbroker.

 

When I was in college, I took a class called Literature of the Holocaust. Taught by a woman named MJ McLendon, it was held in a basement classroom of the most depressing building on the University of Kansas campus. It was also during a particularly bleak spring, with quite a bit of gray-skied weather to really drive the point of the class home.

As part of the class, we watched myriad film clips and documentaries, read a series of books which made a deep impression on me, and did a paper wherein we took aspects of one of the books we’d read and compared and contrasted it with the videotaped interview of a local Holocaust survivor, held at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City.

All of this is to say that the material from the class was quite dense. We were watching probably 30-40 minutes of video a week, along with reading an entire book — if not two. At some point, Professor McLendon discussed the various Holocaust films which had been made over the years. The Pawnbroker, with Rod Steiger, was one of them. Somehow, over the years, the plot to another film was lodged in my brain as being that of The Pawnbroker.

The plot that I recall being told involved a shopkeeper who watched the people passing by his window, until one day, he sees a man of whose identity he is convinced must be that of the guard at the camp in which he was interned. I have no idea what this movie is, but that is most certainly not The Pawnbroker, making this a very surprising viewing experience.

Having Elbee recommend this reminded me that I’d been meaning to see it for, oh, nearly ten years, and when Elbee suggests seeing a movie, you seek it out. The local video store (what up, Liberty Hall Video?) carried it, and they have a two-for-one deal, so I snagged The Pawnbroker and Spider-Man: Homecoming. The latter film would come in handy about two hours later.

Starring Rod Steiger in the role which launched him as a serious actor, Sidney Lumet’s film is, per IMDB, about Sol Nazerman, “A Jewish pawnbroker, [and] victim of Nazi persecution, [who] loses all faith in his fellow man until he realizes too late the tragedy of his actions.” It is exactly as upbeat and positive as it sounds.

Nazerman is a broken man, who runs a pawnshop where people spin stories and try to connect with him in order to get more than the usual $2 he offers for the broken-down junk they bring in to keep moving through life. His repeated rebuffing of their overtures is heartbreaking to watch, and even more so when he meets the attention of his assistant, Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez) and the young man’s attempts to learn the trade, with nothing but disinterest – if not outright contempt, as in the amazing monologue where Nazerman answers Ortiz’s question, “How come you people come to business so naturally?”

“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!”

Steiger starts out at a slow burn and ratchets the intensity up to absolute boiling-over fury, and because it’s Nazerman showing emotion – real, unfettered emotion – it’s all the more shocking when it happens. The interactions in the pawnshop are, honestly, the most intense, because of all the locked doors and fencing and well, frankly, it looks like a jail cell into which the old man has locked himself for punishment.

Punishment? Yes, punishment – because Nazerman survived. As he says in a conversation with Geraldine Fitzgerald’s social worker character, Marilyn Birchfield, “I didn’t die. Everything that I loved… was taken away from me, and… I did not die.” There are glimpses of the happy life Nazerman and his family lived, literally right before the Nazis came to take them away, and the fragility of that happiness is so utterly shattered by what happens after, that Nazerman can’t help but feel as if he is to blame, somehow.

Granted, it’s made none too easy by the fact that Nazerman lives with a woman, Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell), whose husband died in the camps, as well as her father, Mendel (Baruch Lumet, the director’s own father), who is confined to a bed and considers the relationship between the two to be some sort of horrible thing, because they’re both supposed to mourn the loss of their spouses forever and ever, and he makes that repeatedly and loudly clear.

The plot of the film is related to crime, somewhat. Nazerman’s pawnshop is in Harlem, and the man who helps Nazerman fund the operation, Rodriguez (Brock Peters), is a gangster and racketeer involved in prostitution, among other things. One of his girls is Ortiz’s girlfriend, played by Thelma Oliver. When Nazerman finds out, he confronts Rodriguez, and Peters gets to really display some amazing acting. He’s only in the film for but two or three scenes, but when he’s present, he absolutely steals the picture.

Peters was previously in 1962’s film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, playing Tom Robinson, but this is as much of a 180-degree turn from that character as possible. Had I not Wiki’d him, I’d never have known.

Still – Peters’ performance notwithstanding, as well as the theft plot orchestrated by an upset and hurt-feeling’d Ortiz – the movie is really a solo performance by Steiger, showing how one man can continue going on, simply because he feels he must, while attempting to do so with as little interaction or connection to the world as possible. It’s an astonishing performance, and watching the micro-expressions flit across the otherwise stonefaced Nazerman is where Steiger really shines.

The ending’s a little overwrought for my tastes, although it seems like it’s a little less hackneyed than the original ending of the Edgar Lewis Wallant novel on which the film is based. As far as I know, the film pares the book down to a tighter focus, and brings the story down to one man, still living behind the wire, interacting with desperate people at the end of their rope.

Fuck. That’s dark, right? If you have the emotional wherewithal, and a happy-go-lucky movie standing by, at the ready to cheer you up immediately after (that Spider-Man: Homecoming disc, for instance). The Pawnbroker is very much a recommended watch. Just stay away from the likes of Requiem For A Dream for like, a couple of weeks after. I certainly appreciate the fact that Elbee had it on her list, giving me a reason to finally catch it after so many years, even if my reasons may have been a little cock-eyed. Now, I hope that I can recommend it to you.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
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