Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Pawnbroker

A couple of weeks back in a review of The French Connection, we noted the importance of the production code and its affect on artistic expression up the 1960's. That film was one of the first to take advantage of a grittier post production code era. Well, if one film could have been said to have well truly torn the code asunder it was today's flick of the day, The Pawnbroker. A film so far ahead of its time, it retains the power to shock even today and is one of the first film's to deal openly with The Holocaust from a survivor's perspective.
In an amazing performance, Rod Steiger portrays Sol Nazerman, an ageing Jewish pawnbroker and survivor of the concentration camps. Told at least partially in flashbacks and shot in stark black and white, The Pawnbroker was atypical in the Hollywood of the 1960's. Sol survived the camps but his wife and children did not. Deeply scarred and emotionally dead inside, Sol has treated from all life and all interaction. He finances the lifestyle of his family on Long Island but withholds any form of approval. He carries on an affair with a fellow survivor but withholds any deep and meaningful contact. His store becomes a convenient front for a local hoodlum unbeknownst to him. All of this stems from his inner belief that he should have died in the camps and a feeling of despair that everything he loved was taken from him leaving him powerless. Ultimately Sol cannot overcome his emotional wounds and it takes the death of somebody he belatedly realises he is close to to open his mind to the world around him.
Shot in a style reminiscent of the French New Wave, the flashbacks to the concentration camp manage to convey the horror of those events. Small references set Sol's mind off, remembering the loss of his wife. The sight of a prostitutes bare breasts causes a flashback to the debasement of his wife at the hands of the camp guards. Walking through a door between carriages on the subway flashes back to the cattle cars used to transfer the prisoners. It is an extraordinary performance from Steiger, a great actor but one who's best performances are often bombastic grandstanding, particularly in A Fistful of Dynamite and In The Heat of The Night. The role of Sol requires a more measured sombre tone, allowing the characters inner despair to seep out rather then explode.
Of course Steiger is aided by having a fine script with which to work. Based on a novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, It tells its tale with a minimum of fuss but there are some fine passages of dialogue for the actor to get his teeth into.

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 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!

The film is ground breaking in so many ways from Boris Kaufman's cinematography to the large minority cast to the use of foreign language dialogue and finally the first nude scene to include exposed breasts. Something that wouldn't raise an eyebrow now but was very controversial at the time. Great cinema should always push boundaries and this does so in so many areas. This was the first of series of blows against the production code which led to its abandonment in 1968. Director Sidney Lumet and Rod Steiger all went on to bigger and better things from this film. Steiger in particular  ascended to the top of his profession after receiving an Oscar nomination for his performance. A must see film and an important one at that.

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