I am given to understand that, in the pivotal role of "Man on Street," there is a very young Morgan Freeman. I must confess that it's why I kept watching the movie past the first ten or fifteen minutes, which aren't very good--and I still never actually saw him. It was his first movie role, and I'm sure he was convincing as a man on the street. He doubtless gave a solemnity and gravitas to the role. And, you know, all the other possible Morgan Freeman jokes. While I eventually figured out what the first few minutes had to do with anything, and I guess I can kind of see where the next few fit in, I could have done without both. Not least because each made me wonder if I had perhaps gotten the wrong disc from the library, or maybe this wasn't the movie I thought it was. Of course, if the first thing I'd seen was a very young Morgan Freeman, I probably would have kept watching in the hopes that he'd come back.
The man we see at the beginning, first in flashback and then in suburbia, is Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger). Every day, he commutes into the city, into a not-very-good neighbourhood, where he operates a pawn shop. He buys considerably more than he ever sells, and probably very few people ever come in to claim their property. In order to make ends meet, he has a deal with Rodriguez (Brock Peters), a local big shot, who appears to be using him to launder money. He even manages to pay for an assistant, Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez). Ortiz is young and enthusiastic, and he believes that he will learn everything that Nazerman knows and eventually go into business himself. He rather looks up to Nazerman. However, what he does not know, and what does not take much to figure out, is that Nazerman is a Holocaust survivor. Those numbers tattooed on his arm are not a sign of a secret society, and when Nazerman appears distracted, it is usually because he's having a flashback.
So, you know, PTSD. Not surprising, really. While it's often considered a disease of the military, There are all kinds of stressful situations which can create it. Holocaust survivors have often been in more than one situation which by itself could cause PTSD. The most famous moment for this film is when Nazerman was forced to watch his wife (Linda Geiser) get raped by Nazis--which he flashes back to while a prostitute (Thelma Oliver), who is also the girlfriend of Ortiz, tries to earn some money from him. Both women are shown with bare breasts, which got a special exemption from the Code, then on its last legs. But he flashes back several times, not always for as major a reason. Mostly, it is just because he is scarred and sick, and even if he were the sort of man who could accept help, it was not a time when there would have been help available to him. Even today, it would be hard for him to get treatment, though easier for him than those whose junk he buys.
It is not uncommon for survivors of any unpleasant situation to feel guilty about having done so, especially when people they loved did not. It seems to be part of Nazerman's problem, though of course the PTSD is a bigger issue. However, it makes him ill-inclined to getting close to anyone. Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), a social worker just arrived in the neighbourhood, tries, but he rebuffs her. Ortiz thinks he has, but he's just scratched the surface--how well can he know Nazerman if he doesn't know what the numbers on his arm mean? And while we see Nazerman's sister (Nancy R. Pollock) at the beginning, as well as the widow of a friend (Marketa Kimbrell) at several times, he doesn't share anything with either of them. Not really. His sister doesn't want to know, and I think the friend's widow primarily wants to forget the past. She, of course, is not fated to do that any more easily than Nazerman does, but it does mean they mostly don't talk about it.
It's a truism that the easiest way to win Oscars is to make movies about the Holocaust. However, despite the fact that Steiger's performance is the best thing about the movie (certainly better than the jarring soundtrack), he didn't win the Oscar. It was also yet another year that Richard Burton failed to win. No, the winner that year was Lee Marvin for the exceedingly tedious [i]Cat Ballou[/i]--which also proved that the Academy chose a weird time to honour a comedy. Steiger's was also the film's only nomination. To be honest, there are much better films out there about the Holocaust, but this is at least notable for being one of the first. It ended nearly twenty years earlier, but it took some time for the enormity of the thing to start invading the public consciousness in the US, though newsreels had captured the horrors of the liberated camps. It is arguably true that, without films like this, the average American probably wouldn't even know what the Holocaust was. Maybe we should see what the film industry can do about other genocides.