The Pawnbroker (1965)

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"The Pawnbroker" is the dark exploration into the soul of a man who is tortured by the unbearable pain of his past. In order to most effectively reveal his character, rather than relying on a traditional plot sequence, the film carefully extracts the events of a few days in the life of Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger). A man who survived the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps but lost his wife and children, Nazerman is now alone, cold, embittered, and completely without faith in God or humanity. With indifference, he operates a pawnshop in New York's Spanish Harlem as a front for Rodriguez (Brock Peters), a black pimp and slumlord. Despite the continued efforts of his assistant, Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez), and a determined social worker, Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), to break through his impenetrable walls, Nazerman remains detached and emotionless. This total noninvolvement extends to his loveless affair with Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell), a woman who lost her husband in the camps and whose father, Mendel (Baruch Lumet) disapproves of their current relationship. Flashbacks triggered by current daily events provide more detail of Nazerman's past, some which are so quick and disturbing as to be borderline subliminal. The most explicit flashback occurs when Ortiz's girlfriend, a black prostitute (Thelma Oliver) enters the shop to pawn a gold locket and bare her breasts to him hoping to increase his offered price. For Nazerman this causes pain, as it only reminds him of being forced to watch his wife raped by Nazi officers. Ortiz, the young, exuberant, lovable Puerto Rican assistant, continues to wear away at Nazerman's defenses, seeking some kind of emotional response. When Nazerman snaps back in thoughtless cruelty, Ortiz retaliates by arranging a robbery of the pawn shop. Nazerman's refusal to submit to the robbers results in gunfire, with Ortiz selflessly taking the bullet meant for his employer. His dying breath in the arms of Nazerman is at last the only thing the young man has done which breaks the stone barrier around the older man's heart, and evokes an expression of tenderness. Filmed in stark black-and-white,"The Pawnbroker" is a harshly realistic vision. Steiger's portrayal of an insensitive miser was pegged as anti-Semitic, civil rights organizations objected to Peter's totally unscrupulous character, and the Legion of Decency condemned the film based on Oliver's partial nudity scene. Nonetheless, the film received recognition from numerous critics' groups and Steiger, in what was his first starring role, picked up "Best Actor" honors from both the Berlin International Film Festival and the British Academy Awards.

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Critic Reviews for The Pawnbroker

All Critics (10)

The Pawnbroker is a paradoxically obsessed with death, yet roaring with life, a jazzy urban tragedy that sees shadows of the Holocaust in the suffering and exploitation of the dead-eyed souls of East Harlem.

Apr 21, 2014 | Rating: 4.5/5 | Full Review…

The film makes its point with narrative economy and emotional sophistication in a socially complex contemporary context.

Aug 21, 2011 | Rating: 86/100 | Full Review…

creates some haunting images and gives Rod Steiger a chance to blossom

Jul 1, 2011 | Rating: B | Full Review…

An unpleasant, solemn and overwrought melodrama about an embittered Jewish Holocaust survivor still haunted by his stay in Auschwitz.

Apr 28, 2011 | Rating: B- | Full Review…

One of the first Hollywood films to deal with the Holocaust, The Pawnbroker is thematically and stylistically innovative, borrowing some of its devices from the French New Wave, such as brief flashbacks, stylized b/w imagery, and jazzy score.

Jun 30, 2007 | Rating: A- | Full Review…

Dramatizes the psychological impact of the Nazi concentration camps, while drawing parallels to contemporary conditions of New York City ghetto life

Jun 27, 2002 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for The Pawnbroker

½

Perhaps one of the few films about the legacy of the Holocaust, that is entirely focused on despair and emptiness . . . that being said, I get the feeling that Lumet was a little too into the French New Wave when he made this. I don't mean to belittle that movement, but it doesn't completely works for this kind of narrative.

Alec Barniskis
Alec Barniskis

Super Reviewer

Steiger is wonderful as an emotional (and physical) survivor attempting some degree of normal after being through horror. A hit for Lumet.

John Ballantine
John Ballantine

Super Reviewer

An amazingly acted & directed punch to the gut. Check out Ralph Rosenblum's great book for a look at the editing of this picture. It's called, When Shooting Stops.

Ken Stachnik
Ken Stachnik

Super Reviewer

A movie equally depressing and amazing. Early Lumet is incredible.

Michael Gildea
Michael Gildea

Super Reviewer

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